The Mark Blog

Fantasy Vs. Reality

I fell in love with fiction via fantasy and sci-fi. The first stories I wrote were all in that realm. Judy Blume showed me there was another kind of writing possible, but it wasn’t until later, in high school, discovering Salinger and Fitzgerald and Kerouac, that I realized it was possible to write honestly about life and still tell a great story. After writing many traditional stories, I experimented and wrote one based on a day in my life, an average, unextraordinary day in which nothing at all spectacular happened. My thought was why can’t the everyday work as a story? I turned it in, and the next day, keeping me after class, my teacher asked me: “Were you stoned when you wrote this?”

I laughed. “Not at all,” I said, and tried to explain what I was going for, but she was mystified. Although I’m sure my banal story about goofing around with friends and eating a quiet dinner with my family was no masterpiece, I recall being proud that my experiment could cause such an extreme reaction, and, in that regard, I’d succeeded.

Undaunted, I kept trying to capture life on the page. During my senior year, I wrote several stories about several bizarre episodes I recalled from junior high. I also took a Latin American Literature class, and read some great stories by Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and the classic, surrealist novella Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Many of these stories contained elements of “magic realism,” a blending of the real and the unreal, and I saw how it was possible to be grounded in reality, but not shackled to it.

In almost every workshop I’ve been in, there have been “magic-realist” haters. Perhaps the genre has taken a few hits through the years, especially from feel-good “chick-lit” like Practical Magic, or “inspirational” parables like The Alchemist and The Celestine Prophecy that cheapen the form.

Isabel Allende, a magical realist herself who’s taken her share of criticism, has been quoted as saying: "The problem with fiction is that it must seem credible, while reality seldom is."

I’m not sure if the “problem” she’s complaining about is that people expect fiction to be credible even though they don’t expect the same of reality, or if she’s saying the problem of writing fiction is that everything, even the unreal, must seem plausible, i.e., operate according to its own set of rules. Either way, she’s probably right.

In general, this notion of realist drama is indicative of a lot of American literature, whereas some other countries tend toward a more playful, fabulist view. Perhaps our tradition stems from the practical, no-nonsense view of life that predominates our culture, whereas others still value dreams and question the very nature of reality itself.

I like it when a book transports me out of the everyday. Just as I like it when I can achieve that sensation in life. In workshops, I’ve let myself be prodded towards writing more realistic material, and part of me worries I’m trying to please others before myself. But I’m also viewing it as a experiment/good practice: to write as realistic and comprehensive as possible, to get it all down on paper, and then edit the shit out of it later.

It’s a bit like a musician practicing scales. The most out-there free jazz players learned all the rules before they were able to break them. Perhaps it’s the same with writing. I’m still getting it down, and once I’m closer, maybe I’ll find the magic in those spaces, where it’s been hiding all along.