Fiction Matters

I’m at home and up relatively early this morning.

We have a four-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday and–although I drew a flight to Spain on Sunday–I have every intention of making the most of my time off.  Namely, I’m going to do some plotting (the villainous, rubbing-my-hands-deviously-together variety, not the I’m-trying-to-figure-out-where-this-story-is-going variety) on how to finish a short story I’ve been kicking around, and what prep I need to do for NaNoWriMo.  Are you doing NaNo this year?  Do tell!

You’ll be happy to know that a gentleman from Italian Telecom has just departed the premises.  Yes, it’s true.  We now have a phone–only three short months after moving in.  Man, these Italians move quick, let me tell you.  Pronto, indeed.  What that means to me, dear reader, is that I will soon have “real” internet access at home (right now we have a Vodaphone internet “key” which allows very slow access–think dial-up on quaaludes–for a limited time each day).  Next week, all will be a go I’m thinking.

This is not to say that my recent hiatus from the land of ones and zeros hasn’t been fruitful.  The opportunity to live life unplugged comes with it’s own set of street signs, a set of rules and regulations that stands apart from the gregarious social standards of the crowd.  This time away got me thinking about a whole host of different ideas and issues, including this one: fiction matters.

I bet, hearing that, your reaction will fall into one of two schools.  Either you think “No, duh!”, as this seems the most obvious idea in the world, or you think “Does it really?  I mean: R-E-A-L-L-Y?”

I think it is a pretty obvious concept, but I also think that the truth lies in a place other than where one might think it lies.  For example, in my life as a pilot, the currency of my day tends to be extremely technical and “fact” driven.  Airspeeds.  Altitudes.  Clearances.  One might argue that it is all fact, no fiction.  Much of life is like that, or so it appears.

This is a widely held view.  When a few of my fellow aviators recently learned that I dabbled with writing fiction, laughter was their reaction.  Why mess with something as unimportant as that? their reaction seemed to say.  It’s so…touchy-feely, so inconsequential.

I couldn’t agree less with this characterization.  Sure, facts and science have their place, but I think it is fiction which holds dominion over all that is most important to us.  If we look closer, we can see that the entire underlying structure of life is not factual at all, but is entirely fiction.

Let me give you an example.  One of the “rules” that governs flying is called the semicircular/hemispheric rule.  What this says is that aircraft flying eastbound (above a certain altitude) will be assigned to an odd altitude–say 23,000 feet.  Aircraft flying westbound will be assigned an even altitude like 24,000 feet.  This means that aircraft flying toward each other from opposite directions will not find themselves in the same piece of sky at the same time at the same altitude.  This in my opinion is a great rule, but please observe: it is a fiction.  The rule might well have been something else completely, but this is the approach pilots and controllers have agreed to use, and so everyone lives their lives accordingly.

Yeah, I know what you’re going to say.  Maybe I am broadening the definition of fiction a little, but stick with me for a minute.  My point is that these agreed-upon rules have a profound impact on our lives (after all avoiding aviation accidents is a good thing, for example!), but the rules are not governed by any physical law or other constraint that affected their “shape.”  They amount to a collective “choice”, and these choices underpin the fabric of our lives.

In fact (pun intended), if you look around, you’ll see these fictions everywhere.  Traffic lights.  Laws.  Ethical standards. Novels.  Plays.  Movies.  Music.  Art.  All made up, all created from thin air.  These ideas are the fictions we’ve chosen to believe in, and they are, in my humble opinion, essential to a contented life. 

Don’t believe me?  The final proof, I think, comes in this little anecdote: we recently showed our two-year old, Muffin, the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty for the first time.  Boy, she loved it!  She couldn’t stop talking about it!  She gabbed about Sleeping Beauty for days afterward.  She wanted to sleep with the video next to her in bed.  She will no doubt remember this story for years to come, and she’s already asked for a “twirling” dress and fairy wings.  There’s no question: this fictional story affected her far more deeply than any other thing in her life.  It was as plain as the smile on her face.

Think about your own life.  What moves you most?  What are the stories or ideas that make you want to get out of bed in the morning, that make you stay up all hours of the night turning them over in your mind?  What are the things you really love, that you really believe in?

Don’t kid yourself.  Fiction matters.  When you sit down to put words on a blank page, you are doing important work.  Essential work.  Work that matters.  Believe that you can touch someone’s life and, with enough blood, sweat and tears, you will.