Fiction Arousal

I have started reading, and liking, fiction. This was not the case a year and a half … ago. Aside from a handful of short story collections (Carver, Canin, Moore) and an isolated novel here and there, my post-college reading-for-pleasure era has been marked by a shocking absence of fiction. I have been trying to understand how this change came about, how or why the gateway suddenly opened for a nonfiction junkie such as myself.

False starts and stops, that all if ever was for me with fiction, like when you’re in the midst of an intense story on the phone but the other person keeps going sorry, can you hang on a sec, that’s my call waiting, just a sec. Not very conducive to beginning, middle, climax, and end storytelling. That’s how it was with trying to read a novel. My brain would, mid-paragraph, click over to retrieve some other unrelated thought. I couldn’t keep it flowing long enough for the all-out-of-the-gate-at-once characters to break from the pack and reveal themselves as individuals whose names conjured up specific traits. Nor could I hang on long enough for the text to begin to read as a story and not just line upon line of random, comma-infested sentences.

My attachment to facts and truth more or less began when I learned to read. From the get-go I was crazy for biographies; there was a series for young readers about legendary women (presidents’ wives, Amelia Earhart, etc.) that I couldn’t get enough of. I recall, a bit later, being thrown by the idea that something in print might actually not be fact. If the words were printed, they carried so much power. The authority had spoken, and it took me awhile to get hip to the don’t-believe-everything-you-read adage. My favorite bedtime story for my entire third year of life wasn’t a made-up story at all, but rather a series of bullet points outlining the characteristics of our new suburban house and how, unlike in the city, we would have a backyard, and what specifically we were going to be eating there (steak, corn, and soda pop). I would ask my dad to tell me again and again.

After completing an early working draft of this book, I wanted to put it all to the test, to verify, to erase any possibility of troubling cloudy grayness. Who could do this? Matching memories with family or friends wasn’t absolute enough: think Rashomon. And God had never spoken to me in any clear way, not to mention the difficulty of getting Him a manuscript. There was only one solution I could think of: a polygraph examination. So one afternoon, with wires sticking out of my head and chest, I responded to an administrator’s questions. Is what you’ve written in this book the truth as you know it? And (because I was curious): Did you write this book to the best of your ability? I was happy when her analysis arrived a couple weeks later saying I’d passed, but by then, strangely, and out of nowhere, I had read a novel from start to finish, loved it, and (I see now in retrospect) had officially been admitted into the kingdom of fiction. …

From there, things started unraveling. I became okay with urban myths. I am now able to appreciate them for the stupid little stories that they are, and not agonize over whether or not the little girl who had spiders crawl out of her cheek is an actual real girl or a totally made-up not-real girl. Also: I can improvise in the kitchen. Prior to my fiction arousal, I’d have to follow a recipe to the T. The recipe was the truth. You didn’t start throwing in cayenne pepper just because you felt like it, or use one tablespoon of sesame oil instead of two. That was fiction. Now if I feel like following the recipe exactly, fine. But I can also deviate and concoct without feeling like I’m doing something wrong.

But still, what then should I attribute this shift to? Was it that I had to fill myself up with a certain amount of facts—nearly forty years’ worth—before I was technically ready to appreciate what one could do with facts, how they might be folded in, altered, stretched, and pureed? Was it that, unbeknownst to me at the time, while replacing a roll of paper towels, I was struck with a lightning bolt of literary maturation on, say, the morning of December 21?

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “Update”

Transcribed by me from pages 200–202 of my first edition copy of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life [Volume One], © 2005 Crown Publishers (Random House), New York.


Tweet: Fiction love: “I was struck with a lightning bolt of literary maturation.”
Tweet: Fiction: how facts (truth) might be folded in, altered, stretched, and pureed …

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