Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Fact vs. Fiction

Blogger note: Well, I’m already behind. Since I made my first post a week ago Friday I thought I’d stick to that schedule. A ‘main post’ each Friday, and an update here or there earlier in the week. I’d prepared most of the text for this post earlier with the intention of getting it up Friday, but Mother Nature had other plans.
A big line of thunderstorms drove through the region last night and knocked out our power around 10 PM on Thursday. We sat without power until four or so on Friday afternoon, which at least gave me time to make headway on reading my novel (more on that another time). Tonight I stayed off the computer and watched my Bruins beat the Lightning to make it back to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 21 years. I hope their fate is better than the last time around. Now, back to the blog:
There’s a strange sort of Black Hole of creative writing that exists in my life. In sixth grade I ‘discovered’ writing. That was the year I learned that I loved to write stories, that I was (at the time, anyway) fairly good at it, that it was something I wanted to do with my life. A lot of the credit for that goes to my teacher, Mrs. Fucile, who ran a great class and still ranks as my all-time favorite teacher.
By the time the summer after sixth grade was over I didn’t want to be a writer anymore, at least not consciously. It likely had a lot to do with being eleven going on twelve and being distracted by all the things going on in life at that age. I was a better student than I was an athlete but I still spent a lot of time out with my friends playing baseball, street hockey, football, etc., and getting more social. Writing just sort of fell by the wayside.
Thirty-plus years after leaving the sixth grade, I still remember at least four stories I wrote that year. After leaving elementary school I took six years of English in junior and senior high school, and one full year of English at the college level. Surely I did some creative writing; of course I did. But I can’t remember one single piece.
Writing has been an important part of my career as an educator. I’ve written curriculum and curriculum guides, grant proposals, trail guides, not to mention cover letters and resumes (though those might sometimes fall under fiction), articles for newsletters, and letters to the editor, business correspondence of various types, but no fiction, not until last year, when I ‘rediscovered’ the desire to write creatively (NOTE: I understand that all writing is creative; I guess I’m stuck in some age-old definition that equates ‘Creative Writing’ with ‘Fiction’).
Since starting up with the fiction writing, I’ve discovered that, for me, non-fiction is much harder up front. Getting started, knowing what you want to communicate, knowing your audience, trying to stick to the most important facts: these things that make me tear my hair out when getting started on a fact-based piece. I agonize over every word, every paragraph, every sentence. A press release of a few hundred words can take me all day; a simple, three paragraph letter goes through four, five or more drafts.
When I write fiction, I sit down with an idea, or a character, or a situation and just sort of let it start writing itself out. As the story takes shape I guide it more, but the actual act of writing fiction is much more fluid, much freer and far more enjoyable. The notion of audience comes into play on some level, but I don’t really concern myself about it up front. I assume I’m writing for a general, adult audience; if I find later that it’s shading towards YA later on, I can make adjustments in later drafts. I tend to let it all hang out, let it all go out on the page. I’ll make some corrections as I go, but I don’t sweat it nearly as much.; when I’m in the groove on a book or a story I can get a few thousand words down in a couple of hours.
The headache part for me on fiction is on the back end. Reading what I’ve written, making changes, trying not to be too embarrassed, that’s tough. But the toughest part of all for me is sharing with others.
Don’t get me wrong, I want people to read my work. I also want people to love my work. I find there’s a huge difference mentally in turning over brochure text or a program summary for a grant to my boss compared to handing a short story or novel chapter to someone else for reading. The former is easy. “Here you go,” I’ll say. “I’m not totally satisfied with section 2, maybe you can suggest something there.” And that’s it. I take the feedback, make some corrections, and off it goes, on to the next project, thank you.
Not so for fiction. I gave my wife a piece of my novel back in the winter. She hadn’t exactly been bugging me, but I knew she wanted to see it. I screwed up my courage, printed out the sixteen pages or so and gave it to her. Then I put on my coat and slogged up and down the street in the cold and threw snowballs at trees for half an hour. I re-entered the house like a mouse, almost hoping she wouldn’t notice me. When I read pieces for my writer’s group, my heart gets up in the way of my words and I bounce my knee incessantly. What’s the big deal? I want feedback, after all, and a fresh pair of eyes or set of ears is a great way to get it. There’s only so many times you can look at something before you stop seeing the problems.
The big deal, I think, is that fiction writing feels so much more personal than fact writing, even when it’s a piece that comes out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. Fact writing is easy if you have the facts. It’s really a matter of organizing the presentation. Fiction comes out of your head and your heart. It comes from a much deeper personal space than non-fiction, even when the stories are completely made up and not some altered version of something you did when you were twenty-five. It’s a lot easier having someone look at your work and say ‘You got some of your facts wrong, buddy,’ than it is to have someone read a short story or novel and say ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Especially if the one thinking that is my wife.

One Response

  1. I'm the same way. I could write proposals all day and not bat an eyelash over someone reviewing them, but my novel? Ack! It's like having one of those dreams where you realize you're suddenly naked. I hate that feeling.

    Anyway, great post! 🙂

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