A fiction writer’s head is often crowded with voices. People who are not fiction writers pay good money to rid themselves of this condition. Society deems it a mental illness, this hearing voices. But hearing voices and making shit up are what get us into the business of the human soul. That’s what fiction does when it’s good.
When it’s good the reader says, “Oh yeah, I do/have done/feel/have felt that too.” Example: I’m thinking about a short story1 about a family of three (mother, father, and young son) on vacation who couldn’t agree on anything. It was written in first person from the mother’s point of view. The three of them fought the entire vacation, one on one, two on one, two on two, three on one… Sometimes the fighting got so bad that the only way they could continue was to chew on silence for awhile. They were driving on a mountain road, and
Eventually we got onto the highway and then of course I had to go to the bathroom.
Um hmm. Exactly. And this
I started trying to identify the new trees I had learned on our vacation, and when I gave up on that I just watched the fat on my arm ripple in the wind from the open window.
Those are tiny moments in fiction and two small, very small, examples of what English teachers mean by universal experiences, those truths that make the reader say, “Yeah, I know. Right?” But there’s also the beating heart of the story, which English teachers call “theme” and writers don’t bother about because the best fiction can’t be put into a box. Let the English majors do that. Even so, the list below could spark something human in the writer, some memory or emotion, some image or person, that opens up a story into the universal realm, those experiences that we all have. Or likely will have. Or know someone who has.
Characters just keep doing things. So we wind up sleeping with them. The bed can get kind of crowded.
1“Our Trip” by the incomparable Lydia Davis in her collected stories.