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Rock Made Castle: The Case for Fiction

Why write fiction when real life events are incredible enough?

It's a fair enough question, and I've even heard it from my husband, a history buff who prefers the dates, times, and facts.

The short of it? To empathize with characters' experiences, hope my readers do the same, and capture even a little wonder of this world.

I was recently reminded of a more vivid and satisfying answer on canvas form. One of my young niece's Christmas gifts was a painting of Haystack Rock, the beautiful landmark in Cannon Beach, Oregon. But unlike the other captures of a scenic rock before blue-tinted waves, this one is unlike all the others. The artist, William Steidel, drew two versions of Haystack Rock: the top as the physical form we've come to revere, encased by a flurry of seagulls mid-flight. Directly beneath it, on the flip side, he drew the structure of the rock as a reimagined castle. The same birds flew above, but this time it was no mere rock, as impressive as that structure is alone. It was a dwelling place for lords, ladies, and commoners. The fabric of storybooks.

While there are real-life castles, this depiction of Haystack Rock reminded me of the possibilities that rest below the surface. When we stick to the times, dates, and facts only (which is necessary for a court declaration or a history report), we sometimes miss out on the opportunity to explore emotional landscapes. Memoir writers have the advantage of doing all the above, but since not every story that wants to be told is our own, we have the beauty of fiction. The Castle Haystack, if you will.

I turn to fiction because it enables me to explore characters' internal lives and also my own. Before age seven I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was a sensitive little girl and shy, but my imagination was already vast and needed somewhere to land. I found lined pages early on and never changed my mind about being a storyteller. In so keenly observing the world around me (and sometimes absorbing others' emotions too much), I found an outlet that made me come alive. If I didn't know what to do with an emotion--be it love, hope, fear, expectation, sadness--I could channel that into a character and put her in a scenario where she would be tested and ultimately learn more about herself and those around her. Hopefully become better for it. Exploring my characters in all their humanity sometimes gives me more courage, insight, and fortitude. When readers say there's a lot of truth to fiction, I believe they're honing in on the fact that we writers get to explore and expose the depths of human emotion. In doing so, there's comfort for the reader and the writer: knowing we're not alone.

Writing fiction expands my horizons, and if I'm fortunate, my readers' horizons too. I get to create characters with maybe a semblance of me, but they aren't confined to the year I was born (1981), my eye color (brown) or my hometown (Gig Harbor). They won't all respond to getting lost in the way I would (hello, occasional driving anxiety!), love the color purple, or think that mini dachshunds are the most adorable breed in the world. Characters allow the reader to inhabit worlds and times not our own, and in doing so, we glean more of the collective human experience. We can imagine the backbreaking work of a coal miner, the expectations of the upper class in Victorian England, the soldier who is weary and would do anything for a drink of water. Our hearts turn toward them or away, if they are unlikeable villains. In moving beyond my own experiences on the page--bolstered by heavy duty research--I get to consider lives I don't get to live.

Fiction writing returns me to wonder. We don't have to live long to realize that life can be hard and that it splatters us with mud sometimes. Thank gosh there is also staggering beauty to be found. Which is why it's so heartening to hear this paraphrase from G.K. Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten." While not every novel is hopeful or delves into the fight of good over evil, I turn to fiction with themes of hope and redemption (think the works of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis). Seeking beauty--that unexpected flower that grows through cement--anchors us amidst the sadness and reminds us that when sorrows threaten to undo us, we're not alone. There are many who have felt our pain, our fears, our joy, our laughter, our returning hope. There is also One who sustains us and values our hearts.

So yes, real stories are often incredible enough with their time, date, and hard facts. But fiction is for possibilities, the imagined "what ifs" that are worthy to explore. The ability to see beyond what is there. Like Castle Haystack, I'm glad it exists.

in Cannon Beach, photo taken a few years ago since my summer plans were cancelled (along with so many others) this year.


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