After asking what I did for a living, the cashier at a grocery store I frequented gave me a confused look and said, "Oh, you teach fiction? What's that? Is that, like, making stuff up?"
There was no line—it was late, after class—so I told her the following story.
One sweltering Sunday morning in Darwin, Australia, I went to the beach to watch the annual Beer Can Regatta. A twenty-one year old drifter in search of work to make enough money to get back home, I had a dishwashing gig at a decent restaurant with a promise to graduate to waiter. I was feeling set. Watching the race seemed a benign way to kill time without spending precious money. This regatta had only three rules: all boats had to sail under their own power; they had to cross the finish line in order to win; and they had to be built, with the exception of sails and lines, entirely of beer cans.
Mid-morning, in heat ratcheted up to a breezeless tropical intensity and several Fosters on my way to being silly, I hooted along with a few thousand sunburned drunks while the last boat launched and sank. When it was announced that there would be no winner—every boat in the race had sunk—I had what is known in the business as a realization moment: if I don't haul my butt off this sand and get busy with something I care about, so my woozy reasoning went, my life will go the way of these beer can boats. "Sunk" was looking like a pretty apt metaphor.
Wright Morris, a favorite writer of mine, is quoted as having said, "Where we were, what we saw, and how we suffered are a mystery to us until the imagination has given them form." Of course I didn't mention this to the cashier. With the notion of sunk, she'd gleaned want she wanted from the story. In nautical clichéd argot, that ship had sailed. So I drove home alone pondering her question. Is fiction writing about making stuff up?
The day of the beer can regatta, drunk as I say and sweating, I retreated to my boarding house room intending to write. Something. Anything. Under the cooling reach of the ceiling fan, with a view out the open window of the broad-leafed banana tree in the yard, I spread out on an otherwise clear table a Big Chief tablet, the only writing folder I'd been able to find at the local store. Hours later, forced to shower and change and prepare to embark on the long walk to my dishwashing gig, I pondered defeat for the second time that day. I had no idea how to tell a story. Aside from one sheet I'd torn out and crumpled, my Big Chief tablet was as virgin as the moment I'd laid it lovingly on the table. I had assumed inspired desperation would be enough to get me going. I had imagined a "fever" of words spilling across the pages, erstwhile readers riveted, calling for more.
Why hadn't I simply written the story about a regatta in which all boats sank? I had a protagonist with plenty of pressure on his situation and obvious flaws. I had an incident that had provoked a desire with at least a semblance of a quest toward an object. If I imagined the Odyssean travels and trials ahead of me as a quest, surely there'd have been obstacles and opposition enough for a second act and a crisis that would lead to some kind of a showdown with the monsters. What had I lacked, then? I can say it now. I didn't know enough to know what I was missing.
Back to the cashier's question. Is it about making stuff up? Well, I see it Morris's way. Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer. The job requires inspiration for sure, or you'll never get started. And some invention, yes. The facts of life, it has often been noted, can obscure more than they reveal. But after that, it's about knowing how a story gets built, then pouring the raw material of life into the forms to see what truths emerge.
It's taken me a long time to learn this lesson. I'm learning it still. Voice, character, premise, it's all necessary, all part of the mix, but finally it comes down to conviction—when I find the material I care about deeply, and stiffen it with scaffolding, writing emerges. Some kind of writing. At least my Big Chief tablet isn't a virgin anymore.