On Creativity: Narrative, Fiction, and Life


Today (Sunday), my older daughter was graduated from high school.  It has been an emotional weekend, full of celebration, of wistful remembrance, of joyful anticipation of adventures and journeys to come.

Throughout the various events, as I have watched my child take these first decisive steps into adulthood, even as she still smiles at me with a face that doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the past eighteen years, I have found myself thinking about many things, most of them having nothing at all to do with writing.  But I have given a good deal of thought to the notion of narrative, to the ways in which we humans seek to shape a coherent story out of events and circumstances and milestones that do not necessarily lend themselves to a coherent progression of “plot points.”

It seems to me that we do this at moments like these.  A rite of passage — a birth, a tenth birthday, a first driver’s license, a graduation, a marriage, another birth — is rarely viewed as an isolated moment in one’s life.  Rather, it is part of a continuing progression, an unfolding tale.  Even the language we use to speak of such things reaches for the expression of life as epic.  We turn a page, we begin a new chapter.  There is comfort in narrative, reassurance in the idea that life is something more than random unrelated events strung together over the years.

We do something similar when confronted by tragedy.  We want to understand why two young men, immigrants to our country, would plant bombs to kill and maim strangers on a day of friendly competition and patriotic expression.  We seek a narrative in their lives that can help us grasp the incomprehensible, that perhaps can impose order and clarity on chaos and grief and horror.  And so we turn something inherently irrational into part of a logical progression. As I say, there is comfort in narrative; perhaps there is healing to be found in a story well told, even if that story leads to terror.

The problem is, narrative is an elusive and at times artificial construct.  To turn on its head the old Tom Clancy quote about fiction and reality, fiction makes sense because we create events to fulfill a preordained narrative; reality has to have narrative imposed upon it.  Otherwise it is incoherent, untamed, frightening.

And so my daughter graduates from high school.  In the fall she will head off to NYU and begin her college education.  And a decade from now, perhaps as she is marrying someone she will meet there, or beginning a career that will grow out of the intellectual awakening she will no doubt experience during her college years, it will seem as though she was destined to go from rural Tennessee to New York City.  It will seem that the combination of college application choices and outcomes and final matriculation decisions all pointed her to this one fated path.  That is a convenient and satisfying narrative.  More, there will almost certainly be threads and connections and coincidences that reinforce the idea of predetermination.  I can tell you, though, that while we have been in the midst of the process it has felt pretty random.  At times, disturbingly so.

This is a post about life as much as it is about writing.  I look toward my daughter’s future and I see amazing possibilities; I envy her the adventures she will have; a small part of me — the protective father — harbors some trepidation for the setbacks she will suffer, and for the unspoken dangers inherent in a life well-lived. This last, though, I try to conceal, from her and from myself.  Most of all, I hope that her life will lend itself to the narrative we want to impose upon it.  My life has seemed a well-structured story, in large part because I have found the joys of a wonderful marriage, a loving family, a fulfilling career.  The narrative “works.”  I hope hers will as well.

Thinking for a moment as a writer, rather than as a father, I realize that the need to impose narrative on life can be mirrored in our creative attempts to shape plot points into a satisfying story.  Because while I would like for my daughter’s joys and successes to have that sense of coherence that sometimes comes with a happy life, I don’t want my characters’ successes to feel that way.  This, I suppose, is the paradox of narrative, of fiction, of reality.  Returning to Clancy’s quote once again, I agree that fiction has to make sense.  But it has to make sense without feeling predetermined.  Our job as writers is not merely to shape a story that holds together, but also to give it that sense of randomness, of pandemonium that we associate with “real life.”  When our readers reach the end of our stories or books, they can look back and say “Yes, of course.  It had to unfold that way.”  But when they’re in the middle of them, each new twist and turn should be a revelation.

Fiction and real life.  I believe that those of us who live with one foot firmly planted in each have a wondrous opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of what it is to love and to hurt, to celebrate and to grieve, to discover and to experience.  And so today, with my heart so full it feels constantly on the brink of overflowing, I wish all of you lives that lend themselves to narrative, and stories that capture the amazing unpredictability of life.

David B. Coe

15 comments to On Creativity: Narrative, Fiction, and Life

  • Beautiful post. 🙂 Very well said, David. Congrats to your daughter on her graduation!

    This made me realize how I can categorize things in my life as “before” or “after” a major event in my life, and how if that’s the way I think about my life, then my characters can think that way, too. Which gives me more insight into their internal thought processes, and how they try to impose their own sense of order on their lives (and which life events they dwell on, and why).

  • This is a beautiful meditation on life and growing and, oh yes, narrative. I’m particularly struck by your thoughts about the inevitability of the story *after* it’s lived. As authors, we indulge in a lot of editing of our stories (until publishing deadlines, etc. make them permanent). In some ways, I shudder to think about what life would be if we could edit our pasts…

    Congratulations on reaching such memorable days with your family!

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “On Creativity: Narrative, Fiction, and Life” It is a special post, written on a very special day in my life. I hope you enjoy […]

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “On Creativity: Narrative, Fiction, and Life” It is a special post, written on a very special day in my life. I hope you enjoy […]

  • Lovely post, David. Made me teary (in a good way) AND thoughtful–can’t ask for more than that 🙂

  • Many good wishes for you and for your family, David. You and Nancy have done a good job bringing safety and security, and yet, a sense of wonder to your girls’ lives. My thoughts are with you and your daughter as she begins this new era of discovery and growth.

    When my grandmother lay on her deathbed, she looked up at my mom and said, “Well, my story’s almost over…” And it was. And yes, mom and her sister created a narrative for Maw-maw for all her life. I have strong feelings about that narrative, which I won’t share, but I will say that it fits the human’s need to bring order out of chaos, and peace out of battle, and success out of failure. Life stories are often as much fiction as the stories we pen. But finding meaning is important, even if it is fictional in every way. Okay. I’ve maudlin enough. Back to work.

  • Laura, thank you for the kind words and wishes. I know exactly what you mean — there are certain events in life that seem so large that all other events become chronologically and thematically defined by them. A death. A birth. We as a family spent a year living in Australia. It was a wondrous adventure for all of us, and ever since our family life has consisted of events “before Australia” or “after Australia.” And as you say, that should be reflected in the lives of my characters as well. Certainly it is with Ethan — all in his life is divided between before the Ruby Blade mutiny and his imprisonment, and after. But I need to use it more.

    Mindy, thank you. There are certainly ways in which I would love to edit my past. But this is where the analogy breaks down, I suppose. We don’t get to rewrite in real life. We can correct and move on, but the past is always there.

    SiSi, thank you for that.

    Faith, many thanks for the kind thoughts. What you say is so true. I have watched the same thing happen with lost relatives in my family. The rough edges get smoothed over; conflicts that once tore at us, are recast as benign expressions of a quirky personality. But perhaps that is part of healing, of coming to grips with grief and guilt and the other tangled emotions of family and friendship.

  • I tried to respond to your post this morning but I couldn’t see through the tears in my eyes, so I promised myself I’d say something tonight. And here it is….you made me weep twice today.

    Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d gone to William & Mary instead of Winthrop, or taken the Foreign Service job instead of staying in South Carolina or even just majored in Literature instead of Languages. I often do this wondering out loud, at which point my son is fond of reminding me of all the things I would not have if I’d followed a different path. So maybe it’s not really destiny, but those random events and choices somehow work out okay in the end.

    You know, just like in the books. *smile*

  • Razziecat

    What a beautitful post, David. I confess that I’m somewhat envious of young people just starting out – so many possibilities, so much potential! Life doesn’t always seem like a fluid progression of events, though; there are so many fits and starts, some backward steps, some weird twisty turns, that sometimes make you stop and think, if I had never gone that way instead of the way I originally intended, I never would have (fill in the blanks!)

    I work for a newspaper, and one of my tasks is to handle death notices. It has become clear to me over the years that for many people, writing out the story of their loved one’s life has become a part of the grieving process, a way to honor them, to draw attention to them and say, hey world, look how awesome this person was. It’s a way to wrap things up, find closure, to put a period at the end of the sentence and close the book. Telling a story is an integral part of our lives as human beings.

    Congratulations to your daughter. May she have many more wonderful milestones in her life.

  • Thank you, Misty. I didn’t mean to make anyone cry, but I will confess to misting up a couple of times as I wrote it. I can certainly look at key decisions and events and see in their outcome a fated path to where I am today. The teaching job I wanted but didn’t get that would have kept me from ever starting my first book. Or the graduate school choice that Nancy and both made between the same two schools! We could have met in Michigan instead of California; I wonder what that would have done to all that followed.

    Razz, thanks. I remember composing my eulogy for my mother back in 1995, and trying to figure out how to speak about her. And I recall even saying in the eulogy that I was consciously looking to make sense and “story” out of the countless images and memories flooding my mind. Because, as you say, I needed that story. I needed to find a way to make sense of her life and of my loss.

  • A wonderful reflection, David, and congratulations to your daughter on taking her first step toward independence and adulthood.

    And that this post should also fall on the same day as the awful tragedies occurring in Oklahoma! I could call it coincidence, or serendipity… but I think many will mark it as another Chapter break: What came before, and what came after. I moved to Wichita, Kansas less than a week after the terrible ’99 tornado outbreak. I drove through destruction and desolation very much like what I’ve seen on the television tonight. I knew people who survived it and I sit here wondering, and hoping they managed to survive it again.

    And I keep trying to rewrite the narrative.

  • Misty ain’t the only one tearing up, David. Thanks for a moving, beautiful post.

  • Thank you, Lyn. All of us, I know, are thinking of the folks in Oklahoma, in particular the parents of the lost school children. Again, in times of tragedy, there is, I know, comfort to be found in thinking about narrative, and assigning a purpose to tragedy. Thank you for the comment.

    Unicorn, thank you.

  • A beautiful and thought provoking post, David. And congratulations to your daughter!

  • Thanks so much, Gypsy.