Over the years, I’ve co-authored five non-fiction medical books for the lay reader. Now that I’m writing fiction, I’ve been asked to compare fiction and non-fiction.
I’ve been lucky in a very real way. When writing non-fiction as a physician, I often had to write case histories of patients (without revealing their identities, of course). These were always fun to do because each person is unique, and in dealing with psychologic issues, each has a unique story to tell. So, there was some inventive license in describing case histories to illustrate various points.
But one thing was certain in non-fiction: its purpose was to convey information about a specific topic (heart disease, breast cancer, psychotherapy, or child-rearing) in an informative, readable and reasonably entertaining way. So, the creative freedom was limited.
Fiction, on the other hand, involves a synthesis of experience with what the author knows of life, along with wholesale flights of imagination.
You just know when reading a novel that the author knows a great deal about certain subjects ( For instance, in Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars,” he obviously knows plenty about flying an airplane, fishing, hunting and hiking, among other things). But he engages in wholesale flights of imagination that take the reading to another level of knowledge and beauty.
It’s that soaring imagination that propels the novel, and it’s much more difficult to capture those chimerical flights of ideas and fantasy on paper than it is to write effectively about a non-fiction topic.
Writing fiction is far more satisfying to me that non-fiction, after all, making stuff up is pure fun. Kids do it all the time.
To paraphrase what Saul Bellow once said, “When I was a child I was called a liar. Now, I’m called a writer.”