Grinding Peanuts and Boiling Sugar and Strawberries
It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that writing fiction is easier than writing nonfiction. As someone who writes both, this assertion puzzles me, but it’s also just plain wrong. Allow me to prove it.
Let’s say I hand you a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and a loaf of bread. “Make me a sandwich,” I say.
You can slap them together in a messy heap like one of my children does. You can put them together neatly and enjoy a taste of nostalgia. Or you can toast the bread, cut it in triangles and circles, plate it with smears of peanut butter and dots of jam like you work for Grant Achatz, and give it a fancy minimalist title like “Strawberry Field.” Either way, you’ll have a PBJ.
The ingredients are already there, and it’s all in how you put them together. But the difficulty comes when you realize you also don’t get to pick your ingredients. If I hand you a jar of mint jelly, cinnamon raisin peanut butter (yes, it’s a thing), and naan bread, you don’t get to exchange those ingredients. You have to make something palatable with what you have.
Let’s say I ask you to make me a PBJ again, and since you’re wary of me after my previous request, you tell me you want to pick the ingredients. I tell you that’s fine, but I’m not giving you anything. After long consultations of cookbooks and a trip or three to the grocery store, you bake a loaf of brioche, grind peanuts into peanut butter, and chop, boil, and stir strawberries and sugar until you have homemade jam. It also took you three days because you killed your yeast in the first batch of brioche and the second you forgot the butter, you had to buy a candy thermometer for the jam, and shelling all those peanuts took entirely too long.
That is fiction.
You get to use the ingredients you want, but you have to make it all from scratch. The bread didn’t rise quite enough, the peanut butter is a little salty, and your strawberry jam is runny despite that fancy new candy thermometer, but it’s your sandwich. No one else got to tell you what to use, and it’s delicious.
Do you see my point? Fiction and nonfiction are different skillsets. You’re choosing between being a contestant on Chopped or Ma Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. One is not harder than the other. They are entirely different categories of hard! And if you’re one of those crazy historical fiction writers, you get both challenges at once!
A good meal is all in the finesse of the person putting the ingredients together, and it’s the same for a good book, be it fiction or nonfiction. Instead of pitting the two sides against one another, I believe we should appreciate the talent and skill necessary to create enticing stories and compelling characters.
All that to say, this is why it takes me so long to write my fiction pieces: if you write science fiction or fantasy, you have to start by growing the wheat, peanuts, and strawberries!