What You Know: Reading Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking with a colleague the other day about loving to learn and about what kinds of things I like to learn. He mentioned that he can’t read novels because there are simply so many nonfiction topics to learn about that he can’t imagine wasting time on fiction. While I can understand the drive to learn as much about our world as possible, I can’t understand cutting fiction out of my life. Most of us understand what we learn or gain from nonfiction: straight facts or insight into phenomena or incidents in the world. However there’s a lot of people who appear to miss the real learning we can do when we read novels.

As a novel junkie, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I view fiction as a source of knowledge.

Many people see the arts as beneficial because they allow us to connect to each other, or to feel emotions. These are good things, but they aren’t direct lessons or sources of knowledge. In addition to catharsis or other emotional and/or spiritual (in the sense of connective) elements, there is a little more to fiction. In my mind, the most important thing we can learn from fiction is empathy. When we allow ourselves to enter into someone else’s mind and story, we learn about what it’s like to be another person. We learn about other experiences. We learn how to imagine what things might be like for someone else. This skill provides us with a great deal of straight information, and as we partake in this process in each novel, we gain facts about what it’s like to be each character in the novel. While no two people are exactly the same, these insights can help us connect with real human beings and understand their motivations, histories, and experiences.

In addition, we can also understand a bit of the human psyche by reading fiction. A good author will create characters who react realistically to their surroundings, who have understandable and realistic emotions and motivations, and who make sense as human beings. Spending time in someone else’s head can help you not just to understand a specific type of person, but to understand some basic human psychology. Again, this provides you with some additional empathy.

Depending upon the genre, you may also learn something about history, a certain place, a particular incident or phenomenon, or a group of people because of the setting. Again, many fiction authors spend a good deal of time researching and understanding the setting of their novels so that they can create something that is realistic and will teach you through the story.

But there are more difficult things you can learn by reading novels. Novels are made up of characters facing difficult situations. This means you as the reader are asked to contemplate those difficult situations, and you are left with a deeper understanding of ethics, as well as your own character. You can find new roles models (I learned feminist ideals from many of my childhood and teenage reading), learn what sort of person you don’t want to be, or imagine ideals in things like friendship and family. Literature often tackles deep philosophical questions, and while you may not directly discuss them while reading, you do still find yourself thinking about them and wondering what your own reactions might be.

Examples of these issues from books I’ve read:

1.What does it mean to lie?

2.When should you trust someone?

3.Should men and women be treated the same?

4.How should you treat a friend?

5.Are adults trustworthy?

6.What makes life worth living?

I also have read fiction books that tackled everything from mental retardation to pregnancy to life in poverty to being a rich socialite. You get insight into each of these worlds, you get to inhabit each of these worlds for a time and hopefully understand better the perspectives of individuals in these situations.

In addition, the conversations that arise out of novels and fiction are hugely important to informing our sense of self and our knowledge of the world around us. We see which things we react to and we can begin to understand why when we discuss novels and fiction with those around us. We may gain empathy for one of our friends or colleagues by hearing their interpretation or perspective on a book or movie. All of these things are real and true forms of knowledge: they’re knowledge about what it’s like to experience things, and that is something that you can’t gain from nonfiction.

Fiction Round Up

It’s been a while since I’ve graced you all with anything other than essays (I sound so full of myself don’t I? Don’t worry, it’s all an act to hide the insecurities I feel about my writing), and so I figured that today would be a good day to put up the bits and pieces I’ve been working on for the past few weeks. Some are drabbles, some are poems, some are…God knows what, but here they are for your amusement.



Midsummer in the North is surreal. I watch the sky like I’d eye a Dali painting, wondering if something will melt under the impossible sun. I came here to escape. I came here for dark and silence, for the endless cold stretching out before me as if I could see it. I came here because at night I forget. But today there is no night, only days and days contained in 24 hours. It is incomprehensible, this solstice of the pole. It is maddening. I look up at the heavens and yell curses at the sun that refuses to set.




They asked her how bad the pain was on a scale of 1-10. She replied that it was an 8. Physical pain or emotional pain they wanted to know. They seemed very serious, as if the answer would change everything.

Without warning, she burst out laughing, and they looked at each other to silently say “72 hour hold”. There was no mind left to this one.

When she caught her breath there were small tears seeping from the edges of her eyes. Her face caught some of their seriousness and they looked at her expectantly.

“You think there’s a difference?”


There’s a loneliness to it that you can’t understand until you’ve stood before someone

Claiming they love you

And asking you to climb Everest on a broken leg.

There’s a distance placed between you

That is uncrossable until you’ve gotten the passport stamp of depression.

I try to yell across to you

And give you the details of the landscape

But all you get are echoed words, bits and pieces of a painting

That will never be whole.

The space distorts words.

There may be others with me, but we have no time for each other

Each too busy yelling across the void to someone or other

Wishing they could go home.

Someday I will make a camp here

And forget the other side.

Inviting each new person inside to warm themselves at my fire

And we’ll be together



The following is a set of drabbles entitled “Food”:

First Day of Treatment

The bowl of pasta was large. It seemed to grow as she looked at it, drowning in alfredo sauce. Reluctantly, she picked up her fork and began to twirl the strands around it. It was a painstakingly slow process. Fork to bowl. Turn. Pick up noodles. Mouth. Chew. Swallow. By the time she was halfway through it was cold, the sauce congealed. How would she finish? She felt eyes heavy on her as she took yet another bite, her stomach already churning. But she couldn’t stop: they were watching. But she knew how to fix it: fingers down the throat.


When he speaks about food, he is intense. She rarely sees him like this otherwise, leaning forward, eyes sparkling, hands gesturing madly. She understands his passion; food can turn her into a different person too, but it’s the love affair with it that makes no sense. It excites her though. She finds herself making up excuses to eat with him, to spend money she doesn’t have on beautiful dinners. She listens with unblinking eyes when he talks, trying to capture the essence of his speech. But every night after they eat together, she goes home to pinch at imagined fat.


She’s hungry. So often she forgets to feel hungry, or convinces herself it’s something else, but today she feels empty and it is undeniable. There is a gnawing, pulling, dark sensation at the very bottom of her, telling her that nothing will satisfy. She searches for the cure: meat and potatoes, ice cream, comfort food, fascinating flavors, good company. No matter what goes in she remains hungry, until the desperation and calories blend into a shocking kind of nausea, but always an emptiness. Nothing will fill her, so she picks up her phone, hoping his voice will do the trick.


He tells her stories of food. Aztec is his favorite. He tells her how bodies became food and food became bodies and the earth regrew itself out of the gods. Food and memory and existence wrapped together. Her favorite is when he teaches her words. Poutine. Macerate. Cassoulet. Her world expands. Some days he shows her how he likes to cook, dousing everything liberally with truffle salt. When they go to restaurants, he waxes rhapsodic about the foods he loves: oysters, pate, and wine. She tastes his words and his food and begins to eat life for the first time.

Empty Plate

Rule: never eat in the morning. It was 10:30 AM. They ordered a waffle to share. She took a few moments to try to observe it. There was fruit topping it, fresh and plump, but her eyes were drawn immediately to the sizeable heaping of whipped cream. The smell was forceful and immediate, sweet and full, almost golden. She breathed deeply, closing her eyes to take in only the scent. It smelled good. She reminded herself that it would taste good, she liked waffles. Five minutes later, there wasn’t a bite left. It was more than an hour before noon.


He pushes the plate towards me. I feel a flutter of uncertainty. Rabbit. I’ve never eaten rabbit before. He’s taken a bite of it, and his face tells me that he just ate a bit of rabbit-flavored heaven. Something in me snaps and I grin, pulling the plate closer. A deep desire to be here in this moment, tasting the food before me, sharing the conversation around me, has left no space for anxiety. The rabbit looks juicy and tender, covered in some deliciously unknown sauce. One bite tells me it’s complex, balanced, intriguing. A smile flutters across my face.



I’m sitting and waiting. I don’t know what I’m waiting for, but I hope that someone will tell me soon. I don’t like to wait. My muscles clench and unclench. My jaw grinds away at itself. My eyes fall out of focus.

But boredom is the kiss of death. My mind has nowhere to go. It runs and grabs and discards ideas at spitfire speed. I begin a thought and it falls away as it’s devoured by something new. What where how do I think? My mind eats itself, a dog chasing its tail, Ouroboros.

I am no phoenix to grow again when I’ve fallen, and I wait. I rip open my fingers, biting at the skin. I chew on my lips. I crack my knuckles. Nothing ends and so nothing may begin.

Where is the exit?

My legs will not stand because I know the rules and someone will tell me what I’m waiting for.

I will not look away. I am eternal and eternally incomplete.

I am a constant reminder of loss.

Why is there no exit?

Untitled Beginning

This is the beginning of some kind of story which I may or may not continue. It’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction of any length so please be kind, but I would be interested in feedback. 🙂




The thank you card was more gaudy than I ever would have picked out, but she had always sparkled more than I: I was never sure if it was gilt or gold, but like some silly magpie I always found myself edging closer to her sheen. Sadly the metaphor stops there and turns into one about moths and flames: she could burn a girl up as fast as she said hello.


But these words were different. Cherie rarely took the time to say things like thank you, and sitting still long enough to write something when she could have picked up the phone and said it, or even when she simply could have appeared out of nowhere (as she was wont to do) and yelled it at you in person was not her natural mode of operation. But there it sat, pale blue and gold with floral designs and a short message inside:


“I was so glad to see you this weekend. It’s been too long. Call when you can, I have news. Thank you for the vase, it’s truly lovely.



The vase had been a last minute gift, picked to the tastes of Cherie’s new wife. Generally Cherie did not bother with politeness for the sake of others. I had never before given her a gift without some critical remark on her part, and the note left me sitting in stunned silence for a long minute. What was she trying to say? Was this an apology? An attempt at reconciliation?


I couldn’t read this new Cherie, so I retreated to the only haven I knew: a book and a cup of tea, hoping the note would disappear and I could continue with my mundane life. I pointedly ignored my cell phone sitting next to me, refusing to call. I did not want the kind of excitement that Cherie brought. I didn’t want whatever reconciliation she offered. I had broken it off, and I was not about to start it up again.


It was raining on Wednesday. I had always felt that rain should not be allowed on Wednesdays for the obvious reason that the week feels endless on a Wednesday and the day feels endless when it’s raining, and this leads to an inevitable feeling of soul-crushing. But this Wednesday was the day after the thank you card, and despite the calming pit-pat on the roof, my nerves were edgy. I couldn’t sit still, and whenever I had a spare minute I found myself twitching and jumping. Thankfully I had a busy day, and barely noticed the anxiety until I found a pause for lunch at 2:30. I was nearly tingling with the anxiety, wondering when Cherie would come crashing back into my life. Would she call me if I never called her?


‘She’s married now, she can’t just tell you she wants to get back together’ I repeated to myself. My phone buzzed and I jumped. I picked it up. Mom. Deep breaths I reminded myself before answering.


Four hours later on my way home from work my phone rang again. By now I had convinced myself that this whole day had been spent in simple paranoia: Cheri would not call. She had not reason to. I had worked myself up over nothing, and all I needed was a glass of wine and a hot bath. I picked up the phone. Cherie. I put the phone down and focused pointedly on driving.


“Ingrid, hi. I know you’re there, but I don’t care if you don’t pick up as long as you listen to the message. Look, I meant what I wrote in that card. I’ve missed you. I wish I had the time to just talk to you again, but I have to tell you…I’m not ok. Renee doesn’t understand, she thinks I’m crazy, but I know you’ll hear me out. Please call me back. I’d like to see you.”


That was the whole message. She hadn’t even bothered to identify herself: she knew my whole body was tingling from the first word she spoke. Renee was Cherie’s wife, their wedding was the occasion for the thank you card. I wasn’t sure what to think that my ex was calling me over her wife.


Cherie’s problems had always been different. When we were together I had tried to tolerate them, to ignore them, to pretend I didn’t see the insanity. They had been the cause of many breakups followed by tearful reunions, and I suspected they had lent a helping hand to the development of my eating disorder.


I didn’t want to go there again. My therapist had told me again and again to reside in the present. I could finally eat three square meals a day without anxiety. I didn’t count calories and food was not the first thing on my mind in the morning. I had to keep myself away from her. I needed to protect myself.


So why was I picking up the phone and dialing her number, still firmly engrained in my memory? Why was my breath catching? What was I getting into?


“Shoo-rah, shoo-rah oh I can hear you coming, shoo-rah, shoo-rah but you won’t catch me.”

I sighed, waiting for the energy of the music to hit me and telling myself over and over “You won’t catch me.” I had put the song on in the hope that it would give me some sort of strength, but it was a lie and I knew it. I looked down at the note in my hand. I had made the call, taken down a time and a place, and now I was waiting.


I wouldn’t let her draw me in again. Our last breakup had been vicious. She had been raving, yelling, “Can’t you see?” and pointing ferociously at her back. I had tried to listen, tried to understand, but when she had grabbed my hand and placed it not on but just above her back, I had felt something tickle my palm, something feathery and soft. I had panicked, run out the door, and not spoken to her again until I had received a wedding invitation to “A Midsummer Night’s Wedding”.


And now I was going to walk back towards that confusion. I didn’t know if I could trust my senses this time around, and I knew I couldn’t trust my emotions.


The clock flicked to 11:45. I paused my music, picked up my keys and walked to the door.



There she was, same as ever. She didn’t look a second older than the day I first met her, the only difference being that her long dreadlocks were now shaved. She was small, barely five feet, but all curves. Except her face. Her face was pointed, angular, pixie-ish. I walked into the coffee shop where she waited and ordered a mocha-my standard. I didn’t drink coffee unless it tasted like dessert. Hesitantly, I sat across from her and she looked up from her book: The Great Gatsby. Pretentious.


She saw me looking and explained: “I’m prepping for the movie. I’ve forgotten a lot.”


“Something about love and death,” I supplied, pulling a chair up across from her. She smiled almost wistfully and put the book down. For a long moment she just looked at me, her eyes roving over every part of my body. I tried to stare back, unfazed, but I found myself blushing. She had a talent for undressing you with her eyes.


“I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk to you at the wedding,” she said suddenly. “I was glad you were there though. You mean a lot to me.” My heart jumped at the words.


“It was a lovely ceremony,” I choked out, feigning coolness. Silence again. I waited for her to explain what we were doing here. I had no responsibility to break the awkwardness. She just looked at her hands, fidgeting and picking at her nails. I’d never seen her like this before, shy and nervous.


Finally I gave in to my impatience.


“Look Cherie, you asked me to come here. You said you needed my help. I don’t know why I’m here so you’ll have to start talking,” She looked up at me and for a moment the look on her face inundated me with guilt. Then she sighed.


“You’re right. I just don’t know how to start. Especially after the last time I saw you. But it’s not like I can ask anyone else.” She paused and her body slumped. “Ingrid. I’m in trouble. I know you remember all the things I tried to tell you before and you didn’t believe it, but I’m really, really in trouble and you have to believe me now. My mother is dead. I need to go home,” she stopped and looked meaningfully at me.


“I’m sorry Cherie. That’s horrible. I still don’t understand how I can help though…do you need help with a plane ticket?”


“Oh Ingrid. Not home to Portland! I told you before that’s not really home. Home to…the other place. The one you wouldn’t hear about. And I need you to come with. I need someone from here with me, otherwise I’m not sure I can find my way back,” she was leaning forward now, reaching for my hand. “Please say you’ll help, please. Renee tried to send me to a therapist, she thinks I’m crazy. I need you. No one else can help,”


I was afraid. Absolutely afraid that she was pulling me in again, that Renee was 100% right and I was sitting in front of a crazy person. But the most beautiful woman I knew was sitting before me begging for help. I was lost before I began.


“Where are we going?” I asked reluctantly.




The next day at 11 PM we drove up to an abandoned warehouse.


“This is it?” I asked, my voice dripping cynicism. “This is the super secret special entrance to your Other home?”


She threw me a look that left me shrinking in my seat and sauntered out of the car, leaving me to remember how many times I’d seen that look before. Reluctantly I followed her, taking a flashlight out of the bag she had told me to pack.


She was standing at a rusted door, tapping it gently and listening to the tink-tink it made in return. I was about to open my mouth and make a quip about a secret knock when the door creaked open, seemingly of its own volition. With a smile, she led the way inside.


There was a low thumping, almost a rumble coming from deep inside the building. I hesitated, but Cherie stepped forward unafraid and I had no choice but to follow. The noise grew and grew until I realized it was the repetitive “wub wub” of dubstep.


“Cherie, what-” I cut off my query as we rounded a final corner and came upon a seething wall of people. My question was answered: we were at a rave. I looked again, and stopped to reassess my initial impressions. Not people. Bizarre costumes were everywhere: gas masks, neon tutus, steampunk goggles, but mixed in were things a bit too realistic to be costume. A woman slid past with cat eyes glinting in the darkness, another gave me a salacious smile that showed his flickering snake-tongue, while a third held up a hand in greeting that was not properly flesh colored. But everyone was moving, relentlessly dancing. I was overwhelmed, with colors and sounds and a lingering smell of pot.


“You can’t be serious,” I screamed over the noise. “You brought me to a rave? I can’t believe I almost bought your story!” Cherie grinned at me, raising her arms in an innocent looking shrug before diving forwards into the crowd. With a yelp I threw myself after her into a chaos of sweaty, moving bodies, bizarre smells, and kaleidoscope colors.

Monday Morose Miscellany

It’s 11:59. There’s a ringing in her ear. Ring in the new year as they say. Or is it a new day? They’re close enough anyway, and when the minute turns over it will be an ending and she needs that ending like she needs the ringing to drown out the endless voices and start again in silence. It’s silent now, late at night, home alone. She vaguely wonders if she remembered to lock the door, but it’s loud inside, hammering painfully against her skull, making her squirm and look at the clock for the numbers to turn. To end.





Arouse a building nausea.

They lost themselves in mind’s recesses and won’t stop echoing.


It’s a dream that filters behind the eyes

Celebrated with fireworks, red and gold.


But not too much or your eyes will get stuck

And you’ll be lost inside your eyelids forever


Is a wish

For an empty mind and empty body

Filled only with drums.





Delicate white branch

Laced with the snowfall of night

Vanished in the sun




She begins with herself, always. In the present tense and first person, she is always the crystal to focus the light of her own mind. A turning inwards, a breath. Who am I today? She wondered, echoing the calls of a thousand young children across the globe. Why today? Came the teenage call, yearning for purpose. When can I rest? She asked, as she suddenly felt her body grow old. She begins with herself but herself is a multitude and she cannot end until she has touched them all. Her crystal has grown diffuse. She cannot see in the gloom.




I’m sitting in a cube

Always in cubes

Open air is foreign, and so I pack my

Spaces into boxes

Filled with boxes

To pretend I take up space.

The boxes are sharp, all straight lines and corners

So I went myself into curves

And ooze into empty places

Hoping the edges don’t cut

I don’t fill the boxes

I can’t feel the boxes alone

It’s easier to pretend I’m not here at all.

Why Do I Love Dark Fiction?

I really like dark fiction. I’ve been pretty obsessed with the show Orphan Black recently, which is a fairly graphic show about clones and murders. When I was younger, Holly Black was one of my favorite YA authors, and her novels generally center around some slightly sadistic fairies and other fantasy creatures who are not all rainbows and gumdrops. I know I’m not the only one who loves these kinds of media. But what is it about that gritty feel that makes dark fiction so much more satisfying than any other kind of fiction to me? I do have what in past times might have been termed a “melancholic personality”, and that explains part of it for me: I’m drawn to dark things because I tend to exist in a slightly depressive state.


But that doesn’t explain the overall popularity of these shows. I think there’s a lot of reasons that people feel attraction to the dark. One obvious reason is that it allows us to feel like we’re engaging in something dangerous and big and exhilarating that we would never actually partake in. In the same way that horror films give you a rush, so can dark and disturbing films. They let the “bad” part of you come out to play in a way that harms no one, but gives some satisfaction to the more animalistic side of our human nature. I think this is true of many kinds of fiction, that it allows us to live out certain fantasies we would never undertake in the real world.


With dark and disturbing fiction in particular, I find that oftentimes I like it because it makes me feel less alone in the world. Many people have disturbing or dark thoughts, and rarely do they share those thoughts with others. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who think they’re uniquely messed up in this world because of the things they think or want. Many times characters that exist in dark worlds or who do dangerous and disturbing things in fiction are allowed to think those same kinds of thoughts. They allow us to grapple with the harder parts of ourselves. When I read a novel that has a character struggling with self-harm, or thinking about suicide, I have a catalyst to explore my own feelings all in a fictional realm. I understand that even though this is a fictional character someone else has some understanding of what I’m going through. It helps me to feel less crazy sometimes.


There are good reasons we are drawn to dark fiction. We try to excise a lot of these elements of ourselves from our daily lives, and fiction gives us space to play and release those pieces of ourselves that aren’t appropriate in real life. But I think there’s something more sinister at play in my love for these types of novels. Our society works fairly hard to condition us to believe that violence is sexy. There are more ad campaigns than I can count that feature violence against women, shot in a way that is supposed to be alluring. Porn often features rape scenes, or violence (particularly against women). Movies that feature violence are often described as “sexy” even when there is nothing remotely sexual about them. We have been trained to associate alluring, sexual, and desirable with an aesthetic that says dark, destructive, painful, and gritty.


I know that I have been trained to see someone in pain as someone who is vulnerable, and thus someone who is open. Vulnerability is certainly a part of being sexual, but not when it’s coerced, not when it’s the vulnerability of violence, not when it’s the openness of having been stripped. So while I think there are certainly good reasons to love things like Orphan Black, I also know that the draw I feel towards it may be due to societal impulses, and that I need to remember that violent is not sexy.

Experiments in Fiction

Ok, so it has been a very very very long time since I’ve written much of any fiction at all. Feel free to skip this post now that you know that because I promise it’s not gonna be very good. I’m mostly looking for some feedback on my drabble about truth, but any other thoughts are welcome (please be nice, I’m very sensitive about my fiction. If you hate it, at least be constructive).  So anyway, here are a few things I’ve written in the past couple of days. Let me know what you think.


Drabble 1: Beginnings

Blank pages always made her anxious. Some days she would scribble a line of nonsense above the whiteness, simply to feel she wasn’t staring into the void. Too much white gave her headaches. Today she opened her journal, holding her fountain pen between her teeth, and looked intently at the page. White. Black lines traversing. Instead of putting pen to paper, she gently reached her hand out and touched the page, a single finger following the straight lines across it. With a sigh, she laid her pen down and placed her palm against the page, breathing deeply as she disappeared.


Drabble 2: Truth

She sat down again, on her bed. It was time to begin searching, again. Things were gnawing at her, as they always did, and she would answer, again and again. She whittled herself away trying to find it, and again she could not. Without it she would not bother waking up tomorrow, she told herself again. But again she knew that was a lie. Yesterday she had not eaten, and again today she would not. She wouldn’t let herself again until she found what she was looking for. Truth evaded her when all she wanted was to have certainty again.


Poem: Purpose

I am a thresher

What is my purpose?

I have talents

I awaken each morning and work without fail


mowing down the tall crops

I am efficient

I work endlessly.

Do I arise each morning for this?

I have failures

I do not rest

I cannot stop

Do I sleep each night dwelling on how to improve?

My task goes on

There will be another season and another

Or is my revolution to put down my scythe and lie in the grass?