One of the rules for writing fiction is that the events must be probable in order to be believable. After all, in fiction we try to imitate life — to a certain extent at least — even if the world in which we create is openly imagined.
As readers, we require that a plot operates in probable patterns, whether we’re reading literary fiction, genre fiction, or some other kind. If there are too many improbable “coincidences” in a row, our willingness to suspend disbelief (Coleridge), is strained a little too far, and over the inordinate amounts of happy or misfortunate happenings, we tend to say to ourselves “That could never happen” as we shake our heads.
That is fiction. It exacts probability.
But what about improbability in creative nonfiction? It is, after all, the genre of fact and truth of life. The genre in which we are not only trying to imitate life, but indeed represent it, in all its fullness and quirks.
And yet the truth about life — one of its quirks — is that improbable things happen to everyday people all the time. Things that you would resist believing if they didn’t happen to you. But we still believe them.
And so I wonder: why does fiction misrepresent our lived experience in this way? Why can “improbable” things happen in life, and we can accept them to a certain degree, but we can’t in fiction? I’m sure that each of us has at least one story we could tell from our own lives that go against probability, even in seemingly small — but hugely improbable — ways.
A little over a week ago, I received an email from WordPress editor Cheri Lucas Rowlands, who wrote to say she’d selected my essay, “The Role of Imagination in Creative Nonfiction” to be featured on WordPress “Discover.” Now, I’ve seen the posts featured on Discover on my WordPress Reader, along with their dozens (if not hundreds) of comments, and many, many more times that in “likes.” I couldn’t even fathom the amount of traffic such exposure would generate.
So I’ll ask you: What would you think the probability was of a small (73 followers) blog being selected for promotion by a team whose “Editors’ Picks” reach over 20,000,000 followers? Slim probability, very slim indeed. Improbable enough that you would never dare to put such an event in a work of fiction.
What if I further told you that the blog in question had been in operation for just over six months, and the writer was blogging for the first time with this endeavor? And that she wrote in and about the largely-overlooked genre of creative nonfiction? The slim probability has, in all probability, probably dwindled to practically nothing. This would be a bad plot, perhaps one that might appear in some third-rate movie. One in which the blog’s unprecedented exposure was the opening scene, and the lucky break for this little-known blogger who would then proceed to “make it big” in the blogging and writing world, in general.
Well, this is real life, not fiction. And it’s definitely not a movie.
When I received the email, I was excited as any half-wit might be. But then I went through the motions of incredulity. Really? I wondered, thinking about my short tenure as blogger and my small but faithful following. I’d seen scams before. So I re-read the email, trying to decipher the sender’s intent on sending it to me, and checked the sender’s email address, looking for the tell-tale signs of this being fake.
Oddly, there were no spelling mistakes. And there was a legitimate-looking e-mail address. And the writer had referred directly and intelligibly to the content of my blog post. Whoever it was, they were good.
But then I noticed a “Cheri Lucas Rowlands” (same name, same picture) had “liked” my post – one of nine bloggers at the time, I believe.
Was this for real after all?
Of course, those of you who recently followed my blog because you saw my post featured on “Discover” already know the answer to my question.
But I hope the point is not lost on you.
I would like to suggest that improbability is what gives creative nonfiction its veracity. Perhaps it even requires a careful writer to acknowledge that such a thing would never happen in fiction.
What makes good fiction, and what makes life work, are two entirely different things. Or perhaps, more accurately, they are at different ends of a spectrum of dis/belief. It follows that creative nonfiction follows life. And life is unexpectedly improbable, against all odds.
Since my post was featured yesterday 24 hours ago now, I’ve received dozens of new followers, many comments, hundreds of likes, and even more traffic because of my exposure from my day on Discover.
Do I think this will change my life, and/or revolutionize the way I blog? Will this be the ticket to my “making it big” like the protagonist in some blog-themed movie?
Probably not. I’m not deceiving myself, even in my humble imaginings.
Most likely, today will be very similar to my day-before-fame. I’ll continue to publish my blog posts, respond to my readers’ comments, and keep on going pretty much as I had before.
I write creative nonfiction. And this is real life, after all.
Question: What makes writing believable to you?