Business Musings: The Importance of Fiction

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September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. Here on the Oregon Coast, as in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., it was a beautiful fall day. Sun out, clear blue sky.

And horrors, everywhere.

I was in the middle—quite literally—of writing one of my Smokey Dalton novels. Set in another terrible time in American history, those books are emotionally dark, hard to write, and harder, at times, to think about. On September 10, I had just hit one of the most violent scenes in the book, scenes that left me shaking after writing them.

I made notes for the following day, shut down my word program, and did not log back into it for ten days.

In those ten days, I watched in horror, searched for friends, gave money to other friends and charities that had come up specifically for the 9/11 victims and their families. I also put a cat to sleep. We hadn’t even known he was ill.

There seemed to be no respite. People I knew had lost loved ones, some of my friends had barely escaped with their lives, all of the companies I did business with were shut down, and no one knew what was coming next.

It felt like we were waiting for another, equally horrible shoe to drop.

The tension was everywhere. Americans have a steel core. Built into the national DNA is a do-not-screw-with-us attitude, whether we are right or wrong. We seem to have no sense of humor when we reach that point, and indeed, that week, no one laughed.

That was the strangest thing of all to me: Americans usually find humor in everything, even if the humor is black humor. Yet we would go to restaurants, and everyone was talking seriously. No one smiled. No one laughed. No one joked.

A movie, a comedy, came out that week (I can’t remember what it was) and it tanked. We had stopped using humor to cope. Our comedians took the week off, not returning until the following week, when they felt it was safe to crack a joke again. And even then—hell, even now—we do not joke about that period of time.

I found it hard to escape. Regular television shows were too violent or too pre-9/11. For a while, some TV programs and movies edited out images of the Twin Towers from old programming because everyone found looking at them just too painful.

I didn’t want to read my usual fare. Mysteries seemed too mundane, thrillers too violent, and romance novels too frivolous. Science fiction hadn’t predicted anything like this, and for that reason, I washed my hands of it that month.

Thank heavens for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I had never read Harry Potter, and frankly, I wasn’t planning to. But I had the first book, and since nothing else was holding my attention (besides the tragedy), I started to read.

And escaped. Harry’s world is different enough from ours to shut out the horrors of the real world, and heal. I will forever associate those books with that need for healing.

I also credit them for teaching me about the value of fiction.

You see, I had forgotten why I was writing. I may have forgotten it before 9/11, but that tragedy brought the problem to the forefront of my brain.

How can I write, I would ask myself, when there were other, more important jobs to be done?

I always felt vaguely guilty about giving up my career as a journalist, providing information that people wouldn’t normally have had. I used to work in listener-sponsored radio, which did not have a corporate overlord, so we could report what we wanted, cover stories that didn’t get covered.

I’d watch—I still watch—the reporters who go to dangerous places or dig into that awful horrid story, detail by detail (see the movie Spotlight to understand what I mean), and then end up with reporting that would make a huge difference.

Fiction, I thought guiltily, never did that.

Of course, I was wrong.

I had forgotten that fiction got me through a dark, bleak, and lonely childhood. I had forgotten that stories were the only thing that bonded me and my cold, unhappy mother. I had forgotten that stories got me through tragedies and injuries and losses. I had forgotten just how important escape was, how essential it is to rest, relaxation, and gearing up to go another round in the fight—whatever that fight is.

During that week in September of 2011, I spent most of my time in a frightened and vindictive America, a world I didn’t recognize. I spent the rest of my time in school with some wizards who worried about how the sorting hat would place them in the scheme of things. I didn’t wish for Harry’s magic, and I didn’t want to move to Hogwarts.

You see, I already lived there—in my imagination.

And as I read, as I escaped, I realized—maybe for the first time on a very deep level—how important fiction is. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s comfort. It’s also how we learn empathy and warmth and love.

Yes, I was writing books set in a dark period in American history. I was writing about courageous people who fought against all odds to make sure they got some kind of justice. (I write about that a lot.) I got letters—I still get letters—from people who find the Smokey Dalton books as valuable as I found the Harry Potter series during 9/11.

I also get letters on my other books. Some of these letters make me cry. People go through such hard times, and somehow one of my books got them through it.

I’m not alone in getting these letters. I’ve talked with all of my writer friends about this, seen it mentioned in biographies and autobiographies of writers, and have written one or two of those letters myself. (I’ve also told writers in person, which always takes them aback. It takes me aback as well. We just think we work in isolation; it’s a shock to be told we don’t.)

But most readers don’t write to us or tell us. Those readers read our books, take a few hours to escape, and then return to fighting the good fight, whatever that fight is.

We fiction writers have provided a valuable service, but we rarely see the end result. We don’t “see” the connection with the reader. All we know is that the book sold well or that it didn’t. (One of the best letters I ever got was on a book that sold so poorly I thought no one had read it.)

We writers have no idea that the escape maybe helped a person deal with those hours while a loved one was in surgery, hanging between life and death, or provided a light in the darkness for a child who would otherwise think she was alone.

We don’t know—and we’re not supposed to know. We’re doing our jobs, creating stories. If we think about the responsibility of what we’re doing, we’ll quit as well. Providing escape is as important as giving blood—and when was the last time you did that?

I am writing this blog primarily for me. Right now, America feels like it did after 9/11. We’re battered and weary, depressed about the way things are going. Our news cycles are filled with upsetting disgusting things.

Unlike those weeks after 9/11, we’re fighting among ourselves. We’re screeching at each other, and ripping each other’s hair out, and treating each other with a startling lack of civility.

We’re not alone. Britain went through a similar cycle last summer, and other countries that I’m aware of are having vicious fights.

And then there are the mass attacks, the wars, the images of dead and dying children that come out of war-torn areas that we can’t seem to help find the peace they need.

It’s exhausting.

I went shopping last Friday to get supplies for the workshop we’re running this week, and everyone snapped at me or was curt or was full-on angry. I asked one of the clerks at a checkout counter if she had noticed the tension, and did she think it was the incoming storm? (We got hit with the remnants of a typhoon this past week; our little community rode it out just fine.)

She shook her head. She said it had been like this for months and it was getting worse. She had her theories. They matched mine.

On Sunday morning, as we started the workshop, I announced one of our most important policies for our in-person classes. The students could not discuss politics or religion all week, not even when they were at dinner or standing in the hallway. Put it in your fiction, I always say.

We instituted this policy in 2000, when we were holding classes in an election year, and discovered that the students discussed writing and everything they had in common, rather than arguing about what divided them.

Half of the room on Sunday had heard the admonition before. I said, “Let’s provide a safe zone for this week. Please don’t discuss politics—”

And the entire room burst into applause. That has never happened before. Not in sixteen years of doing the workshops and making that request.

Everyone was ready for a respite. I know I am as well.

People here are laughing and talking about writing and marketing and how to survive in the future of this new world of publishing. They’re sharing ideas and strengths and goals, even though the people in the conversation may stand at opposite poles of the political divide.

That’s why the no-politics rule works at the workshops. It also works on this blog. So, please. No politics here either.

That applause got me thinking about how I’ve been feeling these last few months, this last few years, really, and it brought me back to that post-9/11 bleakness.

Which reminded me about Harry Potter, and fiction, and the importance of escape.

After I finished reading the first two or three books in the Harry Potter series, I found myself at my own writing computer. I booted it up, and started to write. I couldn’t return to the novel—not yet. I had to write about my feelings from the tragedy around me.

I wrote a story called “June Sixteenth at Anna’s,” which got some of the emotion out. Then I cried.

Then I went back to Thin Walls, a Smokey Dalton book set in the late 1960s, another time of incredible nastiness and strife in this country.

Before I started to write, I had one last realization: no matter how bleak the time, no matter how dark the national (or international) mood, courageous people step forward. They get us through the darkness in the real world. They’re the ones who shoulder that burden.

People of quiet heroism, who seem to know exactly what to do next.

Those people go home too after long dark hard days, and they need escapes as well.

So it doesn’t matter if we writers are writing dark hard-boiled novels about fifty years in the past or if we’re writing funny fantasy novels about cute bunnies that decide to conquer a garden, we’re providing escape for the folks who do the heavy lifting.

I know it’s tough out there right now. I know we’re all stressed.

Find an escape in your storytelling, and then put your stories into the world so someone else can escape too.

Because at the heart of it all, it doesn’t matter if we have the “right” cover on our books or if we promote the books properly.

What matters is telling the best stories we can, and putting those stories into the world for others to read.

So, write on, folks. Write on.


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“Business Musings: The Importance of Fiction,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/julos.

28 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Importance of Fiction

  1. Thanks, Kris, for reminding me of why we read and why we write. Sometimes I feel guilty to be reading instead of writing. Some days reading is easier than writing, but who knows maybe someone out there needs what I’m writing. I should remember that.

  2. Thanks for this timely post. I am going attempt my first novel next week during NANOWRIMO. I suspect it will be awful, but at the very least, it will help me escape in the writing of it. And if I ever publish it, it may help someone else for an hour or two, and that is all you can ask.

  3. I was born in 1958. First time I heard my mom cry was when we lost JFK. I was almost 5. I heard a podcast last year by a very thoughtful historian / political commentator about just how bad things were in 1968. It prompted me to read a few books about the period. And I thought to myself I lived through this time, why is it only now I can see how bad it was? And I guess one reason was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Read that thing 6 times when I was in 7th grade, and it got me through. I have a Mickey Spillane short that I read even now when I get down. There is just something magical about a story.
    When I get a little tired or start thinking of writing as work, I try to go read something I love and feel that magic, and I think that’s it – that’s why I write. It seems I am not the only one!
    Thanks for this awesome article Kris, especially right now, when the world seems so dark.

  4. Thank you.

    It’s so easy to forget the power of stories — they get us through, truly. I watched Saving Private Ryan the morning of 9/11 rather than edit the book that was due later that week* because… Well, because. And I wept through the whole damned movie. But it really helped.

    Come to think of it, my oldest started reading the Harry Potter books right around that time.

    A Joseph Campbell book, funny enough.

  5. Kris:

    What a beautiful, truthful post.

    I have always been drawn to fantasy and scifi precisely for the escape and the fact that truth often arrives ornamented in the most gaudy and distracting ornamentation.

    I had a similar revelation in real life just last Saturday night. (Maybe two Saturdays ago … it all blends together. Teething 16-month old, alternating work schedules, minimal sleep and all that.)

    My wife and I had just put our little guy down to sleep and it was a beautiful night with a full-ish moon that lit the sky. I took a few precious moments to walk across the street to the large park just to enjoy the Fall night since it is my favorite time of year. I sat on one of the large rocks marking the boundary of the parking lot and stared at the beautiful moonlight illuminating our little Cape Cod style house and the magnificent orange-leafed maple tree that towers above it. Then I took in the hillside of beautiful autumn colors, all lit up brilliantly in the moonlight. It was breathtaking.

    In that moment, I was able to sit and appreciate what I have. I thought of just how angry and anxious people are these days. How much some people seem to want to get everybody all angry so they can be manipulated. And in that moment, my inner voice reminded me, “You know, everything is going to be alright. Everything is going to be okay.”

    I wished that everyone could have a few moments like that right now. Just take a few moments to get away from their TVs and the their phones and the tyranny of the Facebook/Twitter/Instragram firehouse of endless outrages. I wished that everyone could take a moment to appreciate that there is much bigger, much more beautiful world out there and it is going to be okay.

  6. Everything this. I completely agree. I promote a positive vibe and have recently had a couple people tell me I live in a fantasy world. It’s difficult to get people to see that anger and cruelty get us nowhere. To spread that feeling does nobody any good, but surrounding ourselves with peace can go a long (and amazing) way at changing the environment around us. Books, no matter the vibe, and the written word, can also do that for us. Might just be why I love reading so much.

    I was just thinking a couple nights ago about a quote I read from Stephen King. I believe it was in his “On Writing” book. He’d said to turn off the TV, stop watching the news because it’d be the same tomorrow and the day after. It was more important to sit down and write. Writing for us as the writer can do just as much as it can for the reader.

  7. Thank you for the reminder. 🙂

    I first learned this lesson with Isle of View (Piers Anthony) and the story of Jenny in the Afterword. Authors touch people’s lives, and are touched in return by their readers.

    It’s hard to write right now. Maybe it’s time to read more. 🙂

  8. Thank so so much for this post, Kris. It really struck a chord, particularly at the moment. I would have applauded the no politics rule too! Your post also sent me back to memories of that time around 9-11. I was still living in Ireland at the time, trying to finish my PhD thesis, and less than a week after the attacks I traveled to Turkey for a holiday (planned months ahead of time). That whole period was sort of surreal. And I turned to books–I could justify fiction on holiday when I couldn’t at home until I got my thesis done. But boy did I need the light, escapist stories at that time. Good reminder just how important fiction is to all our mental wellbeings.

  9. Hi Kris. An erudite and insightful article as always. Thank you. I agree with the fundamentals, but in my experience most books don’t do it for me. I consider myself lucky if I find one a year. . Harry P., episode one fell short, I’m afraid. When I need a lift from fiction I often have to re-read something that did it for me before. The last book that lifted my spirits was ‘An Officer and a Spy’ by Robert Harris.

  10. Thanks so much. As many of the other commenters said, I needed this reminder. When I said in my HS yearbook that I wanted to write “happy books,” this was exactly what I was talking about. I wanted someday to write the kind of books like those by Georgette Heyer that had given me so much pleasure in my life. Didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the more serious fiction I was reading. Just that there was a particular kind of escape I valued. I needed to be reminded that just because some readers might consider my fiction too lightweight…that as long as there is one reader out there who might find a couple of hours of solace, or a chance to chuckle, or a sense of connection. I have done what I wanted to do with my life. So again, thanks.

  11. When I was in Desert Storm, we had this little library–really just paperbacks tossed in a box in front of a tent. You grabbed a book, read it, brought it back, and grabbed another one. The books were all battered, and the covers coming off because they’d been read by so many people. Sometimes reading was because we were bored and it was something to do. Sometimes it was an escape from the constant fear and uncertainly that kept pushing at us. They were always an anchor to the real world, so far away from us.

  12. Thank you so much!

    You reminded me how books helped me survive during my childhood in a cold, distant family.
    And you reminded me why I write what I write.

    I had lost that for a while, working to build my other business, coaching people. It felt more valuable, because I could see how much my clients benefit from our work, how much their lives change, how they are happier. This is good work. I do it one-on-one, and I love it.

    But I can provide something for my readers that is just as valuable, it’s just in a different shape. I’m still helping and supporting people, and with my books, I can reach many, many more.

    Thank you.

  13. This is such a timely post.

    This morning, I received one of those fan mails that stopped me in my tracks. It was from a man who downloaded my first in series to read at night while he was feeding his newborn baby boy. He said the last book he read was a Harry Potter novel (I said it was timely :D) when he was much younger and mine was the first book he had picked up since. And he thanked me for writing it because he absolutely loved it.

    I am currently in my fourth year of indie publishing. I still work part-time (flexible hours through agencies with some traveling) as a Neonatologist in NICU, looking after premature babies. I am a good doctor and there are times when the guilt hits me, especially when my colleagues beg me to return to work full-time or I have to refuse job offers right, left, and center. I know I have saved many lives already in my fifteen years as a doctor and a Pediatrician. I know I could save many more. But the itch to create and tell stories has been there since I was five years old and read my first Babar book. It is my true passion, my forbidden dream, the one I had to shelve because my family and teachers told me I was too smart for all of that and I needed to get a proper job in future.

    Ten years ago, I realized medicine no longer made me want to jump out of bed and go to work in the morning. So I took time out and I tried a different career path for a while (clinical research physician in a drug company). And then I got a wild idea for a book. And I researched the publishing industry. And I decided that life was too short and if I didn’t attempt to achieve that forbidden dream now, I would live to regret it. Although I was pretty realistic about my chances, I still had that foolish hope that I would be that 0.0001% first hit wonder, the one that scores gazillions with her first novel, lands a movie deal, and buys a yacht (God knows why ’cause I get sick sea in a pond).

    Four years of indie publishing and I am seeing my business start to grow. I am taking courses and learning how to manage my creative side and the business side. But there are still days and weeks when I have doubts. About whether what I am doing as a creative is contributing to the world as meaningfully as what I do as a doctor. And then I try to imagine our world without creativity. And I see a dark and boring place without any of the comforts of our modern lives or even computers. Because creative people thought all that shit up. I am 100% convinced tablets were inspired by Jean Luc Picard’s Personal Access Display Device. And I am certain my car would be a shapeless rectangular lump if someone had not imagined sleek curves and texture that makes me want to stroke it in disturbing ways. And let’s not even begin to imagine what we would be wearing on our bodies and feet were it not for creatives.

    And then I get fan mail like the one I got this morning. And I think, ‘Ah. Yes. This is what I born to do.’

  14. Thank you Kris for this amazing post. As usual you’re spot on, being able to put into clear words vague thoughts that I hadn’t even realised were somewhere in my head. Reading your blog can be very therapeutic too, it’s not just the case with fiction 🙂

    As a reader, I (mistakenly) tend to think that I’m wasting my time if I’m reading light fiction, thinking that I should be reading something more profound, that would teach me something. And so most of the time I’m denying myself the right to just read a “feel-good” novel. But reading something that makes me feel good might be precisely the thing that I need at that time, especially during depressing times. So your post is a great reminder to allow myself more light reading.

    Your Interim Fates series is a perfect example of “feel-good” novel, safe to dive into whatever the outside circumstances. And at least it is not necessarily the alpha male with a lot of power that gets to bind everyone to his will. Ordinary people can make a difference too.

    And that’s probably also the reason why I love SF&F, rather than more realistic fiction: it allows me to escape my everyday life. And even if it can be loaded with various messages, at least the author had the decency to transpose it to another world, which makes it much less oppressive to read.

  15. Wow, is all I can say regarding this post. SO glad I took the time to read this. Books have gotten me through so much in my life, and that’s why I love them to bits and love writing as a whole. I was only a kid when 9/11 happened, so I don’t remember much. But I know during critical moments in my life, they got me through. That’s why I write: I want to do the same for others but I always worry about what others will think, my perfectionism and if I can REALLY impact anyone at all. I actually wrote a post on my own blog back in July on a similar topic because of so much going on when I was away for two weeks on vacation with family.

    Thank you for this. I needed a reminder of the power of fiction, and why I even want to write at all.

  16. This was amazing to read. I’ve only written one such note to an author – it was to Anne Bishop. A friend had been in a car accident. He died on impact; his best friend was in a coma and died within the week. That week all I was doing was waiting to fly over to be with my friend’s family, whom I’d lived with for a time. Impossible to concentrate, impossible to watch sitcoms on TV or get into any movie, but I picked up Ephemera and got lost in the series. It stopped me from going mad. That was the moment where I had that realisation. I was geared up for my first NaNoWriMo and it would’ve been so easy to quit because of everything, but I refused to. I published the book and dedicated it to my friend. Fiction is important. There is so so much wrong with the world and it’s terrifying… we’ve got to be able to see some of the good humanity produces along with the bad. For me, literature’s among those things that gives me hope in dark times.

  17. Thanks, Kris.
    Strange but I have been struggling to be positive as I battle some depression and can’t stomach the election ads for all levels. This is a bleak time for all of in this country. I also bury myself in fiction or work crossword puzzles or create an alternate world in my mind especially at night when I wake well before it is time to get up. Like you, reading has always been a way to escape at least for a time. Right now it is to 1001 in Viking land Earlier I read about the 1817 revolt in Russia which made me realize that we have not really lost everything of value in our current time. And I am ready to go to other lands, other time periods and other’s struggles and triumphs is the worlds created by writers of fiction. Please tell your students that the worlds they create for us are important whether fantasy or realistic fiction.

  18. Thanks for this Kris! I’ve been avoiding most of Facebook simply because it makes me so angry and I don’t want to argue with friends who seem to have taken leave of their senses. I want to remain friends with them. I skim past the political posts and look at cat videos or paintings or photos of pretty scenery, hoping to see posts about friends and what they’re up to.

    I’ve felt the tension too over the last several months. Several people I know are reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, and discussing it. That book horrifies me, it’s too close to becoming possible. And I am afraid, like so many others, not matter which side of the divide they’re on.

    So I’ve been escaping by watching British murder mysteries and writing very fluffy fiction. Plus I finally read ‘Binti’ by Nnedi Okorafor, which went a long way towards making me feel wonderful about the world.

    My birthday’s coming up a few days before the election and I’m not looking forward to it. I’ve always hated election season – puts a damper on my birthday – although I’ve always voted. I can honestly say that I can’t wait till mid-November when the dust will have settled.

  19. Well said. And well timed too, for those of us in the States.

    I remember exactly which book I was reading during 9/11, for the same reason as you. I won’t say which book publicly, because I refuse to read his work now days. But at the time I craved something Tolkien-like to escape the horrors, not only on the national news but also in my private life.

    And now I have something positive to think about while I watch the debate recaps this morning (didn’t bother watching it last night). So thanks 🙂

  20. I just finished the three most recent Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs – and you’ve made me realize why I turned to them! We no longer have a TV and you’d think that would have solved the problem, but it still filters in. Being something of a hermit helps a bit, too, but I still needed to escape. Thank you for the realization – and for so many wonderful stories that take me away time after time…after time.

  21. Wow, is this an unexpected and lovely blog to read this morning! Thank you, Kris! You’re right about us sometimes feeling like what we’ve chosen to do as as a career isn’t important enough. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and persuasive post. I, like you, can see it from the reader side when I’m the one who needs to escape, but it’s harder sometimes to believe from the writer side. Thanks a heap!

  22. A big, big thanks for this post.
    Fantasy&SF novels helped me go through life after the massacre of women at my engineering school, long years before 9-11. The stories gave me a respite I – and many others- needed.
    And I hope to do the same with my writing.

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