Fiction and reality, monkeys in Billings

The land here is dry. The leafy tendrils I saw from the airplane, riverbeds, I imagined, are really more of folds in the rock, like the skin of a naked cat around the haunches. Earth muscles, they make me think of. It’s December, and a bit of early winter snow remains , but mostly it is the sparse, yellow fur of dry grass that runs along the cliffs.

These cliffs are called “the rims” here in Billings and are your proverbial car-park-romantic-movie-scene-kiss kind of overlook. The city hugs them, then springboards out across the valley, so that everywhere you are in town, the rims stand out jagged and bright in the sun above you. It feels like the edge of a desert.

The rims, yesterday, mid-afternoon.

I’ve found a little writing time today. It’s been a while. Weeks. The end of term, marking essays, calculating grades, emails, travel preparations, the stymying tiredness at the ends of the days. A lot of Star Trek and chocolate in the evenings, I’ll confess. When I don’t write for a while, I feel meaningfulness begin slipping away. The listlessness, no matter what I find myself doing, seeps back in.

Over the course of a couple days about a month ago, I spilled out fifteen-hundred words of a short story. My norm for the last few years has been science fiction, but this story is very rooted in reality. The inspiration was a dinner with friends, and I found myself all but retelling real events, to the extent that the characters will be embarrassingly recognizable.

A benefit was that the writing flew, much more easily than has the sci-fi. A tweak here or there, a point-of-view character not my own, sure, but really I’m writing from memory rather than any carefully-constructed imagination. It has me wondering today about the role of the real in fiction, and how much literal reality fiction can accommodate before the term no longer fits.

The land reminds me more of Morocco than anything. It’s funny how it feels strange to say that, as culturally the two places could scarcely differ more. But I am remembering a long drive through the mountains south of Fez, winding by red rocks and thick gorse. Except, I remember now, there were monkeys in those hills. Prairie dogs excavating the undeveloped lots of Billings.

My instinct is to tell me that all fiction, including fantasy and science fiction, is just as rooted in reality as a retelling, that both are, as James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, “harrowingly truthful.” But it also feels a bit like cheating, or at least less creative, to crib so much from real events and real people.

But then, what could be a more fertile garden for story than a rich reality? My sci-fi novel is, when it comes down to it, plucked from reality too—how societies work, research about artificial intelligence, my own experience with depression—perhaps it’s really the recognizability that has me feeling vulnerable here. How would the real people I depict react to reading this? How might they question my representation?

So perhaps my question is really more one of self-consciousness. The muscles of the story are more exposed, bared of fur, clearly carved riverbeds of thought. I know that all fiction is a revealing, somehow, of the self. That is the task, perhaps, to reveal boldly anyway.

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