Learning From Imaginary People

At its best, a novel can be a masterclass on life. My favorite books have taught me about myself. More importantly, they’ve allowed me to see myself in others and recognize others in me. They’ve exposed my limited experience and asinine assumptions, and have challenged me to learn more, listen more, and become better.  Most writers I’ve met feel similarly. Often, such feelings are the source of our deep love for story telling. So, my question this week to the MissDemeanors is What Life Lessons Have You Learned From Fiction? Here are our answers.  Cate: At around age eight, Harriet The Spy helped clarify my then budding ambition to become a writer. I pretty much thought Harriet was me with a less well-guarded notebook. Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield reflected my own teenage angst and frustration with the adult world, and it made me realize that getting through life requires acceptance and change. You can’t fight everything without going nuts. Thanks J.D. Salinger. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon (all of which I read in high school) helped me develop a broader sense of empathy and gave me a sensitivity to other female experiences in America. This was particularly important for me at the time as I was developing my own cultural identity, trying to determine what it meant to be biracial in America and what experiences I could and could not connect with given that my black heritage is often belied by my appearance. Recently, Margaret Atwood’s fiction has served as an reminder to remain aware of the greater political landscape in which I live. Bouncing along in my self-absorbed bubble may be bliss, but it also makes finding myself in a dystopia a hell of a lot more likely. Paula: Emerson’s essays taught me to think, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales taught me to dream, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn taught me to laugh no matter what. Shakespeare and Jane Austen taught me that people are funny and tragic and generous and terrible and evil and noble and true. Mysteries taught me plot and red herrings; romance taught me meet cutes and happy endings. But I learn just as much writing as I do reading, especially about myself. Tell a story well and you can’t help but reveal yourself, warts and all. I just got my notes back from my editor on my new novel and I was so worried about the plot, but he said the plot was fine, though the relationship between the heroine and the hero needed work. Now that really is the story of my life. Robin: Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen and Steve Martin taught me to embrace absurdity. Joan Didion’s Hot Flashes warned me about what laid in store (spoiler: she was right, “flash” is a misnomer). Dean Koontz taught me that humans can be the scariest monsters. James Herriot made me want to be a veterinarian when I was 10 yrs old, until the vet treating my family’s dog invited me watch a surgery and I fainted. I second Paula’s comment – I learn more about myself by writing fiction. What I’m willing to say and what I’m not, how much better my work is when the words make me uncomfortable. I’m writing a YA thriller at the moment and I cried after finishing the first draft of more than one scene. Tracee: Reading Tolstoy made me a lifelong Russophile, Dickens secured my love of history. Mysteries taught me plot and clues and red herrings (which also apply to real life) and thrillers made me realize that I am not a thrill seeker in any way. Anything I’ve ever read has taught me that there are many perspectives and situations that are not my own – some I wish were, and some I’m thankful are not. No lesson is perfect, but fiction taught me that sometimes you don’t get a second chance – but sometimes you do. Susan: Dickens taught me that life has insane highs and lows, and you’re always better off if you can try to find some humor in any given situation. I’m reading The Nightingale now and it’s teaching me so much about bravery and the importance of knowing your values and speaking up for them. Anne Tyler, Louise Penny and Richard Russo showed me the value of community. And Agatha Christie. I always wanted to live in St. Mary Mead, and I suspect I chose my village, and Maggie Dove, for that reason. Reading has also shown me that although it’s a big world, most people are motivated by similar concerns, and I try to keep that in mind when I meet new people. Michele: I read Elizabeth George Speare’s historical masterpiece, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, when I was nine and learned that even in the 1600’s people suffered from feeling different, an invaluable lesson for someone on the brink of adolescence. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened my eyes to a world where people lived very differently than in the world in which I was growing up. To Kill A Mockingbird inspired a sense of social justice in me and showed me how one good lawyer can make a difference. Jane Austen taught me that romantic comedy has been alive and well for centuries and how important it is to be able to laugh at yourself. Mark Twain’s lesson was that good humor serves you well in life. Louise Penny has recently touched me and made me appreciate how comforting and inspiring a good story filled with fallible humans can be. Alexia: Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Drew taught me that girls could have adventures, too. 

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