Does Fiction Matter? What I Learned By One Question
Reading and writing fiction alleviated trauma and mental health issues
“Does your passion [writing] truly make the world a better place?”
A friend had asked me this when we discussed books and writers found on Instagram. She asked this with a snide, haughty attitude.
I found the question to slightly too simplistic and, truthfully, annoying. My writing is mostly, though not always, fiction rooted in real, modern issues. Normally, it is something I’ve gone through or seen. It isn’t rock solid journalism, it doesn’t weigh out complex issues for the public, and it certainly doesn’t cure cancer or mental health issues.
So, in a sense, the question becomes: Does fiction matter? And, my answer is, and always will be: YES. Because anyone who consistently reads and enjoys fiction can explain its significance to their lives and identity. There are many authors who would agree fiction matters.
Fiction and non-fiction supported me through a lonely childhood, clinical depression, abusive relationships, and sexual assault. It mollified trauma and encouraged me, and many others, to write.
But, I can’t run around explaining the importance of religion (reading) to a hardened atheist (non-reader). However, I can explain its importance to my life, and how reading fiction, and eventually writing it, made my world a better place.
Childhood and Literature
My love for literature was born from arduous loneliness as a child and a deep need for socialization. My brother and I grew up in a single parent home with a mother who worked 12 hours a day and spent her evenings recovering from her recent divorce away from the home. Needless to say, my brother and I felt abandoned at five-years-old, by parents who married too young.
We found solace in separate activities, he with video games and I with books and journaling. Being an extremely shy child, I started to prefer reading and writing, feeling that my imagination served as the best substitute for socialization. From a young age, I knew I had found my true love, my calling, in books. Children’s books provided life lessons for me and it imparted curiosity and creativity.
The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book series by Betty MacDonald taught me there were repercussions for children who misbehaved. The Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park taught me to smile and laugh and not take everything too seriously. The Alice Series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor taught me what to expect in friendships and relationships in middle school and high school.
When our mother remarried and things at home only became worse, it pushed me further into my own world. Books were not only an escape from life, they were a healing experience. The fictional lives of the characters felt like my own and it was therapeutic to feel like I belonged somewhere with someone. And, at the very least, I had my books to look forward to when I came home from school every day. Children’s literature provided a structure, albeit shaky, I sorely needed at the time.
Young Adult and Mental Health Issues
At 12, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. This was the result of our unstable and downright anarchic home environment. Yelling, shouting, and flinging objects around were the daily ritual of our chaotic, unhappy home. Something I never perceived as abnormal until I left.
In addition to the home life, I had been secretly battling sexual assault on the school bus home every day. My body developed faster than others and this made me the victim of constant sexual harassment and eventually assault.
Drained and shut down, I started to consume fiction at a rapid pace, searching for novels to nourish my soul and fulfill me. Although I was young, I was drowning in agony. My heart had broken at five years old and healed incorrectly, like a cracked bone in a misshaped cast. I could not be fixed. I was empty and I served no purpose in life.
Ashamed of her daughter’s mental health issues and reported suicidal thoughts, my mother threw me in group therapy, and wiped her hands clean of the entire event. My biological father started dragging me to youth group at his Christian church every Wednesday where he felt Jesus would banish my demons and heal my afflictions.
Neither of these options worked. Prayers to Jesus went unanswered and the counselors of group therapy were horrid, snarky old women. It was books, surprisingly, both from Christian bookstores and Barnes and Noble, that alleviated my depression.
Two books include The Diary of a Teenage Girl and the sequel It’s My Life by Melody Carlson. Diaries written by student Caitlin O’Connor who struggled with her own purpose and qualms with religion, made her relatable and likable. Caitlin O’Connor’s mistakes and insecurities grounded the character and it was her desire to live a better life that encouraged me to do the same.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, follows protagonist Melissa Sordino, is the victim of bullying at her high school after she suffers sexual assault. I connected with her anguish and found her ability to finally speak up at the end of the novel moving. Though I would not do the same for another two years, I was able to write about it in my notebooks.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie opened my mind to the way other young adults live and where they come from. It embedded the somewhat comforting truth that there were other children who come from homes struggling with alcoholism and abuse.
All three of these novels, and many others, inspired me to keep detailed journals of my own and practice creative writing. Writing stories, just as those authors had, assuaged lingering sadness and left a long-lasting impression. We used our trauma and our memories to create something positive.
Growing up with no substance or principles, I was unsure of who I was or what my place was in the world. But, novels like these cultivated morals, principles, intelligence, and overall meaning in my life. It encouraged me to journal and express what I was going through at the time.
My love for books slowed down when I entered high school. I was searching for a cure to ease my internal aching. Harry Potter could no longer fulfill my temporary need to escape the real world through a game of Quidditch. Alice could no longer distract me with her friendships and sexual discovery. Standing for nothing, I fell for everything.
High School and Toxic Relationships
At the immature age of 14, I thought I found my cure in the real world, away from books. This messiah was an abusive, thriving alcoholic who sang terribly in a punk-rock band. At the time, I hadn’t realized it was abuse. In a home where chaos and destruction was expected, and sometimes encouraged, my boyfriend’s behavior was not uncommon.
Everything I learned, I learned from books. Teenagers and young adults don’t read self-help books, we read fiction. As far as I knew, there were no fiction books about Latina girls struggling with mental health, dysfunctional homes, abusive boyfriends and sexual assault. All at once.
There was no one around to tell me the difference between playful and rough. There were no relatable characters in fun, diary-style books that provided subtle tips on how to hide bruises on their arms during the summer. There was no name-calling, arm-twisting, or hair-pulling coming from the boys in my Christian novels. There were no signs or symptoms of developing alcoholism and addiction in teenagers (of which I was suffering from).
The physically and emotionally abusive relationship ended and I naively entered a second abusive relationship that lasted five years, on and off.
It was not until 2010 when I found Dr. Jill Murray’s self-help book, But He Doesn’t Hit Me and Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft that I was able to recognize the signs and pull away. Non-fiction, self-help books saved me from my second abusive relationship and future ones and I will be forever grateful to the authors for that.
Cruel comments about weight, the demand to approve clothing before one leaves the house, and the incessant need to constantly be at one’s side are signs of emotional abuse according to Lundy Bancroft. Pinching the skin and twisting the wrist is physical abuse according to Dr. Jill Murray.
Though fiction formed the foundation to who I am today, non-fiction has salved my scarred heart and saved me. And, this has lead me to the realization there there is a blatant need for fiction, particularly young adult fiction, that deals with real issues such as domestic violence in young relationships.
Conclusion: Making the World a Better Place With Fiction
My interest is primarily with fiction, though I am becoming comfortable with non-fiction and memoir pieces. I take my real experiences and perspectives and insert them into a fictional world within my short stories and novel. Like many others, I’ve dealt with a variety of issues from psychological and physical abuse, bullying, sexual assault, substance abuse issues, and mental health issues.
I rework my struggles into fictionalized pieces with the type of character I wish I was and the type of character I wish I read and knew. I neatly packed these themes into short stories and my young adult novel (almost finished). My hope is not that it will change the world, but can change a life inside this world.
So when this person asked, “Does this passion truly make the world a better place,” it irked me. No, reading and writing fiction does not solve world hunger or end poverty. But, it can serve as a healthy coping mechanism in an unhealthy environment. All it takes is one book to help readers feel like they are not entirely alone in their pain.
Reading fiction and writing was an escape from the harsh realities and internal struggles that comes with a single parent home where the one parent in existence was rarely seen. It was a coping mechanism for the overwhelming anger permeating our household. It was my bright, neon light in a dark, violent storm that was my first relationship. It was my first aid kit when everything started to collapse and I wasn’t sure if I could recover.
Maybe I can’t “make the world a better place” with fiction but I can try to make someone’s life easier by presenting a world they already know, with struggles they have already seen.
So, does fiction matter? Well, I believe it does.