Editor's Note: Stories and their authors can be our teachers. They help us enhance our perceptions and sharpen our writing skills.
Like many women writers, I was influenced at a young age by one specific book. It wasn’t Little Women, the inspiration for many young girls who identified with the creative, spirited Jo. My pivotal book was a lesser-known work, A Lantern in Her Hand, by Bess Streeter Aldrich. While this novel had nothing to do with a budding writer, it had everything to do with the magic of fiction.
The storyline was simple: in the 1800s, eight-year-old Abbie travels west to Nebraska in a covered wagon, lives the hardworking life of a young pioneer child, and then matures into a young woman who falls in love, marries, and begins a family. When she loses her precious husband too soon, she bravely raises her children on her own. At the age of eighty, despite several devoted children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Abbie dies alone. I distinctly remember how the passage of time overwhelmed me. At novel’s end, I was stunned, shaken, and heartbroken, not just for Abbie, whom I’d come to love deeply, but for myself—for suddenly I was confronted with my own mortality.
Of course, I knew that everyone dies eventually, but, while reading this novel, I had experienced every aspect of Abbie’s life: the love, loss, aging—and death. I didn’t just read about it. I lived it. Through this vivid reading experience, I realized that one day I would die. I would no longer be on this earth. I remember lying in bed, trembling at this reality and wrestling with its finality as I tried to find comfort in my family’s religious beliefs. It was most certainly a journey from innocence to experience—and all from reading a work of fiction.
The power of this story stayed with me as my passion for literature and writing grew. I saw that fiction could help me experience worlds that I otherwise would never know, opening up my mind and heart to lives quite different from mine. At the same time, these stories dealt with universal themes of love and loss, dreams and disappointment, resilience and hope. I wanted to learn how to do this: how to write in such a way that others could experience different lives and see beyond their own, but at the same time connect to a deeper awareness of our shared humanity.
The key to fiction’s magic lies in the power of the imagination. Author Yann Martel in his ingenious novel, Life of Pi, asks the question, “Which is the better story?” Is it the creative one with animals that enthralls us as a young boy named Pi struggles to survive at sea on a small lifeboat shared with a dangerous tiger? Or is it the second, more realistic story that involves, in his narrator’s words, “dry, yeastless factuality” and the “crude reality” of a murderous cook? The first one, which is fiction at its best, is as vivid and exhilarating as Pi’s tiger. This creative approach gives the story life, captures the essence of truth, and, as another character insists, is “a story that will make you believe in God.” Compare this to the second version, a lifeless report of facts that most certainly “lacks imagination and misses the better story.” Because each version has some form of truth to it, Martel raises the question, “Which is the better story?” While readers may differ on a definitive answer, for me it is very clear.
Fiction draws us in and helps us feel with characters rather than just read about them. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” This is what I love about reading fiction. I get to climb inside and experience lives beyond my own. Yet these lives are also imbued with needs and desires, fears and hopes, that I can understand, for they’re just like mine. This is what I strive for as I write fiction as well. Whatever age, sex, culture, or class my characters identify with, I imagine what it’s like to walk in their skin and look through their eyes, while also connecting to and conveying those shared experiences that make us all human.
Not that long ago, writers of non-fiction realized that readers prefer a more personal connection. As a result, they began blending techniques used in fiction with facts and events, leading to the popular genre of creative non-fiction. This led to the huge success of memoirs, a greater demand for personal essays and narratives, and a livelier approach to biographies. While I’ve been lost in many such books, for me, there is still something about fiction that takes me higher and deeper.
Give me the better story any day, for it’s the ethereal imagination that adds life, light, and that intangible essence of truth, capturing the lived experience and deepening our humanity. It’s the story that makes me believe.
Bio: Debra Thomas is the author of Luz, winner of the 2020 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Multicultural Fiction and finalist for 2020 International Book Awards. She taught literature and writing at James Monroe High School in Los Angeles and English as a Second Language at Reseda Adult School and Conejo Valley Adult School, as well as at MEND, Meet Each Need with Dignity, a comprehensive and empowering poverty relief agency in Los Angeles, staffed by dedicated volunteers. Debra’s experience as an immigrant and refugee rights advocate led her to write Luz. She is currently at work on her second novel. Read more about Debra at https://debrathomasauthor.com/