Fiction or Non-fiction? Fantasy or Reality?

The following is an excerpt from Between the Shadow and the Soul

…I progressed with my coursework, an unexceptional student, except my ongoing interest in fantasy and reality sometimes led to perverse questions. Near the middle of the semester in Advanced Creative Writing Workshop with Professor Harlan Engels, for example, I asked, “What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction?” This was at the very end of a Friday afternoon class, and I was responding to the professor’s invitation to ask me anything, anything at all. Celia, the young woman sitting behind me, sighed dramatically, like an aging hooker settling into yet another blowjob, chain-restaurant chef making up his thousandth order of Chicken Kiev, airline passenger informed there would be a delay while the airline finds a gate. My bothersome question was what stood between her and early release from Engel’s bromidic babbling.

“Fiction is shelved alphabetically by author, non-fiction by subject under Melvil Dewey’s classification scheme,” Engels responded gleefully. Striking his most professorial pose, he bore a remarkable resemblance to T.S. Eliot, something he advanced by wearing round, dark-rimmed glasses and three-piece suits.

I clenched my hands with exasperation. “I know that, but what’s the difference in the writing?”

“Do you mean to ask what characteristics distinguish fiction from non-fiction?”

I nodded.

“You must learn to word your questions carefully. Careless word choice betrays thoughts unclear.” This adage was Engels favorite, repeated routinely in class. “But, to answer your malformed inquiry, fiction must make sense; non-fiction rarely does.”

I scratched my head. The class grew restless.

“Perhaps you thought I’d say non-fiction is about what’s outside your head and fiction about what’s inside?”

I nodded, wary.

“Dimwit! It’s all inside your head!” Engels strutted across the front of the classroom, heading towards the door to make a dramatic exit. Some students began to get out of their chairs, but Engels surprised them, stopped in his tracks, returned to his center-stage position. “The idea there is an outside your head and an inside your head, the idea you have a head – it’s all in your head!” He waited for the import of this to sink into my head.

I wrote down EVERYTHING and drew a head around it.

“So, the real answer is fiction must exhibit direction and purpose; the real world has neither.”

I wrote down DIRECTION and PURPOSE and drew a tiny globe next to them, with a thick bar separating.

“That theatre, your mind, stages some dramas based on interpreted information coming from out there, we presume,” – Engels waved his arms to point to out there – “and some dramas drawn from whatever self-inflicted electrical/chemical nonsense happens to be churning in there.” He strode fervently from the front of the class to my desk and pointed into my ear. “A ham struts out from stage right and announces, I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, and another clown from stage left shouts, The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas. Who is Prufrock? I ask you. Who is J. Alfred? Indeed there’s no way to know.” Engels drew his open hand across his chest as he spoke, head tilted back, bald spot gleaming under the fluorescent light like a searchlight, Iowa moon, silver plate. “Reality or Fantasy? Fiction or non-fiction? It’s a farce either way.” Here he held his arm out, finger pointed up, the way no one does since Clarence Darrow. “The distinction is of interest mainly to persons employed re-shelving library books.”

Left to my own devices, I decided the question was open. Fantasy on stage might claim to be real fantastically, or might claim to be fantasy realistically, and if it did, would that be the truth, truthfully told, really? There was a difference, no doubt. There was a fictional account of the difference, and a nonfictional one, and I couldn’t tell which was which. Accordingly, I determined to commit the question to my journal, where it languished, sometimes considered, but never resolved.

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