Just one more year of college. And for me, that means two major projects: my capstone and my honors thesis. The honors thesis is a project like nothing I’ve ever done before. Choosing my own topic. Choosing the books that I want to read. Choosing what and how I want to write on that topic.
And then, in talking to my professor, I discovered something. Though the course is officially called “Honors Research,” I was not required to write a research paper. The research paper. The thing that has been such a large part of my life for the last four years. I could use my research as inspiration for a fictional piece instead.
I’ve gotten a wide range of responses upon telling people about my project. Some are excited along with me, saying that the project sounds interesting. Some simply don’t care. And others thought I was taking the easy way out, that doing a fictional piece was somehow simpler than writing a research paper.
I completely disagree with that last reaction. Like I said, for the last four years I’ve done very little writing other than academic papers. They aren’t particularly difficult anymore. Time consuming, yes. Hard, no. Last semester, when I took an autobiographical writing class, I had a break from the research paper and needed to completely alter my writing style. That was hard. To suddenly use expressive language rather than analytical. To create a scene all on your own rather than analyzing the scenes of another. Writing a creative piece was a challenge, and that is why I choose such a project. Writing my thesis should be difficult, and I’ve thus created a project that will be both challenging and enjoyable.
But this, then, raised an important question. What is the value of fiction, both reading it and writing it? If some people think that creative prose is simply easier than an academic piece, then does fiction have intrinsically less value as a genre? But, on the other hand, reading fiction makes up a large part of my education as an English major. Reading about 15 to 20 novels per semester would seem to imply that there is some sort of knowledge that only fiction can provide.
So I started searching. Turns out there’s been a variety of people who’ve sought to explain the value of reading fiction. And most of the results are fairly commonsensical.
Stimulating the imagination. That one’s fairly obvious. Most people, when reading, will attempt to picture the characters, the scenes: creating a mental image from the words on the page. But why is this important? Our imagination helps us think, solve problems. How many inventions would never have been created without the human ability to imagine?
Reading a lot also makes you into a better writer. Reading teaches you, whether you’re aware of it or not, how sentences are supposed to be constructed, how scenes and characters should be described, and often introduces you to unfamiliar vocabulary. All of those annoying grammar rules we were subjected to in the early years of school begin to matter less and less. There have been many times when, upon proofreading someone else’s work or editing my own, that I know a certain sentence is grammatically incorrect not because I remember the “rule” but because it somehow just seems wrong (ignoring, of course, those times when grammar is ignored in creative pieces intentionally, such as in dialogue). Because I always have, and continue to, read so much, knowledge of what makes good writing is something that I have simply absorbed over time. I know it when I see it. And I’m certainly not the only one. I have friends who’ve shared this experience and have discussed this very topic with several professors. Reading simply helps you write.
And finally (though there are many other benefits to reading that I simply will not have time to discuss here) reading helps reduce stress. Apparently, researchers at the University of Sussex have proven that reading is extremely relaxing, even more so than listening to music or having a cup of tea. And, for me, this certainly makes sense. Reading has long been a relaxing activity of mine (ruined only slightly by the fact that much of my reading now is required rather than voluntary and must be read by a certain deadline). And the explanation of why reading is relaxing also fits in with my personal experience: when reading fiction, one must concentrate on the world being created in the text, and being drawn in the world can help you relax, easing tension and slowing heart rate. So…stressed out? Go read a book!
Though there is such a plethora of information regarding the value or reading fiction, I’ve been completely unable to find anything on the value of writing it.
But in looking at the value of reading fiction, we could probably make a few general conclusions about writing it as well. In my opinion, someone should really look into this in more depth, but I’ll at least give some personal observations a shot.
It should be obvious that writing in general improves writing skills. Practice makes perfect and all that. And when you think back to elementary school, isn’t creative writing how we all got our start? Responding to questions like “What will the world be like in 100 years?” or “What do you want to be when you grow up, and why?” and making up the most interesting story your young mind could possibly imagine. Writing fiction and creative autobiographical pieces is what taught each of us how to write.
And by similar logic, writing fiction should also help to improve our imaginations. Rather than using the text that you are reading to create a mental image, the fiction writer must use their imagination to create a text that could inspire such a mental image. Writing fiction is like a work-out for your imagination.
On the other hand, I’m not so sure that writing of any kind could be said to relieve stress. I suppose this would generally depend on whether someone is writing simply for pleasure or to meet a certain deadline. But how many of us have the time to write simply for the pleasure of writing itself? I’m certainly not an expert on this topic and would love some additional input.
But based on all this, it seems that writing fiction is not simply the easy way out. There are benefits to fiction just as there are benefits to non-fiction, both reading it and writing it. Go and try to write a good story. Just sit down and make something up. Or go sit in the most comfortable spot in your house and read a good book. And most of all, for those fellow students out there, don’t get so caught up in the world of academia and research papers that you forget that reading and writing can be fun.