A couple weeks ago I published my first short story. That’s an important milestone in my career as a writer, since up until now I’ve only published journalism and non-fiction. But, in fact, it’s less of a breakthrough than it sounds, because I made my fiction debut in the pages of a news magazine, and everything my story recounts actually happened.
The story is called “Hagar,” my most recent “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report, which I cross-posted here on South Jerusalem. It’s about a dumpster cat who had kittens on my doorstep. This really happened, about two and a half years ago.
As journalists tend to do at middle age, I’ve long been getting itchy at the constraints imposed by my trade. For years, I’ve been getting more and more interested and involved in the practice of writing—style, structure, word choice, sound. Writing my two books, a memoir and a travel narrative, gave me an opportunity to experiment with telling a story in ways far different than my newspaper writing ever allowed. Writing them made my yearn to take the next step and write fiction. In a fictional narrative, I thought, I’d be freed from the constraints of writing only events as they happened about people I’d actually met.
When I took another look at the cat essay, I decided it offered me an opportunity to experiment. I rewrote the story, changing it from the first to third person. I replaced myself with a fictional protagonist, added another character, and elaborated on and restructured the events to make the plot more intricate and the narrative tighter.
I sent that story out to a few magazines and literary journals, but no one liked it as much as I did.
At about this time I began writing the “Necessary Stories” column. The columns are, for the most part, personal essays about places I’ve been, funny things that happened to me, movies I’ve seen, books I‘m reading, and music I’m listening to. The events I describe are real and the people I write about really were in the places I describe and really did the things I say they did. But the account is stylized and literary.
Soon after starting to write the column I realized that it would be best if I had an extra piece in the drawer for emergencies, something I could pull out close to deadline if I got sick or had to travel or got writer’s block. I looked through my files and came across my two accounts of the cat I’d named Hagar.
The fictional version was much too long for my column. Furthermore, I was pretty sure that if I submitted a third-person narrative, I’d be told by the editors that I’d crossed a line into a literary genre that a news magazine couldn’t publish.
The first, truthful version of the story was just the right length, however. Yet, in rereading it, I realized that it is no less a short story than the third-person version. It has all the hallmarks of fiction—a narrative structure, a protagonist, a theme, even a metaphor. I could easily have submitted it as fiction to a literary magazine, even though the protagonist really was me and the events really happened.
But since it really did happen and was about me, I figured it could also do as a personal essay, just like my account of going with my sons to see a Batman movie or my piece about listening to Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. So I designated it as my emergency column and let it lie.
Last month the inevitable happened. Deadline was approaching and didn’t have an idea for Necessary Stories. So I whipped out “Hagar” and sent it in—and the newsroom received it enthusiastically.
It strikes me that I may have stumbled onto the ultimate solution to my urge to write fiction and my failure to sell any of the fiction I’ve written. The fact is that it’s not easy to get fiction published today. Fifty years ago, there were dozens of general-circulation magazines and nearly all of them published short stories; today there are far fewer and most of them do not publish fiction. The reading public, it seems, prefers memoirs and stories labeled as true accounts of experiences to imaginative accounts of people who never lived and events that never happened.
Perhaps I need to adjust to the times. I want to play with form, style, and other techniques usually associated with fiction—but I also want to get published and read. If I restrict myself to journalistic reportage, I can’t do the former, but if I spend my time writing imaginative fiction I can’t do the latter. Maybe “Hagar” should be my model—a new genre, if you will.
The rules are: 1) the events related must actually have happened, and be told as they happened; 2) the characters in the story are the people the events happened to—no made up foils, no composites. In exchange for restricting himself in this way, the author may imbue the account with reflection, metaphors, literary references that were not present at the time the events took place. Let’s call the product true fiction, or imaginative reporting. News magazines that publish it will become the 21st century’s arbiters of the imaginative, just like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Saturday Evening Post were in an earlier age.
Whatever it is, it may be the closest I get to writing fiction, and the farthest I get from writing news. I’m off to the dumpster to look for another interesting cat.