This year, having finished editing a novel, I've written a lot of non-fiction - journalism and blogs mainly, for the Huffington Post, Vice and various men's magazines. Now, don't get me wrong, I love writing in any form, about anything. The simple pleasure of putting one word in front of another satisfies me whatever the subject matter. But recently I started thinking about what it means to practice the craft of literary writing. Writers are frequently told that they should work every day in order to build and maintain the requisite muscles. Great advice, but what exactly should we be writing? To be specific, if you are committed to the art of fiction, does writing non-fiction 'count'?
On one hand, you can argue that yes, of course it does. If you are sitting at the laptop and grinding out your daily word count, bringing the world to life through an accumulation of words, through the construction of sentences, then yes, it counts. You are building a skillset. But what you are not necessarily doing (depending on the nature of your project) is working on those elements that are specific to novel writing. You may not be creating living, breathing characters. You may not be composing realistic dialogue. You may not be exercising those skills necessary to construct a long-form piece like a novel. If this is the case, are you wasting your time?
This has been a source of conflict for me for a while. In fact, I wrote very little non-fiction for a couple of years prior to 2014 for precisely this reason. Surely, I reasoned, it was better to lock oneself away in an ivory tower and perfect the craft of fiction rather than waste time with anything not directly benefiting it. But this year I had an epiphany. Of course non-fiction counts. Every word I write counts. Why? Because, whether I'm writing a journal entry, an article, a review or a blog post, I make the decision that it counts. I am after all a writer. Writing is what I do. Therefore there is nothing more natural in the world for me than to translate my thoughts and my experience of life into prose, whether factual or not.
Writing a novel is a complex business that requires many diverse, discreet skills. In the excellent Public Enemies, a series of letters between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy, Houellebecq says 'I don't know whether I had a gift for writing novels, I don't know whether the question means anything, can one have a gift for something so complex?' Perhaps we must concede that the craft of writing novels is so multifarious that it can never be perfected. Instead, perhaps we should merely give ourselves over to the act of writing no matter what the form might be.
Levy says that 'it's been years since I sacrificed a day or even an evening of good writing for the mere pleasure of going to see a film, to admire a painting, go to the opera unless I know I'm going to use it in a text.' For him, words and writing come before experience: 'It is believed that a philosopher is someone who says "Look, I have an idea, all I need now are the words to express it". Not at all! Experience, my experience, has proved that it's almost always the opposite. It's words that ignite concepts and not the other way around.' For Levy, life is merely the raw material for yet another piece of writing. 'The fact is, the further I go into it, the more life, its joys, its everyday happiness, its meetings interest me only insofar as they will or can be transmuted into words (...in one form or another, perhaps in a novel, perhaps in a film or in my false novel, the diary I've been keeping for thirty years).'
The point is that all writing 'counts' because writing is living: it is the experiencing of life anew through text. Therefore, in the end, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is false because all life is literature. As Levy says: 'Literature or life? Life because of literature; for me life does not "live," it is not profoundly and carnally life unless I know that I can snatch words from it.' As writers it is our job simply to keep snatching the words from life, no matter in what form they might come.