Writers begin with an image. A scene appears and follows them until they write it up. For some writers, these images arrive in dreams, and the writer will wake up, unsure of how their subconscious has contrived this creation. With a dreamed image, it is the job of the writer to simply work up to it, to explain the circumstances of the image or describe what has followed from it. To write a story from a dreamed image is to draw lines out from it, either forward or backward until you have finished. For other writers, they know precisely where the image comes from. For these luckless few, it is rarely the image itself that does the haunting that leads to writing but the knowledge of the image’s origin. The lines from this image are already drawn.
You could chalk this up to the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, but I want to now question that divide. For my whole writing life, I have lived in the second camp of writers, who write from images they recognize. I write from the scenes of my life, the elemental skill of the non-fiction writer. When I am writing history, I try to write myself, as the narrator, into the story without disrupting the scene, jumping in for long enough to say, “Hello, this is what was happening at the time I wrote this! Okay, this interpretation framed well enough for you? Bye! Enjoy the history!”. I often find it difficult to not write too much of the image of myself talking and working into historical writing. I have cut pages of my own actions out of papers and discarded these images of myself in poorly named files on my computer.
In the last three weeks though, I have found myself in the first camp of writers among the image dreamers. A girl, taller than any I have ever seen, is crying, leaning against a stone wall and sitting on a brick walkway. A handsome man with dark hair and glasses is at a typewriter in a windowless room when his wife calls, asking him to come home. “I am not done with the memo yet,” he says. Who are these strangers my mind has made? The day after the typewriter-man dream, I stayed home. I thought perhaps living in a city for the first time had created such a glut of new images that my mind was compensating by producing original works. These dreams of strangers in unfamiliar scenes unnerved me but rather hazily, like waking from the dreams themselves. I worked from home on a piece I am now writing about the transformation of my school from a state college into a national university. I sat by the window, listening to oral history interviews and dicing through historical newspapers online for the right articles, the dream images pricking my mind every so often.
While I worked that day, I racked my mind for who these dream strangers could be. It was comforting to remember that every face or setting in a dream must be constructed from what you have seen in your waking life, but even knowing this, the girl-all-limbs and the typewriter-man remained strangers. The not-knowing reaching peak irritation, I tried to write one of them, girl-all-limbs, a story of her own. It was artless, oafish, and I did not finish. This is why you don’t write fiction, I reminded myself. A week passed: I read two novels, one sweet, the other sinister. I kept up my research, listening to more interviews, scrolling through and saving more newspapers and other documents, and reached the point where I could begin writing.
Typewriter-man walked back and forth across the page where I was beginning to organize my thoughts on this slice of history, which was coming out as a heavy-handed denigration of administrative lassitude. “Where are you in this?,” typewriter-man asked. “Who am I?” Aggravated by his sweep of dark hair and prosaic Buddy Holly-style glasses, I began to write him a story as I had done with girl-all-limbs. This time, though, I wrote him into the story I was already writing. Type-writer man became one of the administrative dolts in my historical narrative, an indolent cog in the network of university offices and committees.
It worked. Words organized themselves into sentences, which became cogent arguments. I wrote myself into the story too, my fifty-years-hence thoughts flicked in and out, delicate but forceful. This ease of composition is the greatest delight of every writer, and every writer will recognize it, as it passes through them, brief and glorious. In this ephemeral moment of fluency all the lines to be drawn and those already arranged disappeared. Here, non-fiction was a version of fiction, and fiction was a kind of truth.
No historian can know the totality of history. Our sources are spotty, and we do our best to make them consistent, creating scenes and images the can move through a reader seamlessly. Every historical narrative is a fictional story, holding in its existence a power that is unimaginable to most fiction writers. The awesome power of history is that it is believed to be a true narration of the past, of beliefs that can influence our present and dictate our future. What writer of fiction does not hold a desire for that power in their hearts?
Fiction has embraced history. Why can’t history embrace fiction? I want historians and all who write with an historical consciousness to see themselves also as writers of the finest fiction. I want history as smooth and sharp as novels with spines you open and close, breathing into you a faith that what you are reading might just be true. I want history like a short story that reminds you of another time when you were in another place, when you were another person.
In the past week, we have seen the senseless and sadly unsurprising murders of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota. It breaks our hearts and hardens the pieces. The murder of Black humans through public state-sanctioned violence is our society’s greatest truth, our most heinous non-fiction. Over the past few days, we have felt the pull of fiction, the desire for a story that shows us a present in which Black men are not killed for selling CDs, being at a traffic stop, or with greater frankness, for being Black men. But history as non-fiction slaps us across the face again, reminding us that this violence, despite the sting of this most recent round of news, is tethered to a long-lined history in which police kill Black people with impunity.
It seems all the more important now to write our fictions into our histories. To do this, we must dream our own images of the present and write them into our histories. Equally important, historians must see themselves as actors, as well as narrators, in the present. We must redraw these lines between what we dream and what we see, between what is true and what is imagined, and what is and what could be.