Putting on the Fiction Dress
Written by
Patricia Reis
June 2014
Written by
Patricia Reis
June 2014

Seeing someone wear a fiction dress, I thought how beautiful, glamorous and very sexy. Of course I wanted to have a dress like that!  I had all the material at hand, reams of material in fact, from dense brocade and velvet to transparent silk chiffon. Like some unpaid, third-world  garment worker, I became the Mistress of Fiction’s devoted seamstress spending hours, days, nights, even years, poking my eyes out fashioning a costume worthy of Elizabeth I.

At a workshop for writers, I met a wonderful woman, an accomplished writer of non-fiction and fiction, and asked if she would take a look at my opulent creation.  Certainly she could give me tips on how to make this dress the most elegant jaw-dropping of all.  She gave me incisive suggestions and asked many, many questions.  And I went to work adding ribbons and lace, ruffles and flounces, embroidery and seed pearl designs, creating crisper, more precise sentences held with starch and heated irons. Of course every worthy costume must have footwear: I needed shoes that would give me stature so I could stand out in the crowd and strut my stuff in the world.

A year later, I met with the woman again. I had written 1000 pages. I had never bothered to count the millions of tiny stitches that covered reams of paper like  black silk Chantilly. I was one of those supermodels on the catwalk wearing an outlandish dress and preposterous shoes.  Oops! Down I went. And like those models, I picked myself up and continued, only to trip and fall – again and  again.                                                                  

Back to the garment factory. I snipped and cut and pasted, took it in, took it out, a dart here, a tuck there, shortened the hem, stripped away surface ornamentation, ripped off all the “little darlings” everyone suggests we kill, until I had fashioned a sleek, much more stylish and up-to-date fiction dress. I threw out the impossible five-inch heels and got down to earth with a serviceable 400 pages ready to show an agent. It was the absolute best I could do in this world of outrageous fashion.

The agent’s editor praised my needlework, but my work lacked glamour and tension, the stakes (or was it the heels?) were not high enough. The harshest cut of all was when the editor commented on my beloved protagonist, “I do not know what makes this woman tick.” This was more than a wardrobe malfunction. I went down for the last time. Forget the fiction dress. It never fit anyway. I crawled into my old familiar sweats and running shoes and began to write the whole thing as memoir.

I wonder how many writers have walked down this catwalk, thinking that writing fiction was so much more alluring than wearing earth shoes and piecing together a plain homespun tale. Any thoughts?

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  • Patricia Reis

    Hi, Kathleen,  You know it is never too late!  Thank you so much for weighing in (uh,oh, is that another topic for discussion?)

    Yes, I, too, feel the hands of the wise women out there on my back - supporting . . . . here's to persistence, determination to tell the stories we have in us to tell . . . .

  • Kathleen Guthrie Woods

    I'm a bit late to this discussion, but had to weigh in with how impressed I am by the wise women who have commented here. Love the persistence and great attitudes. Keep telling your stories, and let the format reveal itself. Cheers!

  • Trudi Young Taylor

    Patricia, thank you, thank you. A kindred spirit! What a wonderful story to tell and how sad to be without your letters. Maybe hoarding is the way to go (maybe not). I am looking forward to your memoir. Take good care of yourself - I bet we need this book.

  • Patricia Reis

    Trudi, that is a fabulous commentary on the requirements for your work.  You probably don't know this, but I also work as a psychotherapist and have for 30 years - and even though I love that work and the women I work with (many of whom are artists and writers,) it can be at times, as you say,"scrupulously difficult."  But I find the practice of staying "unflinchingly" present  in the chair or on the page, to be the same - not matter what.  Memoir is going bare naked (almost!) and provides the "gasp" factor for me.  MI should say, my memoir (which I tried to write as fiction) is about my relationship with my aunt, who was a radical Franciscan nun.  We wrote intense letters to each other during my mid-life.  I don't have my letters because she didn't save anything.  I do have my journals from that time. Gasp!

  • Patricia Reis

    Thank you, everybody!  What a wonderful array of responses!  I appreciate Joanne Barney's and Patricia Robertson's encouragement to not "give up."  To be clear - I have certainly not "given up!" I did not change my protagonist. I only changed my clothes - or my style - or my genre!  I love to read fiction too, as Brit says, and I think it is great that there are "cross-dressers" among us like Carolyn and Marianne who can write both. And I sympathize with Melody about privileging fiction over memoir - but don't know why she should.

    Like some of you, I have published 3 books and numerous essays in non-fiction (never memoir though) and I, too thought it would be "easier" and more "fun" and more "freeing" to write fiction– thus the Fiction Dress.  But honestly, I was in hiding from the real story I had to tell.

    My blog post was a kind of spoof on myself, as Yehudi and Diane got.  I made so many contacts and learned so much during my attempt at fiction and none of it is selvage  - it goes directly into my experience as a writer and into this memoir. 

    As a number of you point out, there is a rather thin veil between fiction and memoir - although in the latter, making stuff up is a huge no-no.  But, as they say, some truth is stranger . . . .

    Loved hearing from you!  Patricia

  • Trudi Young Taylor

    A just lovely post.

    I write nonfiction every hour on the hour as a therapist. Nonfiction truth as a therapist is an unflinching view of another person, situation, dialogue, and history. It is scrupulously difficult work. I fret over most words. Fiction asks for a different kind of truth from me.

    To use your metaphor, when I write fiction, sometimes I feel like covering myself in sackcloth and ashes. Other days I feel like finding my most elegant ruff and pearl encrusted heels. On both of those days, I know I will rewrite.

    Writing fiction means peeling off layers of clothes, even flaying my skin. Eventually I walk in the most honest essence I can tolerate. On the bad days, I trowel on the make-up, add as many layers as my body can hold and hide.  

  • Diane McElwain

    I love it!  And the photo above is the most amazing one to post.  Ugh!  i could never wear that could you?  I'd feel like I was choking...so would my character, taking four steps and then fainting.

  • Yehudit Reishtein

    What a great metaphor!

    May I suggest, that you designing and sewing talents lie elsewhere than in the world of high fashion and uncomfortable shoes? Have you thought about sewing sewing something a little more modern and edgy? Something on the line of a baseball shirt of velvet or satin tennis dress trimmed with beads or lace yoga pants?  Just like fashion, fiction is more than one style. If you start with a person in an interesting situation, you can look at her dressed as she really is.

  • Brit Columbia

    I am definitely in the camp that prefers fiction over non-fiction. As a reader, I will buy fiction but almost never non-fiction. I have occasionally bought non-fiction reference materials but only once did a buy a non-fiction book because I wanted to read about someone's real life experiences.

    As a writer, I feel the same as Marianne. I long to escape the real world. Reading and writing for escapism is really important for me. But even when I write fiction, I am building my own real life experiences into the fabric of my created world.

  • Hey, Jo, what a generous and thoughtful suggestion. Wise, too. Nice to hear.

    Hi, Patricia,

    Every day, I see scenes in real life that would be so earth shoes wonderful in fiction. Jo is right, the coolest thing about fiction is probably the big "what if" but that what if could also be something along the lines of, "what if I put these things together?" I did a ton of historical research for my almost-finished novel, which is about 100 years in a house in a neighborhood that swings from white to black to re-gentrification, going from well-to-do suburb to belt buckle of the inner city. I took neighbors' histories from here and there and stuffed them into one house, carefully surrounded with period detail. We shall soon see what agents and editors think.

    Hey, Carolyn, my first novel, the acquiring editor died before she could buy it. Heigh ho!

  • Yes!  As a memior writer, I feel that I will never really be a "writer" unless I produce some worthy fiction, save the pulp romances I have churned out. As another poster said, fiction is a lot more fun, but I wonder, if once I decide to really take a stab at it if I will be able to put out quality fiction.  I look forward to trying!

  • Carolyn Niethammer

    At this point again after 35 years. After two nonfiction book,I  had started work on a biography. Came to a stumbling block, the info on a whole segment of her life was being held in a private library. So decided to fictionalize the story. Sold it. Then my acquiring editor was fired and everybody else at the house hated it.  After my wounds healed, I worked on it on and off between successive nonfiction books. Had to keep updating the disks for new computer systems. Gave it to friends to read. Followed their suggestions. Fiddled some more. Finally just a year ago found a new publisher. "The Piano Player" is being printed this week. It is much better than the ms that the first house rightly turned awayt.  It's my 10th book but my first novel and I'm really excited. 

  • I'm published in non-fiction and am currently writing fiction because I longed to escape the real world. I enjoy writing non-fiction. It's much easier for me than fiction. But non-fiction ties me to my resources - reference books, research notes, the Internet - and I longed to be unencumbered by those things for awhile. Plus, I wanted to disappear into my imagination and enjoy the freedom of characters that take on a life of their own and often surprise me. 

  • Patricia Robertson

    I've written both non-fiction and fiction. Fiction is by far more fun. Both pose their own challenges. Your experience sounds pretty common to me. Don't give up yet! :)

  • Joanne Barney

    Try again.  This time find a significant person, scene, happening in your own life,  non-fiction until you fictionallize it.

    Find a theme or meaning behind your seed of a story, then write it as if you are an observer or participant,of events that emerge from that seed.   Ask your self, "What if. . .?"  My "what if " was, what  if one of my old college friends asked me and  to help her commit suicide?  The characters are not  real people in my life, but they come close;  the setting is one I know well and is easy to describe, the  problem is a possibility for me and my aging characters and maybe many others, and involves ethical choices and issues of friendship. The  results are a tense, fast moving five days of finding the answer to "what if."  That question can take a writer to all kinds of unknown places.  You'll enjoy the ride.  Jo