Do you ever need to prove you are smart?

I have a confession to make. I’m a little ashamed to be writing fiction. I think I am not being productive enough. Not being smart enough. Not doing enough research. Once a friend in New York said to me, “Oh I considered writing a novel but I still want everyone to take me seriously.” I know what she means.

When people ask me what I have been up to since I quit my job I duck my head a little to avoid eye contact, and say something vague like “Doing some writing,” or “Finishing up a writing project.”

If I’m lucky their eyes glaze over and the conversation stops there. If the questioning continues, I then confirm that I am writing a book. “About what?” The assumption is always that it is nonfiction because, after all, that is how I am trained. Policy analysis of some sort, or something about the environment, or Latin America since that is my academic background.

Oh how I work hard at that point to keep my head up and admit that I am actually writing a novel. Of course, I always qualify it. A historical novel. Because, doesn’t that sound smarter?

Using my head was always given priority in my family and I am glad of it. This is by no means a complaint. Like most fathers of his generation, mine was more likely to ask what I learned in school than how I was feeling. So facts are what I learned to report on. As a result my challenge now is to go deep into my character emotionally and stay there for a while.

As a genre, biblical stories are pretty plot driven.  Barnes and Noble would not place them under literary fiction. The same is true of the subject of my novel, the tale of Judith and Holofernes. We don’t have any details. They weren’t written down. And certainly the stories of the women were hardly even told. We can only imagine what would motivate a young widow in ancient times to take on a massive army that has invaded her city. So I have the delicious opportunity to imagine that motivation.  I am freed to use my emotional intelligence and I am learning to respect it as much as anything I leaned in graduate school.

I suspect I will write more non-fiction in the future. But for now, thanks to all of you who have my back as I learn to hold my head high and say, “I am writing a novel.”

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