Writing fiction gives me the perfect excuse to do what I have always loved: put myself in others’ shoes. It is a kind of voyeuristic act, this business of writing fiction. You must sneak into the imagined lives of others. You are like a cat burglar, except you forget to steal the silver and get distracted instead by the types of food in the cupboards, or by a pile of old postcards on the bedside table, or a jar of maraschino cherries left open in the basement. You know what other cat burglars would go for—you know the standard list of valuable items, and you check those out along the way—but you can’t help but be fascinated by the things that most burglars would never notice. You linger in these strange and lovely rooms, a trespasser, an observer, one who makes meaning from the tiniest things: a straw hat in the hall closet, a pile of buttons on the desk.
You get immersed in this thievery; you prowl and you pick, and if you’re really graceful, and lucky, you disappear. You are like Michael Ondaatje’s thief, who sneaks his way through in the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. In the first, he is caught, imprisoned, and assigned work detail, forced to paint the jail’s roof the same color blue as the sky. After hours of tedious, dangerous work, he comes to a realization: if he, too, is painted blue, the guards will not see him. Ondaatje writes:
And that was how he escaped
Buck and Patrick painted him, covering his hands and boots and hair with blue. They daubed his clothes and then, laying a strip of handkerchief over his eyes, painted his face blue, so he was gone—to the guards who looked up and saw nothing there.
Like the thief Caravaggio, we fiction writers must disguise ourselves; we must suit ourselves with stolen goods, in order to vanish into the lives of the characters we create. We do this not for the stereotypical reasons—because writers are screwy, or mentally ill—but because we seek a truth that can only be found through individual stories. And the more we disappear, the more of our story’s “blue” we soak ourselves in, the more likely we are to escape the cliché, the expected, and arrive at the sort of wild, unvarnished truths that really make up our world. If most of us are quick to call the craziest events we hear on the news or from our friends “stranger than fiction,” then most fiction must not be strange enough. For surely it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens, to breaking out of the clink. As Flannery O’Connor reminds us, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.” You might have been told not to sweat the small stuff, but, in fact, the small stuff is all we fiction writers have got.
And so there you are, in someone else’s house, painted the same color as the walls, creeping around, eternally compelled. You collect these tiny things and you bring them close to you, and they transform your understanding not only of the people whose lives you are studying, but of life in general—the “dust,” the idiosyncrasy. You fall in love with the people you steal from—their hair combs and failures, brooches and breakfast cereals, the faces they make in the dark. Eventually you leave—like Caravaggio, we all have to leave sometime—but you don’t forget. And here’s the really perplexing part: after you’ve taken all these pieces from the house where you found them, from the lives to which they belong, and you’ve made something of them, they begin to look a little less shiny, less fascinating. And that’s when you know you’re done with that particular house, with that particular story—and it’s time to move on to the next.