BE: How is writing directly about personal beliefs in an essay different from tapping those beliefs and experiences for fiction?
MB: In fiction I am attempting to create the illusion of a person out of thin air. That illusion depends on a consistency that is far more rigorous than a real person. My own identity isn’t nearly as fixed or as predictable as a character in fiction. For one thing I often don’t really know what my beliefs are in the real world. However, in fiction because a character can say or do anything, there is a constant question in the audience about selection. The author has selected detail in fiction from a universe of made up things and so the question is always there in fiction, why this detail? There is a scene in chapter five of EM Forster’s Howard’s End. In the Merchant Ivory adaptation there is a lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth and the lecturer portrays a particular passage of music as belonging to a goblin, and an old man in the audience gets up and asks what is to be a sensible question, “Why a goblin?” All the words, beliefs, concepts, and things in fiction have to be aligned in fiction into something coherent enough to settle the constant question of “Why a goblin?” William Gass talks about Emma Bovary’s changing eye color. Her eye color changes in the novel. But her name is always Emma Bovary. She believes and behaves in fiction and Flaubert manipulates language in a way that means Emma Bovary. So we have this question, but if the fiction writer does her job then we accept the reality of the a made up person.
My personal beliefs, however, are not nearly that consistent. But, my eyes are always brown.
Writing for me is a way of trying to understand what those beliefs might be. In a nonfiction essay, however, I can accept myself as inconsistent. I may act like Matt Briggs one day or I may act like Emma Bovary the next. I do not have to convince the reader of my existence because unlike Emma Bovary I really do occupy material space. There are other things besides language to verify my existence. That lack of coherence is something that has the same kind of meaning as anything observed. I may try to represent myself in language, but I am also trying to discover or map myself as well in nonfiction. In nonfiction there is something to map. While nonfiction also requires selection, the selection is bound by what was really there or the memory of what was there. The past in so far as it exists in memory has some fictional attributes, but even the haziest memory either has a poor memory or is a liar and is telling you fiction. The boundary, then, between a lie and a memory is the boundary between how I access my personal beliefs in fiction and nonfiction.