I recently read an interview in which an author of Young Adult fiction was asked, “Why are you the only one who could have written this story?”

The implication of the question seems to be that this fictional tale is a metaphor for the author’s life, that her experiences (non-fiction) are simply being recast as fiction. I don’t like that notion. While author’s do draw from their own lives–I’m not arguing that we don’t–whatever happened to the element of imagination?

I’m currently reading Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres, and in the story is a scene where the protagonist (Frenchie)–a smoker–is asked to take a deep drag off a cigarette because another character (Andy) wants her to describe what she feels. He can’t get past the taste of cigarettes, but loves the idea of how it seems to feel so relaxing. Frenchie takes that drag and describes it as such:

And when you exhale, it’s like you’re letting everything go. Like the smoke scoops up all your worries and expels them from your body and they’re gone for that second.

Whether you’ve ever smoked or not, there’s a truth in those words, because you’ve seen others feel this way, or have felt this way yourself. Now, is Torres a smoker? Once was? Had a family member or friend who smoked? I don’t know and I don’t care. Because there is an honesty in those words, and that’s all that matters. Because that is the heart of storytelling: delivering a truth.

Truth comes to us in many ways. Through our lived or vicarious experiences, but also through our pure imagination.

In Tap Out I wrote many difficult scenes, because they were violent or vulgar or heartbreaking, and one of the worst is the scene where Tony attacks his mother. Both my agent and editor noted this scene with asterisks and questions in the margin. It’s as raw as they come.

I didn’t live like Tony, never saw such violence firsthand, or ever heard of something similar from others. I made it up. It’s pure imagination. I was close enough to Tony’s heart and soul, as if he were real, and so I knew what he would do. That’s all there is to it.

I don’t know what that says about me, or any other author who has the ability to go there. But it happens. And in beautiful ways as well. The Art of Racing in the Rain comes to mind, and The Life of Pi, as do so many other titles.

So, for me, had I been that author, I might have said, “I don’t know that I am the only one. I think I’m fortunate to know what I know, and to use that in writing, but to also have the wherewithal, the imagination, to fill in the blanks as necessary.”

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