Fiction is not a waste of time

I don’t waste my time with fiction.”

I stared at the professional woman across from me, trying to decide if I should contradict her. Whether or not shock registered on my face, I couldn’t say, but my guess is she could see some fire in my eyes, as I don’t have a great poker face. I opted to keep my mouth shut, assuming I wouldn’t persuade her otherwise, but inside my heart broke for her. To hear an otherwise educated woman—one with higher degrees than me—denounce the appeal of a story, and one of my favorite pastimes, as a waste saddened me.

There’s just something about a book. And not just any kind of book. Fiction. I read a lot. That’s part of being a writer. I read a majority of nonfiction these days, but fiction will always have my heart. It’s a place I return when I need a respite from the world around me. Let’s just say, during the last several months, I’ve worked more fiction into my schedule, both privately and reading aloud to one of my daughters.

Months ago my daughter and I discovered a new series called the Wingfeather Saga. It’s a fantasy series, which is something my daughter adores. In an effort to find something for the two of us to do together, I decided to jump into the unfamiliar genre. Even though I never thought I liked fantasy, we’re both hooked to this particular storyline. We own books one and two and books three and four are already pre-ordered for an October release date. Not only does reading to my girl—who is fully capable of reading on her own—carve out a time for just the two of us, it also bonds us within the story. It’s given me insight into a world she adores and one I have a new appreciation for. Will the fantasy genre ever replace my draw to historical or realistic fiction? Probably not. But let me tell you, I’m just as interested in finding out what happens next as my girl is. Will the Wingfeathers escape? Will Peet the Sock Man ever find his family again? We don’t know, but she and I will find out together.

Just like my kids do now, I remember logging hours of reading as a youth. I’d get lost in a story and spend a whole day reading, breaking quickly to bring a snack to my room and jumping back in. When things got dark and heavy in my daily life, I could always count on a story to provide an escape, a break from heavy emotional burden. It was a place I could always count on to be a source of comfort. Even now, when things start to feel overwhelming, I know I can find relief in the pages of a fiction book. I can relax, letting expectations fall away for just a little while.

Sometimes I purposefully choose a well-worn storyline. Like having coffee with a friend, re-reading a familiar favorite is calming, unchaotic. The familiarity cuts out the potential element of surprise, that while welcome at other times, might prove too much for me when I find myself in uncharted waters in real life. I can have a welcomed sense of control over what story I choose, and sometimes I need the stabilization familiar characters can provide.

I also love fiction because of its unexpected impact on my life. There’s an expectation to learn that comes with opening the pages of nonfiction. But that’s generally not the purpose behind choosing fiction. Fiction seems to be for entertainment purposes. With nonfiction, I need to always be on guard for a new, fresh idea or added development to something I already knew. I read nonfiction with a colored pencil in hand, underlining important thoughts and phrases. When I choose fiction, however, I let my mind relax. I’m not expecting to learn something so when I do, it’s like finding treasure. Despite the opposition, in my experience fiction has been a source of life-lessons and increased understanding. Not all fiction is written in such a way, I suppose, but it seems of late that I’ve learned just as many lessons from stories as I have from nonfiction, as fictional characters learn similar lessons to what I’m going through. Fictional characters can teach, too.

Francine Rivers is a good example of strong fiction. She’s one of my favorite authors in the Christian fiction genre. Rivers is able to write about difficult topics and develop her characters well. Either Rivers is an astute researcher, or she’s lived through trial herself, and I appreciate the depth in which she writes about difficult circumstances. While I’d recommend any of her books, there are a few in particular that I’ve recommended to people, not because the stories are lighthearted, but because Rivers is able to work trauma into her characters in a believable, relatable way. Where other authors fall short in their attempts to develop a character coming through trial, Rivers is able to convey the effects trauma, particularly childhood, can have on adults. I have found myself able to relate and even say, this is similar to my own story.

I’m of the opinion that fiction, in fact, is not a waste of time. I wonder what the woman who didn’t waste time on fiction would have said to me if I would have shared my experience? Would she have listened? Would she have left the conversation aching to learn something new from an unexpected place? Would she want to get lost in a “once upon a time?” I don’t know, but I hope so.

Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com, or find her on social media @MalindaDJust.