Saturday, January 4, 2014

Why I Started Writing Fiction

I'm writing these words on New Years Day 2014, an overcast afternoon here in central Indiana, just a couple of hours before a Winter Storm Watch is due to begin. So it's a good time to sit by my window and reflect on the turn of the year.

January takes its name from the Roman god of doors, Janus, depicted as a two-faced fellow who looks into the future and the past at the same time. I usually spend New Years thinking about the future, but there's just as much to gain by looking back to learn how I got to this place in my life, which brought me to the question I've been mulling this afternoon: Why did I start writing fiction?

I've been a journalist for most of my adult life. My first job was as a cub reporter for the Herald & Tribune, a county-seat weekly in Jonesborough, TN. I worked as a copy boy at the Herald Bulletin while attending Anderson College, then as editor of the campus newspaper and news editor for Vital Christianity, our denomination's semi-monthly magazine. Eventually, I began editing reference books and textbooks. I seemed to be obsessed with getting the facts straight and getting them down on paper. So why did I start writing fiction?

I didn't do it to engage in stealthy preaching. The public sees right through that. I agree with the hard-bitten Hollywood film magnate who told his producers, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

I wasn't trying to demolish cultural stereotypes of naive evangelical Christians, though I certainly wish we could do away them. And even though fiction can take me away from the painful realities of family feuds, job stress, and health problems, I don't write fiction for escapism. However, as soon as I started pondering that possibility this afternoon, the real answer became apparent:

I write fiction because life's truths are bigger than life's facts.

The truth about global hunger is far bigger than all the statistics that UNESCO has compiled. The truth about human trafficking is bigger than the latest report about the breakup of an immigrant smuggling ring. The truth about terrorism is bigger than the horrific photos of bomb victims coming out of Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan. We grasp the truth about these human problems by hearing stories of people like ourselves, caught up in these problems.

For example, we understand prejudice when Scout Finch tells us the story of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. We understand community when Clarence Odbody tells George Bailey how his story might have turned out differently in It's a Wonderful Life. We understand shame and guilt when an ancient Hebrew narrator tells us the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

("Wait!" you may say. "Adam and Eve's story is not fiction!" But few Bible readers care about that question. Whether it's factual or fictional, they know the Eden story is true.)

So I believe that's why I started writing fiction. "The writer's job is to tell the truth," Hemingway famously said, and I agree. Though it's much more difficult than gathering statistics for a news article, it's also more likely to confront readers with the truth about themselves, their world, and their Maker.


Joe Allison and his wife, Judy, live in Anderson IN, where Joe serves as Coordinator of Publishing for Church of God Ministries, Inc. Joe has several nonfiction books in print, including Swords and Whetstones: A Guide to Christian Bible Study Resources. He's currently writing a trilogy of Christian historical novels set in the Great Depression.

Visit Joe's blog at


  1. I agree Joe, the best fiction does have truth within the story. Be safe and may your electricity stay on through the storm.

  2. Marvelous! Wish I'd written it, except I could never say I was a "copy boy". . . :-) In case you're not thinking about doing so, I suggest you consider submitting this Christian Communicator -- every fiction writer would enjoy reading this!

  3. Very good advice. And your inclusion of Adam and Eve serve the point that stories -- true as well as otherwise -- are good for getting someone's attention. Thanks for this blog, Joe.