The Relationship Between Fiction and Nonfiction: My Journey Writing Women's Stories

03/18/2014 07:56 am ET Updated May 18, 2014

Writers hope their work will resonate with readers. There must be truthfulness permeating our work for it to connect with audiences, no matter what genre we're writing in. Fiction and nonfiction are not as disparate as some might claim. In fact, outdated historical notions that polarize "fact" and "fiction" have long been called into question and deemed erroneous by many. We understand that real life experiences necessarily shape the content of fiction just as literary techniques are used to write nonfiction. In the end, we are all story-tellers aiming to strike a chord in others. As authors like Dorrit Cohn have suggested, in actuality, what distinguishes fiction and nonfiction the most is not really the writing process, but rather the reading process.

We pick up a novel, a memoir, or a nonfiction history book with different intentions and likely at different times. The books we take on a beach vacation often differ from those we read at other times. There are times we read with the primary intent of learning and other times we read for entertainment. Yet, we may learn a great deal about social history through a historical novel or memoir just as we might reading a nonfiction text.

People's responses to fiction tend to be more emotional and visceral. We get wrapped up in the stories of others and may even picture ourselves in their circumstances. For example, recent research conducted by Natalie Phillips has shown that Jane Austen novels engage the entire brain and allow readers to become fully immersed in what they're reading. A recent study in the journal Brain Connectivity even suggests there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel. Our approach to reading nonfiction tends to be more cognitive. We are predisposed to analyze what we read and we may actively attempt to intellectually engage with the ideas presented to us. This doesn't mean we don't have intellectual responses to fiction or emotional connections to nonfiction; far from it. However, the weight of our responses and our own awareness of them may differ. I have learned this first-hand taking the same stories and presenting them through both nonfiction and fiction.

As a trained sociologist, I am concerned with observing, hearing and documenting people's stories. In particular, I am interested in sharing women's stories about experiences that might otherwise remain invisible. Not only is it important to chronicle people's experiences--to bear witness to their stories--for the sake of inclusion in the social-historical record, but the stories of others can help us reflect on our culture and our own personal biographies. Through sharing our experiences we can increase both our social and self-awareness.

For over a decade I have been interviewing American women about their relationships, body image issues, self-concepts and identities. The women have varied backgrounds in terms of race, sexual orientation, social class, education, geographic location and more, but they all have a desire to share their story with the hope it will be of some value to others. As a writer, it's an enormous privilege to collect these narratives and to be entrusted to interpret and share them. This has forced me to think about fiction and nonfiction bearing in mind one question: How can one best communicate the stories of others in ways that are truthful, resonant, ethical, and useful for others?

In my own experience I began with nonfiction which lead me to fiction which redirected me back to nonfiction in a journey I couldn't have anticipated.

I conducted interviews with women about their relationships and identities and published several nonfiction academic articles which I also referred to in nonfiction textbooks. While I felt the results were informative, I was frustrated by the limitations of academic nonfiction. The essence of the stories didn't seem to come through in that format. My interpretations and impressions from what I had cumulatively learned, also seemed missing from the nonfiction writing. Even worse, the format greatly limited the audience to other academics with highly specialized education. I hoped the stories I had been entrusted with and the valuable lessons had learned would reach a broad cross-section of readers. So I turned to fiction and wrote my first novel, based on my research. The experience was enormously satisfying on many levels and prompted me to write a second novel about women's lives.

What I hadn't anticipated was how the novel would inspire women, as well as men, to start informally sharing their experiences with me at book talks, conferences and through social media and email. The novel became a springboard for new conversations. It enabled me to connect, intimately and honestly, about issues that are central to our lives, in the hope of building empathy and prompting personal growth. These informal chats inspired me to conduct even more interviews with women, this time seeking women across the age spectrum. Further, while I had interviewed women of varied sexual orientations, my first novel focused on heterosexual characters and so not all stories were told. The new interviews as well as a desire to share more diverse stories prompted to me to return to nonfiction (I am currently writing a nonfiction book based on these interviews). Where that book will take me, I don't know.

By briefly sharing my writing journey I hope to contribute to a larger conversation about the fiction-nonfiction divide, truthfulness in writing and how to best serve those who have entrusted us to share their stories. I hope my experiences using both nonfiction and fiction encourage other researchers and writers to try different genres, following the form that makes sense for the stories they seek to tell. At the end of the day, when we choose to adapt different genres what we are really doing is aiming to engage our readers differently and to engage different readers.

Patricia Leavy's research-informed novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance are widely available and offers free shipping on these titles. Her book Fiction as Research Practice is also widely available.