When Writing Fiction Can Help Us Understand Reality

Author Reyna Marder Gentin discusses how writing fiction helped her gain a new perspective on her personal life.
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Author Reyna Marder Gentin discusses how writing fiction helped her gain a new perspective on her personal life.

It’s an oft-quoted adage: “Write what you know.” So it comes as no surprise that first novels are often largely autobiographical. What do writers know better than our loved ones, our neighborhoods, our careers? I don’t flinch when people ask me whether Liana, the protagonist in my debut novel, Unreasonable Doubts, is really “me.” Of course, in many ways, she is. We’re both women who grew up on Long Island with a reverence for Jewish tradition and a love of the New York Mets. We’re both lawyers. And Liana and I are attracted to many of the same qualities in a partner—intelligence, loyalty, and a devotion to music of the 1960’s and ‘70s—although Liana’s life veers off in a way mine, thankfully, never did!

What I found fascinating about writing the novel was not how much of the story was inspired by real life, but how departing from fact into fiction gave me a new perspective on real life. Nowhere was this more poignant for me than when I was creating the character and storyline of Liana’s widowed mother, Phyllis.

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Both Phyllis and my mother found themselves living alone in suburbia in the homes in which they had raised their children—devoted children who had stayed close, but now had careers and lives of their own. In the novel, as in my own experience, Liana is consumed with worry about her mother, even though Phyllis has shown a strength and resilience after her husband’s death that Liana would not have predicted.

As my own mother aged into her eighties, she remained fiercely independent and determined to stay in her house, despite increasing health issues and the pleas of her three daughters. Although she did finally make the difficult decision to relocate and had her belongings packed and ready to go, she passed away the week that she was to move into an apartment near my sister and her family. The struggle to help our parents figure out what’s best for them and for us is so universal—among my friends in our 50s still lucky enough to have parents, it’s the topic we discuss most.

So what does all of this have to do with Liana and Phyllis, and writing fiction? As much as Phyllis reminded me of my mom—smart, capable, articulate—I was able to give Phyllis characteristics that were not my mother’s. Phyllis is very social. When she gets past the initial stages of her grief, she joins a discussion group at her local community center to meet interesting people, perhaps even an eligible gentleman. And Phyllis makes the decision to sell her home, to go through all of her possessions she has gathered over the decades, while she is still capable of explaining to Liana what has value—either intrinsic or sentimental—and what can be discarded. Phyllis even finds love again, and moves into New York City to enjoy all she can in her golden years.

Through writing fiction, I could fulfill my dreams for my mother—including dreams she might not have even shared. Writing the alternate “fantasy” ending helped me see that my mother lived out her years in the way that she wanted and that made sense to her, even though it might not have always been easy for her children. Phyllis and my mother are kindred spirits, but they aren’t the same person. And I wouldn’t trade my mom for Phyllis for all the world.

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REYNA MARDER GENTIN grew up in Great Neck, New York. She attended college and law school at Yale. For many years, she practiced as an appellate attorney representing criminal defendants who could not afford private counsel. Reyna studies at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and her fiction and personal essays have been published in The Westchester Review and online. UNREASONABLE DOUBTS, her first novel, is due out from She Writes Press in November. She lives with her family in Scarsdale, New York. To learn more, please visit reynamardergentin.com.

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