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When you go online and meet new people, whether through blog posts or tweets or some other social media application, don’t you start to wonder? We are being given snippets of people’s lives (some of us providing bigger snippets than others), getting to know people through their words and avatar photos, yet, without having met someone, it’s difficult to form a true picture of that particular someone. We can’t read the physical vibe they are sending.

Instead, we look for clues, attempting to flesh out the true nature of a person using the information that’s been provided. It seems that human beings have a natural propensity for creating fiction, because that’s exactly what we do when we form opinions about others without experiencing the fullness of their being. (Not that we can ever really experience the fullness of someone else’s being without actually being that other person, but that would fling my point into another existential realm altogether.)

If we observe a person continually sounding off about environmental issues, we may conclude that this is the only thing he cares about, perhaps enhancing our thought by picturing the person wearing khaki pants, a crinkled button-down shirt, hiking shoes, and a safari hat, hugging a tree for good measure.   If we observe a person exhibiting trollish behavior, we may imagine that she carries a perpetual scowl and is a lonely, unloved person because why else would she be acting the way she is?

Our mental fictions about others aren’t limited to online interactions. Our habit of fictionalizing the people we’ve encountered online is merely an extension of  the fictionalizing we do in the physical realm, even with people we’ve met and interact with on a daily basis. I dare say, we even fictionalize about the people closest to us, our family members and friends.  A couple of examples may help prove my point.

When I was in high school, I studied the Holocaust extensively, reading books and watching documentaries on the subject. While I have moved away from this interest, having explored it as fully as I wanted to at the time, my mom continues to suggest resources on the topic to me … over twenty years later. In her mind, I’m still in that place, but in my mind, I’m long gone.

Another example. Eldest Son had to prepare for an art show and he wanted to build an arch that would hang on a wall to showcase his work. We bought him approximately $70 worth of supplies for his project. Due to a minor emergency** at school, he lost two days during which he could have built the arch, so it didn’t get done. He called me (he rarely calls, so this was a big deal) and, with worry in his voice, he told me that he didn’t get the arch built. In his mind, he was imagining that Hubby and I would be mad because we had wasted our money on the project. After assuring him that the money wasn’t an issue, that we knew he could use the supplies on something else, that we understood there were extenuating circumstances that kept him from completing the project, he felt relieved. We had replaced the fiction in his mind with the fact that was in ours.

I used to think that writing fiction was difficult because I had more experience with writing factual pieces.  However, having made this observation about humanity’s natural propensity for fiction and noting how constantly we indulge in it, it appears that this ability is hardwired, perhaps encoded into our DNA.* The vast majority of us are really good at making shit up. The difficult part is in translating the fictions of our minds into a cohesive piece of writing. 

*I’m fictionalizing about our fictionalizing being encoded into our DNA. Maybe it’s in our synapses instead. Or in our little toes.

** Were you fictionalizing about the minor emergency at school? If so, put your mind at ease. It was an electrical transformer issue and everyone was evacuated for safety’s sake. All’s well now.

[April 25, 2009: Note – This post has been completely rewritten.]