131: Are You a True Writer If You Don’t Write Fiction?

Writing is a challenge regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. But can non-fiction writers successfully explore fiction? Are you really a “writer” if you never publish a novel?

131: Are You a True Writer If You Don’t Write Fiction?

When you look back through history and think about the writers we remember and quote, precious few are non-fiction authors.

This week on The Portfolio Life, Andy and I wrestle with controversial questions about the rivalry between different kinds of writers, and the enduring nature of one form over another.

Listen in as we discuss the nature of storytelling and why it makes both fiction and non-fiction more compelling to the reader.

Listen to the podcast

To listen to the show, click the player below (If you’re reading this via email, please click here).

Show highlights

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What makes writing powerful
  • How to write words that endure
  • The dynamic between humor, facts, and stories
  • Where some of the best stories come from
  • Two dangerous voices to listen to when you’re approaching something new
  • Becoming a better storyteller whether or not you author a novel

Quotes and takeaways

  • What makes fiction so interesting is the complexity and challenge of writing it.
  • No. You don’t have to write fiction to be a great writer. But… you do have to be able to tell stories.” —Joel J. Miller
  • A story, if it’s told well and right, immediately connects with people.
  • If you want to hold people’s attention, you have to harness the skill of storytelling.
  • Just because you’ve always done something, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.
  • Pay your dues without staying stuck wherever you are.


Do you think non-fiction writers can write fiction? Are you really a writer if you only write non-fiction? Share in the comments

Click here to download a PDF of the full transcript or scroll down to read it below.



[00:00:19.9] AT: Welcome to The Portfolio Life Podcast with Jeff Goins. I’m your host, Andy Traub, and Jeff believes that every creative should live a portfolio life; a life full of pursuing work that matters, making the difference with your art and discovering your true voice. Jeff is committed to helping you find, develop, and live out your unique world view so that you too can live a portfolio life.

Writing is difficult whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. That’s not under debate. Today, Jeff and I discuss and wrestle with some more difficult questions. “Can non-fiction authors write fiction?” And, “Are you really a writer if you only write non-fiction?” These are the controversial questions, let’s see how controversial the answers are.

Here is my conversation with Jeff Goins.


[00:01:16.5] AT: So, I’m going to be difficult on you today Jeff Goins, because this is a difficult question and the question is this: Can non-fiction writers automatically switch over and write fiction?

[00:01:28.5] JG: Can they? I don’t know that any non-fiction writer can necessarily just pick up and write fiction. Should they? Maybe. I think what makes fiction so interesting is the complexities of it and the challenge of writing it and this is a challenge that I’ve undertaken recently, based on conversation that I had with a friend of mine, I don’t know maybe a year ago? Joel Miller is a great writer and editor, one of those few remaining lovers of the craft of writing.

You know, with the world today and the ability to build a platform and become an instant expert and publish a book, I think there are fewer and fewer people who just love the craft of writing and Joel is one of those people that has an affinity for great books and great writers and at the same time understands the challenges and demands of the market place. Anyway, I was having one of these crisis of identity where I was wondering which of my words were going to endure for eternity and it was like that movie Genius. Have you seen that movie? It’s about an editor.

[00:02:39.8] AT: I haven’t. I’ll make sure we link to it in the show notes. You’re talking about — it came up pretty recently like 2016.

[00:02:45.5] JG: Yeah, Colin Firth and Jude Law. Colin Firth plays this guy named Maxwell Perkins who, there’s a book about it called Editor of Genius and it’s about this guy, Max Perkins, who edited all these great writers including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and the movie is about his relationship with Tom Wolfe and how he published the next promising writer after Hemingway and after Fitzgerald.

And Wolfe and Fitzgerald end up meeting through Max Perkins, and they had this conversation where Tom is probably in his mid to late 20’s and Fitzgerald is approaching 40 probably and Tom Wolfe is basically talking about how he’s really, really concerned about creating enduring literature, writing books that will be here and will be read a hundred years from now and Fitzgerald, who’s his elder at this point says, “Yeah, I remember that. I remember worrying about my legacy and which of my words are going to endure a hundred years from now and I don’t worry about that anymore. These days, I just worry about trying to write one good sentence.”

And I love that scene because the Tom Wolfe character really spoke to what I was feeling when I talk to Joel, which is ego I think. Like, I want my writing to endure. I want to be a great writer. I want to be remembered and so I was having this conversation with Joel because he just tells it to you straight and I said, “You know, I really want to be a great writer and I don’t know that I am there yet.” I’m not there but I am willing to do the work and as I look back on the past hundred or two hundred years of great writers, the people whom we quote and remember, there’s not many non-fiction writers.

I can’t really think of any. There are a few bestselling non-fiction books that have stood the test of time bit most of them are fiction or they’re based on real life events like Moby Dick, but then they’re fictionalized into some great story. And so I asked in earnest, “Can you be a great writer without writing fiction?”

[00:05:09.7] AT: So actually saying that — that’s a gutsy thing to ask. That’s like saying, “Am I a good husband?” Right? So you asked this person who you deeply trust because I believed he worked with a publisher for a time so he’s seen enough fiction and non-fiction that you felt like you could actually sufficiently answer the question, “Are you a true writer if you don’t write fiction?”

[00:05:34.7] JG: Yeah and really what I was asking is that “Am I a true writer?” Because I don’t know fiction, do I have any hope of being a great writer?” and the truth is I have heard this from people who read my blog or ran to people on Facebook or whatever saying, “You’re not a real writer. Where are your novels?” For a lot of people…

[00:05:53.5] AT: Wow.

[00:05:54.5] JG: Because the fiction market is so big and writing fiction I think is really hard, and we can get more into that. Like if you don’t do this, I mean are you a real writer and again, if you look back at history, I had to wonder the same thing. So I asked Joel. I said, “Can you be a great writer without writing fiction? In other words, do you have to write fiction to be great?”, was what I wanted to know and he said, “No, you don’t have to write fiction to be a great writer but…”

[00:06:23.1] AT: I was waiting, yeah, waiting for that.

[00:06:24.7] JG: “But, you do have to be able to tell stories,” and that really challenged me and I think that’s true. I think that what makes writing powerful and I’m talking about transformational, change your life kind of stuff is it’s often either driven by a story or supported by a story or the writing itself is entirely just one long narrative and stories connect with and entertain and inspire us in ways that I don’t believe any other medium, any other piece of content does.

Jokes are great, facts are fine, statistics can be motivational. But a story, if it’s told well and right, immediately connects with people. So if you want to be a great writer, if you just want to hold people’s attention, I do think you have to harness the skill of storytelling and then what you do with it from there is up to you. And so taking that challenge from Joel, I decided, “Okay, I want to become a better storyteller, whether or not I ever write a novel and where are some of the best stories in the world come from?” Well they come from novels, they come from fiction. They come from the world of fiction and so I decided, “Okay, I want to figure this out so I am going to write a novel.”

[00:07:49.2] AT: Wow so when you think back to reading books in school, not that schools and the books they choose are the be-all-end-all of literature, but did you read any non-fiction books in school. Like were you assigned? I mean other than your text books, I’m just thinking of literature classes. I don’t remember any non-fiction books.

[00:08:08.7] JG: Right, yeah of course. Yeah I mean because literature is typically considered fiction, you know?

[00:08:16.5] AT: It’s just fascinating to me. I just was thinking like, “Oh what about that great…” wait a minute, they never legitimized non-fiction as actual good writing.

[00:08:25.6] JG: Yeah and I mean there are some books that are non-fiction that have stood the test of time like The Prince by Machiavelli, which is not necessarily an entertaining read. It’s just a list of rules and principles on politics and power. The same thing with Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War and then there are historical documents and histories of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and you’ve got some non-fiction that has stuck around for a long, long time. But for the past few hundred years, writers have communicated deep and profound and important truths through the novel.

Click here to download a PDF of the full transcript.

[00:09:15.9] AT: All right, so do you feel like you could be a great writer if you can’t write fiction?

[00:09:20.4] JG: I don’t know, and because I don’t know that sort of unnerves me and maybe I don’t need to be a great writer for me to fulfill my calling, I don’t know? But it scares me enough, like trying it scares me enough that I feel like it’s something that I need to lean into and I think, “Well, worst case scenario, I’m going to be able to tell better stories.”

[00:09:43.8] AT: Yeah so maybe you don’t become a great fiction writer but along the way you learn at least the craft of storytelling a little better.

[00:09:53.7] JG: Yeah, I think a lot better. Because I think what it takes to hold the reader’s attention with a novel is incredibly useful for speaking, podcasting, blogging and certainly for writing. The kind of non-fiction books I read, I mean I have always loved stories. So this is in a departure in that sense, I love stories, I love telling real life stories from my own life and for the longest time, I thought to be a fiction writer, you had to dream up worlds and be like J.R. Tolkien, invent languages and have maps and I don’t think that way. I’m kind of a realist. I love those stories, I love fantasy, I love science fiction but the idea of making something up and people going, “Yeah that could probably happen in an alternate world.” I just don’t feel competent and confident if I could do that.

[00:10:43.3] AT: But who does? Who’s like, “You know I am really excited about NaNoWriMo because I’m looking to create a new language and new world.”

[00:10:51.5] JG: Well I think some people geek out on that, I really do.

[00:10:54.2] AT: I know but how many people are you going to meet where like, “Do you want to do National Novel Writing Month?” And you’re like, “Gosh I don’t know. It sounds pretty intimidating.” “Well, to actually qualify to be a part of NaNoWriMo, you need to actually create a new language.” I mean, we create these pictures of like, “Can I have 38 characters?” There’s all different levels of fiction. There’s so many books that have beautiful, powerful works of fiction that have three or four characters not 412 with names and languages you make up like Tolkien or whatever, right?

[00:11:26.0] JG: Right. Yeah and so the kind of fiction that felt approachable for me is basically realistic true life drama that’s based on real life events and then fictionalizing pieces of it and if you turn this into a novel, the technical term is a roman à clef and there are lots of books that were basically based on true life experiences and then the authors changed them. Changed names, certain parts of the events or whatever to protect the innocent or whatever and then use that story to communicate whatever their message or argument was.

That felt doable to me. Creating a world, not so much. But taking bits and pieces from my life or things that I have heard that other people went through and just piecing that together in a story based on what I understand the story to be at this point, that felt doable and lots of writers have done this. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway was a roman à clef. It was based on this trip that he and his friends took to Spain to go watch the running of the bulls in Pamplona and he just changed people’s names and changed some of the details. But it was so closely based on the truth that a lot of his friends that went on that trip with him stopped being his friend after the book was published.

[00:12:50.5] AT: Whoa, really?

[00:12:51.4] JG: Yeah.

[00:12:52.1] AT: He was too honest about their faults or?

[00:12:55.1] JG: Yeah or he painted them in a bad light that they didn’t feel like they deserved.

[00:12:58.5] AT: Yeah.

[00:12:59.4] JG: Yeah, I mean when everybody is…

[00:13:00.2] AT: Whoa, whoa, whoa, are you going to do that to me?

[00:13:02.8] JG: Maybe.

[00:13:03.6] AT: That’s going to be fascinating. That is going to be awesome. I am looking forward to living a different life through your writing. So Jeff, what’s fear telling you about this experiment, this adventure, this work? For those who are listening, you’re wondering, “Okay, this is interesting for Jeff, but what could go wrong?” So the question is, what could go wrong?

[00:13:29.5] JG: Well, you know, what’s interesting about that is I’ve gotten a couple of responses from people and one was like, “You can’t do this,” you know? Either implied or explicitly stated like, “You just can’t do this,” and I was watching this TV Show recently where these two brothers are both lawyers. One is a very legitimate lawyer. He’s been practicing law, graduated from Harvard or something and has all these credentials and the other brother just went and got his law degree online and is not as black and white in terms of ethics.

The older brother tells the younger brother, “You’re not a real lawyer because you haven’t done what I did the way that I did it and so you’re never going to make partner at this firm, you’re never going to practice real law. You’re not a real lawyer.” Because in his mind, this was the younger brother who was always a screw up and the younger brother was actually starting to succeed and yeah, it probably threatened the older brother, I don’t know?

I watched and I thought, “Well this is interesting,” and how often do we find ourselves in this position in life on both sides where somebody who’s further along says, “You can’t do this because you don’t work as hard on me and it’s going to take just as long for you as it did for me.” Or we find ourselves and I find myself in the position of being the older brother sometimes telling new writers, “Oh, you know, it’s going to take you five years and eight blogs just like it took me so get ready to pay your dues.”

And the truth is sometimes it doesn’t work that way but I’ve gotten that voice where again, either implied or explicitly stated, “Hey this isn’t really your thing. You are the non-fiction guy” or the opposite which is, “You can totally do this,” and I have several friends who are encouraging me and I find that there are two dangerous voices to listen to that will be tempting you. Both of which you need to sort of avoid. These are two different sirens in approaching any new thing and certainly approaching fiction if you’re just a non-fiction writer like me.

I think the two dangerous voices anytime you’re approaching something new are, one, “I could do this. This is going to be easy. If so and so can do this, I’m going to kill it. In fact, I’m going to do it faster and better than all of these others.”

[00:15:56.3] AT: Than it’s ever been done before.

[00:15:59.0] JG: Yeah like, “All of these people are wrong and they don’t know what I know and they’re not gifted. I’m gifted.”

[00:16:06.4] AT: Just to be clear, if you have just started listening to the episode right now, Jeff is not actually saying it and believe in what he’s saying, you know?

[00:16:13.0] JG: Well to be honest, there is that voice in my head that goes, “Yeah but those rules don’t apply to you. That’s for everybody else,” and then on the other side it’s, “I can’t do this new thing because I’ve always done that thing. I can’t write fiction because I have always written non-fiction.” I can’t write non-fiction because I’ve always written fiction and I think both of those are dangerous voices because just because you’ve always done something doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.

Your past doesn’t define your future. I recently ran a half marathon with a couple of friends, John Acuff and Grant Baldwin, and we were all training together, sharing our best times and then I got hurt about half way through the training and I stopped running because I was either train up to the race and maybe not being able to run the race because I hurt my leg, or stopped training and just hope that you’re in good enough shape to run the race once the race approaches and then run it then.

So I basically took a month and a half off before the race and then started training the last few days before the race and spent most of that training time indulging in Netflix and pizza, which I thought was a solid training regimen. I even joked about it on Twitter.

[00:17:33.7] AT: I remember that.

[00:17:34.2] JG: And was being sort of self-effacing but the truth is, there was a voice in my head that says, “You’re going to be fine. Just because all of these other people actually train, you’re going to be able to stay on pace with them,” and that’s what I believed with Grant and John. We both started out at the same pace and we were going to run the whole race together and we had this goal and mile three, every inch of my body was burning. It was not working because I didn’t train. I didn’t pay my dues.

And so there is a reality that if everybody who’s done this thing that you want to do, if they’re saying, “This is going to be hard and this is what it takes,” it’s worth listening and going, “Okay what don’t I know?” Yes, it’s probably true that dumber people then you have done this but it’s also true that smarter people have struggled through this and if they struggled, how much more are you going to struggle and so listening to those voices I think is important in terms of learning how to practice.

And on the other hand, if somebody is going, “Well you can’t do this because I paid my dues 20 years ago and this just isn’t going to work for you and you just need to go back to doing such and such,” — I have a friend who wrote a novel and shared it with a friend of his who had written lots of great books and knew the industry really well and he said, to my friend, he said, “Yeah, this isn’t your thing. Just stop. This isn’t going to work,” and I mean this really upset my friend.

He went into this six month tail spin going, “Should I not do this? Does this mean I’m wrong?” and finally, he came out of it and said, “Screw him! I’m going to try. I’m going to show him,” and so I think those are the two voices that “because you have always done something else you can’t do this”. Don’t listen to that, and at the same time, “those rules don’t apply to me”, that’s the other voice, neither of those are healthy voices. I think you do need to pay your dues without staying stuck and wherever you are. At the same time, learn from the people who have gone before you.

And so for me, with this project I was so stressed because it had to be great and I had lunch with a friend telling him about this and I said, “Man, I’m so scared” And he goes, “Why?” And I was like, “Well, because I am the non-fiction guy.” He’s like, “Whatever, you can do whatever you want man,” and I realized that some people might be going, “Whoa, this is crazy.” Other people are going, “Yeah, it’s just fiction. It’s not a big deal just tell a story.”

I realized my goal here is not to become the next Hemingway. My goal here is to have fun and to learn and to grow. Those are my goals, it’s to do something enjoy the process, learn a new skill through the experience and because it’s challenging, I know that I am going to grow as a writer through it even if it means I never write another piece of fiction for the rest of my life and so, those are the reasons I am doing it and when I put those in the right terms, it takes a lot of pressure off.

[00:20:43.2] AT: Yeah and I mean this in the nicest way possible, but I am looking forward to seeing what happens and I really don’t know what’s going to happen but I’m confident that you’ll tell us what happens. We’ll talk about it here on the show. I’m sure we’ll read about it at goinswriter.com. That will probably make a great medium post as well, you know? And I look forward to hearing more about it and appreciate your time today.

[00:21:09.8] JG: Yeah man, thanks.