Monday, August 11, 2008

Drawing From Personal Experience

At a conference I attended in my early years as a writer, I heard an author say that when people chose to become writers, they chose to be witnesses to life rather than participants in life. He said that writers observe the world around them and silently record what they see. He said that by choosing writing, they choose to live outside of the world--in a sense.

I agree and disagree with this author. I am a chronic eavesdropper. I love to hear dialogue play out around me. I love to watch people interact together. I do watch life; I do silently record the events happening around me. Yet, I also participate. I do not allow the world to move around me and without me. In the name of research, I've learned all kinds of new things and traveled to all sorts of new places. I definitely participate in life. And much of that real life I live finds it way into my novels.

But how much real-life experience is too much in a novel?

They say to write what you know and I believe that sometimes writing your own personal experiences can be therapeutic, but sometimes novelizing your personal life can pose a problem. They say most first novels are autobiographical. If this is the case with your work in progress (and before hanging your laundry in front of the world) you should ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you using information that is sensitive to someone else?
  • Are you using information that may be the intellectual property of someone else?
  • Will this come back and bite you in the backside at a later date?
  • Does your personal story have significance to anyone outside your personal family (who is your audience)?

If a novel involves characters based on real people, you should contact those people and get permission to use their story. The last thing an author needs is to have their friends reading about themselves in a novel. This is a great way to lose friends and strain relationships among family members. If you don't want to ask for permission, you'd better change the character enough to not have it become a liability.

If the story or idea for the story is based on someone else's experience, you may want to get written consent to utilize the story rather than face a lawsuit later on. There are all sorts of different circumstances for this, but for the most part, there isn't a reason not receive permission beforehand in writing (always in writing).

Your story is interesting to you, but will it be to someone else? Why will readers want to willingly hand over their hard earned dollars on your book? What will they get from the story when they close the book?

I'd hate to think that authors might not live life, but merely be content to record it. But I'd also hate to think that a writer wrote a reality too closely lived. Be sure to really consider your motivation for writing personal experiences and make sure not to alienate the people you love in the process.


Pink Ink said...

Sometimes I do find myself living a little detachedly from whatever is going on. My husband knows when I am in the zone, because I am not quite "there".

But usually,if I immerse myself in an experience or a trip, I find myself just topped off with wonderful material to write about.

I still worry about using material that is too private to share with the world. I have never shown an ms to my parents or siblings because I don't want them to censor what I write. But then they assume I am writing about them!

When I found myself writing about the same things over and over in my "first novel," I wrote the facts down memoir-form (probably never for public consumption) and I felt freer afterwards to write about everything else.

Kimberly said...

Brilliant advice, Julie. I do find that writing can be cathartic at times, as I play with characters who vaguely resemble people I've encountered in real life.

If I start murdering characters to get even with people in real life I'll know I've maybe gone a wee bit too far.

Heather B. Moore said...

I know that my characters have bits and pieces of people I have met over the years. I also love the quote by Benjamin Franklin: "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."

Julie Wright said...

pink ink, I love the idea of the memoir book. I have a similar file where I keep personal stuff to help it from creeping into my public work. Heather I love that quote! And OH MY WORD! Kim! you cut your hair! Looks marvelous darling!