Writing is Personal

Have you ever read a book and wondered how much of it is actually an account of the author’s own life?

I had a discussion with my eighth grader tonight about To Kill A Mockingbird, and she talked about how certain aspects of Harper Lee’s novel came directly from the author’s life. Scout is believed to be based on Harper Lee herself, and Dill is based on her neighbor, the one and only Truman Capote.

Naturally, as writers, we put a lot of our personal experience or viewpoints into our work. How can we not? There is no way we can separate ourselves so completely, mentally and emotionally, from what we create. Any writing instructor, agent, or editor will tell you…write what you know.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that we are writing our own lives, unless, of course, we tell you it is so.

There are people who believe this to be the case. More than once, I’ve seen that “wink, wink, nudge,nudge” look in someone’s eye when I say I write romance. I’m telling you right now…it’s called fiction for a reason, people! And I have a really healthy imagination.

File:1876. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.djvu

(photo in the public domain)

Certainly, I am present in my writing. My viewpoints, the important themes in my life, my values, all have their place in what I write. I think I would find it hard to write something that was completely antithetical to my way of living. Could Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls without drawing on his experiences as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War? Would Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer have felt so authentic if the author didn’t draw from his childhood to write the book? The task of a writer is figuring out how, and when (or even if) to present that bit of themselves through the eyes of the characters in the novel.


For me, a personal experience can often help set the premise, define characters, or create the setting of what I’m writing, but I never want to actually write an actual event from my life into the story. This is especially true if the event is so meticulously recreated that it might offend the actual persons involved. I might, however, take a small element from the larger event, and change the setting and the persons involved (and what they look like). In other words, I want to find the small crumb of value in the larger event, and use that to tell the story.

Which points to another pitfall. It is no use recounting a clever or funny anecdote from your life in your novel, if it doesn’t advance the plot and help illustrate your theme. The most important factor to consider when including a personal experience or anecdote is, is it pertinent to the plot and does it advance the story? If not, or if you’re not sure, it’s best to leave it out. We all have humorous anecdotes or big turning points in our own lives, and it’s tempting to share them, but unless it helps tell the bigger story you are trying to write, don’t do it!

Thematically, I think it would be difficult to write a story if I didn’t personally buy into the theme. I can’t imagine myself writing a story whose theme or moral message is completely opposite of my  own moral compass. That’s not to say there can’t be events in my stories I could never see happening in my own life. That would be naive. Evil people and evil deeds do exist in real life, and they need to be discussed. Whether it be a complete disregard for other human beings, animal abuse, sexual promiscuity, or any number of other serious character flaws, for me the purpose of these is to see redemption, to find value in the opposite, or to push home exactly how abhorrent these attributes are. In other words, the purpose of the anti-hero is to push home the triumph of good over evil, love over hate, peace over war, because that is the kind of life I strive to live.

So I want to hear from you. Have you ever written vignettes from your own life into a story? How did you change it to disguise the actual people involved? What is your favorite book that is drawn from real life experience?

Jaye

 

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20 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on doingsomereading and commented:
    Writing is personal. It really is.

    Reply
  2. Jenna Blue

     /  March 14, 2014

    Fantastic post, Jaye! Like you, I might take a tiny germ of something that happened in real life–to me, to friends or family, or even a story I’ve heard on the news–but it’s always just the seed of an idea, and then it becomes something else entirely because it has to fit with the characters in the book, the circumstances, setting, etc. Where I do often use real-life details I’ve experienced myself are in the sensory details. The stupid little stuff that can add realism to your story. Like the annoyance of hair blowing in your face when you need to see or the specific aftertaste of crappy coffee or the smell of a home permanent? Yep–that last was a big blast from my past just to get a smile out of everyone! : ) Thank you, Jaye!

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 14, 2014

      True, Jenna, I did laugh! Yes, there are definitely sensory details that I think a great majority of people can relate to, or if not, things we can describe from our experiences that can give the reader an a-ha moment. These details definitely help the reader make a personal connection to the story.

      Reply
  3. hieubietusa

     /  March 14, 2014

    Brilliant observation. Have I ever added personal experiences into my work? How about ALL THE TIME! I scream it due to a revelation a few months ago that all my stories, though thinly or heavily veiled are not only about me…but are telling the same story over and over again. I believe a good to great writer must add their own spin and experience to a work making it a finished product. A writer that wants to tell of a single experience in their life and does it through twenty(I’m not kidding) different stories…different themes/eras/locations and characters needs medication.
    Adding true incidents, funny or otherwise must be tempered. Simply due to this quote. Truth is stranger than fiction…cause fiction has to make sense. Real life does not.
    I taught in an area of NYC for over two decades that equipped me with tales touching the Twilight Zone. When I decide to purge myself at times…I never exaggerate, though the listener will begin to think so. I never tell the whole story, knowing the receiving ears have no concept of such things happening. Adding your own little incidents are important and necessary…but they must be tempered.
    Great post J…now you know the path I have taken. (That is a dramatic ending)

    other J

    Reply
  4. Diana Quincy

     /  March 14, 2014

    I have definitely borrowed certain elements from real life and embellished upon them when adding them to my books. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald clearly borrowed from their actual lives and freely admitted it. But this is a slippery slope, as they say, because writing about friends and family could lead to a whole host of problems, especially if they recognize themselves in a less-than-flattering portrayal!

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 14, 2014

      True, Diana, and a point I considered including. Libel lawsuits against writers are few and far between, and are difficult to prove, but it’s still not a possibility I want to risk.

      Reply
  5. Great post, Jaye! I used some real life court room experience for IN THE BARRISTER’S CHAMBERS. But I also used a lot of research to sprinkle in the book about barristers during the Regency period. I think writers have to be careful they don’t include too much personal experience, but I also think it helps bring the book to life.

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 14, 2014

      Tina, it does help to have real life experiences if you are writing about a particular profession or place. The details are important. It’s probably why I often choose to make my hero or heroine a member of the performing arts community, since that is where my experience lies. It’s also something I’m passionate about, so there is always the hope that passion will come through in my work.

      Reply
  6. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  March 14, 2014

    Great post topic, Jaye. I can honestly say I’ve never set out to write about a specific anecdote or situation I’ve experienced. Whether or not that has happened on its own, I don’t really know for sure. I do know that I write about places that have either inspired or are important to me, and then I turn them into a fictionalized version for settings in my books. I did that in creating the town of Audubon Springs, and any of my college theatre buddies will recognize the theatre building in The Right Chord when it comes out. Actually, I stand corrected. One time on a family vacation my hubs pulled an epic striped bass out of the surf at the Jersey shore. Rafe caught that same fish in Return to Audubon Springs, but everything surrounding the moment in the book was complete fiction!

    As for themes and life views, I think those naturally make their way onto the page. Isn’t that part of the fabric of the person which then translates to the voice of the author?

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 14, 2014

      Yes, RoseAnn, I agree about it being somewhat natural to express your life views in the story. Where the work comes in is in consciously working the story in a way that the theme makes sense, so that there are scenes or actions that “prove” your theme in a way. So I suppose you could choose any theme, even one you don’t subscribe to, to write about, but it seems it would be exponentially harder to write the story.

      I remember that scene in RTAS…love that it was based on a real occurrence!

      Reply
  7. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  March 14, 2014

    Hi, “Other J”! Love that point…about fiction having to make sense but real life does not. I’m going to file that away. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Great post, Jaye! You made me think about how long it took me to set a book (or three!) in a small mountain town like the one I grew up in. My Whisper Horse novels are set in Sanctuary, WV, which is fictional. However, I used all sorts of details and names and buildings and events from the real town of Lewisburg where I was raised. Sanctuary is an idealized version of it, but when readers talk about how vivid the setting of COUNTRY ROADS is, I know it’s because I drew on the memories of my youth. However, it took me years to be ready to do that. Interesting!

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 17, 2014

      Nancy, I love the details of your small town that you’ve peppered into this series. The warmth and friendliness of a small town always comes through. Of course, that also is your personality talking. 🙂

      Reply
  9. Nice post. There’s a little bit of us in each of our characters, though without an imagination… where would we be?

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 17, 2014

      Ha ha, Joanna…imagination helps in story-telling for sure. In real life, I wish my imagination were tamed a bit…especially since my imaginings often involve dire circumstances, lol.

      Reply
  10. Great post Jaye. So true. Even a story that may seem to be very much unlike an author still reflects their thoughts and opinions, and might have even been based of a factual event. Best Michele

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 17, 2014

      Even a story that seems unlike an author…to paraphrase. You mean, Stephen King doesn’t write from personal experience? Phew, that’s a relief! 😉

      Reply
  11. Hi Jaye. I don’t use exact situations (or people) from my personal life in my stories but I do take some element and embellish on it. In UNTANGLE MY HEART, my heroine is Italian, as am I. I included several Italian traditions in my family and wove them into the story for how it worked for those characters. For me, it gave me a personal and deeper connection with the characters.

    Reply
    • Jaye Marie Rome

       /  March 17, 2014

      That’s a good point, Maria…while it is important to weave these elements in so the reader can identify with the characters, the author also has to have a connection with them. Otherwise, who cares about putting their story down on paper?

      Reply

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