Writing Wednesday – Making It (Too) Personal

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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.

As the saying goes, “Write what you know.” Inevitably, writers transfer some of their own experiences onto the page. What we know may become the basis of the setting, the plot, a line of dialogue, or maybe even just a character’s gesture, but it’s probably in there somewhere.

How far is too far? At what point does that mantra become a crutch, giving us the freedom to pull from ourselves instead of making it up? Does it even matter?

I struggle sometimes with how much “me” to allow into a novel. Is that my subconscious poking around on my pages? I will sometimes write something really dark and messy and scary and think “Whoa. What’s going on there?” I’d like to think it’s just my imagination going someplace interesting, but perhaps I’m really just a sick and twisted person.

(I’m not. I don’t think.)

On the flip side, what if what you know is a story that needs to be told? What if real life presents a situation so absurd, so fantastically unbelievable, so incredibly poignant, that it would be a shame not to use it? I think sometimes that it’s not fair to share those bits of myself in my fiction. Those are the things I should treasure and hold on to as my own, yet the story aches to be written.

I think that’s why journaling has always held an appeal for me. It’s a chance to write those stories and get them out, even if they never see a vast audience. In acting, pulling from experience to get to real emotion can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’re able to access real, honest feelings. On the other hand, with time those memories will lose their emotional gravity. In writing, however, it seems like emotions can find deeper resonance the more you explore them.

The bottom line for me is whether the story is benefiting from the pieces I use. If something seems off, it’s probably because there is too much “me” bleeding through and not enough of the character. As much as I want the story to be personal and meaningful, it has to remain the character’s story, and not mine. Still, if an experience of mine makes a perfect plot element, I feel like I should use it.

Am I the only one that struggles with this? How much fiction needs to be in our fiction? How much of ourselves can we get away with incorporating into our stories?

If you’re not a writer, what about as a reader? Do you find that you put your own personal experiences upon the character? I definitely do this as a reader as well. My experiences will color my perceptions of the books I read, for better or for worse. I can’t help it.

What about you?

7 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday – Making It (Too) Personal

  1. As longtime reader and writer and crazy person, I appreciate authors who are appropriately honest and they have helped me with my own life and with my writing. I just recently read a book where the MC was really lonely. Author's experience, or necessary to the story? I empathized because I've been lonely sometimes, too. You won't have any emotions that others haven't felt. So be fearless when writing. But the advice to write what you know is usually more about plot and setting. However, if you've never cried or been scared or loved, it's pretty hard to bring a fresh perspective to those feelings or even to express them, and hard to create a believable character.

  2. I'm not a writer, nor do I plan to be one, but I'd say if you got it, use it. What a better way to make the story authentic, Logan. And who ever said being sick and twisted was wrong. *snorts* Storytelling should be a platform for writers to stretch their imaginations, but also for them to reflect on and share their own experiences.

  3. I think as long as you "show" the reader instead of "tell" the reader, blending in your own life experiences can add flair to any book.

  4. My characters start out with a lot of me and then become less and less like me with every draft. It takes awhile to write myself out of them!

  5. Everyone is sick and twisted on some level in their brains. Some people are just better at hiding it than others. 🙂 My brain freaks me out at times, too, but I'm not going to go all psycho on anyone. :)*deep breath* Okay, this is hard for me to say, because I'm a very private person, but all of my stories are me. A careful reader can pick out all of my neuroses and weirdness simply by reading my stories (Molly made a very insightful comment about me at our last class, and she could only have gotten that from my WIP). That said, the 'me' part is not in the forefront. It's an undercurrent running through the entire story. My characters still do what they do because they are who they are, but they were built upon some aspect of me. That helps me to understand them and keep them consistent. So, I say don't be afraid to use as much of yourself as you're comfortable with. If it makes you feel better, then disguise it through your characters. 🙂 Or, just use parts of it. But, the more of you that's in your book, the more authentic it will feel to the reader.

  6. @DebraZ – You've articulated the heart at what I was trying to explore. When something comes out, is it experience or something new? Now that I've ruminated a bit, I think it's an experience that sparks an idea or an emotion that we then translate into fiction. The end result is never just plucked word for word from experience. Then we're just James Frey pretending to write a memoir.@Missie – I can always count on you to make me feel better about my insanity. Peas in a pod, you and me. @Gina – Good point. It's the way we do it and not necessarily where it comes from that's important.@Ruby – Also very true. I think we can't help it.@Carrie – I think that's probably true for me as well. I never thought about it that way!@Tabitha – I think that's it exactly – the undercurrent of the story. I feel like everything I write is this extension of myself, like I'm birthing these characters. Which, in a sense, we are! I just need to not be so afraid that someone is going to figure out that it's me me me all over that page. So what? Even if it is based on me, like you said, they eventually become their own persons and do their own things. I loved all of this feedback. Very helpful!

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