Guilie Castillo-Oriard has asked a pretty seminal question in her guest post at Daily (w)rite : Dear Writer, Would You Kill to be a New York Bestselling Author?
Her advice is to go out and live, the way Hemingway did, doing all sorts of things, taking on odd jobs, engaging in different experiences, so that your writing comes alive. It is a sort of vindication of “Write what you know“, as well as a statement : “Get to know what you don’t know, and then write about it.”
This set me thinking: how much of our lives, experiences, incidents, people, feelings, go into our writing?
In my case, quite a bit, which is what frightened me in the first place–am I undressing in public?
But after nearly four years of writing (however miniscule that might be), now I know that whatever part of me goes into my writing transforms itself—it follows the demands of the story, not my historical truth, but the fictional truth that I create. This fictional truth is a lie (sometimes even a twisted lie) in a sense, because it does not accurately reflect my lived experience in all its details.
But in another sense, it is true–in each of my stories I’m trying to say something—about people, their motivations, about life, its unpredictable trajectories—the story comes of itself after a few drafts, the characters develop their own motivations. If some part of a story is based on my personal life history, it only exists there because it fits what the the story needs. If some characters resemble people I know/ knew in real life, they also differ in essential ways.
This difference is not because I want to change or hide the truth of what happened to me or to those people, it is because those characters become real, their stories real —with their own attitudes, characteristics, philosophies—and my subconscious does not differentiate between history and fiction when I’m writing. Just as research shows that when we are dreaming, our subconscious thinks of those events as real—and in order to prevent bodily injury, our brain has devised mechanisms that keep our body inert while we sleep and dream.
Besides, I think once I begin a story, I become the character, and use only my vivid sensory memory to give reality to a character I do not remotely resemble, for instance, the frustrated gay man in a Singaporean train in Peeping Toe—yes, there is me in that story, too, but it is in the details of clothes and behavior I’ve observed while traveling in the trains myself. Sometimes the similarities are deeper, but then, so are the differences. Because when I write, I use my memory merely as a springboard, it does not guide the depth or extent of my dive into the character’s world.
Which is why, when I worked with different stories and different characters in A to Z Stories of Life and Death, I found myself becoming different people, adding myself and my experiences to those people, but also watching them from up above. Their truth is a fictional truth, not one of memory, and yet, readers have come away moved, sometimes identifying with the characters, often empathizing with them.
So I agree with Margaret Atwood when she says:
“Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.”
What about you? How much of your own story do you put into your stories, and what is your take on writing lived experiences?