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?
Great post! It speaks volumes about the great freedom that writing is and the ride it can take us on as we allow ourselves to be a story's author.
I found, particularly in my second novel, that I informed so many of the characters. There were pieces of "me" in several of them. Then there were the memories. It fascinates me when a story I heard as a child leads to a scene in something I am writing, and the context is completely different.
Your post truly celebrates writing, and I love that!
Susan, it is the same with me. Thanks for your comment.
Rhi, you're a psychic? Wish I had your insights :).
Lee, absolutely, I'm squirelling away stuff all the time, consciously or subconsciously.
Li, yes, stepping into someone else's shoes for a while is an exhilarating experience sometimes, and at others,quite the opposite.
Karen, wonderful quote…I came across it some time ago, and it reassured me.
Rae, you're very welcome, both to the post, and my blog.
I often worry about my readers (my mom) not realizing the difference. I fear that if they see one similarity to me they will then assume that much of the character is me whether it is or not. I guess I should just print out copies of this post and hand them out, lol. Good insights. Thank you for posting.
This post brings to mind a passage from Ursula K. LeGuin's introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness: "A novelist's business is lying . . . Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists of inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That's the truth!"
I know that I put themes and preoccupations of my own into my stories. Just this morning, I was pondering the fact that those themes and preoccupations have changed a great deal since I became a mother in my mid-30's, and that if I had written novels in my 20's, they would hardly seem to come from the same author.
There are times that I deliberately borrow from my own life in writing a scene or creating a character, but that's relatively rare.
I occasionally tap into my own experiences, but more often I try and place myself in an unfamiliar person's head and try to figure out what might be motivating them.
I like to keep my ears, eyes, and other senses open–I'm storing data for future use in my writing. Everything I write somehow connects to who I am and what I've experienced either doing it or hearing about it.
Dynamic flow? Are you experiencing it?
Tossing It Out
Hey, just weighing in here. I agree that the truth is the best way to go. Writing what you know is far better than writing something you don't know.
I suppose by "life experiences" Hemingway meant my own, right?
Because I have to say, as a psychic, I'm always experiencing life through other people's eyes.
Even if a character in my writing seems entirely different from me as a person, it's inevitable that some of my beliefs and perceptions will be incorporated into that character. Likewise, my life experiences may not be presented in an actual factual manner, but my unique gut perception of the lessons I may have learned from those experiences will certainly play a part.
Alex, I don't know where most of my characters come from either.
Angela I think all writers put in bits of their life experiences into their writing.
Kittie, agree. My problem is as a writer I don't really control much. My characters decide the story 95 % of the time.
Guilie, thanks. Indeed, through fiction we arrive at truth.
Loree, yes it is. Thanks for stopping by to comment!
Jnana, me too!
A.S. I agree completely with your first line.
E.W. relating to emotions while writing is important, so whatever it takes to do that is good.
Mary, I do that too!! Thanks for buying my stories…I pretended all those weird folks were me, lol …
I like to pretend I'm my characters. Great quote from Margaret Atwood. I have your stories on my Nook. 🙂
Not only myself, but of family members and friends. This helps me relate not only to their emotions at the time, but those of mine as well.
I would dare say it's almost impossible not to add yourself to your characters. Not much of the historical me goes into my stories, but more so attitudes or opinions that I want to get out get to get spewed through the right character for the opinion. And like others have said, you've hit it on the head. If something historical or more appropriately real comes out, it gets tailored to the character and the situation. Much of this hasn't happened as all these characters have their own histories and back stories. I just draw from life as I know it through living, seen it through living, and read it between the lines of lies and truth.
Yup, I definitely see alot of me in my writings even when I don't mean for it to happen
I think a lot of times, as writers, we have a natural desire to tell stories, but our challenge is finding the stories to tell.
I am a big fan of "get to know what you don't know, and then write about it." In college, I majored in African American Studies so I could learn about this "other" American culture, as well as experience what it is like to be an outsider (I was the only white student with this major).
I backpacked around Asia– arguably my (then) least favorite continent, and when I got home, I got a job at a psychiatric hospital. I can see how ALL of these experiences work their way into my writing, and I hope I never stop exposing myself to bizarre and unpredictable situations. It can only feed the storyteller in me!
Sorry, typo above.
I've heard it said that "there is a little bit of us in every character we create".
I think it's true.
HIt it on the head again, Damyanti–I think every writer does this, borrow from personal experience, in order to tell a story that might have nothing to do with reality–theirs, or otherwise. We create characters that are nothing like us, but if they have even a modest bit of humanity in them, it is *ours*–for who else's do we know so intimately? Observing behaviour–ours or others'–plus imagination and the willingness to step out there into the unknown and make it yours–yep, that's what makes great fiction.
Someone, can't remember who right now, said something to the extent of "through fiction we arrive at truth." It's true–the greatest books we've read, those that have touched us in intimate and ultra-profound ways, do so because they help us arrive at a moment of truth: they part the veil of reality's trappings and let us see under it, to a rock-solid and incontestable fact that previously eluded us in some way. So–yes, we take truth–fact, history–and mold it into something new, but in order for it to be successful, it's not a dressing-up–it's a dressing-down.
Great post, Damyanti!
Great post! Love Atwood's quote. I don't think a writer is undressing in public, nor do I think a writer can create a character without some insight gained either from personal experience or that of another. The old story goes, when someone asked a wise man, "What is wisdom?" he replied, "The sum total of your life's experiences." I'm definitely in my first person Louisiana stories. Parts of me – and others I've encountered – sprinkle the fictitious stories. What the writer controls is Where?
I find that there are traces of my life experiences in my writing. Not enough to pick out one characteristic or plot detail, but it happens.
There's a lot of truth to that, although I think I drew just as much from all the movies I've watched as my own experience. As for my characters, they certainly aren't me, so I don't know where they came from.