When I was in my early twenties, I went through a phase where I wanted to write romance novels. Young, recently heartbroken, and exceedingly innocent, I set out to make my heart ache mean something.
I’d gotten it in my head that all those paperback romances you buy at the supermarket are the reason we’re always disappointed by reality. It never lives up to our expectations. I was going to write the truth. My romance novel would be an exposé showcasing a fictional version of my heartbreak at the center.
What I ended up with was a horribly written story that wasn’t really a romance novel at all. It was reality and it was boring and one dimensional and cliché.
It started with a girl that’s been left by her lying, cheating fiancé. She feels broken, like she’ll never love again. One day she befriends a crotchety old man that teaches her the real meaning of life. Of course, I never did work out that part because I was 20 years old and had no clue what the meaning of life is but that’s the danger of youth and inexperience.
Later on, she meets a man and falls in love but it doesn’t work out because shit happens. The end.
Eventually I decided that the problem with my story was that it was too personal. It became a personal diatribe for me. You can’t really even call it a story. Mostly it was the protagonist waxing poetic about love and life and how unfair it all is.
I decided not to write anything personal again. If an idea felt even slightly similar to my own experiences, I tossed it. The last thing I needed was to use my writing as a platform for whining.
The true solution lays somewhere between the two. Yes, you should let your personal experiences influence your writing. No, you shouldn’t use them verbatim unless you’re writing an autobiography or a memoir. Even then I think there’s room for a little artistic license. You know what I mean?
How To Find Balance
This part is extremely difficult and surprisingly simple.
Lisa Cron says it best in Wired for Story: “ ‘Write what you know’ doesn’t refer as much to facts as to what you know emotionally, which translates to your knowledge of what makes people tick.”
Side note: If you haven’t read Wired for Story or Story Genius, I recommend you go out and buy both of them. Right. Now. They are so good and they’ve done more to help my writing than any blog or book on writing I’ve read.
My knowledge of facts is limited. My life is average for the most part.
But emotionally? I know a lot emotionally. I’ve struggled with anxiety since childhood. I’ve had my heartbroken and mended only to have it broken again. I’ve been in an abusive relationship. I’ve lived in big cities where I knew no one and small towns where I knew everyone. I’ve been bullied, made fun of, and gossiped about. I’ve been an outcast and part of the in crowd.
You get the point.
The hard part is taking these experiences and writing about them without doing so in an autobiographical sense.
How Do You Do That?
So I want to write fantasy, right? But I want to write about something I’ve experienced too. I can do this to share the lessons I’ve learned or make a point or show people how horrible and scary it is to live with anxiety.
To do this I create a character with anxiety. But this character isn’t going to be me. He or she will be a part of me, yes but won’t have the exact same experiences or way of thinking or growing up. In essence, she’ll be an extension of me.
Then I create a world filled with challenges to help her overcome her anxiety. It’s a fantasy novel so maybe her anxiety manifests itself differently. Instead of having panic attacks she starts fires with her mind or makes people disappear. Maybe she has a panic attack and opens a portal to another world that lets out her worst nightmares.
Whatever I choose, I’m going to send her on a journey that makes a point about anxiety: how to overcome it, how to live with it, how to embrace who you are, etc. The reader will get to live with anxiety for the length of the novel and, hopefully, learn something about what it’s like.
But I Haven’t Actually Experienced It
The other side of this coin is exploring emotional curiosities. Long before my own abusive relationship, I wrote about women in abusive relationships. It was a dark obsession. I don’t know where it started but women in abusive relationships intrigued me. Why do these women stay? Why don’t they just leave? How do men convince them they deserve it? Is something broken in them before the abuse or does the abuse break them?
Before I got answers through personal experience, I wrote to try and discover them. We all have those things that make us curious. What would I do if I was stranded in the middle of nowhere? Would I have the gumption or the skills to survive? Would I be able to kill a zombie without barfing? Am I capable of murder? That last one I’ve heard discussed a lot over the years though usually in the context of what drives someone to take another’s life.
But, It’s Embarrassing…
If you avoid personal experience in writing because it scares you or you find it embarrassing to air your dirty laundry in such a public way, stop. Those embarrassing, shameful things are exactly what stories are about.
Stories are a chance for us to pick someone else’s brain and compare our own to the hot mess they’ve got going on.
And remember, the character you create isn’t you and his or her story isn’t going to be a carbon copy of your own. No one needs to know that you actually did pee your pants in school when you were 9 or that you’re terrified of drains.
It Means Something
Things that you feel deeply about mean something to you. They’re important and, even if you feel all alone with it, you aren’t. There are other people that are going to read about your personal demons and realize they aren’t alone either.
No, most of us will never have to decapitate a zombie (I hope) but we sure do like to talk about it and wonder if we could. That’s why we read. That’s why we like stories. We like to try out things without real risk involved.
That personal connection, if done right, will make the story better and more relatable. It will make people question themselves and the world around them.
Below is a list of questions to ask yourself to help get you started. Try to be brutally honest when you answer these. You can always burn the list when you’re done:
1. What do I know emotionally?
2. What makes me curious?
3. What makes me angry?
4. What scares me?
5. What morbid fascination do I have?
6. What happy fascination do I have?
7. What questions do I ask myself over and over again? (The ones that make you lose yourself in thought for a moment.)
Embrace the things that make you you and don’t be afraid to use them in your writing. You’ll learn more about yourself while writing a great story that will help others.