Personal Experiences in Fiction

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Donald Hall - Between Solitude and Loneliness

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
An article in today’s Guardian set me thinking about whether to mine personal experiences in future stories.

Are novelists obliged to tell the story of their private life?

The article discusses how pressured female novelists feel to reveal how much of the traumatic story they've written was based on their lives. It’s one thing to assess the value of a story as good since it feels authentic—that’s to say factual—but quite another to pry into someone’s distressing memories. Certainly, writing can be therapeutic, but that healing could be undone by voyeurs and trolls.

A few months ago, we discussed self-insertion and how our attitudes are mirrored by our characters, but using incidents that really happened to us is potentially risky, however much verisimilitude they have.

I use real-life events in my crime novels, things that happened to me or to friends and family and strangers. The writer component of my memory squirrelled them away to use in a story one day. Although I have a vivid imagination, as much as 80% of the happenings in my Cornish Detective novels occurred to me—the good and the bad. Up until reading the Guardian article, it hadn’t occurred to me that a critic or interviewer might ask me to justify myself.

For example, I’d be unhappy to reveal that I’d found a tracking bug on my car and that my phone had a location tracker installed on it by an insanely mistrustful life partner, but I used those incidents in two crime stories. It’s an area of writing that’s always troubled me, especially when querying. How do I prove my expertise to write about crime? Then again, how do writers of sci-fi, fantasy, historical and romance/erotica demonstrate the truth of their words?

I’ve used my own experience of major life experiences to colour my fiction. Things such as almost dying, divorce, bereavement, being attacked, car accidents and suffering from depression.

Surely, it’s whether it sounds realistic that counts. Fiction isn’t always autobiographical.

What do you think?

How often have you used real-life experiences in your fiction?

Why do strangers feel entitled to presume the writer has or has not had this or that experience, in order to accuse them of 'abuse appropriation.'

No fiction writer can or should be expected to deal with that kind of trolling.

It's loony.

The job of the writer is to deal in common truths, cloaked in an illusion of reality. The writer is an OBSERVER, a witness, canary in a mine, a weather vane. And asks questions, but is not some kind of counsellor, and should not be in the business of either crusading, or personal self-justification.

Or there could be no Art, and the job of Art is to sing the soul of humanity. The song of the writer is every bit as valid as the song of a victim of some terrible situation. Based on common humanity, with or without a knowledge of the writer's own griefs or traumas.

I am fed up to my back teeth with this poison of social determinism. Who does it help. Who does it heal. It is chronic 'woundology'.

And boring beyond belief because it looks only inwards.

I wouldn't bother trying to please anyone, Paul. You can't. You can't try and do right, for doing wrong if you even try.

Look at the abuse Lionel Shriver's got, and she is a brave writer, and one heck of a story teller, and people dog-piling her, trying to hack a window into her soul, to smear her personally, for supposedly not thinking 'right' about this or that. A giant fuck off is all they deserve for that.

Say only what you want to say.
I think it's useful if you have a history you can draw on but that is your business no one else's. My book is closely based on my experiences and I point that out in my query letter but that is between me and an agent. It's a fictional memoir but that doesn't mean it needs justifying to anyone. It's storytelling nothing more and it's up to readers to make whatever they want out of it.
Well, I'm writing a memoir at the moment, so...

But in my fiction, I use a lot of details from my personal life, but similar to you, Paul, as a way of adding colour or informing some of my characters' actions or fleshing out aspects of the plot. I guess we all do that.

But writing fiction is primarily a work of imagination.

I understand that people should take care not to misappropriate and misconstrue certain life experiences. On the other hand, provided they are sensitively and intelligently handled, I don't really see that any subject should be given a blanket Out Of Bounds to writers.
I suspect many fiction writers use parts of themselves in their books, both things that have happened in their lives and themselves as they wish to be. The rest, well that is where imagination comes in to create a world different from the one that really is. It is none of anyone's business what part is what unless the author wishes to tell.
Writing is a lot like being a method acter with several roles to play. There is an emotion that fits the requirements for this part of the story, find that emotion from something in your life and build on it, shape it and mould it and bring it to the peak of what's needed. It's a tiny bit of the person playing the role/writing, but not the whole of the person.
When the adage, 'write what you know' is spoken, it means we all know what emotions are, how they affect us, what the purpose is, and how it feels. (It also should state, 'write what you're passionate about' because without passion the best feedback a writer will get is, 'beautifully written' - a reminder that good grammar does not a good story make.)
Anyway, back to the point ...
We bring the emotional context of our life experiences to the story, but not our lives. A reader can live in the story for a while, but does that make the story real life? The answer should be obvious, and readers/reviewers who don't understand aren't worth the time or effort to enlighten. Does anyone remember the critic who claimed Austen would 'never be more than a ...'?
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Wonderful Friday!

Donald Hall - Between Solitude and Loneliness