How Much of My Personal Life Experience Should I Use in My Work?
Just when I was thinking about how much of myself I had to put into my new book, I had dinner with a man who writes screenplays. He has written three scripts so far and describes his passion as a “serious hobby.” He spends most of his free time writing. He has travelled both to London and Los Angeles to pitch his stories to producers and agents. He was eager and open, undaunted by the long journey he saw before him.
Whenever I meet people, I am curious about what brought them to writing. My dinner companion had changed from being a flight attendant who traveled the world to an electrical engineer in mid-life. He was a perennial bachelor who had almost married twice, but it was never meant to be. His commentary on his romantic plight was “It was the way the cards were dealt.” He felt that his self-enforced bachelorhood had led him to writing. His background was Italian and Puerto Rican, and he was full of stories. But when he “pitched” his screenplay to me, it was a thriller with a female protagonist, and I couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t write something more personal. He looked puzzled at my question. “Why would I want to relive anything that has happened to me? I want to experience new adventures.” I was impressed at his clarity, and asked, “But don’t you use your personal experiences as templates when writing your imaginary scenes?” His expression changed from inspired to one of a man who has just bitten into a lemon. “No way around it, is there?”
“You sound bitter.”
“What is the hardest part of writing for you?”
I couldn’t help but think of the private class I had earlier with a student who is also working on a thriller with a female protagonist. My student also felt that her own life was boring, which was why she wrote.
But my student was having trouble with her scene writing. She had good ideas but the scenes never really gelled. I asked her what she thought her problem was.
“I don’t know how to write conflict.”
One of the ideas that I teach is that many of our writing problems come from a really respectable source: our magnificent survival instincts that have kept us alive and somewhat intact as a society. One of these skills is the need and ability to avoid conflict. Early on we learn not to protest and argue with our parents when as infants we don’t want to do what they tell us to do. I have often thought that guilt is a human emotion created by other humans to create control. What a concept – that this natural emotion that helps us know what is right and wrong has been perverted by such societal interference that we spend time and money consulting counselors to try to remember who we were before we had to survive our childhoods. This is my own opinion on this matter and I dislike teachers who try to globalize their opinions, but here is what I mean to expose: A paradox of creative writing – while we must write about life, real or imaginary, and that good conflict is one of the holy grails of our work, our actual life experience has given us harsh lessons that make us avoid the very thing that drives our craft!
How do we resolve this natural reticence? By recognizing that no matter how much we remove ourselves from the details of our lives, our stories must in some way reflect our experiences. By accepting rather than denying this truth, we can do something truly amazing, which is to resolve a paradox. What is a resolved paradox? Is it an oxymoron, a non sequitur or an easy style of thinking? Whatever it becomes, the outcome is that we can now embrace all of the most difficult moments of our past. Through an analysis of what actually happened we can use these components to fearlessly create conflict in our storytelling. When I got this concept, my writing completely changed. The key is not to take a therapeutic approach, but to treat your own experiences as is they were a movie or an episode of a TV show, and to use this distance to distill life into stories.
To recap, no matter how you may want to try, you must write from your life experiences if you want to create the necessary amount of conflict required to make a story “good”.