Fact or Fiction? Using personal experiences in writing

I was reminded this week about the vulnerabilities of being a writer and it has made me think about the truth of writing ‘fiction’.

In my writing class this week we were given a writing prompt of “you never expected a call from me”. Before I knew what had happened, I had written a short but deeply personal piece. I felt quite taken aback by what I had written; it was 80% truth, and the remaining 20% was fiction but may yet become reality in the future. There was so much raw emotion in what I had written and I found writing the piece to be therapeutic and cathartic. When the teacher asked us to share our work, I stayed silent and I ignored the other writing prompts that he gave us so that I could work on what I had written and refine it. When asked if I would read what I had written I agreed because I knew that nobody in the class would know that it wasn’t a fiction that I had created – I wouldn’t have read the piece to a friend who knows me because it would have felt too exposing, the biggest ‘over share’ ever. My writing was well received by my peers, which I was relieved about because I couldn’t have faced criticism of the naked emotion that I had put on paper, but it just got me thinking about the whole experience of being a writer. It felt so odd, almost dishonest and misleading to present this reality of my own feelings, whilst hiding behind the assumption that it was fiction.

I suppose it’s inevitable that the writer will draw on their own experiences in their work. It’s incredibly difficult writing about something that you know nothing about so of course writers will draw upon their personal experiences. Most of these will be commonplace – living in England, commuting, owning a cat (see, even my own life experiences are influencing how I write this post!); but when those experiences become more private and personal, it gets a little harder to write about them and present them to the world as a work of fiction. I don’t tend to be very honest with my emotions and if I’m talking about something that is a difficult subject, like my parent’s divorce, then I tend to brush over it or border on ambivalence, but writing forces me to access a well of emotion that I deny or keep buried, or acknowledge parts of my life that I would rather had not happened.

I’m writing a story at the moment set in 1860s Northumberland and this evening I wrote about my character and her family being, essentially, forced out of their home. I worked on this section for an hour or so and, when I stopped, I felt so tired and flat because I had used my own experiences of leaving home to guide what I wrote. Leaving home was awful. I really don’t want to say too much about it here, because I’m trying hard to keep this blog anonymous and to protect my pseudonym, so let’s just say that the circumstances of the move were very difficult and it was one of the most trying experiences of my life. I wrote about my character walking through the house for the last time and so much of what I wrote about was what I recall from my own experience. The result is a passage that reads very authentically and my husband always says that it’s these sorts of passages that are particularly strong in my story so I wouldn’t want to take them out in search of something ‘a little more fictional’. However, it seems so exposing to cast my heart and soul onto paper and expose it to the scrutiny of others.

People often tell you count your blessings, to find a silver lining (to play ‘the glad game’ for any fellow ‘Pollyanna’ fans out there) and that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; perhaps I can embrace this on the basis that the challenges that I have faced have given me a broader experience of the world that can enable me to write authentically… and I’ll just have to hope that anybody who reads my work is gentle with me.

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