Today’s post is written by Claudia Cruttwell.
“How much of myself should I put into my writing?”
If I’m writing for my own personal consumption, nothing else matters. I can put as much of myself as I like into my story, then sit back, read it, and think how wonderful/happy/stupid/suicidal am I.
If I’m writing to impress people who know me, I’d better go easy on those unsavoury confessions, lest I end up unloved and friendless.
If I’m writing for those who know nothing about me at all, I must remember that they don’t care what’s fact and what’s fiction, so long as it makes for a good story.
I used to pour quite a lot of myself into my fiction. I was once greatly encouraged by an interview with Beryl Bainbridge, who said that she drew on personal experiences in much of her work because she didn’t have an imagination.
“Thank God,” I thought; neither do I.
However, the more I wrote from an autobiographical perspective, the more problems I encountered.
Be Careful When Fictionalizing Real Events
- Being close to your material can cloud your judgement as to its dramatic mileage. An incident, experience or situation that seems hysterically funny, terrifying, tragic or profound to you may seem quite nondescript to anyone else. Often, the old adage ‘you had to be there’ applies. To create more dramatic impact you may find yourself stretching the truth, embellishing, exaggerating—in short, lying. Nothing wrong with that in fiction. But when mixing fact with fiction, the two don’t always marry easily.
- Credibility is key. Character and action must match up, so if you want to mess around with autobiographical events, you need also to mess around with the character who experiences, or instigates, those events. This isn’t always so easy to achieve with an off-the-shelf character, who comes fully formed from your own life. It can be hard to bend them to your dramatic needs, especially if that character happens to be your own lovely fictional self.
- Problems can arise when you include material for the sake of its dearness to you, rather than its aptness to the story or character. In fiction, things generally need to add up in a more satisfying manner than they do in life. There needs to be a reason for something happening. Random deviations into the realms of anecdote for anecdote’s sake are generally boring and frustrating.
Tips for Drawing on Autobiographical Material
Here are a handful of things to think about when drawing on autobiographical material:
- Make some changes. If you want to include yourself as a character, try changing some essential element, such as gender, to help distance yourself and unleash narrative possibilities.
- Check that your story has legs. When writing a novel, make sure the material has enough depth to sustain interest from beginning to end.
- Your protagonist must be credible. If you want to dramatize what actually happened by adding some fictional spice, don’t lose sight of your protagonist’s credibility.
- Maintain narrative structure. Try to think about the narrative structure from the outset, rather than clocking up a string of memories and then imposing an artificial structure over the top.
- There are no hard-and-fast rules. As with all writing rules, consider throwing the whole lot out of the window—just so long as you know that’s what you’re doing.
The whole issue is rather akin to the choice between extending a house and building a new one. The former might seem the easier option, but actually it can be much more straightforward to start from scratch, with a completely blank sheet.
Of course, there will always be elements of yourself, or people you know, in any character, but the more they spring from your imagination, the more fully realised they will prove as individuals in their own right, speaking and thinking for themselves.
(And, by the by, the more interesting they will be to write about).
Many writers have successfully drawn on themselves in their fiction. Beryl Bainbridge is one, although she also wrote books like Every Man For Himself, about a group of fictitious passengers on the Titanic, which had no basis in her own life.
Turns out she had an imagination after all!
Have you ever fictionalized real-life events in your writing? How did you maintain a safe distance from those events to make your story credible and readable?
Claudia Cruttwell is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University and writing a psychological thriller. She blogs at http://www.claudiacruttwell.com.