Writing Myself Into the Story

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photo courtesy Flickr’s Capricorn Cringe

Once upon a time I was a fool for love. Or just a fool. Now I’m writing about a woman who is in a relationship with the wrong man. He’s not a good guy, but my protagonist can’t see that.

I’ve been writing around my own experience doing many of the same things she does because….

This novel isn’t the story of me with that man and I don’t want to have to explain that a million times. People tend to assume what they read in a novel is true. I once had a woman argue with me at a reading that the main character in my first novel had to be me. I’d bet money someone out there believes J.K. Rowling really went to wizarding school.

But I’ve come to realize the deeper reason I’ve been avoiding my own experience is because it’s embarrassing, and isn’t much fun to revisit. Sure, over a few margaritas with friends I can poke fun at myself for some of the things that happened back then. But I don’t really want to go to the place where the pain is.

And that’s not going to cut it. For that woman at the reading had a point. While the protagonist in that novel wasn’t me, she was in fact a part of me. As are all the people in my stories. I’m not doing myself or my characters or my readers any favors when I try to deny or avoid that.

For my character to be believably vulnerable, I will have to allow myself to be vulnerable and put myself out there a little more. I’ve got to risk people knowing I was or am a doormat, shallow, deceitful, selfish, foolish.

Just writing that I had to laugh at myself. Here I’ve been trying to avoid revealing what everyone already knows: I’m human. I’m capable of all the stuff we all are. If it’s a mistake, I’ve made it or I will soon. We all have or will. We think we have something to hide, but we don’t really. All that less-than-stellar, shameful stuff we don’t want people to know about is all the same less-than-stellar, shameful stuff they have too. Characters without those aspects are no more believable than real life people.

Writing about this character, having empathy for her, might help me find a little empathy for myself. But as much as I appreciate therapy, my purpose with this post isn’t to focus on the good that I might do myself by writing about these issues, but to remind myself that it will do my writing good. Help me portray a truer character and a stronger story.

I’m not writing events exactly the way that they happened because it’s not my story (really!). But I am tapping into the emotions and beliefs that drove me back then (and some that still drive me today). It’s still a little uncomfortable, but I gain nothing by hiding.

Besides gulping margaritas as I write, anyone got any tips for writing about things that are embarrassing?

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About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey, which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother,” and Children of the Waters. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.

Comments

  1. says

    Carleen,
    You pose a key question for writers. I just started reading Donald Maass’s new book and he makes the point that writers must tap into their deepest feelings to produce authentic fiction. I’m paraphrasing here, but I think I’ve captured the gist of what Maass’s is saying. I have a hard time writing about what is deeply personal to me, especially what is going on on my life right now. I can write about events in the distant past, but in an unintentional way by touching on my hopes, dreams, and fears. I did this subconsciously in my first novel. None of the stuff that happened to the MC ever happened to me, but a part of me is definitely in that story. Thanks for raising a point that all writers must consider in their work

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  2. says

    I’m not typically brave enough to write about the more “embarrassing” things I’ve experienced in life! I suppose, though, that I should at some point. I think it’s a highly important exercise not only for our minds, but for our spirits. I agree with you that all of our characters have bits of “us” thrown in and it is interesting to try and find the threads of yourself in the individuals you create. Good luck with your writing! Wish I had some advice for ya, but I haven’t yet written many of those sorts of scenes! Maybe one day I can come back and say I did it! :-)

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  3. says

    Or how about when people don’t actually come right out and ask if the character is you or, if you feel the same way as the character, and instead, people just look at you funny? :)

    If my character needs to feel say, rage, I’ll sometimes write about a time when I felt like that, like a journal entry, just until I get to the core of the emotion. Then, I delete all the personal stuff and hang onto the emotional core and let that grow and expand until it fits the character and their personality and situation etc.

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    • says

      Hope you don’t write about serial killers! :-)

      I’m doing much like you: using the personal to get to the universal and then I’ll delete/change some of the personal. Don’t know yet how much will stay and how much will go. My goal is whatever strengthens the story stays and the rest goes.

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  4. says

    There’s always a little bit of me in my characters and my stories. But I spread it so well (and unconsciously) that it’s never concentrated in any one character. I’ve never relayed a direct experience into the book itself. But people, to this day including my own mother swears that Mina, the MC in my YA series is me.

    Not at all. But she is the me I wish I had been at 16 – a much stronger me.

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  5. Carmel says

    For me, it was getting to a point in my life where the story became more important than what people were going to think of me. I’m not my main character (I hope she’s better than me) but people are going to know that a great deal of it comes from my personal experience. Someone has to be brave enough to tell these stories. How else are we going to help each other?

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    • says

      You raise a couple of really good points: the story is often bigger than the writer and maybe there’s a reason we have this story to tell, and maybe that reason is to reach others. Good luck with yours!

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    • says

      This. I have to get to the point where I’m more worried about capturing the honesty of those emotions than what people will think of me because of the situation.

      I also try to think of it as a cathartic exercise, letting out the things I normally keep bottled, and I hope that by providing a reader an opportunity to connect to my emotions, I can validate both of our experiences.

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      • says

        I’ve found that people sometimes miss what I’m most worried about and focus on something that doesn’t even matter or bother me that much. But since we never know until we put it out there, it’s still a little unnerving. But, like you say, it’s worth it if it has meaning to the reader and the writer.

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  6. says

    I like what Bret Anthony Johnston says re writing about personal experiences. He says he takes small details from his life and uses them as scaffolding, a base from which imagination can soar. So for me the trick is to tap into my pain and take it to another place with another character in a different situation, but allowing my emotional connection to deepen the writing.

    At least that’s what I try to do….

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  7. says

    I always said I would never blog, never write a memoir, never become a newspaper columnist–I wasn’t ready to share such personal information with the world. Over time, I came to realize what you have written about… I have to get to that deep part of myself somehow, or the experience on the page isn’t authentic enough.

    Blogging about short misadventures throughout my life has enabled me to access some of those painful or ridiculous or embarrassing times. And I think that in some weird way, it has helped my fiction writing enormously… even when the MC isn’t really me (at least mostly not me ; ).

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    • says

      Going over to read your blog now. I used to keep a personal blog and it was a good exercise that I sometimes miss. Thanks for the tip–for those who don’t blog they may find they like it.

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  8. says

    Good on you, Carleen, for forging ahead. Pressfield says he knows he’s on the right track if the project makes him uncomfortable or afraid. And surely the process is, in the end, rewarding and enlightening, if not uplifting. It’s like Alice Walker said: “I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” Good luck!

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    • says

      Thanks! My beta reader said the same thing–if it’s bringing up those kind of feelings that’s where the gold lies. We shall see. Thanks too for the Alice Walker quote!

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  9. Ronda Roaring says

    Carleen, experiences are what you choose to make them. In other words, you choose to view these experiences as embarrassing. Perhaps you need to try to figure out why you find these experiences embarrassing. Once you’ve dealt with the “why,” then they should no longer be embarrassing, and you won’t have trouble writing about them. Sorry to turn this into Psych 101, but you did ask.

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    • says

      No worries. But for the purposes of writing I’m less concerned about why they’re embarrassing (though that would reveal something useful for my character, so hmmmm) and more concerned with capturing what it feels like to be embarrassed by your actions. I don’t want to run from feeling embarrassed, if that makes sense? It’s part of the human range of emotions that writers need to be able to describe, as folks have said above, authentically and honestly.

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  10. says

    The protagonist in my current WIP is living an extension of experiences and feelings I have lived. I wanted to explore the questions I dig at and struggle with in my own life, and I suspect, others struggle with too, but within a fictional context.

    Here’s the rub; every novelist knows you should ask and be able to answer: what does your character want? Then you can set up the obstacles, create the tension, etc. I’m having a really hard time answering that within this context because, guess what, I’m not sure I know what I want! So while I am willing to dig at the wounds to make the story richer and deeper, at the same time, I have to be able to stand back and separate myself. It is fiction, after all, and has to be interesting and compelling to the reader.

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  11. says

    It’s the classic dilemma, isn’t it? I write to figure things out, hoping that using fictional characters and situations will satisfy readers and be healing–or somehow helpful–for me. In addition to fiction, I write creative non-fiction (essays for my local newspaper in which I worry about my son’s deployments in Afghanistan). I find that much harder–actually being me, and naming him, in real time–and carefully trying not to make him angry or get him into trouble.

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    • says

      Good luck to you and your son! Maybe when he’s out of harm’s way you’ll consider turning those columns into fiction? In the meantime, good on you for contributing to the public dialogue about Afghanistan, especially as someone with a personal connection.

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  12. says

    What a great post, Carleen! It is hard to write about things that are embarrassing or painful, and it’s also sometimes hard to read about them, especially when the experience hits home for me as a reader. But those tend to be the scenes readers don’t forget, so I think there’s truth to the idea that they’re powerful.

    I don’t have much in the way of advice for how to put it out there, except that to me, no one ever has to see anything I write except me, unless I choose to share it. So maybe try writing it for yourself, and see what you think of it when you’re done?

    I can say that I’ve found that if a scene makes me cringe or cry as I’m typing, it’s usually a keeper.

    Thanks for the great post!

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    • says

      I have to say I’ve been brave enough to keep the ones that have made me cry, but keeping them when they make me cringe has been harder. You’re right though about the emotional punch such scenes have for writers.

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  13. says

    That’s what makes writing so hard, Carleen: digging down into the core of ourselves until it hurts. Bleed out onto the page, they say. Although, not SO much blood that you can’t actually see the page or the characters. I’d like to think my writing life is separate from my raw, unedited life, but I have to remind myself that this is not the case. Blogging and journalling about and through certain anguish does help, as well as letting my characters feel pain through similar wounds. If I can cry with my characters, which I have done, I know I am on the write track.

    Thanks for encouraging us to be emotionally honest with our writing!

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  14. says

    An editor friend said to me early on in my career, “You find the stuff readers want in the most dangerous places of your mind.” Good advice. I’ve followed it all these years. The most dangerous places are when the imagination and our emotional selves connect. That’s what readers want — the connection. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing.

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  15. says

    So interesting to read how another writer is handling this issue!
    I like the idea, mentioned above, about drawing on our own experience as scaffolding.
    Lots to consider!

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  16. says

    Thanks for the idea! It got too long for a comment, so I posted it on my blog, but the summary is that to write a character, I have to BE the character, so “the character IS me – if I had lived through what she has and started with who she was born as.”

    We read – to live other lives vicariously.

    I write – to BE other people, vicariously. Only way I’m going to get the chance.

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  17. says

    Ideally, when we give our experiences to our characters, they change — because our characters are not us. They may be a different age, sex, race, background — and they are shaped by their own different experiences. Mining our own fears, embarrassments, passions and more then leads us to find those places for our characters, and write from that intersection.

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  18. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Thank you for this post. And congratulations for having the courage to dredge up and explore those painful truths. I have come to believe that the exploration of what is lurking in our personal deep is an integral part of being a writer.

    Sometimes, I find it very difficult to start a project when I know the subject I’m going to tackle will inevitably tap into personal pain buried deep below the surface. However, when I finally muster the fortitude to take the plunge, the result is that my writing is at its strongest.

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  19. says

    Completely agree, great post! I feel the same way, I don’t want to deal with the pain from my past, but in creating characters that have bits and pieces of me and my experiences, I somehow deal with it on a subconscious level and let things seep out that I didn’t expect. Then I look back and realize, oh, that’s where that came from. It’s definitely important to embrace yourself as you write. Difficult, but it will make your writing stronger and believable. On the other hand, I agree that main characters should not be *you*. That often leads to readers feeling awkward and not understanding what the characters are going through. You have to put yourself in another person’s shoes and walk around in them. That way you know your readers will get it too. Thanks for sharing! :)

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    • says

      “It’s definitely important to embrace yourself as you write.” Thank you for sharing this! I think it could work if the protagonist *was* the author as long as the author could muster some distance. Could that writer muster enough distance is really the question. I bet it’s been done well by some and poorly by others. Probably first-time novelists fall into the category of writing too close to home and falling into the but-that’s-the-way-it-really- happened trap. As others have said here, I’m trying to hit that sweet spot between the emotional truth of how things happened and being true to the characters and story and being interesting to readers.

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  20. Marilyn Slagel says

    Carleen, I’m commenting before reading the prior comments due to time restraints at the moment.

    I just want to say that I really like your article. I write emotionally – always. Gut-grabbing fear, pain, lust, jealousy, excitement, cynicism are good for my characters, but not always good for me. Sometimes, I’m worn out from the emotions in a scene. Those are the very best scenes I produce. Of course, I hope everyone else thinks that way when they read my first book. LOL

    For the NaNoWriMo novel, I’m planning to go through a huge range of emotions in free flow writing – my poor dog will probably spend the month of November under my bed – wondering WTH is wrong me me! Hopefully, the end result will turn out to be an emotionally powerful read that readers will remember long after the last page is read.

    I’m flagging this email – want to read all comments later today.

    Great article! Thanks so much.

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  21. says

    I definitely believe we put a little of ourselves in each of our characters. I often struggle with revealing a bit of myself on the page, whether it’s an essay or by tapping into my deepest wounds when writing fiction. Thanks for sharing your experience. I should post this above my laptop:

    “…I am tapping into the emotions and beliefs that drove me back then (and some that still drive me today). It’s still a little uncomfortable, but I gain nothing by hiding.”

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    • says

      Roxanne, I think most of us struggle with this from time to time. Or like others have pointed out go the opposite way and focus too much on ourselves and not let the characters take over. It’s a delicate balance. I too should put that note over my desk! :)

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  22. says

    “For my character to be believably vulnerable, I will have to allow myself to be vulnerable and put myself out there a little more. I’ve got to risk people knowing I was or am a doormat, shallow, deceitful, selfish, foolish”

    Thanks so much for writing this. Believe it or not, I’ve really struggled with the meaning of “digging deep” into myself and being vulnerable while writing – not that I can’t or won’t, or don’t do it, but I truly didn’t understand the term. You have totally explained the concept to me with that one paragraph. Yay! Now I can work on making sure it’s communicated on the page.

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  23. Jenny Tavernier says

    LOL!
    While it is embarrassingly human, of course NO ONE ELSE has ever been there, done that.
    It just might be that embarrassment that endears you, the author to your readers. I could tell you stories…!
    And those readers are gonna know if it rings true or not. Don’t alienate them. (OMG! That happened to me!)

    Remember, that you as author will not meet all your readers. And most readers are out for the STORY.
    They may think vaguely of the Author and picture, but probably a good percentage of them won’t be hyperventilating over could it have been YOU?
    One thing about writing embarrassing moments, is that you are at least distant from direct contact.
    (Except at book signings.) Just smile secretly.
    If they ARE hyperventilating fiendishly, chalk it up to you really hooked someone, they are curious! They will watch for your books – check out your blog… good deal! Ladies never tell! -(in person). lol
    Just give anyone who wants to be a gossip columnist a secret smile. They may need your story, because they too wish they had more of a life, or could even find someone to be that dizzy/stupid about. Sigh…

    Sounds like the lady at the book signing may have been a failed writer, or a beginning one, trying to impress you with her knowledge of how stories form from “write what you know.” Maybe she was frustrated. Argumentative types have their own private agenda and angst. But you sure touched something – (BINGO! ) Sounds like she read it, right?

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    • says

      You got it. I’m the only person who’s ever made a fool of herself? Doubtful. Part of this post was just reminding myself to get over myself. Thanks for sharing in the laugh with me. You’re right about the idea that when you get a big reaction out of someone at least they are reacting, and at least they’ve read it!

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      • Jenny Tavernier says

        Avant and Avast! Go Forth and Swamp ‘Em!
        Authors have that mysterious mystique – especially if they have made it to book signings! Preen – you have earned it!
        Like Magicians, your audience doesn’t need to know the tricks –
        …And a quick devilsh secret smile will drive them MAD!…
        You might go viral! lol
        jen

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  24. says

    For me, it’s similar to ripping off a band aid. If you need to get something out, you need to just do it. Whether it’s a blog post or a story, if there’s a piece of me in it that involves my past, it’s best to just get it out.
    I’ve found the process to be very theraputic. Writing about past lovers and mistakes can really help you get past it. At the least, it forces you to acknowledge it. It can be both humbling and liberating.

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  25. Ray Pace says

    If you establish that you the writer are in touch with many people who confide in you, that becomes a shield of sorts. “People tell me things, deep secrets. I guess I’m easy to talk to.” That statement alone should cover it.

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  26. says

    Write about losing your virginity in graphic detail and show it to all your family and friends and you’ll lose the self-consciousness real quick :p

    But seriously, what would we write about if we didn’t write about ourselves? You haven’t lived anyone else’s life; you haven’t felt anyone else’s feelings. Empathy relies on us being able to say, “I’ve felt that too,” even if it wasn’t as extreme as someone else’s experience. Your heroine’s story isn’t exactly your story, but she does have to be “you” in a way. It’s really obvious, to me, when an author is writing about something they’ve never experienced for themselves. Stereotypes, cliches, and cheap generalizations creep in and take over.

    I also sympathize with the problem of convincing readers that your characters, though they always have parts of you or people you know mixed in and blown out of proportion, are not literally you. I wrote my first novel in high school, and the heroine happened to have a really emotionally distant, borderline abusive mother. My mom was so proud of me and wanted to pass it around to all of her friends, but they shied away and said it was too awkward because “they knew the people in it.” That fictional mother was not my mother, and I was mortified that they would think so. It was a fantasy, not one of those “Mommy Dearest” confessionals. It wasn’t until after college that I was bold enough to show my work to other people again.

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  27. says

    Nice! I recently went to bed one night thanking the universe (ahead of time) for giving me the answer to why I was stuck in my book. I told the universe “thank you for clearing this up for me: I am so happy & thrilled that you will show me where I’ve gone astray in my writing, & you do this for me in my sleep.” I thought I’d give it a try, you know, the advance thank-you prayer. I dreamt VIVIDLY about a character in the book AND his romantic advances towards me. I woke up & said:”thanks for nothing, universe.” BUT WAIT . . . weren’t all of those women in my writing groups asking about HIM, X, (the eX) after every reading of ANY scene i did for them? Wasn’t my closest writing bud asking EVERY TIME I read to her, “but what about X? I want to hear about X!” I didn’t WANT to write about X. This was NOT X’s story, you see. Or was it? Ugh, it had come to slap me in the face. Universe was right, but I’d avoided X because he was like someone I was a fool for once upon a time. AND MY character is no fool. Right? Wrong. SO there you have it: THE Universe’s decision on the topic that you presented here. LOL

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