Drawing from Real Life in Fiction

Looking back at our own livesUnlike many people I know, I’ve never wanted to write the story of my life. And I’ve come to belatedly believe that this lack of autobiographic desire on my part has affected my fiction writing, and not necessarily for the best.

I say “belatedly” because I’ve been writing fiction for close to 15 years, but only a few years ago did I start to readjust what I now see as a rather closed and negative mindset I’d been maintaining.

In the past, I used to consciously avoid drawing on my own life and experiences when writing fiction. I’ll admit that I probably got a bit snobby about it, making blithe statements like “I prefer to write about lives far more interesting than my own,” and looking down my nose at authors who wrote what I considered to be thinly veiled memoir, but who positioned their work as fiction. Frankly, I thought they were being both lazy and self-absorbed in doing so. I’ve since reevaluated that stance.

So what has changed? Well, despite being an opinionated bastard, I do pride myself on actually listening to others, particularly those who are further along in their literary journeys. So I pay attention to the advice and insights of successful authors, and I make an attempt to try their advice on for size before dismissing it. To that end, today I’d like to share some insights I gained from two very different writers: WU’s own Barbara O’Neal, and the author of the Jack Reacher series, Lee Child.

A wise woman weighs in on the stories we each own

Back in 2011, I was fortunate enough to see Barbara O’Neal presenting at the RWA Women’s Fiction Conference (back when the RWA still acknowledged women’s fiction as a valid category, but don’t get me started on that sore subject). At the time, Barbara was serving as the “Wise Woman” for the Women’s Fiction chapter, a title she more than deserved. The entire conference was terrific, but I think I got the biggest personal takeaway from Barbara’ segment, where she made this simple but powerful statement:

“We’re all stuck with our own stories.”

She went on to explain, in a manner that I’ll try to paraphrase as best I can. To clarify, Barbara wasn’t telling us that we needed to base the plots of our novels and stories on our actual personal lives. Instead, she was suggesting that if we focused our writing on exploring the ideas and feelings that meant the most to us, the result would be that our stories would be imbued with a correspondingly deep level of emotional intensity and personal conviction.

And by saying that we were “stuck with” these stories, her point was that we should accept and embrace the experiences and beliefs that form the essence of our personalities, and use them to drive our stories. Barbara maintained that doing so would inherently make those stories more resonant with readers, particularly with those who’d had similar experiences.

For me, this was one of those “scales falling from my eyes” moments (which, I’m realizing, sounds incredibly gross if you’re not familiar with the reference). I realized that in my own fiction, I’d spent a lot of time and energy focusing on being funny or clever, but it wasn’t until I really dug deeper emotionally and explored some areas that hit very close to home that I actually succeeded in selling a book. Writing that book had taken me to some very emotional places, touching on nerves that had been scraped raw by some recent personal experiences. But that painful and challenging journey had also produced my most compelling fiction to date. Hmmmm, maybe there was something to this “looking inside yourself” stuff after all.

If you let your writing reflect your world view, your passion, your issues and your sore spots, the result will carry an emotional truth and gravitas that will be undeniable.

In retrospect, I began to see how much of my past and my personality was woven into my debut novel, and I realized I needed to recant my blithe dismissal of using one’s own life for source material. So I’d like to publicly thank Barbara for capturing this concept so clearly and succinctly, and in the interest of passing it forward, I’ll echo her advice to other writers. If you let your writing reflect your world view, your passion, your issues and your sore spots – whatever they may be – the result will carry an emotional truth and gravitas that will be undeniable.

And now for something completely different. Or is it?

Next I want to look at an author who seemingly couldn’t be more different from Barbara. But on further examination, you might start to believe that he has simply found his own way to explore the stories he’s “stuck with.”

A big man reveals his not-so-small similarity to his protagonist

The protagonist of Lee Child’s series of novels is Jack Reacher, a badass character who is basically Superman without the cape, tights, and sense of obligation to follow society’s laws. I’ve read a few of Child’s novels, and while I enjoyed their taut pacing and impressive action sequences, there were times I found the Reacher character a little too bullet-proof and invincible. I softened that opinion after reading this interview with Lee Child, a three-part series that I highly recommend even to those who are not fans of Child’s work, or of his genre.

In discussing the success of this character, Child openly states, “I think it comes down to wish fulfillment, pure and simple.” While this seemed pretty obvious to me, the more I learned about Child, the more I realized where his character had come from. It quickly became clear that the Reacher character was not simply a larger-than-life fantasy; he was deeply rooted in the author’s past – particularly in his physicality. I was surprised to learn that Child stands 6′ 4″ tall, much like his 6′ 5″ protagonist Jack Reacher (we will ignore for the moment the diminutive Tom Cruise’s hotly contested portrayal of Jack Reacher in the 2012 film of the same name). Here is Child’s description of the impact of his physical size during his childhood on the mean streets of Birmingham, England:

“It was a rough, tough place. There was no solution to anything except instinctive violence. Whatever your dispute with another guy was, it would be settled by violence. We didn’t have guns or anything like that, but we had knives, and we had bicycle chains, and all that kind of stuff.

But to me, it was not all that rough, because by some genetic accident, I was enormous – I was huge as a kid. I really have not grown very much since I was ten or eleven; I was a giant, a freak. And in a sense, that’s where Reacher comes from, because I was, as a kid, physically unchallengeable. I try to give that same feeling to Reacher.”

Child goes on to say, “I wanted to convey the feeling that this is a guy who can turn any corner anywhere in the world, and whatever lies in front of him, it would be an amazing coincidence to come across anybody as tough as him, or tougher. He breezes through life pretty much certain that he’ll never be physically vulnerable . . . And that was me at the age of nine.”

The bottom line is that Child has created a character with an abundance of confidence because he himself has a lot of confidence – it’s not an act or a fantasy. And that confidence is a trait that was forged within him as a boy, some 50 years ago. Having learned this about the author, I now see an additional depth to his protagonist, which used to be obscured by my cynicism (and let’s face it, envy) of his physical superiority. (I have also since determined that I will never try to kick Lee Child’s ass – I suspect that would not work out well for me.)

Again, I urge interested readers to take the time to read this interview, not only for the connection between the author’s past and his characters. Child openly challenges some widely accepted writing rules, such as the need for the protagonist to transform and/or evolve in every story. Child assesses his own work candidly, noting that “My books are straightforward, old-fashioned adventures where there is a clear-cut, binary choice: You are either with the hero or against him, and that determines your fate. And Jack Reacher will never lose, and he will never be gray in any way.”

In adopting this approach, Child clearly and consistently sets the expectations of his readers, and then meets them – book after book, for millions and millions of readers. To me, there’s something to be learned from this, no matter what genre of fiction you may write.

The power of looking within

While neither Child’s writing nor his advice may sound very similar to Barbara’s, I still see some connections between their approaches. In both instances, these gifted authors have discovered and explored the power of pulling from their most formative experiences and beliefs. And in both instances, the results are books that people love to read.

Sounds like a solid game plan to me.

How about you?

How have you used your own experiences and/or beliefs to enhance your storytelling? How much of the truth do you tell? And where is the dividing line between fiction and memoir? I look forward to hearing from you, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Keith,
    It took my generous early-readers (this includes one sister) to point out to me that my protagonist has many of my attitudes and beliefs. I guess for me there is no other well to draw from, so I didn’t think much about it. In fact, I thought I’d invented the potty-mouthed antisocial weirdo out of thin air. Other characters are ‘Frankensteins’ of people I know or have known. I’m betting we all do this unconsciously to some degree.
    But to own it, embrace it and make it part of the work, to go deep and mine out the diamonds, is another thing. I love the word ‘gravitas’. I think comedy can have it as well as drama when it springs from that deep authentic place.

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    • says

      “…..my protagonist has many of my attitudes and beliefs. I guess for me there is no other well to draw from, so I didn’t think much about it. …..Other characters are ‘Frankensteins’ of people I know or have known.”

      Yes, it’s exactly the same with me.

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  2. says

    One of the greatest of all writers, Hemingway, hinged his stories on his own life, which he lived fully, and then broadened, deepened and colored the life experiences with his imagination.

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  3. Denise Willson says

    This is deep, Keith. Love it!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  4. says

    Thanks for the post and thoughtful questions, Keith. Writing too close to my experiences deadens my fiction, something that I think happens because I’m not discovering the story as I draft. I guess that’s why I’ve always stayed away from drawing too much on my life story. Parts of me permeate each character, though, even the bad ones. . . . Wait, maybe I shouldn’t say that, need to find out if my mother reads this blog. She still has high hopes for me, even after all these years. (grin)

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    • says

      Thanks for commenting, TJ. I don’t think we necessarily have to draw on our specific personal experiences – that’s why Barbara’s point hit me so hard. I can touch on things I’m passionate about, things that scare me, things that I worry about, etc., without needing to recount personal experience. I found that realization very liberating!

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  5. says

    Good morning Keith,

    What a great topic, especially how you build in contrast to show that no matter what, even seasoned writers who write about characters with radically different life histories still draw on their personal experience.

    What I take home from your article today is that as writers go deeper into the landscape of their stories, they draw on deeper, more universal aspects of their self. And this is the real gold, for it’s in that deeper part of self where we find others. I am reminded of Robin LaFevers’ post, “Writing as Therapy” (June 13).

    In my own writing life I have seen a progression, and when I go to conventions I often see it in other writers I meet who are at stages where I once was: often in your first attempt you latch onto one particular protagonist and, so full of passion, you write his (or if you are a woman, her) story, blinded by how similar it is to your own. I don’t think every writer does this, but for the many who do I think this is perfectly reasonable. Our goal as writers is to capture our most potent emotions, to make every page burn with tension, to capture readers’ hearts. It makes logical sense that in order to do this, we must pour our heart out. Only, it doesn’t stop here.

    I have always enjoyed the Christian teaching, particularly that true love means laying down your life for your friend. It makes me think of what happens to a writer who discovers the true power of the personal writing experience that is not about them, but about their deep connection to other people. It is about giving. It is selfless. Those stories burn with a hundred times the fire as stories rooted only in our own personal life yearnings. They cast the blinkers off and rather than a boxed-in room, we offer our readers an entire universe.

    I truly believe it is all rooted in the personal. Every empathy we possess, every tear we shed for friends and strangers, comes from a deep part of ourselves – as you put it, from our formative experiences and beliefs. As storytellers, we journey deeper to discover just what the personal is and how it is, in fact, not about us at all. That is the whole point of storytelling, I think.

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  6. says

    I agree with Denise–very deep. I read the interview with Child. His “confidence” as a writer, and a person, is really high on the scale. I suppose having your very first book win awards and gain millions of readers coming out of the gate makes an easy and fast jump to success, right? And I think that kind of confidence is key to feeling that your work has value.

    Maybe that’s the deepest struggle we have as writers: acquiring the confidence in ourselves to be revealing and honest on the page. ‘How much truth do you tell’ is a difficult question, risky, and takes not only confidence but courage. I struggle with it all the time.

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    • says

      Paula – I think you hit on a key point in talking about confidence.

      The ability to write with confidence – or, to think of it another way, to write fearlessly – about the very things that terrify us the most: that’s the real challenge for a storyteller.

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  7. says

    Hey, Keith:

    I dedicate an entire chapter of The Art of Character on exploring personal moments of helplessness, whether in the face of defeat or triumph, to get the writer aware of the most dramatic moments in his own life, the moments when the “veil of the ego” slipped away and something deeper, more raw, less habitual and polished took its place.

    I do this so that writers learn to build what I call “an intuitive bridge” between themselves and the character. For any meaningful story will put the character into situations in which they find themselves helpless, at wit’s end, struggling for any answer or solution or clue, overwhelmed by circumstances but unable or unwilling to flee. And the more you see how this has played out in your own life, in whatever way it has, the more you can expand upon it in your fiction.

    I also tell my students that the one truly unique element they bring to their writing is their own experience. Why deprive yourself of that?

    But I think you and Barbara touch on something even more important: the need to engage your own passions and beliefs and wants, to find how the story touches on those, and bring that forward into the writing. If the story isn’t deeply important to you, if it doesn’t carry some meaningful worth that you felt compelled to explore, how can it be important to the reader? Where’s the juice?

    I also mention in The Art of Character Lee’s disdain of the “bullet-in-the-heart” hero, the one with the backstory wound that has to be addressed or solved or healed to achieve the outer goal of the story. Lee’s earned his right to sniff, but there are far too many stories that have profound resonance that use that approach to dismiss it so easily. Chinatown, to name just one.

    And Bruce Snyder, in Save the Cat, notes that in Hollywood the belief is exactly the opposite: everyone should change. He calls this wittily the Covenant of the Arc.

    In other words, there are a lot of paths to the top of the hill. Discover your own.

    Reacher is perhaps the greatest “traveling angel” hero we’ve seen for some time. He’s plains gunman and samurai wrapped into one. But there’s one other element of Lee’s personality that Reacher possesses: a passion for justice for the little guy, and utter contempt for the abuse of power. That frames Reacher’s will to justice, and anyone who knows Lee knows where it comes from. (And that’s where his approach and yours and Barbara’s coalesce.)

    Great post. Thanks.

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  8. says

    Keith, my experience is similar to yours. I studiously avoided writing anything even remotely connected to my real life. Then I noticed a lot of “me” seeped into my first novel, without even consciously realizing it. The insights you and Barbara and Lee have shared are loaded with wisdom. Writers must tap into their emotions to write with authenticity and emotional depths. Thanks for a great post.

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  9. says

    Keith-

    In writing from one’s own life, I believe Barbara’s got it right: It’s better to think less of borrowing the *events* of one’s life but rather to think more of incorporating the *emotional experiences* of one’s life.

    My biography is nothing special but my struggles, changes, highs and lows–the way I see and express them–are universal.

    Good post, thanks.

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    • says

      Exactly, Donald. That one statement from Barbara, making the distinction between direct experience and simply identifying and tapping into our deepest emotional touchpoints, made all the difference for me.

      It was a tree standing right in front of me in my own literary forest (to strain a metaphor), but I never saw it until she pointed it out.

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  10. says

    I read a story about the USS Scorpion many years ago. The Scorpion was the last US sub lost at sea and one of two nuclear subs lost (in the same class…can you say recall?). It happened in 1968. I’ve always wanted to write a fictional story from the family’s POV. They were the ones left waiting on a pier for a ship that wouldn’t be coming home. After I started writing, I still didn’t feel “worthy” to write their story. But recently I thought, “why not?” I was a Navy Brat for 17 years, then did a 4 year stint myself. I know all about being part of a Navy family. I can tell you exactly how a Navy pier smells on a hot summer night (like oil, mostly). The only missing piece is that my dad always came home. I’m a writer, I can fill in the blanks. Or contact the families (which I have and they’ve been eager to share). The most interesting part of my life was being a Navy Brat, and I’m finally giving myself permission to use that experience. This, I hope, will be the first of many middle grade Navy Brat stories.

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    • says

      Ron, I had very similar “not worthy” feelings, writing a book about stroke survivors. Giving yourself permission is key. And it sounds like you’re MORE than qualified. Good luck with it!

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  11. says

    Keith–thank you for taking up an old question that never stops being both important and interesting: how writers do or do not approach writing about their own stories.
    As you tell us, Barbara O’Neal focuses not on using direct personal experience as plot material, but on “exploring the ideas and feelings that meant the most to us.” Unless a writer makes decisions based exclusively on market-driven motives (what genre is hot, what kinds of characters have the most mass appeal, or are dictated by genre), I think it’s likely that what’s important to us will figure in our writing. If those ideas and feelings are positive, no problem. If they’re painful, they may be disguised–but they will still be influential.
    As for Lee Child, like you, Keith, I have read a Reacher novel or two. But I came to see this bullet-proof, invincible hero as a kind of James Bond minus the martini, tuxedo and Aston Martin. As for the biographical fact of Child’s giantism in adolescence, perhaps Child’s stories would have more appeal (not for his millions of readers, but for me), had someone every now and then decked him on the mean streets of Birmingham.
    But in the end, again for me, none of this matters. Yes, what did or didn’t happen in the author’s life is of anecdotal interest, but what really matters is the book in my hand.

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  12. says

    I love this topic, Keith.

    Although my writing isn’t the least bit autobiographical in terms of events, it is *emotionally* autobiographical, without a doubt.

    I don’t seem to know another way to write, which shouldn’t surprise me, because the concept of finding meaning in things appears to be my MO in general. As one example, we are a blended family (3+3=6) and when I purchase anything, from expensive jewelry to cheap household items, I look for sixes–6 prongs, 6 circles, a 6-candle holder. I would rather go for months waiting to find a 6-[whatever] item than buy one, in haste, with only 5.

    I used to see this must-have-personal-meaning requirement as a constraining feature in writing. But once I realized it’s only the characters’ feelings that must have meaning for me, and not their actions or situations, I realized it’s not a constraint at all. Instead, it serves as the motivation to drag myself out of bed to write. If I had to go 350pp with someone whose feelings I’d never experienced, I think the snooze button on my alarm would get a lot more action than the keys of my laptop.

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  13. says

    The farther I go on my writerly road, the more I see how much my worldview and deepest personal perspectives pervade my stories and my characters. The closer I get to actually openness about those things, the closer I feel I am getting to succeeding. And the scarier it gets to proceed.

    Wonderful post, Keith. Thanks for digging deep.

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  14. says

    Good post Keith and the responses are wonderful. I have a piece of me in every story. Sometimes just a feeling, sometimes more, but we are “stuck” with what we have. I think when we tap into our own lives, we write the books that only we could write.

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  15. says

    What a great topic. I’ve always incorporated aspects of my emotional life into my characters. But are my characters me? No. They often do things I could never do, wouldn’t dare to do, or only dream of doing. But they have my feelings and tend to react in a way I think I might in the same situation. I’m a firm believer in writing using what I know and using every experience, like how it feels to be the odd girl out, the bookworm, the one that doesn’t get asked to the prom, how the tropics affect me, or whatever. I hope that makes my writing more authentic and my characters feel like someone readers can identify with. Time will tell.

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  16. says

    I missed this yesterday—thanks, Keith, and I’m delighted that you found some truth on that statement.

    And don’t get me started on RWA & the category of WF, either.

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