Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You Are What You Write...

When I was young (and pleasingly plump, a term my family lovingly used to refer to my baby fat), my mom tried to watch what I ate religiously. Fast food was usually forbidden, soda was allowed once a week and dessert was often a fresh piece of fruit. I didn’t accept these food restrictions easily, asking again and again why I couldn’t have Doritos or some cookies. My mom always came back with the same reply, “You are what you eat, honey. You need to watch what you become.”

Watch what I become? To a young (and pleasingly plump) girl, what I wanted to watch was a piece of chocolate cake going into my mouth.

My mom’s old claim, “You are what you eat,” resurfaced last week when I was teaching my high school Creative Writing class. During our class, we kept coming back to the idea that writing stems from your own life experiences. One could look at writing in the same way my mom had looked at food, believing, “You are what you write.”

I have always believed that my writing comes from my past experiences; I put a piece of myself into all my writing. But what piece do I put into it? How do other readers connect to those aspects from my personal life that I slip in? A writer should be able to balance real life experiences and made up events, making both believable to readers.

I will admit that when I first began writing for an audience, it was hard for me to go deeper into certain topics, even if it was necessary to get my ideas across, because I wondered how people would perceive my writing. Revealing yourself in writing is hard, regardless of what parts of it are factual because I believe that all writing reveals some kind of truths.

I think the root of these fears to reveal myself came during my first year of teaching Creative Writing at a high school level. I wanted my students to write a scene placing themselves as a character in third person to get a specific point of view across. I thought it was a great idea to give them a piece of my writing, but not tell them it was about me. “Okay,” I told the class after they silently read the piece I passed out, “What can you tell me about this character from the third person observation I’ve provided? ”

One of my students raised her hand starting a conversation that sounded similar to this, “She’s clueless. She’s walking around at night in jean shorts, a tank top and no shoes. And why is she all sweaty and dirty? She sounds like she’s homeless.”

“Yeah, who hides their money in a bra strap? It sounds to me like she’s on the run from some crime.”

“Well, actually,” I said putting a stop to their debating about whether or not I was in fact a homeless criminal, “The character is overseas in Costa Rica. She’s been outside in the hot sun all day, so she’s not wearing a lot of clothes and she’s carrying her money in her bra because she doesn’t want anyone to steal it as she tries to catch a bus to meet her other friends.”

“Wait,” a student countered, “You mean, she’s not being chased down by some thugs?"

It took me awhile to share some of my writing again, because the situation made me think about how people respond to your writing. The reader may not know that what they’re reading is about you, but there is still that piece of yourself that you put out there in your writing.

Instead of avoiding becoming what I ate, as my mom had instructed, I try not to think about how people view these personal elements that I add to my story. I look at what I contribute to the story choices that will make it stronger. After all, I’ve lived through these events, and now, I am proud to say, “I am what I write,” because somewhere in that writing is a piece of me and my experiences.

So my questions for you are…

Do you draw from personal experiences in your writing?

Is it hard for you to share your writing with others?

If you’re brave enough, what are some of the personal experiences you’ve included in your writing?


Kate said...

I think your writing has to draw on things and situations you know in real life, or it won't ring true to the reader. It doesn't have to exactly mirror your experiences or surroundings, but something in it has to make the reader say, "Oh yeah, I've been there, done that."

My WIP has details that are pulled from my own high school, and some character's traits are pulled from people I know, but none of the settings or characters are a direct one to one corollary with anything or anyone real. But I did pillage some journals from HS and use a few direct quotes to remind myself how emotions really felt at that age. Sorry I just wrote a mini-novel on your blog! :lol: Good post!

Kristan said...

I actually blogged about this the other day:

Fiction: "more true than real life"

But basically, yes, I think all fiction has some truth to it -- whether literal truth, emotional truth, or whatever.

And I wonder, do you worry about what people will think when they read CANARY? Like, will they think you were raped, or ignored by your dad, or whatever? I get that from people a lot -- they assume things about me based on my characters -- and while ultimately I can brush it off because I know it's not true, it can still sometimes be unsettling.

AchingHope said...

I don't know, I've always had trouble with this, because I tend to write about things I don't really know much about. I mean, most of my stories have terrible parents, and both of my parents are wonderful. It was really distressing when I told this one guy I was writing a story and he said: "How cna you write anything? You've never experienced anything." I almost punched him in the face, but I didn't know how, and that would've been rude.

But I suppose I do draw form some personal experiences, like emotions, and stuff like that.