'Write what you know' is age-old writing advice that has been given to us writers time and time again. While we can decide how to interpret this, writing about your own life and your own experiences is that path that many writers choose to take.
Even in highly fictionalised work, we can’t help but be influenced by what we have experienced in our own lives, the people we’ve met, the places we’ve been, the conversations we’ve overheard. Times of joy, of loss, of anger - the way we feel, what we have endured - all these things come out in our stories, whether we consciously decide to include them or not.
Harnessing what happens in your life and using that to influence your stories, whether a memoir or a piece of fiction can be an incredibly powerful tool for a writer. But how do we do it? Here are some helpful tips:
Keep a notebook with you at all times
Keeping a notebook handy wherever you go is a sage piece of advice for any writer. You never know when a thought might strike you that you want to use in your story. You also never know when you might overhear a conversation or have an experience that you want to remember in exacting detail. A notebook allows you to capture everything you are thinking, feeling and experiencing at that moment so no detail will be lost later.
I haven't been doing this one, but now I think I should. I'm sure I can find one that's small enough to carry in my purse.
Get in touch with your emotions
Being able to capture and express emotions is hugely important when it comes to writing. We need our readers to be able to engage with our story, and the characters within it, on an emotional level. Whenever you feel an emotion strongly try to write about it, what caused it? How do you physically feel? If it involved another person, how did they react? What thoughts went through your mind? Being able to really capture the details of our emotions will make them all the more real, raw and beautiful when we express them on the page.
Before I decided on a memoir, I'd also considered the possibility of a novel, but when I began taking notes, it began sounding more like memoir. Either way, it would have been based on my life experiences with depression and beginning on Prozac.
Decide what you are comfortable with
Of course, when you choose to write about your life you have to decide how much you want to expose. If you are writing a memoir readers will expect you to get down to the nitty-gritty, to share personal secrets, to expose your flaws. If you are using your life experiences in a work of fiction you need to decide how far you will stray from the truth, and which experiences you are comfortable retelling and sharing with the world. Say yes to things outside of your comfort zone
The more our lives are full and interesting, the more we will be inspired to use them in our work. Get out there and live the most exciting life you can. A good story is full of unexpected events and by going outside of our comfort zone and saying yes to things we perhaps wouldn’t usually, we often find ourselves in situations which are simply too good/ scary/ funny/ bizarre not to share with our readers!
For both of these, I decided to say what I felt mattered to the focus of the memoir. Though it's a true story, I did exaggerate some details, but kept them as close to the truth as possible.
Engage with others
Talk to people. Everyone you can. The most interesting stories have a range of characters and perspectives and to write them well, you must have experience with a range of people in the outside world! Even engaging with people you don’t like can be helpful for that villainous character - the evil doctor, the controlling husband, the mean boss. The more you talk to people the more they will open up and share their stories with you too.
This is one I haven't done much of, almost none at all. I have told many people I know about my memoir, since I have mentioned it on Facebook. I now am trying to think who I wold possibly need to talk to about this. I now wonder if I should explain more about why and how I was diagnosed as dysthymic. I've also considered writing an afterword to my story, explaining some things mentioned such as SSRIs, my hometown and other things mentioned that readers may not readily know about.
Use your senses
Try to pause in your life, and really zone in on what you are feeling, seeing, smelling touching, tasting and so on. Often it is easy to go days without really concentrating on our senses. Next time you are out walking really listen, really look, really smell and note down what occurs to you. If you are in a bustling city pay attention to what is happening, the noises, the people. Observant details that ring true help readers immerse themselves in a story, so even everyday experiences can be used to help make our writing better.
We often feel differently about things that have happened after time has passed. Memories change, emotions settle, we move on. Reflect on things that have happened to you in your past - how do you feel about them now, what would you have done differently, if anything at all? Writing about our pasts and how time has changed us can also be powerful fuel for any story.
I've tried my best to recall what incidents contributed to my feelings of depression and describe them as accurately as possible. Not everything can be exact, but I've described them as best as I can, again possibly exaggerating some details.
Writing about your life is a great way to reach out to readers and connect with them. Whatever kind of story we are writing, we can use our lives to help make it richer, more interesting and more real.
I'd have to say this is basically what I have been doing.