Day 795: Writing about Your Own Life

Writers often take their material from their own lives or base the stories on something they heard. Some even start writing because the story inside them leaves them no other chance than to tell it. It doesn’t leave them alone until they have shared it with the rest of the world. I felt something similar at the beginning of 2011 when I actually jumped out of the bed, went to the living room at midnight and wrote down the first ideas for the novel that finally became my MA “assignment” (I can’t call it a “thesis”, can I?). I worked on parts of it throughout my year at Bath Spa University. It was workshopped, critiqued, torn down, praised… I submitted about 38,000 words (total length by now: around 99,000) of it to be marked. Eventually, I got round to completing it in 2015, having put it away for some time because I was fed up with it. Now, I am at it again. In 2018, I set off to translate it into Estonian (obviously, it’s in English because I was studying in the UK) but wanted to throw up after the first page. The writing lacked a spark. But it is my story. How can it be so boring? A few weeks back, I started a complete rewrite of the story, carried away by the ideas of James N. Frey and his ideas of dramatic storytelling that he presented in the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel. The process has been both reassuring (I can write, there are quite great bits in there) and painful.

It’s your story, it’s painful

Not often do people want to write about the great things that happened to them. It is in fact scientifically proven that negative experience is more deeply imprinted in the memory. It can and will come back haunting you. It’s a survival mechanism, really. The brain wants you to survive and thus records the bad events more precisely than the good ones. If something bad comes your way, the brain wants to be alert and recognise the danger. It doesn’t matter whether it recognises a good thing – good things can come your way, there’s no need to pinpoint them and then escape from them.

If something bad happens, you might want to share it with the world. Look, I had to go through all this, this has made me! Or… be warned, all this could happen to you as well. My story is not extraordinarily tragic. It’s a story about a ruined relationship, about finding oneself. Happens to everyone, right? Oddly enough, the parts I am struggling with the most are actually the happy ones. They have made me think about everything I have lost. Why don’t I have such intense feelings anymore? Where’s my passion? Where’s that excitement I felt back then? Why have I become so numb? I can become quite emotional when writing those parts that come from memory. It’s much easier to work on these bits that are not mine, to work on completely fictional characters.

Possibly, the best thing might not be distancing yourself from the pain. Escaping it doesn’t make the events obsolete. I’m not saying you should suffer too much because of things that happened in the past but do suffer a little. And then exaggerate that suffering to make a compelling story. If you’re writing fiction, you can tweak bits and pieces of the story. It only makes it better. It makes it fiction.

Make it more dramatic!

Like already mentioned in the previous paragraph, you don’t have to record the events exactly as they were. You are not writing an autobiography, you are writing fiction. Even if you feel the urge to write about only the facts, believe me, fiction could be better. I remember all those workshops when someone said that the characters were boring or not passionate enough. I was thinking: “But that’s what happened! That’s my story!” When I look back, I know they were right. When creating fiction, you do need to distance yourself from yourself and your ego. You do need to make the story bigger, cut out the boring details and add some drama. I have rewritten a few scenes of my novel. The previous beginning was utterly dull because I was trying too hard to explain where my characters came from. Who cares about that? Give the readers some action! And then introduce the characters through their activities.

By adding some events and getting rid of others, you can distance yourself from your own drama and the possible negative impact the events had on you. Play around with your characters, put them even in more trouble! Let them suffer! “Kill your darlings,” as Stephen King suggested in his incredible book On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. You need this to bring the story to life.

One good thing about not relying too much on real life is that you can continue to look your friends and family in the eye. You can always tell them it was not your past, it’s just a story. And if you are transforming some of your loved ones into characters, do change them. Piece them together from different persons, not only one prototype. Do this if you don’t want to fall out with them. They can possibly recognise themselves if you paint them too similar to real life.

Progress Report

1. Own and live in a house.

Hmm, did I do anything to bring in more money? Not sure. Did work on some of our company’s development plans so this could have a long-term effect which will start soon.

2. Write AND publish a book.

Spent a few Pomodoros (the 25-minute deep focusing technique) on my novel. At first, I really struggled with my memories and had a hard time writing it. Then, I added some things that didn’t really happen and actually felt better. Some more drama! Soon, I shall be over the first part that I took from my own past and it will hopefully get better.

3. Win a major race.

Second run during my rest week. Thursdays in winter mean going to the indoor arena for running drills and some speedwork (100-metre sprints). Drills, sprints (10×100 m), hurdle exercises – almost 2 hours in there. I have felt better but all in all, it was a good workout.

Photo of the Day

Feels almost like spring. View from our office window. Yes, these are train tracks.
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