Friday, March 7, 2014

Personal History: Where We Come From and How It Informs Our Writing

When my first novel was published, the most common question I got was:  Is this autobiographical?  How much of your life is in this book?

I don't know why readers, and interviewers, wonder about that.  Maybe they are trying to see the writer behind the words, align the real life with the made-up one.  I think the deeper question might be:  Where did you get your stuff?  where did these ideas come from?

I couldn't match myself with any of my characters, truthfully.  They were in their late teens, for one.  I barely remember those years.  Glad not to.  They were falling in love for the first time.  I do remember some of that.  One was a championship waterskiier--not me, for sure--and the other was a budding artist--yes, some of that is in my life too.  The location was real, a place I'd spent many summers.  But the story taking place on that lake--the name of the lake, too--was completely made up.

I saw their disappointment when I said this.  No, it's not my life, my history.  But the question made me think.

There was a lot of me in that story, even if the facts weren't from my life.  There was emotional truth, things I value and believe.  Like helping others and doing the right thing.  Like pain and heartache and taking risks.  Like trying to figure out your place in the world, and if you even have one.  And relationships too, echoed some of my personal history.  I grew up with a talented but frustrated artist for a father, someone I loved but didn't get close to until near his death.  My mother was equally talented--and she, like the fictional mother in my novel, flew small planes for many years.  I'd even lost a sibling unexpectedly, as Molly, my heroine, almost did when her brother had his boating accident. 

So, if I tallied up the similarities of emotional truth, there were quite a few.    I had a better answer for those questions.  Yes, there is much of me in this book, even though it never happened to me.  It's a collage of who I am, how my personal history informs my writing.

Why We Get Stuck as Writers
I remember when I was working on the novel.  I got stuck.  A writing friend said to go back to myself, rather than to my characters.  "Mine who you are," she said.  I imagined myself a character in a novel (and sometimes, don't we all feel like one!), with values and beliefs, preferences and fears, things I knew and things I didn't know.  Not the facts of where I grew up, but what I learned about mind, heart, and life in general because of this place, this family, my education, culture, religion, and friends.  From my travels and the books I read.

I realize my effort to make something completely apart from myself was exactly why I was stuck just then in my writing practice.

So I began to reacquaint myself with my own personal history.  Not the facts, but the truths of it.

Writers can get stuck for a lot of reasons.  But a big one for me is not bringing myself into my own writing.  I have to acknowledge and use my personal history.  Otherwise my writing is unsatisfying, and I start to avoid it. 

I'm not talking about the facts of your history, although that will certainly feature in many books.  But don't let the facts get in the way of the truth.  

This week's exercise is what I used to say hello to myself again.  It enriched the writing I did in all the months that followed.  I've adapted it from many sources, but I want to give a particular shout-out to life coach Nancy Okerlund, author of Introverts at Ease and the e-newletter, Introvert Energy.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Spend a few days listing your values.  Focus on the top ten.  Maybe you'd list "being a good neighbor," "order and beauty," "honoring diversity," "having enough money," or "solitude."

2.  Sit with these, maybe even discuss them with a non-critical friend who knows you well.  You're trying to come up with a picture of yourself.  What you believe is most important.

3.  Finally, consider how these values appear in your book.  Are they present at all?  The story may have characters who demonstrate the opposite of your values--that's still having values present in your story, especially if the character realizes some truth by the end.

4.  If you're stuck with your writing, see if placing one of your values into a chapter might make a difference.