Nearly every writer writes about their own life at one point or another—to varying effects.
Splashing your life on the page doesn’t always result in the intentional Jackson Pollock-esque aesthetic you are hoping for. This is because mining your life for the sake of your art can feel scary and vulnerable. That combination easily leads to an emotional mess, and sometimes, interpersonal fallout.
When writing, you want to include the best details, those which offer truths to which readers can relate, creating a plausible reality even in a sci-fi universe. Like noting how a best friend quickly picks her nose when she thinks no one is looking, or what it feels like after someone you trust assaults you. The latter example may feel harsh, but writing through pain is as beautiful and essential as writing humor or joy. The good news is, whether you are using your personal experiences and observations in memoir, short story, or poem form, you get to choose what you include.
Let me help you make some choices that will hopefully be easy to live with.
Borrowing from or straight-up recording your personal history and observations is a sure-fire way to develop an emotional connection between your reader and your writing.
But what about the vulnerability that comes with letting others see and feel what you have observed? If you intend to share your writing with others, you need to know how much is too much. Again, you get to choose what you include, which means you decide what writing boundaries you will uphold.
To help you decide when to go all in and which details to leave out, ask yourself the following:
Who might the writing hurt?
If the answer is no one, proceed as planned. If the answer is someone, consider who. Is the person a close friend or family member? You can ask them how they feel about what you are writing. Their response will likely be predicated by how visible they feel in your work, whether they are easily identifiable, and how they are portrayed. If it is someone who harmed you (such as an abuser), there is no need to ask unless you are reconciled. Even then, your story is your own. After all, it may hurt you to leave certain details out.
Is this writing honest?
You certainly don’t have to be honest in fiction, and there is no point in bothering a friend if you are writing fictional details based on them. However, if you are writing an alternate interpretation of a conversation you once had, checking in with a friend to let them know it’s a “what if” situation can prevent misunderstanding if and when your writing goes public, especially if their role is vilified.
Is this writing helpful?
How are the details you are including serving you or your story? If you are slapping them on paper simply to unload the burden, you may want to reconsider whether they are truly meant for public consumption or if their release is for personal relief.
There is a considerable difference. Perhaps what is most important is that others read and benefit from (i.e., are entertained or informed by) the work you are creating. Unfortunately, you cannot un-share work that has already been seen. If private details will be exposed, they should serve the writer, reader, or both.
Remember, great writing is based on experience. Through experience, you achieve a deeper understanding of why you, your characters, or your loved ones behave(d) a certain way. From there, you can better relate to your readers through the page.
But you do not need to exploit your own experience to achieve great writing. You can write what will not hurt, what is honest and what is helpful.
An exercise in writing honestly about others
Describe an individual physically. This could be a TV personality, someone in the room with you, or yourself in the mirror. Be indulgent in the level of detail you include. Attempt to portray the person using all five senses. After, look back at your writing and identify what details feel most intimate and consider why. Would you reveal even the most intimate details to a reading public? If you wrote those same details about yourself, does it change your willingness to share them publicly? If someone were to write about you with this level of intimacy, would you want them to share it? Journal about this exercise and the feelings that arose.
Do you write The Truth? How do you grapple with the fear of oversharing, either about yourself or others? Share with us in the comments!
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