No writer (especially at the beginning of her career) should be naive enough to believe that every single word she writes will be read by at least one person other than herself. As my creative writing teacher put it, ‘if you have a VERY patient spouse, maybe they will read a third of what you write.’ I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is simple: sometimes you need to just write for yourself until the stuff worth bragging about comes out.
The class I’m taking now is called Crafting Fiction from Personal Experience. I’ve always had a problem with writing from experience because I worry what someone might think if something they said to me ended up in my novel. That’s right. I’m incredibly self-conscious of what I put into my stories, and there’s a good chance if you say something to me that I want to use I will disguise it so heavily that you will never know it was you. But this class asks me to put a reign on that. Of course it’s up to me how much of the stuff I write for this class is fiction. The point though, is to take observations from the real world and fictionalize them in a way that creates a universal truth for any and all of your readers.
Universal truths are that kind of elusive, ethereal quality that all writers should be striving for. Somehow though, when I’m asked to create that quality from personal experience, I find it more helpful to ground my stories in reality more heavily than I might normally. To that end, I doubt I will ever show any of the things that I write for this workshop to anyone outside of it, for fear of having a friend or family member say, ‘oh hey this is about me, isn’t it?’
Of course a character might be based on the person reading the story, but no, MY STORY IS NOT ABOUT YOU. And yet it is.
That’s the point of a universal truth, or a well written story.
What I mean is that, when you read a story that is effective in the universal truth department, whether or not you know the author, you feel like the story is about you. So, in an abstract way, any story is about any reader that it resonates with.
If I write down verbatim a conversation that I have with my Aunt Sally (hypothetically) and then rework it so that it fits into a story I’m writing, it’s not necessarily about my Aunt Sally, right? If she reads it and asks me that inane question, “This is about me, right?” My response would be, “I don’t know, is it?” It doesn’t matter that those are her words on the page, what matters is whether the focus of the story resonates with her. If it doesn’t, then it’s not about her. She might not like that I used a conversation I had with her to illustrate my point, but beyond that, it’s only about universal truths. Not every reader is going to like every story, even if it is about them.
So why write these stories if you aren’t ready to share them with your Aunt Sally? Writing things that no one will ever see will make you a better writer. Writing these kinds of stories is an exercise. Even if you will never publish them or show them to outsiders, writing them makes you a better writer. It shows you a new way of doing things that you might not have considered before. Even if you’re not writing Pulitzer material every day, you need to be writing every day, so why not use all the material you can? Do something to get the juices flowing every single day because the faster you get out the crap that you don’t want anyone to read the easier it will be to write. Writing regularly is the only way to get better at it.
My writing instructor gave us an exercise last class that I think anyone out there who is intending to be a writer should try out.
Write two pages on this topic: something you don’t want anyone else in the entire world to know about you, not even your spouse or closest confidant.
If you typed it, print out these pages, then delete the file from your computer permanently.
Find a way to destroy these two pages, preferably, burn them. Other choices include shredding them, eating them etc.
Wait one hour. If you find you can’t live without whatever it is you wrote, go back to your computer or notebook and try to recreate it as best you can.