Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I don't do in my writing - autobiographical writing

In an attempt to figure out what's not working in my fiction I've decided to look at the things that are working . . . at least the things that I think are working in my fiction. If I can eliminate things I don't have to worry about maybe I can narrow things down to the things I should be worrying about.

The first thing is autobiographical writing. You know, that old "write what you know" advice all new writers get. I can't stand when a new writer who grew up on a small dairy farm, drops out of high school and moves to New York to make it as an actor writes a book about a someone who grew up on a small dairy farm, drops out of high school and travels to New York to make it as an actor. They're not writing this as a memoir or truth and real life stuff, they're writing it as fiction. Something made up and pretend. The characters are never engaging to me unless the story is told brilliantly and most new writer's can't do that yet in their writing, myself included. Besides I think it's very egotistical to think that your personal life would make a great story. It might be fascinating to you but to the rest of us we've got our own fascinating life. Besides, if you write your life as a fiction book first then you've got nothing left to write for your autobiography. And if you want to write another fiction book where are you going to turn for inspiration if you've exhausted all aspects of your life with your first book?

Now I wouldn't say my life has been a roller coaster ride but it's had it's moments. From the stories my mother told me of when, where and how I was born to the corneal transplant I had a few years ago I'm sure there's good stuff for a story. But I'm not going to use it that way. Not exactly anyway. The stories of living on an Air Force base in the middle of a war might prove interesting material if I decide to write a story about war or soldiers or what not. And my corneal transplant experience might make a good thriller but I'm not going to chronicle my whole life into one story.

If I want a character in one of my stories to be overwhelmed with the grief of soldiers dying in war I could write a scene with a mother washing dishes in the sink only to look out the window to see rows upon rows of pine boxes being unloaded from a transport plane. Heck I wouldn't even need to set it in a real world setting. Maybe she lives on a space ship and is picking up something at the supply depot (next to the loading bays) and sees dead soldiers caskets being loaded into ships to be given a space burial. Yes, it's a part of my life but I don't have to write it as such.

Too many new writers take that "write what you know" advice seriously and literally. I don't. Yes, you need to experience things in life so you know what it's like for your characters to experience things in your story but they don't have to be the same thing. I could take that mother on the spaceship and instead of seeing dead soldiers she could be looking at rows of children being taught and trained by the military from a young age to be soldiers. Maybe she feels the grief and loss of their childhood. Maybe she feels the grief and loss as her own son turns to look at her and there's no recognition in his eyes of who she is. That would certainly cause of mother to grieve. But that's not how it all happened and that's okay. New writer's need to learn that.

For me I'm much more fascinated by imaging different things that could be instead of reimagining my own life. Yes, I'll draw on my life for inspiration from time to time but I'm not going to write my first fiction novel thinly disguised as my life. When I write about my life it'll be my autobiography. And I think you should too.

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