Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing
This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea. But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.
You avoid crucial scenes
One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.
One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.
I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.
When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!
So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.
In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.
Your writing goes flat
Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.
My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.
She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”
We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”
My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”
Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?
In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.
I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?