One question I think a lot about is: how much, as writers, do we write about ourselves? And when we write about ourselves, how do we do it?
Some writers are blatantly autobiographical, clearly drawing on their own life experiences to derive raw material for their fictional characters. And some writers are quite open about this, while others seem to be ashamed of it. Naming no names, but I can think of at least one local author whose characters’ lives parallel his own life in a few quite obvious ways, yet who goes completely ballistic when reviewers or interviewers suggest that his work is autobiographical.
Which suggests that there’s something wrong, or shameful, about mining your own life for fictional material — perhaps it suggests you’re using your writing as a form of therapy, rather than a Legitimate Work of Art. Or maybe people feel it implies they’re not creative enough to make up entirely new characters off the tops of their heads. Other than that, I can’t think of any reason why someone would feel threatened by having their work described as “autobiographical.”
What is frustrating, I guess (and this may be where some writers’ distaste for the idea comes from), is when someone assumes they can draw conclusions about your real life from something you’ve written in a book — assuming, in other words, that because you’ve used autobiographical material in your writing, everything you write must be autobiographical. (Here I will name names, and comment that my friend Tina Chaulk handles this issue well in her FAQ for the book This Much is True, a title which right there starts the reader asking “How much of this is true?”)
But there should be no shame in an author drawing on his or her own life experience for a story. What else do we have to work with, but ourselves? I don’t think I’ve ever written a book in which some part of some character was not based on myself or my own experience, though how far those parallels go differs depending on what I’m writing.
Two works-in-progress that I have on the go now illustrate this really well for me. In both Sunrise Hope (coming out in 2010 from Review and Herald) and What You Want (coming out sometime, with some publisher, somewhere, I pray!) my protagonist is a smart, articulate young woman in her 20s, who comes from a conservative religious background and is either in grad school or has just finished — in one case, an English M.A., in the other a degree in social work. (I have an M.A. in English and an M.Ed. in counselling psychology). So it’s pretty easy to look at either character and see ways in which she’s similar to me at that same time in my life.
When you dig a little deeper, the two characters couldn’t be more different from each other. Stephanie, in Sunrise Hope, suffers from, if anything, an excess of self-confidence. She loves her work, really believes she can handle any situation life throws at her, and enjoys a challenge. She is a woman of faith who believes God is using her, and she’s very motivated and goal-oriented. The biggest crisis in Steph’s life is going to come when she realizes there are things she can’t handle and that she cannot, in fact, save the world, or even the people she loves.
Megan, in What You Want, is outwardly successful — a graduate student in English — but inwardly a mess. She’s a people-pleaser who’s incapable of making a firm decision about her own life, and is drifting towards a career she knows she won’t enjoy because she can’t think of anything else to do. She’s pretty much lost her faith, but still carries the baggage of her churchy upbringing — particularly her virginity — because, again, she hasn’t been able to make the choice to move in any other direction.
There’s no doubt that Stephanie is far more like me. In fact, part of the challenge of writing Megan’s character is that she’s so different from me: I have to keep asking myself, “How does a person get to the point in life where they’re this passive? Where they care more about pleasing and appeasing others than about pursuing their own goals? How does a woman become so detached from her self that she literally does not know what she wants?”
But a lot of the details of Megan’s biography are very similar to mine. In writing Stephanie, my main question was, “What would happen if you took a girl like me — like I was at 25, anyway — and thrust her into this particular challenging situation, which I did not have to face at that age?” With Megan, the autobiographical question was, “What if someone came from the same kind of life, the same kind of experiences I’ve had, but reacted to it in a completely different way? Given these same life ingredients, could you produce another woman entirely, with a whole different outlook on life?”
I don’t mean that I really approached it that analytically, at least not in initially creating the characters. Characters spring into my head as their own little selves; it’s only in the process of writing them that I start to see parallels to myself or to people I know, and try to tease out those strands, see how I use those parallels — or subvert them — to make the characters more real and lifelike.
So yes, I definitely write characters based on myself. But no character I’ve ever written is me, or is “just” me. Many of them are variations on a Theme of Me, picking up some aspect of my character or experience and playing around with it to produce something unique.
I always assume, though I think it’s a wrong assumption, that other writers approach things much the same way I do. In fact, there are as many different approaches to writing as there are different writers, and I guess everyone has a different relationship to this idea of using your own autobiography in your writing.
So: writers out there, tell me how you do it? Do you consciously use your own life, your own experiences, in your characters? Or do you not try consciously to do it, but see that it’s crept in anyway? Or do you see no overlap at all between your life and the lives of your fictional characters?
And if you’re not a writer, tell me what you think as a reader. Do you look for, or care about, parallels between a writer’s own life and the characters s/he writes about? Does it irritate you or please you if you can see those parallels? Is using autobiography in writing inevitable, or just self-indulgent?