Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Writing Yourself


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?


9 thoughts on “Writing Yourself

  1. A very fascinating, in-depth look at characterization. And, I say this as someone who has never had anything published..well, unless my activities in school newspapers and magazine count.

    I found you through a comment on uppington and glad I clicked through because really enjoyed reading the above. Here’s my take on it – it is understandable that sometimes people would draw inspiration from their own lives because that is the richest source of natural material we have available to us. However, for it to be a work of fiction the characters should not be clearly recognizable as people you know because then you are writing a narrative of your experiences (which is what blogs and journals are there for) rather than a book. I admire people who can write fiction like Tolkein, just to use an example, where imagination is so vivid that it overshadows reality and carries us along with it. I don’t know if that made sense but it’s not something I am completely able to do yet so, partly, autobiographical works are also signs of immaturity as an idea generator because you are not at a point yet where your creativity can be sustained purely through imagination. That’s my humble and entirely novice opinion.

    I love the way you describe your books and characters and look forward to finding out more about them.

  2. Hi Venus! I’m glad you found your way over here. I’d have to disagree with you that “autobiographical works are also signs of immaturity.” I think many deservedly famous authors draw heavily on the people and experiences that surround them. I would venture to suggest that it’s not possible to create a completely imaginary character that is not in some way based on somebody you’ve known or met. Isn’t it Ann Lamott who makes the point about making sure to disguise the real life characters who find their way into your novels, so they can’t, or won’t, come forward and talk about what really happened?

    Trudy, I think the reason why we don’t want people to think we’ve drawn on real life situations, is because we are protecting others and ourselves. We don’t want to hurt people; we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. My WIP ‘Swimming North’ is a prime example of this. As you know, the two male characters began their lives based on my two male co-workers. Although they’ve been quite radically altered, there are a number of exchanges and events that are based on real life. And Vivian, the female character, has a romantic interest in both of these men. Somebody who knows me and reads the book, might mistakenly assume that the character of Vivian is based on me, and that I have these sorts of feelings for my co-workers. They would be wrong. But there could be all sorts of fall out from this belief. It’s risky, writing this way. I read a quote the other day that I will paraphrase: “publishing a book is like voluntarily appearing in public with your pants down.” St. Vincent Millay, if I remember correctly.

  3. Megan sounds more like ME than like you in any way! (Maybe it’s the sharing a brain thing).

    Can’t talk about the writing, because I’ve never been able to keep my attention on anything beyond about three pages!

  4. Venus, thanks for dropping over. I think there is some truth to the “immaturity” comment — I’ve heard that most people’s first novels are thinly veiled autobiography, and I know that’s certainly true of mine (now happily out of print these many years). Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — some people write that “thinly veiled autobiography” and it’s BRILLIANT. (Mine wasn’t). But then, do you keep telling that same story over and over or move in new directions? I am pretty sure that whatever I write will always draw on my own life to some extent, but I hope it goes beyond that too. And I hope you will get to read both Sunrise Hope and What You Want sometime soon!

    Uppington, I can see exactly the problem you have with the real-life parallels to the characters in Swimming North, but I’m wondering about your other work-in-progress, Remember, with the kick-ass heroine Yates who used to be a secondary character but wanted to take over the book. Is she autobiographical in any way?

    Jamie, I think maybe both you and Megan are my shadow side. And I do believe in embracing the shadow side of myself. 🙂 You’re such a good writer, if you could get past that attention-span thing … or write a lot of really short pieces (or, like, update your blog more often!)

  5. You ask about Yates. Well, she certainly was not intended to be autobiographical – she sprang into my head, complete with her name and her history, fully clothed and ready to kick some ass. I didn’t realize until the book was half done that she embodies the unrepentant and sometimes twisted voice in the back of my head. The one that thinks of the comebacks I would never say lest someone’s feelings get hurt, and comes up with all sorts of outrageous ideas quickly suppressed. So I guess she is my alter ego, or, as you say, my shadow.

  6. i’m sure my characters are autobiographical on some level. the themes of my novels are most often things that i’m dealing with in my own life, which is why i feel passionate enough to write an entire novel about it. i find that i take my characters, look at their situation, and think, ok, if this were me with this outlook and this situation, what would i do? even with my villian in “martha and mary”, simon who is a sexual abuser, i had to look at what i might do if i had done something terrible, didn’t believe i was wrong, and had my victims looking at me with knowledge in their eyes. (for me, having experienced abuse, it was a sort of inverted autobiography.) when it comes down to it, we are all human with varying degrees of guilt and baggage. if we don’t approach the characters personally, i’m not sure how we can breath life into them.

    • I agree Patty. Even with the most unlikeable character, I have to be able to identify with something, on some level, to make the character real.

  7. With regards to the “shadow” self in writing — I just edited the post to add a cartoon that I originally meant to include but that for some reason I couldn’t upload yesterday. The cartoon suggests that in writing fiction we idealize ourselves, and write our best (or perhaps most interesting?) selves, but I think the opposite is equally true — sometimes we use our writing to explore the darkness, the shadow, the bits we don’t allow into our “real” selves. Or don’t acknowledge.

    I know there is a fearful and timid side of me that most people don’t see, and I think that comes out in a very passive character like Megan. But there’s another “shadow” as well, which is sort like what you describe with Yates, uppington — the side that doesn’t care what people think.

    In another as-yet-unpublished novel (yes I have lots of these), Prone to Wander, I’ve written about three women who I think if put together are really all the aspects of me. Julie, the abused pastor’s wife, is definitely that more passive, frightened woman who won’t take the action needed to make her life better; Liz, the outspoken writer who lives her life exactly as she pleases is that other shadow, the one who is strong without caring who she hurts along the way. The other woman in that novel, Katie, is most like “me as I see myself.” But again, I don’t always set out to write these characters autobiographically, sometimes they just develop that way.

    It’s also interesting when I’m writing about pre-existing Biblical or historical characters, because I’m obvious not TRYING to be autobiographical then, but bits of me definitely creep in to portrayals of Esther, or Deborah, or Esther Johnson. What do we have to work with, except ourselves, after all.

  8. I unashamedly draw from the people around me. I’m fascinated by the dynamics in the relationships of people I know and observe. My mum has read quite a few of my as yet unfinished manuscripts and has had a giggle about who she recognises. And as writing is the way I explain the world to myself, it only makes sense that along with being ‘art’ it is indeed a form of therapy for me. It’s not necessarily ‘fixing’ anything, but certainly helps me understand people better.

    And even when a character is born totally from my imagination, I usually find an incident or turn of phrase or event that seems to fit them beautifully that has come from my reality. I think it’s kind of like planting clues – only those people who know me really well will get the significance.

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