writing tip of the week: writing from real life

My last few posts have been (obliquely) on teaching, but I identify first as a writer, and I wanted my new blog post to reflect that aspect of my identity. And so the weekly writing tip was born—though I have to wonder if I can, in good faith, call it weekly before I’ve shown a commitment to that schedule. We’ll see!

This week’s tip was inspired by something I hear frequently—from friends, family, acquaintances, people I met randomly five minutes earlier, etc. It may be a throw away comment from some people, and to others I see how they are trying to establish a connection with me, but it almost always makes me wince inside a little bit.

What happens is this: I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll tell me a story. Usually it’s a story about something weird that happened, or a story about something sad, or bad. And I’m listening, and I’m interested, and then the person will say this: “I should write a book about that.”

And maybe the person should write a book about it. Goodness knows that a lot of successful nonfiction (and even fiction) has come about in response to events that happened in a person’s life. But what many amateur or aspiring writers fail to realize is that there’s a difference between a good anecdote and a good story.

Take this example: in my first grad school workshop, I submitted a story about an eighth-grade girl who was heartbroken to learn that her older brother (who was also her best friend) was not going to come home from college over summer break because he wanted to stay with his girlfriend. In one scene, the main character, Amelia, was at school, and one of her classmates jokingly asks her to the eighth-grade dance, and when she takes the question seriously, all of the boy’s friends laugh at her.

This scene was something that happened to me in eighth grade. I was asked out as a joke then made fun of more for not realizing I was already being made fun of. I wrote out what had happened to me, changed the names of the characters, and plopped it in my story.

In workshop, it did not go over well. It felt out of place, my classmates said. It was too different from the prose around it. They didn’t understand the reason for the scene, but most of all, they said it wasn’t believable. I sat there shocked, drawing more and more in on myself, until the workshop finally ended and my professor asked if I had any questions. “That scene when Amelia gets asked out?” I said. “That really happened to me.”

My professor just looked at me. “But it’s not believable in this story. It’s not the right moment right now.”

And it wasn’t.

In the end, I went back and edited that scene, and in the new draft of the story I brought to workshop, no one had a problem with that moment anymore. But to get it to that point, I had to give the experience fully to my character. I had to change the reality I’d experienced so that it made sense for someone else. I had to edit out the little details that meant something to me (because we remember strange things about times that hurt us) but that meant nothing to the reader, or to my character. I even had to change Amelia’s reaction, because she wasn’t me and I knew she’d react differently. Then, and only then, did that scene work in the piece.

So remember that the next time something strange happens in your life and you want to write about it. The story you would tell your friends at the bar is probably not the story that belongs on paper. Even if you’re writing nonfiction, you have to choose which details to bring to the front and which to let fade away, which reaction and consequences you’ll highlight and which you’ll let take more of a backseat. Good writing does more than simply transcribe life—it takes on a life of its own.

*Please note that I label these tips and not rules, and even if I had called them rules, I’m a firm believer that sometimes breaking the rules is the best thing for your writing. Writing isn’t about memorizing a set of rules and following them, but I do believe there are certain guidelines that, more often than not, will help writers improve—either by following them or by breaking them intentionally.

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