I had a book signing on Saturday, and I got to see some friends I haven’t visited with in a while. It was a successful signing, but more than that it was a successful hanging-out-with-friends event. When ever you get writers together, the conversation naturally ends up with “What are you working on now?” It was in the middle of one such discussion that a guest at the signing asked us “How much of your real life goes into your books?”
The qualified answer was “That depends.”
Certainly every writer includes their own experiences to some extent or another. In My Brother the Dog, I dug back through my own memories of being 14 and fleshed them out on the page – but by no means does that mean that the main character and I are the same. The original concept of the story came from stories about my mom and my uncle when they were younger. In order to keep my uncle from misbehaving, my mother put her little brother on a leash. I thought it would be funny if the little kid actually liked being on a leash, and the central idea of the character was born. But again, this isn’t a story about my mom and my uncle.
My upcoming novel, The Deepest Blue, has a lot of my personal experience in losing my dad, but it was based on my oldest daughter’s choice to be adopted by her step-dad. Many of the characters are based on real people, but some of them are amalgams of more than one person. It isn’t my story, nor is it even my daughter’s story, but there are aspects of each of us, as well as my step-son (who has chosen to have me adopt him) included.
As we were talking on Saturday, one of the things we discussed was the idea that – even if we don’t intend it – friends, family, and even total strangers believe that they see themselves or us in the stories we write. My sister was convinced that the scene in Dog where the main character gets her first kiss was completely based on my own experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. My apologies to Doug Wilson – if you’re out there somewhere and remember me – but my first kiss was a slobbery mess that made me want to avoid kissing for a significant portion of my life. It was nowhere near as memorable as the main character’s was, and it certainly wasn’t as neat and tidy.
Most writers will admit to having some sort of emotional leakage into their work. We draw upon those feelings and experiences we’ve had to impart a realistic quality to our characters and the situations they find themselves in. How do you write about a character’s anger or excitement without first tapping into your own experience of it? But as to how much of the character is me? Not much. Writing about me, or using my life as the only basis of my books would mean I’d run out of material pretty quickly. I’m only one person with one set of life experiences. If I only culled my life for material, it would be boring. I take information and inspiration from a lot of places and a lot of people, as do most of the writers I know. In fact, most of us would admit that our own lives were hardly worth writing about, and maybe that’s why we write fiction – to temporarily submerse ourselves in someone else’s experience. Even the writers that I know who’ve lived fairly exciting lives admit that they don’t want to write about themselves; they’d rather use someone else as the conduit for their stories to make them better stories in the end.
The hard thing for some newer writers is that they cling to the concept of “It really happened this way.” That may be true, and it may have been really important to you at the time, but that doesn’t mean that it will make for a good story. There are very few lives that have been so significant as to warrant a whole book dedicated to just that person – with noted historical and celebrity exceptions. Recent news bears out the fact that even a good autobiography occassionally suffers from the need to add a little fiction (A Million Little Pieces comes to mind). A publisher is going to look at your life story and ask you “What makes you think others will want to read this?” Let’s face it – the human experience is one of complex events that work together to make us the individuals that we are. Yes, you may have a fascinating life filled with the trials of Job or the lessons of Aesop, but why will someone pay money to read it? The bottom line to publishing is the bottom line: if it won’t make money, it doesn’t matter how unique/interesting/frightening/fill-in-your-adjective your book is.
The best advice has always been “Write a good story.” If some of it is real, that’s fine. If some of it is based on you, that’s fine, too. If some of it is utterly made up, that’s really okay. Everything should work to serve the story, not your need to record your history for your children and grandchildren. That’s an entirely different kind of writing.
So how much is me? As much as I need to make the character and the story believable. That’s all. That’s enough.