Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Merging Experience and Fiction (Write what you know)

I just finished writing a chapter that I would not have been able to write ten years ago.

This is not entirely true; I could have written the chapter, but it wouldn't have come out the way it did. I mean, I know my characters really well. I've thought through their personal histories and their cultural backgrounds and all of that, which puts me in a good position to delve into the layers of their reactions to events. I know, for example, that my antagonist is not going to respond to a pass in the way normal people would because he's more interested in experiences that can stop him from entering obsessive thought cycles than he is in falling in love, or even experiencing simple physical pleasure. Since I'm not subject to these obsessive cycles myself, this kind of writing does not access my own personal experience...except inasmuch as I'm very good at internalizing certain kinds of language patterns, so I've "learned his language."

But for the chapter I just wrote, I used my own experience - of childbirth, and motherhood.

I've spoken to a couple of people about this chapter, and on both occasions I was asked whether this was my own experience. My husband even asked me if I was ever afraid that my son was going to die. In fact, I wasn't at all - never once.

So what did I actually give to this chapter from my own experience?

In this chapter a critical female character is speaking to her servant about the birth of her son, while the two of them watch over him in a sickbed (he's in danger of dying). My gloss for what she would speak to him about was this: "She talks about what her son means to her." Super-vague. When I got to the point of writing it I realized that she could explain what her son means to her by telling the story of how he was born, and illuminate aspects of her own life experience at the same time. I didn't hesitate to go to my own experience at this point - as a resource which I could then fit to the needs of the story.

Here's sort of how the process went.
  1. "I need to have her describe a difficult first birth experience."
  2. "Hey, my first birth experience was difficult!"
  3. "Yeah, but she can't have had a C-section. No problem, I'll just say she didn't have one."
  4. "Even if she didn't have a C-section, her baby can still have been weak at birth and taken away for treatment, like mine. That totally fits with the whole weak-blood-of-the-nobility thing."
  5. "But because she's scared in this chapter that he'll die, she has to have been scared back then too that her baby would die. So I'll say they kept him away longer than mine."
  6. "Hey, I bet I could also use that frustrated feeling I got with my second child when they didn't show her to me for an hour. An hour would be a good time frame."
  7. "Shoot, and she's got this cad of a husband (unlike me!!!) who cares more about sustaining the population of the nobility than he does about her, and so she must have been really worried about how he'd react if the baby died."
  8. "Boy, I remember how I felt when I realized my son would be okay. So that means she won't have been able to be happy precisely, but that she'll have cried and promised him the two of them would be okay."
  9. "And that means that she'll want more than ever in the current scene to promise him that he'll be okay."
  10. "And imagine how helpless she'd feel! Wow, that's exactly what I've felt like when I have been up late at night over a baby with a fever and the telephone next to me in case the advice nurse calls back."
It was therefore on the basis of this thought process that I wrote the chapter in question. I think it's interesting to note that I didn't use only one of my own experiences. I used three. The framework was my own first birth experience, but on two occasions I accessed other emotional states that I had experienced with my children - the delay in seeing my newborn daughter, and the fear of sitting up with a sick child.

What is in the chapter now isn't my experience at all. It's entirely hers - her trials and her fears in her social context. But because I experienced something like it, I know that the feelings that I'm trying to evoke are real, and that the chapter is stronger as a result.


  1. Interesting post - you're right that what we experience in our own lives is important for what we write!

  2. I sometimes find it difficult to call upon personal experiences when writing science fiction, especially scenarios that are somewhat out of my element. But I agree, it certainly helps and can lend an authenticity to a scene if you're writing with true emotions and true experiences.

  3. Thanks for the look into your writing process! Love the tip to incorporating and blending personal experiences to make a scene more real. I think that's how I come up with a lot of my ideas - I take an emotional experience and think, "What's a situation where a character can feel that, but even more intensely?"

  4. Trisha, thanks!

    Conor, interesting point. I think I'll do a post specifically about sf at your suggestion.

    Linda, you're welcome! I agree about wanting to make things more intense. In this case it wasn't so much a difference of intensity, but the blend of thoughts was different because of the difference between my life conditions and my character's.

  5. Nice how you were able to access those moments. When I was writing my first birth scene, I hadn't yet had my kids, and in some ways that helped the scene. I had odd birth experiences (though they did take my baby while I was sleeping and never brought him back :p (I'd been told to turn my phone off to get some sleep and never thought to turn it back on :p)), but the one I needed to write was a difficult one on several levels. So I accessed the feeling of things that are expected not coming out that way. The combination of frustration and even fear, like when I'd climbed to the top of a mountain and looked down (I'm afraid of heights but love climbing). So yes, our personal experiences are wonderful fonts when we need to zero in on the sense of a moment, but they don't have to be parallel, and sometimes it's good that they're not.

  6. I agree, Margaret. One thing is that the emotional states associated with an event are multifold, and just because we haven't had precisely that experience doesn't mean we can't access mental states that might go into the mix from other contexts.

  7. Very insightful and interesting article! I love seeing behind the curtain of how other writers think!

  8. Thank you very much, Todd! I'm glad you enjoyed it.