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5 Tips for Writing About Real Life Experiences

Last weekend, I started watching the Amazon limited series adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel Daisy Jones & the Six. I loved, loved, loved this book and have been waiting for this show to be released since they first announced it four years ago.

It’s the story of a rock band in the mid-1970s, their meteoric rise, and the personal conflicts and life events that led to their downfall. (If you’ve read my novel-in-stories, The Goodbye-Love Generation, you know I love this kind of thing.)

What I’m discovering in watching actors dramatize the story instead of just reading it on my own is that it’s a story about extraordinarily talented, creative people and the conflicts that erupt when deeply personal, real-life experience enters their writing.

I have more to say about this series, and perhaps I’ll dig into it after the final episode airs, but for now, I want to talk about one scene I saw the other night that got me thinking about this topic.

One of the central characters, Billy, is the lead singer of a band that gets everything it wants—a record deal, a successful album, and a tour. What Billy doesn’t expect is that life as a rock star is full of temptations. He falls victim to addiction and cheats on his wife, Camilla, who is pregnant with their daughter. In the end, his antics destroy the band. Their tour gets canceled, the record label drops them, and just like that, it’s over.

Ashamed at failing his wife and daughter, Billy goes to rehab and emerges determined to do better. As a response, he writes a song proclaiming to Camilla that he believes their story isn’t over and that he will give their family a fresh start.

The song is good enough to get Billy and his friends a second chance in the recording studio (with some caveats—you’ll have to watch the show to see how it all plays out)—but his producer tells him it isn’t great. It’s not a hit record and won’t be enough to get the band back on top. Not in its current form.

So, he insists on taking Billy’s proclamation of hope and turning it into a searing breakup song. Which really, really makes Billy mad.

Admittedly, the producer is right—the revision, just from a lyrical perspective, is a lot punchier. But Billy is too close to the events of life that inspired the song to see that what’s best for him isn’t necessarily best for the work.

This is a question that all writers who create work based on their own lives—especially fiction— have to consider. Real life is an endless source of inspiration for writing; Flannery O’Connor famously said that anyone who has lived to the age of twelve has enough to write about for a lifetime.

But once real-life experiences enter your writing, they stop being solely yours. Instead, you must share ownership of them with your readers and be prepared to do whatever is necessary to create the most powerful experience you can.

Here are five things to remember when writing stories about your real-life experiences.

Use Your Memories as Inspiration—Not the Center of the Story

I can’t help but include my memories in some form when I write. Concrete details are the building blocks of such memories—even if I’m inventing the circumstances of a story, real places, people, and senses can’t help but find their way into it.

When we recognize that our stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, are made of the concrete details we observe and experience, we can recognize the place of significance our memories take in our work.

The problems enter when you try to make your memories the central focus of a story rather than build more significant conflicts or ideas around them.

If you’re married to portraying things “exactly” as they happened, you might miss the details that would resonate with readers most. Instead, look at your memories as tools you can use to shape your story rather than the story itself.

Look for the “Real Story” That’s Bigger Than Your Personal Experience

The best writing happens when you can detach from your agenda for your work and instead just let the work do what it wants to do. That might sound mystical, but in a way, writing is a mysterious process.

Taking the thoughts in your head and distilling them into words that an audience will eventually read often happens in unexplainable ways. It’s about letting go of control—once you let the creative part of your mind take charge, you relinquish your desire to manage the process and instead end up with surprising material and have no idea where it came from.

When you stop being legalistic with your personal experience and use it as the raw material for creating a story instead of deliberately it exactly like real-life, you might be surprised at what stories emerge.

Take Advantage of the Distance and Perspective Time Gives You

Because of the freedom you have with writing as a format, you don’t have to stay in one linear moment in your personal history. Yes, you can write the story from the perspective of a character who is the age you were when the events happened—but you can also use the way you now see the experience to add extra layers to the story.

Think about how you experienced the event when it occurred, but also reflect on how time has changed your perspective. You now have the benefit of looking back and seeing how the event shaped you throughout your life.

Being aware of these insights can powerfully help you to shape your story.

Be Open to Turning Your Story into Something You Never Experienced

I talked about this earlier . . . but writing is ultimately about letting go of your intentions for a piece and instead letting the creative process do its thing.

If you are micromanaging your story, your readers will be able to tell. Your voice as the author will be louder than the voices on the page. This is true even if you’re writing nonfiction—a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to telling personal stories is dead and lifeless compared to an approach that lets you explore it in greater depth.

You might even discover that you’re writing in the wrong genre. If you’re writing fiction, you might realize that your story needs to be a personal essay. I’ve had the experience of writing poetry that needed to be flash nonfiction or fiction.

When you let go of control in writing about your personal experiences, the other thing that happens is that you might come to uncomfortable revelations about your life.

For example, in writing about a fictional character, you might see a side of yourself or another person you previously ignored. If you’re writing nonfiction, you might be led to an uncomfortable realization about how you handled those events.

When this discomfort happens, it’s not the time to shut down. It just means that, as the author, you’re doing your job in writing about your personal experiences in a way that will capture readers’ attention.

Keep Ethical Considerations in Mind

If you are writing a story inspired by a difficult experience for a family member or a controversial event that happened between you and someone else, there are a host of ethical concerns that can come to mind.

You want to make sure that you create something powerful from that experience, but you also need to preserve the dignity of other people involved.

If you’re writing fiction, you can change the story to the point where the emotional core is still present, even if the circumstances are entirely different.

But if you’re writing nonfiction, you might have to omit key details, including places and names, to keep from identifying particular individuals.

In the case of very sensitive situations, you might even have to decide not to write about it at all.

The point is to remember that your words have the potential to bring life to readers or to crush them. So, yes, telling the truth is important—but it’s critical to think about the impact on those who are inadvertently becoming players in your work.

Need More Resources to Write About Personal Experience?

Writing fiction based on personal experiences is an act of transformation and creation that can be full of discovery, but sometimes you need the right tools to start the process.

That’s where the Ultimate Writing Project Workbook comes in.

It contains tools, templates, worksheets, writing prompts, and much more to help you tell your story and combine all the pieces.

It’s the fastest, easiest way to start getting your project underway and reach your full creative potential as a writer so you can impact and inspire readers . . .

. . . and it’s FREE.

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