I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s outstanding 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. Some reviewers speculated the novel was autobiographical, as it focused on Eugenides’s hometown of Detroit and his Greek heritage, but it was not. ”I wanted to write about hermaphroditism,” Eugenides said in an interview with The New York Times. ”But hermaphroditism led to classicism, classicism led to Hellenism, Hellenism to my Uncle Pete. I didn’t set out to write a Greek-American novel. I used the history because it served my story.”
Eugenides is not alone. Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, featured parallels with his life growing up in Chicago. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle are other examples, though they are closer to memoir. Ernest Hemingway’s fiction often alluded to his life experiences.
Writers often draw on their own life experiences in their stories. There is a temptation among novice writers to base their first novel entirely on their own lives. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences as a springboard or gleaning traits from real-life characters to breathe life into your fictional characters.
Personally, I feel uncomfortable writing about my own life. First, it’s just not that interesting. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a wonderful life (channeling George Bailey), rich in meaningful experiences, friendships, and joys. My life is fine. It’s just not the stuff of fiction. Second, I believe it’s an invasion of my family and friends’ privacy to use them in a work of fiction.
Clearly, though, writers create their fictional worlds through the prism of their experiences. Write what you know. We’ve all heard that one before. The truth is we all know a lot more than we think we do. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a high-speed chase, but I’ve been a passenger in a car going too fast for comfort. I don’t know what it’s like to undergo brain surgery, but I do know what it’s like to go under the knife.
My first novel, Small Change, was not based in any way on my life. None of the things that happened to the main character, John Sykowski, ever happened to me. However, reflecting on the book, I realized the main character embodied many of my adolescent hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. No, John was not me. I was probably a mix of John and his carefree younger brother, Paul. At some level, writers infuse their characters with their own world view and perspective.
Writing a fictional story based on your life doesn’t strike me as a good idea, unless you are willing to change the facts to protect your family and friends. Here are a few tips for how you can draw on your rich life’s experiences in fiction:
- Take the most interesting person you know (okay, not the Dos Equis guy) and redraw him in a way that is unrecognizable. If the person is a woman, write a male character with the same traits. If the person is a doctor, make him a lawyer. You get the idea.
- Rewrite a dramatic event in your life by having it happen in a different way. Let’s say you were robbed at gunpoint and feared for your life. How about changing it up so your character is beaten senseless. If you were in a car accident, turn it into a boating accident.
- If you were mistreated or had your heart broken in a relationship, change the gender of the abuser and alter the facts and events.
You get the picture. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all drink from the wellspring of our own experiences for inspiration and story ideas. That’s fine, as long you don’t compose a note-for-note duplication of your life. After all, as my character said in Small Change, a cover version of a song is never as good as the original.
How much of your own experiences do you use in your fiction writing?