“Write what you know,” runs the conventional wisdom of creative writing courses everywhere. The underlying sentiment of this advice, of course, is “write from a place of emotional truth” not “write your actual autobiographical experiences” but it’s easy to see how the two get conflated.

Lately, with no writing projects in the works to distract me, I’ve been looking back over the narrative of my own life to try to mine my own experiences for inspiration. Art imitates life, after all, and introspection is one of my default modes (for better or worse). The trickiest part of this isn’t figuring out where to start: there are plenty of interesting moments that could launch a good story, but rather knowing where to stop. Endings are hard. And arbitrary. Stories have endings, but real life just keeps going and morphs into more story. It’s kind of like the scroll bar on a Word document: the more you write the more blank document appears for you to write on. The scroll bar never hits bottom. (Until you die, of course, at which point you’re not writing anymore for obvious reasons).

So the real trick to mining ones personal experiences for future works of narrative fiction is to figure out how it ends. Where do you draw the line to say: “This is the ever after”? It’s a dilemma. The story just keeps going.

And really, when you think about it, the ending is really what tells you what the story is about. Does the main character achieve their goal or not? Do they live happily ever after or die trying? Is it a story about going out on the adventure or about coming home again? Etc. So to write any story from autobiographical experience requires you to already have made some kind of judgment about what that episode means for your life and for you as your own main character- which is strangely complicated and alienating work. To some extent it requires you to be painfully honest with yourself. In other ways it requires you to make almost arbitrary choices about what part of the experience was important.

So thebottom line is that I might need to do a bit of mental housekeeping before I’m ready to write again. The story I just finished had been in process for so long that it already had a lot of “scaffolding” in place to build on, but now I’m back to the start and I’m going to have to build from the ground up. It might be wise just to absorb inspiration for a while.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on July 19, 2019.

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