What Does It Mean to "Write from Real Life?"
To me, this form of nonfiction writing is about taking our personal experiences and using them as the raw material for memoir vignettes — I think of them as flash memoir — and for personal essays on universal topics, such as looking for love, dealing with illness and loss, aging, forgiveness, taking risks, etc.
I think of a quote from Flannery O’Connor, which I’ll paraphrase as "anyone who has survived childhood has enough stories to last a lifetime." For those of us who grew up in complicated, (dysfunctional) families, and/or who have experienced numerous times when life did not go according to our plans, there is good news: we survived, we came out the other side, and as writers, we can use that mishegas (craziness) to create compelling stories and interesting essays.
In my own practice, I’ve discovered that by revisiting my childhood and young adulthood, I can appreciate the rich Midwestern Jewish world in which I grew up, can tap into some of the humor I couldn’t see at the time, and can convey that world to readers. By circling back to some of the conflicts of my youth — feeling like an outsider, struggling with my sexual orientation, surviving several illnesses and accidents — from an adult perspective, I can (to some extent) rewrite the script, based on the knowledge that I came out the other side, by finding my communities, claiming my identity as a gay man and as a writer, and by moving on to create a new life.
In writing about our real lives, we learn from each other’s adventures, mistakes, and hard-won wisdom. As the writer Vivian Gornick explains, in memoir, “It’s the movement toward wisdom that counts.”
Another facet of personal writing, and of writing in general, I think, is about paying attention. Sometimes, if I’m open to what is happening around me, I’ll find "real life" material right in front of me. For example, I was on a visit back to my hometown of Cleveland several years ago and went to a festival in Slavic Village, the old Polish neighborhood where my grandfather had his drugstore, which was open every day for 50 years. I met a friend who lived nearby and we happened upon a pierogi-eating contest — a slice of Cleveland culture I wouldn’t typically find in Boston.
There was a scene, a story, a taste of the world I come from placed before me; all I had to do was take notes. From that tableau, I wrote a short piece for a Cleveland-based magazine, and recorded it for their local NPR station. Check it out here!
Judah Leblang is a Boston-based writer, teacher and storyteller. His radio essays have appeared on almost 200 NPR and ABC-network stations around the US, and on several college and community radio stations. His column, "Life in the Slow Lane," appears regularly in Bay Windows, a Boston-area newspaper. The second edition of his memoir, "Finding My Place: One Man's Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond," was published in 2013.See other articles by Judah Leblang