Why Write Fiction from Real Life?
Author and GrubStreet Instructor Kayleigh Shoen shares why fiction writers should draw on their real lives in their work. You can learn more in Kayleigh’s upcoming In-Person: Seaport class, Writing Fiction from Real Life, starting May 2nd.
For a long time when I was starting out as a writer, I shied away from writing about my real life. It felt risky to portray my friends and family in ways they might not like, or to dramatize situations that could reflect badly on me. And, the times when I did choose to include situations from my life, it seemed like my readers interpreted them differently than I’d intended.
It felt safer just to avoid anything remotely close to my own experience. Unfortunately, this meant I wrote a lot of stories about unhappy middle-aged couples in New York City, while I was still single and had never lived anywhere outside Kalamazoo, Michigan.
It took me a while to realize that by avoiding writing about my own life, I was holding my fiction back. As writers, we only really have two sources to draw on – our experiences and what others tell us. By avoiding my own life experience in my work, I was limited to imitating other writers’ stories – and usually writing a duller, less true version – instead of adding my own perspective to the world. It was only once I started writing about the things that mattered to me off the page that my stories began to feel like my own.
It took me a while to realize that by avoiding writing about my own life, I was holding my fiction back.
Now, after years of teaching writing, I know that many writers feel the same trepidation I felt about putting their truth down in ink. But writing from real life doesn’t have to mean sharing your deepest secrets. It can be as simple as setting your stories in locations that are meaningful to you and populating them with people who sound like your friends and family. When done well, writing from your real life can sharpen your writing voice and lead you to the stories only you can write.
It can be as simple as setting your stories in locations that are meaningful to you and populating them with people who sound like your friends and family.
Anais Nin wrote, “we write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” This May, in my Writing Fiction from Real Life class, we’ll use example stories and writing prompts to help you identify people, places and events that give your fiction its own unique flavor. This class is for writers who want to begin new stories, or who want to build on drafts they’ve already started. I hope you can join me.
Sign up for Kayleigh’s upcoming In-Person: Seaport class, Writing Fiction from Real Life, starting May 2nd! Scholarships are available.
Kayleigh Shoen’s flash and short stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, X-R-A-Y, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. Kayleigh earned her MFA from Emerson College, where she taught in the First Year Writing Program, the emersonWRITES program, and the Creative Writers Pre-College Program. She also teaches writing and literature appreciation with Arlington Community Education. She lives outside Boston with her husband and their dog, Honey BBQ Chickenwing.See other articles by Kayleigh Shoen