writing from experience

My story “Unfinished Business” is about memory and the childhood death of the narrator’s friend. They say that every writer must get a few key stories out of the way: their first experience with love, with disappointment, leaving home, their first experience with death. “Unfinished Business” is based on an incident in my youth, and I had worked on the story for more than ten years before I got it to what I considered final form. It went through various structures, points of view, narrators, and titles.

What it didn’t go through, however, was research. I crafted the story solely from memory and imagination.

I think I may have mentioned here before that I was once in a writing group in which one of us had written story about death. My fellow writer had researched the Kubler-Ross model of the 5 Stages of Grief and then had her protagonist go through each of them in proper order through her interior monologue. In our discussion of her story, the writer pointed out how accurate her portrayal was.

Years later, when I first began fiddling with what would become “Unfinished Business” I remembered that woman’s effort and thought I needed to study the 5 Stages so I could write my story “properly.”

But somehow I escaped making that mistake. I’ve never been one for conventional wisdom, and given that my story would be based on my actual experience, I realized it didn’t matter what the “official” process was; my experience was just as “official” as any other. I was going to write my story. And that’s what I did.

I suppose someone with an objective eye could read that story and identify at which points I (well, my protagonist, right?) hit on each of those 5 official stages, but I wouldn’t want to know that. I think if I had set out to write the story with that structure in mind, I never would have gotten past merely that, and the story would have probably languished.

I’ve been working on some other stories of significant life events in the lives of my characters (for those Fathers and Sons stories), and while one is not based on my actual experience (first love), I really don’t feel the need to research the feelings or the experience of it to know I’m doing it “right.” I think I can trust my imagination to create a credible, realistic story. (Granted, I have sent an early draft to a couple of readers who can give me perspectives I don’t have, but that doesn’t seem to be the same thing as looking up some “official” script.)

For the most part, I’m keeping my own counsel, comfortable in the conviction that a serious writer is creating, adding to the collection of scripts, inventing the world.

Lofty thinking, I know, but it gets me through the days and nights.

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3 Comments on “writing from experience”

  1. christophergronlund Says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Pulling from experience, whether it’s something you’ve experienced, or something you can make up based on just knowing how people work from dealing with them for years, is the way to go. Plugging things into formulas can work, but I’ve found it often comes across as flat in a story. Especially with something as big as grief.

    I grieve differently than many people I know. The denial and bargaining stage aren’t there for me — don’t know why, but acceptance comes first. That doesn’t mean I don’t get angry or depressed, but I’ve always gone straight to accepting the situation. When I found out I had a brain tumor years ago, it was like, “Well hell — I have a brain tumor; what am I gonna do about it?”

    It’s like anything involving rules or structure to me: some people follow the 5 steps of grief model — others don’t. And it’s in the differences where good stories lie.

    It definitely sounds like you’ve lived long enough to know what’s “right” without needing to research so much when it comes to human nature.

  2. Annam Says:

    One of my favorite pieces of wisdom from a writer: “Journalism aims at accuracy, but fiction’s aim is truth. The writer distorts reality in the interest of a larger truth.” ~ John L’Heureux

  3. Averil Dean Says:

    I often resort to external sources when I’m trying to construct the scaffolding for a story, and I suppose the five stages of grief is as good a place as any from which to pull the scrap metal. Though your organic approach has also worked for me in the past, when I’ve dealt with a grief-stricken character.

    Whatever gets the words on the page, I say.

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