I sometimes see people asking if a story a writer tells is based on their own life. I’m not usually asked, though, probably because I write YA fantasy set in a secondary world. So it’s hard to see the connection.
However, I’d say a writer always draws on their own life. What else would we draw on? Usually, though, that drawing from life works differently than the question implies.
Drawing on Emotion
We draw on emotion as much as or more than events. Then what we draw can be heavily disguised, even from ourselves, so that it can take a while for us to notice what we’re doing. I’ve found that figuring out that connection can help me find the emotional center of my story and bring it more vividly to life.
For example, I’m working on a novel in which a girl makes stained glass windows. She’s devoted to her craft. She wants to be the best. It’s an art form for her, one that expresses the beauty of assembling pieces into a whole. Moreover, it’s work that her society deeply respects.
As part of the plot, her ability to work with stained glass is in peril, and she’s in despair because she doesn’t know what she’d do then. She doesn’t know who or what she’d be.
In the meantime, one of her colleagues is thinking of ceasing to make glass. My main character simply can’t understand how someone would do that.
That sounds pretty far from my life teaching technical communication and then living in a Chicago suburb while I write. But a recent conversation I’ve seen on twitter suddenly made me realize that I actually was drawing on my experience and the emotion involved.
The twitter thread was about graduate students considering leaving a doctoral program, or recent PhDs who either couldn’t find a tenure track job or were unhappy in the one they had. Judging from things people said, they feared that leaving a program or doing something other than academic work would be judged as failure.
I used to see this in my grad students too. They wanted to quit, or they wanted a job that emphasized teaching rather than scholarship even though that would put them at a less prestigious university. They felt pressured to stay where they were and had trouble recognizing their own wishes. In other words, their feelings were like those of my stained-glass window maker.
Realizing that helped me see that my plot needs to drive my character to reassess her value apart from her work. She needs to decide for herself what will make her happy, and to stop letting other people decide for her. Realizing that helped me shape her reaction to events. I think it made the story stronger.
Find the Emotional Center
If you’re trying to write something, consider locating the emotions your character is feeling and then seeing why you’re interested in that part of a character’s emotional life. Go deeper for them and for you. What makes your story different from anyone else’s is that it comes from you. Don’t waste that insight.
The Wind Reader (Inspired Quill 2018) by Dorothy A. Winsor is available in e-book and paperback. E-book only $3.99.
Marooned in a city far from home, street kid Doniver struggles to earn enough to live without selling his soul. Unfortunately someone wants him dead. He’ll need all his courage—and glib tongue—to survive.