Friday, 28 March 2008

Post-Easter coffee

Easter weekend is over and for most of us it’s back to the routine of everyday life. No more chocolate with coffee and the weather is just as miserable as ever.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the use of writing as therapy (I blogged about that recently) and also the way that parts of my life so often find their way into my writing. My novel is not my own life story, yet even so it does contain a lot of fictionalised autobiographical and biographical elements, as well as characters which are composites of people I have known.

Perhaps this is just a sign of a novice writer? I find it easier to write entirely fictional short stories, but as yet don’t seem to have the confidence to sustain it to novel length.

So my question for you all today is how much do your own life experiences invade your fiction and do you find writing about them therapeutic?


Anonymous said...

In February '07 my job was made redundant. Since then, one of my writing projects is about a disgruntled IT employee who becomes a deranged terrorist bomber.

I'd say that was fairly therapeutic!

Sarah*G* said...

My current project is my life. It is a partly ficitionalised account of my life before children. I am changing names to protect the guilty. It is for my children so they will be able to know that I did indeed have a life before them and I am not going all out to ruin their lives. (I am so looking forward to the teenage years! Not!) I don't really know my parents but I want my kids to know me so I am writing a story for them and it is VERY theraputic. I am going to save thousands of ££ on actual therapy for myself. My kids therapy is another matter altogether. lol!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Good question. I do find writing very therapeutic and although I sometimes write about emotions I've felt, I think that some experiences are worth writing about and others simply inspire stories.

I mainly enjoy writing fiction and find that people or something I've heard or read about can set my mind off on a tangent that then developes into an involved story.

Chris Stovell said...

I'd say my blog is away of 'tidying up' some of the stuff that bugs me in every day life and gets it off my chest. My fiction clearly comes from me because I've written it but I don't consciously draw on my life. For me it's the act of writing itself that's therapy - I'm a much happier person when my writing's going well - like now!

Lane Mathias said...

I use the blog as light relief so I suppose it's a form of therapy.

In my fiction, I'm writing about some situations that I've never experienced (suicide and teenage pregnancy to name a couple) but the characters invariably have elements of me because I create and control them. I love the power of that. It's the cheapest therapy there is.

Jenny Beattie said...

What a fab question.

I think it's inevitable that 'stuff' that concerns us comes hurtling into our writing (or making art - I have to include that becaues I did it, and it was the same kind of thing.) I write in order to make sense of the things that concern me or intrigue me.

I believe that writing/making is therapeutic, however I feel that when it is only therapy it can be dangerously self indulgent. It needs to be more dimensional than that. It's fine if it's therapeutic as well, but not if that's all it is.

My writing has moved on only now that I'm creatiing fictional characters. My story is about moving to Bangkok and much of the experience I had, but lots of the truth is dull, so I have to make it more, more, MORE.

Lazy Perfectionista said...

The most therapeutic thing about writing for me is having a breathing space from reality. I get completely absorbed in the story and that helps me get perspective on everything else. There are some slightly autobiographical elements (one of the secondary characters is slightly based on me, and one of the main characters is loosely based on a close friend), but they're rather peripheral to the actual storyline as it's really about someone totally fictional.

Rachel Green said...

I generally keep my personal life for my blog and the odd things that happen -- and my reactions to things like news items -- to Jasfoup's blog.

My novels generally aren't real life, but I can't help basing some of the characters on those strange people I interact with in the real world. Uncle Frederick's dog was mine once and Gillian's sense of self is based on my partner's (Shh! Don't tell her!)

Un Peu Loufoque said...

Phew been away so long held captive by unvited guests that I had forgoten that I was in fact writing or re honing a novel at all!!I do not think my writing is either theraputic nor that it is based on my life which bearing in mind my characters are all totally insane and inhabit a bizzare world can only be viewed as a Godsend. I did try to write characters based on real life but found that they lacked any depth which is a bit stange, I think perhaps I am too close to the real world to write it convincingly so retreat into a fictional world where my characters do as they please.

Unknown said...

I think the first book that I complete held a lot of me in it but since then no although just be creating the world they live reflects back to me. It's what I bring to the sotry ( as writer friend reminded me recently when I was worried that the story was pat) that makes it different from everyone else telling the same story.......

I have used poetry and my journal in past years to work through stuff but not my fiction :-)

Good topic Cathy - thanks :-)

Marcie Steele said...

Well, you probably all know by now, I wear my heart on my sleeve. Even just I've deleted an email I was going to send to one of you as I would have depressed that person about my woes, I'm sure. But I did feel better once it was written, so I guess there is my answer.

I wrote a scene in novel one about a father leaving a child through divorce and was told to water it down from eight pages. It now stands at half a page, just right for the book, but the story that came out was mine. It was my father leaving and how I felt. It made me cry afterwards but it was like a release to write it.

I must say, some scenes of mine must be enhanced by my life experiences. Maybe that's why so many writers start to write later in life. I know for me, one of the most poignant scenes in my books is when a character dies and that was 'enriched' by being with my father in law when he died.

But book two is all 'write what you know' as it involves a character as a housing officer, which was my previous job. There were too many unbelievable things that happened during my time in that role that they come flying out on paper. One of them involves a domestic violence incident though. I haven't got a clue where it came from but I've been told it is really realistic!

Great question x

Caroline said...

I think it's more to do with the essence, the depth, feel of my characters. People can pick out parts of me and sometimes themselves. I did set ISoA where I grew up and that has perhaps confused matters even more.

I'm not really here. My kids are off for Easter and currently destroying my once tidy house!


Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

What a great question and I loved the first reply you got from Captain.

I tried to write what I thought might sell but it just kept getting darker. My creative writing teacher said that is almost impossible to keep your soul, your life and what has affected you, out of your writing -
and I think this has to good because we are all unique, with our own crosses to bear.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Little bits of myself and my past and people I've met slip into my writing. Like seasoning a soup, they add a little extra flavor. ;o) I don't rely on it too heavily, though. Too much can spoil the overall effect.

Also, I think while writing can be therapeutic, it should never sound like it was therapy. My third book was too close to being a therapy session for me, which is why no one has seen it and probably won't until I can fix it. (It's a murder mystery and I spent too much time killing off my representations of people I dislike, so there's not much plot to speak of. Just lots of dead bodies.)

Kate.Kingsley said...

I love this topic, it’s something I ponder on a lot.

My current w.i.p is a bit autobiographical ~ In fact I shied away from using some incidents from my life as I felt a bit “weird” about it, but then I decided just to get the ego out of the way and go with what was best for the text. I’m reassuring myself that once it’s been through a few redrafts and edits it will acquire a sense of distance.

It’s not “about” me though ~ maybe it’s a version of what I might have become if I’d made some different decisions, a sort of “what if I was still living in xxxx, and I had gone out with that guy after all, instead of turning him down. Who would I be, where would I be, and what would I be doing now?” But I have used some fictionalised versions of incidents from my past, and one or two characters are based on people I knew 10+ years ago.

I’ve heard it said that all first novels are somewhat autobiographical (A.S. Byatt, maybe?) ~ perhaps you need to flush a load of sludgey stuff through the system, like with central heating?!

Anonymous said...

I often *think* tthat writing about real life stuff will be cathartic, but I tend to find that if I write about it too soon after the events themselves, I shy away from them and can't treat them in the proper depth needed to enhance the fiction.

But yes, real life stuff always finds its way in. Much more so in my first novel than in my second though. I think first novels always tend to be quite autobiographical.

And does it matter? No, of course not. Writers always draw on their own experiences, even when they don't appear to. There's nothing wrong with that. We're all human, and a successful writer will use their own humanity to connect with that of others.

Having said that, I do have a feeling of insecurity about my own ability to write about things not directly in my own experience. I feel like I should do more research, and also that I should be more observant. I'm sure the really good writers spend a lot of time observing people and places and then drawing on that to enrich their fiction. I keep meaning to do more of that.

On another tangential note... how do these coffee mornings work? I know people take it in turns, but I notice Cathy's hosted it two weeks running now... do people do a month each?

Anonymous said...

Having thought a little more and read the other comments...

My blog is v therapeutic, it was particularly helpful when I went through a miscarriage and could write about it all, warts and all, on my blog, without having to worry about making it fit into a novel or other supposedly fictional account.

When I moved onto my second novel and stopped feeling like I had to take anything interesting that had ever happened to me and shove it in a novel... it was very freeing. Being able to make stuff up instead of feeling like it would only be interesting if I relied on real events, was quite a revelation. Also becomeing less insecure and believing that my imagination could come up with the goods. But there's still a lot of me in there, and I think that's impossible / undesirable to escape altogether.

One problem I have is with characters. When I am picturing characters I often start by picturing real people, but then have to pull yself away from that and force myself to make them more fictional, although often I do this by taking several real people and then melting them together like some kind of weird Frankenstein's monster...

I do trhink it's neceseary to not have your characters map directly onto real people though, for two reasons: (1) It's not fair to the real people in question. Even if you don't like them, it;s easy to undersetimate how hurtful / distressing it can be for them, and they have no control whatsoever. It's almost like theft. Even if you think you're portraying them sympathetically, you'll never know what their insecurities are and what they might pick up on which you thought was all right. It;s a bit like the way people rarely like photos of themselves. But the other reason not to do it is that it constricts what the character is able to do if you are trying to make them true to one particular person. If you're writing fiction, you need to be in control. You are God, you need to be able to mould everything, including the characters, to make the whole a better work of art.

Rose Red Art said...

In all my novels, in whichever state they are in, there are different chunks of my life in them.

It was my anecdotes that got me writing in the first place - my friends would laugh until they cried about the funny things I would tell them. I decided to put them in my books.

My first book was therapy for me, there's no two ways about it. Real events, real emotions. It hurts sometimes when I read INNTW as it stirs up some unpleasant memories. I sometimes wonder if I should have put so much 'me' in the book but I can't change it now. It's become part of the book.

Book 2 is set in a shop - I work in a shop.

Book 3 revolves around a fear of mine.

Book 4 involves a story that has links to me and my name.

Lucy Diamond said...

Hi all....arriving a bit late. I'd like a glass of virtual wine please - oh sod it, a real one actually - well, it IS Friday night and it's been a trying week...
Great topic, Cathy. I'm like L-Plate - wear my heart on my sleeve, so it's hard for me to stop my personality seeping into a novel. The character/personality of the heroine in Any Way You Want Me is me, basically (which is why it's a bit worrying when people say they hate her) although I didn't actually DO any of the things she does. I found it incredibly cathartic to write about a woman struggling with her lot and her what-happened-to-my-life? feelings when those were the things I was struggling with at the time of writing.

My second novel has a scene which happened to me - where I thought my son was dying a few years ago: the most awful experience of my life. Writing it down was really difficult because it choked me up every time I tried to get the words out. Even when I read the proofs the other week, it made me feel upset.

I feel as if I'm onto the home stretch of the current w-i-p now...have mapped out my final chapters and it's all coming together!
Have a good weekend everyone x

KeVin K. said...

Since I've only got me to work with, I think everything in my writing is me. Adapted. The psycho killer's attitude toward her victims in To Ride the Chimera is actually my attitude toward cockroaches, for example.

I don't think a writer can write without all the characters -- the authentic ones -- being some aspect of the writer.

Unknown said...

Clare - we do the cofees in two week stints. If you scroll down the side bar you'll see the schedule. When the numbers start getting low I send out a call for volonteers - it's not compulsory but it great that we have fresh view all the time.

When we first start the wonderful Kate H hosted every week on her blog which me thinks must have been a bit exhausting ........

Het Kevin - good to see you. Hope things are ok.

Cathy this has been a great topic :-)

Liane Spicer said...

Fiona's writing teacher is right, imo. " almost impossible to keep your soul, your life and what has affected you, out of your writing..."

I haven't written anything that doesn't contain bits of myself, and of people I know. And hell, yeah. It's therapeutic.

A local columnist scoffs at writers of so-called fiction, insisting that what we write is not, in fact, fiction. He's right. So be it.

Helen Shearer said...

Hi, it's very late Friday night for me. I popped in very late last night just in case this week's topic was posted early but it wasn't and I had a crazy busy day so haven't had five minutes to check the site. Writing as therapy? Hell, yes! About eight years ago I left a long term relationship and although I was thrilled to leave, there was some residual anger. I didn't realise it at the time, but after writing thirty-three chapters of Bob- (not his real name)-is-a-dink, I realised that I had been harbouring some venom. Once I got it all out I put the thirty-three chapters aside and haven't thought of them since, and I've realised that maybe Bob, although I'm quite sure he is a dink, might not have been quite as big a dink as I had originally thought. I sometimes write a page or two of venom at the end of a hard day, then get rid of it and write the good stuff.

I think that, invariably, some of my life creeps into my writing and I draw on people I know for interesting personality quirks, but I try to disguise them. My current heroine works at a job that I did years ago and many of the situations are based in truth but she is fictitious.

Rob Windstrel Watson said...

My writing world is too much of a beautiful place for me to allow it to be tarnished with rants or raves about current obsessions or past pain, although obviously like all writers I draw on my own experiences.

Instead, my writing tends to start with a 'WoW! wouldn't that be great!'

Sometimes it's a turn of phrase, sometimes an emotional state or a particular characterisation that prompts the story.

Always it must have some aspect that, to me, gives it more weight and lifts it above the commonplace to a level of heightened awareness.

The strange and slightly disturbing thing is that my characters and their stories are present in my daily life; on the tennis court or as I play music in a pub.

But I have learned never to mention them to the people I meet.

They just don't understand and look at me as if I'm nuts.

Maybe I am ...

Creepy eh :-)

Anonymous said...

I have a very strong belief that writing as therapy helps a great deal: healing for the writer and helping for the reader as they gain insights the writer gains should the writer some day decide to share that writing.

Last summer I attended the Maui Writers conference and author Karen Joy Fowler said "All writing is autobiographical.

If anyone wants to contribute more to this theme, in addition to here, please stroll on over to my website at

sheepish said...

Hi sorry I'm late but I haven't quite got used to being back in the real world. An interesting topic, I think it would be difficult not to find parts of myself in my writing, more so when it's a first attempt and I am hoping that writing will help me over the traumas I have been through recently, although I don't yet feel ready to approach my inner feelings. So in the meantime I will potter around the edges of my wip, keep up my Morning Pages and hope that I will soon be back in the swing.

Anonymous said...

Aha Liz, I see. Thank you.

Back to the topic again... I do think that for the best impact you have to write about things which mean something to you, whether it be emotional issues that have affected you deeply, or political / human issues which stir you, even if you do then disguise it in allegory and analogy and what have you. The more passionate you are about something / the more emotion you can inject, the better the result is likely to be. That's why honesty is good, although you can of course hide it in many ways so that nobody knows which bits relate directly to you...

Anonymous said...

P.S. Re chocolate and coffee. We just had a family night in watching Charlie and Chocolate Factory with Jonny Depp, and got major chocolate cravings so all had some of my son's remaining Dr Who Easter Egg... and it was rubbish. I forgot that about kids' Easter eggs - they often use really inferior chocolate. Even when I was kid I remember being disappointed by it.

Leigh Forbes said...

Sorry I'm late!

I can't help it; real life invades my fiction in every way. Many of my characters, settings, conversations are based on real life, although rarely taken directly from it. I don't think it a sign of a novice writer to do this (she says, speaking as a novice writer), but there is a balance somewhere. I guess the skill is in finding it.

I was slammed recently by an editor for submitting an "unbelievable" short story even though it was based on real circumstances. My mistake was in misjudging what works as 'real' in the fictional world (thus enhancing it) and what doesn't. I am learning!