Me, me, me.

Should we write about ourselves? How important are a writer’s direct personal experiences to their work?

Well in one sense of course, they are of towering importance, everything we write must necessarily be coloured by who we are – our culture, our memories, the views we have formed.

But that, I would suggest, is slightly different from the kind of autobiographical writing I’m talking about here. How many of us lift an incident from our daily lives, give it a brush down and a lick of paint, and call it a story, or a scene in a novel?

That kind of autobiographical writing splits opinion among writers.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to win a UK short story award called the Bridport Prize and the judge that year was the esteemed writer Kate Atkinson, author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum among other fine works.

Among the comments I remember her making during a very civilised dinner we enjoyed in Bridport town hall was a fairly firm condemnation of writing which is too straightforwardly autobiographical. I paraphrase here – but the gist of her comments was that short stories are a good place for a writer to practice their craft and, if they must write chunks of autobiography, then here in these practice stories is the place to get it out of their system.

The author’s own life, suggested Kate, is of more interest to the author than it is to anyone else – we are likely to give it undue importance – and as a result to write things which are interesting to us, rather than interesting to the reader.

It’s an important and valid point I think, and one which I have carried with me.

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4 thoughts on “Me, me, me.

  1. In reading this article, the phrase “write what you know” comes to mind. Of course we need to do a certain amount of outside research in order to tell a well-rounded story, but I think much of what we write by default comes from ourselves. Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

  2. Thanks Thomas – I think we all draw from our own experience when we write – but I do think the process of weaving elements of what we have learned or felt or seen into a narrative is quite different from a lifting an entire episode from our lives and putting it in virtually unchanged. Even this has been known to work in the right hands though – Raymond Carver’s first wife used to accuse him of doing it – she said some of his stories were simply a direct transcription of episodes from their life together – and it worked for him, so I suppose never say never.

  3. I think the best stories are ones in which the author is able to incorporate his own “truth” in some way. I find that everything I write contains some aspect of my own experience or outlook, because it’s what I know and it’s what I’m passionate about. I think that kind of sincerity resonates with readers, but I agree that just regurgitating my own life would be boring.

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