The line between fiction and reality isn’t always a steel wall - sometimes it’s more like the place where two oceans meet, distinguishable but not so easily separated. Neil Gaiman wrote the character Delirium into his Sandman series before meeting musician Tori Amos, but after they became friends things began to blur; Delirium became Amos who became Delirium. Most writers are familiar with the sensation that life can begin to mirror what they’re creating, but many begin with that mirror already firmly in place. High school English teachers tell students to write what they know, and there are pros and cons to that piece of advice. Before using personal experience in fiction, it’s worth thinking about what it can do to both real life and the story.
The Moral Line
It’s one thing to write in a cameo for your childhood best friend, and it’s another to reveal a friend’s secrets to an unknown audience. All writers must decide where they draw the line; is it wrong to write about the secrets of a deceased aunt? What if you change enough of the details that even her closest friends wouldn’t know it was about her?
One particularly volatile topic is whether it’s right to use information learned in sensitive situations like alcohol detox programs. AA, for example, is famously anonymous; despite challenges to the most famous program for alcoholics the rule still remains firmly in place. Detoxing and recovering from alcohol is made much easier by a supportive community, and nobody at their most vulnerable wants to worry about whether their moments of weakness will one day find their way into a book or a short story. Other vulnerable situations exist, but given the public’s voracious appetite for “addiction stories” this will continue to be a moral battlefield for quite some time.
Make no mistake: the friends and family of writers have thought about how they’ll feel if they’re put in a story. Some might immediately assume the inclusion would be flattering and secretly wish for a cameo; some worry that they’ll be caricatured or that sensitive information will be shared; some don’t care one way or another, but have thought about it regardless. Before including a reference to someone you know, assume that they’ll notice immediately and think about how they’d feel - and whether you’re willing to live with that.
There are several schools of thought about whether using personal experience in a story makes the finished story emotionally richer. On one hand, when delving into situations you yourself have experienced, there’s little guesswork involved. For those who are particularly introspective and willing to confront their own emotions, the end result can be a deeply moving account. However, it’s also easily to take it for granted that writing about a real experience will automatically result in a gripping story, resulting in lazy writing and a lackluster finished piece. When writing about real experiences, it’s important to treat them as any other form of fiction, and to put in the same amount of effort in bringing it to life.
The Strangeness of Reality
In the lying game Balderdash, the correct answer - that is, the truth - is usually whatever answer sounds the most absurd. Readers often cry that a story is “unrealistic” if it follows the natural progression that events often do in reality, making writing from personal experience a sometimes tricky endeavor The “stranger than fiction” effect is both an upside and a downside; while events almost always need streamlining and a narrative structure to make them a good or entertaining read, the spontaneity of real occurrences can help writers break out of stagnant or overused plot progressions. For writers who usually lean one way or another when mining their lives for story ideas, it’s an interesting exercise to try it the other way.
If a writer chooses to fictionalize their life, it’s important to remember that what happened to them may not be precisely what happens to their character. What a car crash is like for a teenager will be different from how it feels for a 50 year old veteran, and personality and history will have a bearing on how the break-up of a marriage plays out. By accepting these differences and starting with a well-examined moral code, it’s possible to use real life in a way which is positive for all those involved: reader, writer, and any innocent bystanders.