As a fiction writer, one of the questions I get asked the most is, “How much of this is
based on real life?” It doesn’t matter how well a person knows me, what they really
want to know is what, in my work, is based on actual things that happened.
The need to know what, in a writer’s work, is real is an interesting one to me,
especially since it’s one that I fall prey to all the time. If I love a book or love an
author, I always want to know the same thing. How much of it is real? How much of
this author’s life am I seeing?
Of course, answering this question is complicated, because the truth for me is
always hard to explain. The answer to the question, “how much of your fiction is
based on real life?” is all of it, and also none of it.
My favorite quote to explain this is one from Lorrie Moore, who said that, “the
proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a
cupboard. What that cook makes from what’s in the cupboard is not the same thing
as what’s in the cupboard… But one’s life is there constantly collecting and
providing, and it will creep into one’s work regardless—in emotional ways.” She
goes on to describe a student of hers who was blind but never wrote about
blindness. But, still, “he wrote about characters who constantly bumped into things,
who tripped, who got bruised.” That, she says, is a true transformation of life into
art, one in which our journey toward other people is through our own life.
Whether or not a writer is writing from life is obvious when the writer is writing
nonfiction. But what I’ve found to be true is that writing from deep experience creates some of the most authentic and alive fiction. Imagining emotions is great, but when fictional stories are injected with the real emotions and experiences that the author has lived, a different kind of heat is created.
Join Emily for her eight-week workshop, Writing from Life, starting February 6 th at
Writers in Progress. Register now.