No matter what your field or genre, writing is so often at its best when it is informed by your personal experiences. Yet, it is also important to understand the hackneyed adage of “write what you know” is not always meant to be taken literally. You shouldn’t only be creating stories that are replicating the events of your life. Your characters shouldn’t slavishly reflect your own opinions. This makes for a very dull experience for your readership, not to mention a career of limited value for you as a writer. The last thing you want is to create inside an echo chamber of your life.
The upshot of this is you must strike a careful balance of your hard-earned experience and the unfamiliar. This isn’t always easy to achieve, so let’s take a moment to review how to go about this in an engaging way for both you and your readership.
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Develop Your Knowledge
One of the advantages of being a writer is it is almost a license to be curious. Part of your job is to look around at the world, dig into the interesting parts, and share them through your personal lens. As such, it is important to follow your curiosity. This is not something that benefits from your ideas alone; you need to learn.
This can begin with targeted research. Indeed, when you’re writing on socially important subjects it is ethically vital you take the time to gain a balanced and intimate understanding of your topic. After all, your writing may influence people’s opinions and their behavior. Don’t just sit behind your desk — go out and share others’ experiences. Engage with knowledgeable people on a social level as well as professional interviewing. You can not only develop some additional personal expertise, you also get insights into the emotional sides of an issue.
If you specialize in a single topic in the long term, it will be worth your while to actually gain formal experience. Public health, for instance, is a subject that is increasingly relevant in our society, and in need to further accurate communication in fiction and nonfiction alike. Taking some time out to engage in a Master of Public Health course and get a job in the field can be useful. Some careers can provide key insights into elements of epidemiology and public health policy — emergency management, bioterrorism researcher, or an infection control officer among them. These positions can help give you the tools and information to write copy that addresses some of the significant world health problems. This approach means you’re enhancing your personal experience of the subject and gaining professional expertise that can balance your writing.
Aim for Authenticity
When you’re using your life experiences in your writing, there is a certain tendency to cherry-pick aspects of it. After all, unless you’re penning an autobiography, there’s no reason to give the full details. However, that doesn’t forgo the need for stark honesty. To achieve a balance in your work, you need to make certain you approach the elements of your life that you’re using with a focus on authenticity.
This is not always easy. After all, it’s about knowing what aspects are both honest and serve the intentions of your writing. If you have a criminal history, you might be facing this dilemma. There are reasons this part of your past can be a valuable addition to your writing — it informs the development of characters, it can shine a light on unexplored elements of our social system. This is why it is important to use these experiences authentically. While being incarcerated might be dramatically helpful, there is still a lot of value in honestly portraying and discussing the sentencing alternatives you may have been subject to. Diversion programs aren’t talked about so much, but they are designed to help facilitate justice without having a long-term negative impact on the defendant. This might include mental health therapy, substance abuse intervention, and often education is involved. By approaching this aspect authentically, you can inform your audience and present an aspect of the justice system that isn’t often explored.
However, it’s also important to remember when presenting the authentic elements of your journey, there may be times you’ll find yourself having to face the pain of your history. It may even be a reason you’ve avoided writing your novel. This is another area where you need balance. Yes, your experiences can help your readership. However, this also has to be tempered with being kind to yourself. Take the process gently and give yourself the space to access the emotional assistance you need along the way.
You need to burst your bubble — in a good way. The problem with writing is it can so often be insular, and this can get you into a cyclical way of thinking. You take your research, your education, and experiences, consider them a while, write about them, think about them some more, and so the cycle continues. In between bouts of committing your thoughts to paper, you need to start talking to people.
This doesn’t mean that you should become a preacher on a street corner — though that might be a valuable experience in itself. Rather, it’s about helping to develop your perspectives and opinions by communicating with others. Whether it’s strangers or friends, start discussing the experience you want to write about. Just share and then invite their honest response. Then invite them to share something of their own experience on the matter. Keep communicating — not just talking, but actively listening. This is a habit that helps to make you a better storyteller; you’re paying closer attention to the world and the people in it.
Your life experience should impact your writing — it can help to make it more resonant and honest. However, it’s important to strike a balance against your own lived opinion. Commit to research, apply your experiences authentically, and take time to listen to and learn from others. With careful consideration and balance, you can make your writing so much richer.