Cannibalizing Yourself: 9 Reasons You Should Mine Your Life for Ideas
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
- Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
I used to teach a storytelling class in which students had to write the song of themselves. This was a way of getting them to quickly produce work that allowed me to gage their skills. However, it was also a great way to get them thinking about the human as a storytelling animal, get them to see that sharing narratives is something we start doing early in life, and keep doing until we die. Personal essays, journals, and memoirs are all purely the story of the self, but your life story, and the millions of experiences that make up who and what you are, are also superb tools when it comes to crafting compelling fiction. Here's why:
1. Ease of access
When I write about a place or a job or a gun I'm not familiar with, I spend a lot of time researching it. Sure, fiction allows us to bend the truth and generate new realities, but I'm always worried that people who have more expertise than me will find my work weak due to my ignorance on a certain subject. Research is the only way to solve that problem, the only way to become an expert on things you've never seen or done. In the case of your own narratives and experiences, you're dealing with things you already know well. If you did a job for three years, you won't have to research it to write about it. If you've been punched in the face, you won't have to struggle with describing the pain. You are already an expert at being you, and all the information that you contain is only one thought away when you sit down to write. Use it.
Think about the work of Scott McClanahan, Virginia Woolf, Jerry Stahl, and James Baldwin. They are wildly different authors with different styles who wrote in different time periods. However, they all share one thing: their work feels authentic. Allowing pieces of you to consciously enter your work can make your writing feel more authentic, and authenticity is not something they can teach you in school or a workshop. When you write about a place you know, a feeling you're very familiar with, or an event you witnessed, something strange happens to your writing and it becomes undeniably authentic, it feels real to the reader, and that can help you pull the reader into your narrative.
You can pretend all you want, but authors need cathartic experiences as much, if not more, than other people because not only are we full of stuff that happened to us, we're full of stuff that happens to our characters. Writing is therapeutic and can help you deal with traumatic experiences and painful memories. I tend to look back and fictionalize violence, to put it in a context that makes it more clear to me, that helps me feel like it is/was the right thing to do. When you take your experiences and inject them into fiction, you add layers of cushioning that might help you cope. As writers, we can change the outcome of any situation, rewrite the past, and invent impossible futures, and all of that can help put a smile on our faces while doing the same thing for our readers.
I write nonficion-based fiction four times faster than I write regular fiction. When I have to create a place/person/situation from scratch, my brain takes its time building all of it, getting the atmosphere, architecture, and everything else right. When I turn a memory into fiction, all of the information is already there, the world is already more or less built, and I know where things are going. All of that translates into faster, more confident writing.
5. That one stupid rule
No, I don't think you should only write what you know. I think you should write what you know, what you don't know, and even place yourself outside of your comfort zone regularly so you write entirely new fiction that, while it might not be great, forces you to flex new muscles. That being said, when you do write about what you know, it shows. Men who tell women to smile anger me, but I will never know exactly how a woman who's minding her own business feels when some douche breaks into her mental space to tell her she's prettier when she smiles. I want to know. I want women to tell me about their experiences in writing. The same applies to whatever/whoever/wherever you are. As a reader, I want your experiences thinly veiled as fiction. I want to know more about being you.
6. Cringe-inducing fiction sells
That's a fact, jack. Your worst embarrassment, worst relationship, and strangest sexual encounter—they all make for great stories, so start telling them to the world. Think about the things that people tell you that cause a visceral reaction in you. Now think about the way some folks react when you tell them things about yourself. The things that make them cringe or cover their mouth or go "No way!" or laugh out loud are the things that will make for compelling fiction. From now on, you can look at conversations as practice. Pay attention to the reactions you get when telling a story and the way you react to others when they tell you something and use the things that get the strongest reactions in your work.
7. There are worlds inside you
When I moved to Austin, I started working on a project I called The Bus Chronicles. Every day I got on the bus a few times and every day I talked to people. Then I'd go home and write down the stories I heard or created fiction from bits and pieces of what I'd seen and heard. Eventually, I realized that they were the chronicles of myself. I was at the center of it all. I was the one seeing and hearing. However, the stories were really about others. That's when I understood that, as part of the world, when we interact with others, when we share events and conversations, we also share narratives that stick with others and receive information that burrows its way into our brain forever. By the time I finally went home on a regular day after four or five bus rides, I had chunks of other worlds floating inside me. You've been collecting these pieces all your life, so feel free to use them.
8. Remembering is a lot of fun
Think about your favorite personal story that begins with "I drank too much damn tequila one time..." Now think about the people who were there with you. Now think about your favorite story involving each of those individuals. I could go on all day. The point is this: your memory is a powerful, fun tool. Sure, it's also full of monsters and pain, but those can also be turned into fiction and, as mentioned above, can be made less by the process. For me, remembering is fun because every memory is full of doors. Exploring whatever is behind each of those doors is a great way of coming up with things to write about.
9. Your life is still happening
You have all these memories at your disposal and that's great, but you also make new memories every day. You see and hear and do and suffer and cry and love and hate and experience and feel every day. The song of you is being built one day at a time, and the best fiction you write tomorrow maybe comes from something that happened to you today. Open your eyes and pay attention. Stories are everywhere, and you're in the middle of it all, so take mental notes.
Now I want to hear that tequila story. Drop it in the comments. Happy literary autosarcophagy!
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