Today we welcome my friend Jodi McIsaac to Magical Words. I met Jodi this past summer while attending WhenWordsCollide out in Calgary, Alberta. In addition to being smart, charming, funny, and an excellent drinking partner, Jodi also impressed me with her passion for writing and her eagerness to talk about issues of craft and business. She is the author of the Thin Veil contemporary fantasy series. The first book, Through the Door, was a #1 Amazon bestseller. Book two, Into the Fire, comes out today. Jody grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, has been a short track speed skater, a speechwriter, and a fundraiser and marketing executive for a nonprofit. Eventually, she started a boutique copywriting agency and began writing novels in the wee hours of the morning. She currently lives with her husband and two feisty daughters in Calgary.
Please join me in welcoming to MW, Jodi McIsaac! [Cue wild applause]
“Write what you know.”
How many times have we heard those words of wisdom? And it’s true—using our own personal experiences to enrich our writing is solid advice. But some writers—myself included—have taken this adage too far, and found out that if taken too literally, it can restrict our imaginations and compel us to write about our own lives, instead of the lives of our characters.
A couple of weeks ago I was speaking at a writers’ conference, and after my workshop a young woman came up to me and confessed that she was having a really hard time with her current work in progress, because she felt as though she had to “write what she knew.” This young woman had suffered a traumatic spinal injury as a child, and so her protagonist also had a spinal injury. “But I don’t like the story,” she confessed. “I have to deal with this every day in my real life—and now also in my creative life. And to be honest, it just makes me sad.”
Fortunately, I could tell her that I understood exactly how she felt. When I first started writing, I tried to do the exact same thing. One of the defining events of my life is that when I was young and naïve, I placed a child for adoption. And so when I started writing my first novel, it was, of course, about a woman who had placed a child for adoption. Who better to write about such a deep personal experience than one who had gone through it, right?
The problem was, I was writing this story because I thought it was the only story I had to tell. I wasn’t writing it because I loved it, or because it was the story burning a hole inside me, trying to get out. And the results were…very mediocre, to tell the truth. My experience was a painful one, and, just like the young woman I met at the conference, trying to incorporate it into my writing made me sad all the time. And for me at least, depression is not conducive to great writing.
But does that mean you should never write about personal experience? Hardly. Our own lives can be a wealth of material for our stories. Much of the time, we can incorporate our own personal experiences into our writing in a subtle way, one that will give our stories the ring of authenticity without making them thinly-veiled autobiographies. There are several ways to do this:
• Use snippets of your own experiences to add color and detail to your work. Use an interesting conversation you once had with a stranger, a funny nickname you had when you were younger, a meaningful moment you witnessed or were part of. I’ve used an impromptu trip to New York City, a romantic moment on the streets of London, and a letter from my grandmother to add authentic detail (and some pretty funny stories) to my own work. Truth can be stranger than fiction, right? So don’t be afraid to use it!
• Completely change the setting, characters, and plot—but retain that one element that you know better than anyone else. I’m currently writing a story about siblings—the sister is mentally well, and the brother is a paranoid schizophrenic. It just so happens that my own brother is a paranoid schizophrenic, but that doesn’t mean I’m writing the story of our lives. I’ve placed the siblings in a science fiction setting, with a medical drama and completely different goals and backgrounds. But I have an intimate understanding of the dynamics between siblings of differing mental health, and am using that to create a compelling, authentic story about the power of familial love.
• Use your own experience to augment your research. If you’re doctor and write medical thrillers, you’ve got an inside edge over someone who has no experience in the medical profession and has to research it all from scratch. Your personal experience can come in handy when one of your characters needs a vocation, an ethnic background, or an education that you share—just remember that you are writing about them, and not about you.
• Tap into the emotion of your own life. Chances are you know what it’s like to feel elated, depressed, furious, eager, or lonely. When we say, “write what you know,” that is what you know. Give those emotions to your character. Even if their experiences are different than yours (as they should be), their emotional responses will resonate with your readers because they’re based on real emotions. For example, in my first novel, Through the Door, the daughter of our protagonist is kidnapped. Fortunately, I’ve never had to go through that horrible experience, but I do know a thing or two about how it feels to lose a child. And so the protagonist’s emotional response to losing her child come across as genuine—because it is. As for my conference friend with the spinal injury, she can still use her experience by writing about a character who has to overcome adversity—it just doesn’t necessarily have to be the exact same kind of adversity she herself has experienced.
“Write what you know” is trusted writing advice for a reason—but that doesn’t mean you have to take it too literally. Let your personal experiences infuse your writing, but not dominate it. Remember, it’s your characters’ story, not your own. Which means you can write many, many stories, all of them ringing with truth and authenticity.www.facebook.com/jodimcisaac