3 Common Pitfalls When Writing From Your Own Life

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Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.

Whether you write fiction or creative nonfiction, chances are, you draw inspiration from things that really happened to you, or happened to people you know.

It makes sense: In writing about things that occurred in our lives, we often come to understand them in a new light, and by telling stories based in the truths of our own experience, we increase the odds of our work connecting with the personal truths of others.

But there are definite blind spots associated with writing a book based on the raw stuff of your own life, and this holds true for both novels and memoirs.

I saw this myself with my first novel, which is based on a number of real events in my life and those of my friends at the time. It was great fun to extrapolate from a (real-life! I swear!) situation at my alma mater in the mid-aughts where there were undercover government agents enrolled in classes, in the wake of a sting involving one of the school’s alumni. But to create a real story out of that raw material took many grueling revisions—far more, I believe, than it would have to simply create a story whole cloth.

I’ve seen the same thing in the work of my clients: A full-length novel that’s basically just a very detailed version of a family anecdote, with no real character development. A novelized memoir that seems to include every major event of the protagonist’s life. A memoir consisting of various interesting episodes in the author’s life but which has no clear theme or through line.

Here are three pitfalls that can arise when we draw inspiration from real-life events and people, and some strategies for overcoming them as well.

1. Being too attached to what actually happened

It’s great to borrow from real life, but holding too closely to the details of your real-life inspiration can blind you to what it is your story actually requires.

I’ve seen this many times over the years: Faced with feedback that some element of their story isn’t working, the writer will work through draft after draft of a novel in an effort to make that clunky thing work, be it an overly complicated bit of backstory, a walk-on character who steals the spotlight, or a beloved side plot that just doesn’t work, simply because it’s part of the author’s real-life inspiration for the story—only to receive the same feedback again on their next draft.

In a memoir, it can be even harder to see what may need to be culled or omitted—because how can you tell the story about how Uncle Fred coaching you in softball helped you get through your tumultuous teen years without telling us all about Aunt Mabel as well?

But that’s the thing: if the focus of your memoir is your relationship with your dad (who was the reason those teen years were so tumultuous), Uncle Fred may belong in the story while Aunt Mabel may not. The act of writing a memoir is essentially an act of curation, and that means making hard choices about what stays and what goes.

If you have the feeling you’re falling into this trap with your WIP, ask yourself: Does this actually serve the story? Is it an essential part of the story I’m trying to tell? If not, it probably doesn’t belong there.

2. Failing to see other possibilities

This is the other side of the same coin, in that being unnecessarily attached to what actually happened, it can be harder to see what could have happened, and—as far as your story goes—probably should.

In real life, say, someone threatened to set someone else’s car on fire; in your novel, maybe that person should actually go ahead and do it. In real life, maybe the inspiration for your protagonist was nothing but a wise and generous soul; in your novel, that person really should probably have a few key flaws.

In a memoir, this same blind spot manifests in another way, in the inability to see what happened in a different light. Rough childhood? Acrimonious divorce? Unjust treatment at work? We want to hear about the trouble you faced and how you got through it, but no one actually wants to read a long-form diatribe—and chances are, there are things about these tough times in your life, and the people responsible for them, you weren’t able to see at the time. Exploring other ways to see the events of your past tends to strengthen the story.

If you feel like you may be falling into this trap with your novel, ask yourself: Is there a way I could extrapolate from the real into new territory, in a way that might better serve the story? And if you’re writing memoir: Is there another way to look at this that I didn’t see at the time?

3. Including extraneous detail

This pitfall tends to afflict writers of historical fiction most of all: Having done all of this research on a given time period, the novel becomes a sort of stuff-sack for all of these awesome details, from clothing styles to what’s going on in the newspaper to digressions on the changing state of the ice-delivery industry circa 1888.

Readers of historical fiction do want those sorts of details, but only to the extent that it feels natural and actually serves the story. And the same is true when novelists pull from their own lives: including those details of time and place can really make the world of the story feel real, but include too much of this and your reader will start to feel like you’re just embroidering your story with fripperies.

The same is true with memoir: When you write about a certain time and place in your life, so much tends to come flooding back, and with it, the urge to get all that good stuff on the page, so the reader can experience all of that for herself. But readers want story, not window dressing, no matter how lovingly detailed and nostalgic that window dressing may be.

If you’re in danger of including extraneous detail in your story, ask yourself: Is this a detail that’s meaningful to this protagonist—or to the story I’m trying to tell? Or is it just meaningful to me? If it’s the latter, it probably doesn’t need to be there.

Novelists and memoirists: What pitfalls have you observed in drawing inspiration from real life? And what are your strategies for getting around them?

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