Drawing on Personal Experience

(You’re going to have to bear with me on this one.  I’m working this out as I write it…)

I love the T.V. show Chopped.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it (i.e., those of you with lives that are too busy to watch random cooking shows), they take four chefs and give them a basket of four mystery ingredients and ask them to cook an appetizer, main course, or dessert in a short period of time.

Here’s a sample of one episode: Make an appetizer using black licorice, arctic char, caperberries, and mangos.  You have 20 minutes.  Go!  Now make a main course using flank steak, sour cherries, espresso powder, and crosnes.  30 minutes.  Go!  And, finally, (now that you’ve cut yourself, burned yourself, and your professional reputation is in tatters) make a dessert using polenta, sherry, beets, and whipped topping.  30 minutes.  Go!

The best contestants on the show are those that take an ingredient and turn it upside down.  The ones who fail are the ones who see a bag of frozen french fries and make (you guessed it) french fries.  Or who take the mystery cheese, slice it up, and put it on the plate as a base for a salad.  BORING.  The whole point of the show is to take things you wouldn’t think go together and make something magical with them.  To repurpose them.

So, here’s where I bring this back to writing.  Most writers, at least the successful ones, have strong life experience to draw on.  (I could be wrong about that.  Feel free in the comments to point out a highly successful author who hasn’t been poor/homeless, struggled with substance issues, lived with someone who struggled with substance issues, had a difficult childhood or adulthood, struggled with depression, or had some other strong life experience.) 

But, unless they’re writing a memoir, writers take that life experience and repurpose it.

They take the essential core and use it in a new and unique way.

I think some beginning novelists (and again, this is not about memoirists) stay too close to the truth.  So, they write a romantic comedy, but it falls flat because they’re really writing about that ridiculous relationship they had when they were twenty-two.

Life is interesting, but it seldom makes a good story without some embellishments.  (And, again, memoirs kind of sort of disprove this point.  But not really given certain recent scandals.)

(I told you, I’m working through this one as I write it…)

Have you ever tried to tell someone about a relationship you had?  And you see their eyes glaze over at some point?  (Maybe it’s just me?)  You’re trying to explain to them why it mattered that your love interest was standing in line at your coffee shop on Tuesday.  (Tuesday! The day you always need a double mocha whatever coffee drinkers drink.  And you’re sure you mentioned it in passing at that one party where the person stayed and talked to you for like a whole twenty minutes even though that ultra hot person you can’t stand was there, too, and trying to get their attention?  Tuesday!)

Now.  Take that same relationship and make it interesting.  (To others, not just you.)

Take the core – the back and forth, the doubts and hiccups, the friendly advice to run like hell.  Keep all that.  But make the rest exciting.

Drop out the seeing them in line at the coffee shop and not saying anything.  Add in a scene where a guy you don’t know is a Dominant shows up at your hardware store job and asks to buy zip ties and duct tape and keeps smiling at you like he knows something that you don’t.  (Yes, I did finally get around to reading 50 Shades of Grey.)  You didn’t work at a hardware store?  Well, this is fiction, now “you” do.  Because that makes a better scene than the awkward “saw each other at the coffee shop and it may or may not have meant anything” scene.

See where I’m going with this?

In some ways I’m lucky.  I write in a different world, so I have to repurpose things.  I have no choice.  There are coffee shops in my world.  Plus there is no character in my books who is 100% me and none of the relationships in my book mirror relationships I’ve had.  So, I never felt a need to “stick to the truth.”

I know it’s harder for folks writing contemporary novels.  But a great example of how this works is Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella.  Here’s the blurb from her website:

Samantha is a high-powered lawyer in London. She works all hours, has no home life, and cares only about getting a partnership.She thrives on the pressure and adrenalin. Until one day… she makes a mistake. A mistake so huge, it’ll wreck her career.

She walks right out of the office, gets on the first train she sees, and finds herself in the middle of nowhere. Asking for directions at a big, beautiful house, she is mistaken for the interviewee housekeeper and finds herself being offered the job. They have no idea they’ve hired a Cambridge-educated lawyer with an IQ of 158 – Samantha has no idea how to work the oven.

Disaster ensues. It’s chaos as Samantha battles with the washing machine…the ironing board…and attempts to cook a cordon bleu dinner.But gradually, she falls in love with her new life in a wholly unexpected way.

I loved the book.  Partially because it was about someone too consumed by their career to see life and that’s pretty much the predicament I was in at the time.  But let’s step back for a moment.  How realistic is it for a high-powered lawyer to make a huge mistake and run away to the countryside and take a job as a housekeeper?  And how realistic is it that there’d be some single hot guy around for her to fall in love with?  Who, of course, would like her and be a good match for her and her Cambridge education and IQ?

It’s not.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Kinsella kept the core idea – lawyer who needs to reset her life.  But she made it fun and entertaining.

Bottom line?  The truth is boring.  That’s why fiction exists.  So you can make “real life” interesting.  Don’t be afraid to take reality and twist it up into such fantastical shapes that you’d never even recognize it.  Let go of your personal truth and find the univeral truth behind it.

(Ok, that last line was a bit much…it’s Saturday.  That’t my excuse.  And amazingly, it works on pretty much any day.  “Sorry, it’s Monday, you know?”)

(And maybe this advice doesn’t work for literary novels.  But if you’re a hard-core literary writer then what are you doing read my blog?)


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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