Should There Be Any True Stories in Fiction Writing?

4 years ago

I started working on my young adult novel, The Obvious Game, in 2009, after the hubbub of my promoting my parenting anthology, Sleep Is for the Weak, wore off. I needed a new project, and I knew I wanted it to be a novel. When I thought about what I wanted to write about, I knew it was anorexia.

Ever since I wrote How Dr. Phil Got Anorexia Wrong, I've been getting email from all over the world asking to hear more about my experience with and recovery from my eating disorder. I realized I was writing back to sufferers and their families the same concepts over and over. I thought I'd make these messages into a novel and let someone else (my protagonist, Diana) go through it, raw and ugly as it is. I didn't under any circumstances want to write a memoir. I had to figure out how to take something that happened and morph it into something that didn't without losing my truth, then throw it out into the world and hope it helped.

Initially, I was very defensive about the book being fiction, not my life, not me. Then I met Jean Kwok when we discussed her amazing debut novel, Girl in Translation, in BlogHer Book Club. Jean confidently told us her novel was based on her life, and the readers not only didn't mind, they became even more fascinated with Jean's book. Inspired by Jean, I decided to own my life informing my character, Diana, even though dammit, we are not the same.

I recently attended the American Librarian Association's Midwinter Meeting in Seattle to hang out with librarians and tell as many as would listen (and they were so gracious, I love librarians) about The Obvious Game. While I was there, I attended a panel by career authors Ruth Ozeki, Terry Brooks, Gregg Olsen and Ivan Doig, all novelists with decades of experience.

Guess what? They all used their lives in their writing to some varying extent.

Ruth Ozecki used the expression "autobiographical fiction." Gregg Olsen said, "Even though I'm making it up, I think about the people in my life." And Ivan Doig said my favorite thing of all, "Do we ever drop anything we might use?"

I don't know where I developed shame over borrowing from my life for my creative writing, but I'm shedding that shame now. I've lived an interesting life.

Why drop something I might use?


Do you write fiction? Do you ever pull from your own experiences?

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the senior editor of BlogHer. Find more at www.surrenderdorothyblog.com.

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