Day 17: Borrowing from life in your writing

One thing that books on writing seem to consider standard writing practice is the idea that writers are collectors of what they witness around them. In this view, writers are magical, remembering snippets of dialogue heard on the subway or the look of a woman in a store and remixing those recollections into beautiful, unique characters and stories.

To me, this perspective seems more like a fairy tale told to aspiring writers to encourage them to learn from the world around them. I don’t doubt that it can help people write, but as advice it is pretty useless for me. My memory is terrible, and there is no way that I could borrow from the world I see unless I was recording it overtly, for reference later. That’s not impossible, but it is implausible when I’m carrying heavy library books home or shopping for groceries.

The larger idea, that we build our worlds and characters out of what we know, is probably true. But I like to think that it happens more unconsciously, or at least in a way that is less calculating than simply thinking “This character will be based on my younger brother,” and then writing him as a character. Even if I wanted to approach writing that way–I dont–I wouldn’t know how to do so. I don’t feel capable of taking fascinating, complex people from my real life to the page while presenting them fictionally. Maybe it’s a weakness in my writing skills, but I find it much easier to create characters wholly from my imagined ideas about them, separate from other people I could draw from.

If my characters all turn out to lack personality, then maybe I’ll imbue them with traits I appreciate during revision. But I’m still not sure that to do so, I need to use actual overheard conversations or the description of the hat a man was wearing on the train. If it works for you, then by all means go with it–but I’d rather make things up entirely, myself.

Edited to add: This post was inspired by a few books that I’ve read, including Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing to Change the World by Mary Pipher. The idea for this post began with a conversation at home with my partner, who is also writing a novel this month. 🙂

How much of your world do you include in the worlds of your stories?

Today’s word count: 2,646

Total word count: 46,111

Today’s excerpt: “She’s with the other me, okay?” he blurted out, exasperated. 

Elle was stunned into silence for a moment, and then she started to laugh until she stopped making sound, tears streaming down her face.

“Well, I’m glad that you’re enjoying this,” he said, “because I’m really hating it. A lot.”

“Come on, Liam,” she gasped out between subsiding chuckles. “Can’t you see how ridiculous this is? The love of your life is with another guy, but it’s you!”

He started laughing a little too, as he realized she had a point. He didn’t really feel better, though. Was being ridiculous better than being hopeless? It didn’t feel like a step up.

Day 17: Borrowing from life in your writing

2 thoughts on “Day 17: Borrowing from life in your writing

  1. Wow. Well. Way to not credit our conversation. Lol. We talked about this a couple of days ago, and here you are–discussing it on your blog. With no mention at all, that it was my conversation topic. Harrrumph.

    So, I guess….you take from your world for this blog thing but not for your writing?

    Anyways……..we already did it, talked about it, so you know how I am, as a writer–I don’t really pull from the world around me. It’s not feasible.
    🙂 🙂

    1. Toni Travis says:

      Pahrump. ❤

      Correction applied, and I very sincerely apologize for not mentioning it, as you are correct that this post would likely not exist without you. 🙂

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