by Barbara Linn Probst
Before I became a writer, I taught students who were getting advanced degrees in clinical social work. One of the questions that always came up was whether a clinician could effectively counsel someone if she didn’t share their experience. Did a clinician have the ability—or the right—to presume that she could help someone struggling with issues that she couldn’t understand “from the inside,” such as domestic violence, anorexia, or racial discrimination?
There are arguments to support both answers to that question. On the one hand, there’s the addiction recovery model, which is based on the idea that “those who’ve been there” are in the best position to help. On the other hand, as I would point out to my students, did that mean that I—as a white, urban, female, baby boomer—had to limit my clinical practice to people exactly like me? That didn’t sound right. It implied a world of stereotypes and separation that contradicted everything I believed in.
The answer that I found most useful, over the years, was based on two complementary principles. First, acknowledge what you don’t understand. Ask and learn. “Tell me what it’s like for you.” Respect the client as the expert on her own life.
And second, excavate what you do understand, even if it’s not evident at first. As I told my students: “I might not know what it’s like to feel worthless and ashamed because my father is incarcerated. But I do know what it’s like to feel worthless and ashamed. Something in my life has made me feel that way. It doesn’t matter what it is, specifically, as long as I can dig down and connect with those feelings. They’re human feelings, and we all have them.”
It’s exactly the same with writing. But the principles require a bit of translation.
We’ve all heard the injunction to “write what you know.” That’s like the idea that a therapist will do her best work with people whose experience most closely resembles her own.
And we’ve all heard the counter-arguments. If we were limited to writing what we know, directly, then a female writer could have no male characters. There would be no fantasy or historical fiction. That’s obviously not what the injunction is meant to connote. Taking it that way is far too restrictive.
However, there’s another pitfall to the notion that we must turn to our own experience as source material for our writing. You might say that it’s not restrictive enough. That is, it requires a caveat or two.
“Write what you know” does not mean you should turn your own life into fiction—or, more subtly, use writing for personal catharsis. My first (terrible) manuscript did just that, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was drawing on my own painful experiences, ostensibly because that was the material I could write about most authentically, but actually because I still needed to work through them.
In other words, I was writing about my experience, rather than writing from my experience—from the human truths I’d come to understand. Those truths can deepen a story. They can tell me, if I listen, what my characters might feel and do, even if I’ve never been part of their world.
We’ve all been swept into the world of a story, knowing that the author herself wasn’t a member of the French resistance or part of an orphan train. Certainly, the author did extensive research so the external details would be accurate. But no doubt she did “internal research” too, tapping into the human emotions that transcend time and place.
In short: My own experience can guide how I render the story. But it should not guide how I structure the plot.
Ask yourself: Are you writing about your experience or from your experience? How can you tell? Here are some guidelines that can help.
- Can you imagine people you know asking if a character in your book is “really” you or “really” someone you both know?
- Do you believe that no one else could truly tell this story?
- Visualize your novel as a memoir. Would it work equally well?
- Do you feel deeply connected with your protagonist’s struggle, despite the ways in which you differ?
- As you were writing, did you feel as if you knew, intuitively, what your protagonist would say or do—even though you’ve never been in her shoes?
- Did the passages of interiority come more naturally to you, while you were writing, than the external events of the plot?
If you answered “yes” to the first three questions, you may be writing about your experience.
If you answered “yes” to the last three, you may be writing from your experience. It’s not always so clear-cut, of course—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with semi-autobiographical writing, as long as you do it purposefully and call it by its proper name.
One of my writing teachers, the wise and generous Sandra Scofield, told me recently: “There’s no harvest so bountiful as one’s own pain.” The image of a harvest is a good one, I think. The pain—whatever struggle, loss, shame, rage, and despair one has experienced—can be fertile soil. The crop doesn’t consist of quasi-autobiographical accounts of that pain. It’s whatever you, as a writer, can bring to life from the mysterious combination of soil, light, water, and air.
It’s a delicate, two-step process. First, we take what is personal, particular to us, and search for its universal essence. Then we take that universal essence and embed it in a new particular—a character, an event, a fictional world.
That’s the miracle of writing.
What about you?
Is there something from your own life that has enriched a story you’ve written? Are there dangers, as well as benefits, of drawing on one’s own experience?
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Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her forthcoming novels (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.
Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/