When it comes to writing a book, sticking to what you know is generally considered sound advice. But, as with anything, there are inevitably some downsides to exposing your real-life experiences – and the most obvious of these has to be that it feels like a pretty big risk.
Of course, writing from real life experience is a fantastic way of offering an insight into something that many people won’t understand, and/or giving a voice to all the other people who will have experienced something similar. It’s a powerful way to connect with all those people, to let them know they’re not alone, or to increase public awareness of what others might be going through. The downside to this is that it’s so very revealing. And it’s not something that you can choose to tuck back in a drawer if you decide you’re just not in a ‘sharing’ kind of mood.
The material you’ve put out there will, quite rightly, be considered fair game, and for me personally this means I should now prepare to be introduced to people as the woman who couldn’t get pregnant, the woman who had IVF, the woman who hates pregnant women, and possibly, if people have read the last page available on Amazon’s preview, even the woman who farts more than most people would care to admit to.
There is also the unavoidable fact that all kinds of people in your life, including your in-laws, your co-workers and your grandmother could potentially end up reading what you’ve written. A sobering, if not, horrifying prospect if, like me, your book contains details of your sex life, huge amounts of swearing and the real reason you avoided your grandmother’s 90th birthday celebrations. But then who could try to write a book with that particular audience in mind? And even if you did, you could pretty much guarantee that nobody would want to read it.
Next on the list of potential pitfalls is the issue of being completely immersed in your subject matter. While this is a great advantage in one sense, since your characters are bound to feel three-dimensional, it can be a challenge to view the story from an outside perspective and to ensure it’s still going to interest people who aren’t quite as immersed as you are. For me, the challenge was to become my own ruthless editor, employing the rule of halving what I’d written, then sometimes halving it again, and ensuring I had a reliably harsh critic to cast an eye over my work at crucial stages; one who’d happily shout ‘I’m bored!’ if ever they sensed I was straying into self-indulgence rather than sticking to the edited highlights.
Like pretty much every other writer who shares first-hand experiences, I made the decision to be honest, because if the story isn’t honest then 1) the people who’ve shared your experience will know it instantly, and 2) there’s not much point to writing it in the first place if you’re not offering the reader something real.
But that does leave me with the worry that this honesty is going to come under fire; that I’ll be judged for being an awful person or for handling my difficulties with such bitterness and rage. ‘Is that really how you thought/felt?’ You’re not who I thought you were!’ people might decide upon reading this honest, warts-and-all book.
This is part of the risk that, in the end, you simply have to take.
Just as I have, some writers will choose to create a little distance between their own life and the story, by describing it as ‘based on real life events’ rather than pitching it as an outright memoir. But even this doesn’t create the distance you might expect. While the names, the places and the superficial details might be altered, the emotions are 100 percent real, and ultimately this is what people are going to remember.
It all sounds more than a little scary when you stop to consider the reality of sharing something so intimate with anyone in the world who wants to read it. But then this is probably no different from the fears felt by fiction writers, whose characters and plots are completely make-believe. After all, if your writing isn’t what you’ve experienced, then it can only be what you’ve longed for, dreaded or fantasised, so there is really no escape from the exposure a writer has to face. And, on the plus side, this real-life experience that you’ve chosen to reveal might just strike a chord with somebody who felt sure that nobody in the world ever could or would understand. And if that happens with just one reader who picks up your book then, in my view at least, the risk was entirely worth taking.