June 13, 2019
Sometimes the real world inspires us to write.
When that happens, we often take real life and twist it, turn it, plump it up, pare it down, and patch it with fiction to turn it into something different from real life: fiction inspired by the real world.
But not every event in real life needs to be turned to fiction. Sometimes, the real world presents a writing opportunity like a plump piece of fruit and we write a true account of that event for publication. But what makes a real-world event publishable? When we're writing a memoir or other totally "true" life experience, how do we know if this specific experience is something that will work for publication? It can be hard to evaluate the publish-ability of your own life.
There are some elements that you'll find in real life accounts, including:
- vivid detail
- action or movement
- value that goes beyond the account
When a real-life event can be recounted to include all of these, then you have a publishable idea. These kinds of real-life accounts are often used as the basis for essays, as the anecdotes for some informational fiction, and as the fuel of nostalgia. If you have enough of them that have a thematic unity, you may even have a memoir. So it's worthwhile to look at each of the specific requirements of a publishable real-life account.
I've talked about this in the past, but it's worthwhile to remark on it again. Not only do you need to recount specific details, but it helps if the memory can be connected to unique details. This can be because it happened in a unique setting (the story of how your family bonded on a donkey ride into the Grand Canyon, for instance, or the story of how you survived a plane trip across the Atlantic next to a family with twin crying babies and what you learned from it). It’s especially great if it involves a setting that few people have experienced.
One of the reasons that nostalgia is popular is because it offers us glimpses into a world that doesn't quite exist anymore, so that makes the setting special for the reader. We can't visit that past time, but you did and now are telling about it. Because of this vivid detail from an unexpected or unique setting can go a long way toward adding value to your true-life account. And even fairly mundane settings can be presented as unique in their own way, so look for the details that make the setting feel unexpected or special.
Virtually all real-life stories have an element of emotion. Even stories of something that may seem very technical often bring in the emotional element to add strength to the story. For example, a heart surgeon who tells the story how he felt the first time he held a beating heart in his hands is very much bringing the emotion of the moment into the narrative, even if the bulk of rest of the piece is about tips he'd give readers for being kinder to their hearts. An event about which you felt nothing will hold the same value for the reader: nothing.
But getting in touch with your own emotions in a visceral way can be tough.
I've read new writer accounts about very emotional situations (like the time their teenager ran away and they waited weeks for news on the teen) and found the account flat. The writer told the reader they were worried (I was so worried!) but they didn't bring it to the reader in any visceral way. What was the worry like? A good simile or analogy can impart a lot. Did worry gnaw at your insides, making it feel as if you might collapse inwardly, folding in on yourself over the hole left by your missing child? And did you find yourself combating that through anger, making your hands shake as you fought the urge to throw or hit or run?
Digging into emotion in a memory can be really difficult as it often stirs up those very emotions. People who write real life accounts (and many who use real life to fuel fiction) will find themselves crying while writing or shaking or otherwise manifesting the very emotions they write about. The emotion is visceral for the writer during the process of making it visceral for the reader. And because this is such an important part of making real life accounts work, it's a cost writers should keep in mind as they choose whether real life is the writing you want to do.
This re-enactment of feelings can also make it difficult for a writer to accept constructive criticism of the piece of writing (since that criticism can feel like an attack on the writer personally since the emotional link with the piece is so strong). To make this kind of writing work for publication, you must be able to do two very different things at nearly the same time:
(1) connect with the emotions of the piece in a real way and
(2) disconnect and get distance during the revision and selling stages. It’s tough, but when you can do it, you can create powerful writing.
Real life stories that work aren't static. They often involve action and movement. This is especially true if your real-life incident isn't dramatically emotional. Humor stories for instance, are often real-life accounts that rely on the humor of the actions involved in the account. When I tell the story of my one attempt to slide down a bannister (something I'd always envied story children doing), the humor of the story comes from the actions and of the result as I ended up stuck and hanging upside down from the bannister like a possum. And the fact that I was an adult at the time, just adds to the humor as I awaited rescue. The only emotion really from the piece is embarrassment, but embarrassment is a delicate emotion to manipulate. If you do it too well, the piece makes the reader uncomfortable and they enjoy it less. But if you keep the reader focused on the rollicking events, then they will feel for you without getting washed in the discomfort of the embarrassment.
This is a case of saving the best (or most important) for last. Your real-life event must have value beyond the events in the story. A story of how you once made a quilt by hand might be interesting to your kids or grandkids, but it won't be interesting to readers outside your family unless it has added value. The old quilt might be seen as a window into that time in your life. For example, maybe the sewing of it was a way to deal with your loneliness and worry at night after you put the kids to bed during the time your husband was away overseas in the military. In that case, the quilt has a larger thematic purpose as it represents the loneliness and worry of those left behind. A true-life story that’s publishable offers something that lingers after the story is read and the book or magazine is closed.
My silly story of the unfortunate results of bannister sliding could be used to examine the drive to have adventures. Or my desire to stop being a sensible person who did a risk/benefit analysis of everything before doing it and whether this unfortunate setback made me retreat back into being "sensible." Those elements of the story are what would take it beyond just being an experience and make it something a reader might take with him or her.
So if you're deciding if an event from your life would make a good piece for publication, ask yourself if you can see how it changed your life or how it exemplified something you were working through at the time. How might it be seen from a thematic lens to make it bigger and more lingering than the event itself. If you can do that, you've probably got a winner. And a stepping stone to one more publication in your resume.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.