In a creative writing class this past semester, the professor had us do an autobiographical assignment. While I normally shy away from writing about my life, I decided to take the plunge and write about more intimate aspects of my life and psyche than I normally delve into. The piece was a real success and was liked by the class. The professor, naturally, asked why this material I wrote about never made it into my fiction. He pointed out that my hesitation about it might actually indicate that I was sitting on my best material.
That got me thinking about what we choose to write about, and whether those choices are always the right ones. There are many things in our lives — usually dark times or more upsetting memories — that we choose not to think about on a daily basis. We want to skip right over those moments that we feel confused or angry or sad about. So when we’re running through our minds for story ideas, that same instinctive skip happens — don’t want to dig that up with all its unpleasant emotion, so let’s move on to something I feel less deeply about.
The problem with that is, of course, that you’re left with a story idea that you don’t care about as much! That’s why so many of us may be sitting on our best material. The stuff that still makes you uneasy or that would be embarrassing for you to reveal is, unfortunately, the stuff that will be the juiciest to include in your story. Whether it’s embarrassment about your own behavior, or a tragic event in your past, this is the good stuff for fiction, the stuff we want to read about, the stuff you will write about with the most emotion and experience. Fiction must be deeply felt; so why are you dodging what you feel most deeply about already?
It can be difficult to dig up these most dearly held thoughts, memories, and experiences. You may not want to write about them because their publicity would hurt friends or family members. If you’re really serious about your writing, though, it must be done. The great writers were willing to use whatever material came their way, no matter what the social consequences; and in general, families understand that when they have a writer in the bunch, anything’s game. So take heart, and dig deep!