How You’re Sitting On Your Best Material

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!


  1. Not only do the difficult times of our life provide good fodder for our stories, but our stories provide us with a way to deal with our difficult times. Subjecting our characters to the things we endured is cheaper than therapy and just as effective. And if you’re real lucky, you might even get published and paid for sufferings.

  2. Great post. I am a writer who tends to reject (for my fiction) the painful and/or humiliating experiences from my past. I know that I have always sat on my best meaterial. Your post may just spur me to get off of it. Thanks.

  3. mary brady says:

    I am always torn about this subject. I was severely abused, sexually & mentally, by my parents. I was a drunk & a drug addict by 16, cleaned up at 34, then spent 12 years in individual & group therapy to get my head on relatively straight.

    My “out of the gutter, into the light” story has already been written (or fabricated) a lot & sold by Oprah, it seems. Plus, any thread I pull on from my past leads either to some horrible sexual perversion between my parents &/or siblings & me, or it leads to some incredible debauchery.

    Who wants to read this stuff? Do I really want to dredge it all back up? Even now, at 59, I must be careful not to dwell on memories because it is easy to re-traumatize myself. My kind boyfriend of 20+ years tells me to close my eyes if a rape scene pops up in a DVD–he fast- forwards & mutes it ’til it is safe for me to watch again.

    Please–if anyone cares to comment on whether my experiences sound like the the stuff of interesting stories,
    TELL ME. I have zero perspective on this. It makes it hard as hell to decide if ANY of my own life can be used as material for a character or situation.

    Here is a specific event: when I was just a girl of 20, I was the official LSD connection for the Stockton Chapter of the Hells Angels. I have no recollection why, other than that I had a good acid connection.

    Two of the Angels were in my living room one evening checking out a gram of acid (4000 hits) they wanted to buy. Meanwhile, I shot up some heroin in my bedroom & wished they’d hurry up & decide so I could count their money before I got really stupid.

    They did buy it & I was able to complete the transaction before I really nodded out for the night.

    The Angels called the next day. No–they drove back to Oakland, where I lived, the next day because I didn’t have a phone. It turned out the gram was 600 hits light–only 3400 hits in their bag.

    I went to the pay phone & called Mr. Big. He said he was terribly sorry–he’d forgotten he pulled 600 hits out of that gram bag to sell to his useless friend, “Kiowa.” (“Kiowa” is an Indian name!)

    Mr. Big dropped off the missing 600 hits the next day–he left them in a clear plastic bag in the tiny mail box beside my door. I’d already left to go to class at UC Berkeley, (which I attended entirely on scholarships just to get away from my family.)

    I guess I mailed the 600 hits to the Angels in Stockton. Possibly, I drove my ’51 Mercury to Stockton the next weekend & delivered them. I do recall that they were very understanding about the whole thing.

    So, those were my school days. Later, things got pretty strange.

    • I would say in my teenage years, drug dealers were far less ethical lol

      That is interesting material. I guess getting to read someone elses experience makes for good reads.

      Follow your heart and u can stay away from your exact childhood experiences. Perhaps write about the kinds of hopes and dreams you’ve held onto despite your pain.

      • mary brady says:

        Thanks, Amber. I mean it. You are correct–perhaps I can find a way to salvage parts of my life without wandering into the really grim memories.

        Not only were drug-dealers more ethical back in the 70s, but the Angels were nicer then, too. They didn’t pound me into ground meat before I had a chance to make up the missing 600 hits of acid.

        Of course, this touches on another problem I have. If I start going down memory lane about my ‘hippy-type/drug dealer’ years, no one believes it! Things were pretty nutty.

        Again, many thanks for commenting, Amber. I WILL find a way to turn this dross into gold.

        (BTW, I had no heroes or hopes or dreams that ‘sustained’ me during childhood. Hate sustained me. To this day, I keep a with a loaded .38 near at all times–in case my family ever shows up & tries to imprison me again. Both parents are dead & I’ve had NO contact with my 4 siblings for 25 years…)

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