Making It Personal: The Trials of Writing from Personal Experience

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you are probably familiar with the expression “write what you know.” And it’s pretty accurate to making a good story. When we write within our experience in some way, we lend an authenticity to our writing and our stories that connects with readers and makes them want to stick around to read more.

But writing what you know isn’t always easy.

Writing personal events, even if they are fictionalized versions that may not address everything you experienced, can be brutal. Especially with a traumatic event or with a situation that the author finds personally triggering. It can bring about inner conflicts just like the ones experienced prior, it can set off new episodes of depression, anxiety, or any other type of disorder it initially triggered, and it can be discouraging and painful to remember.

Recently, I wrote a scene that hit me pretty hard. It was a fictionalized scene of one of the hardest days of my life, and it kicked off a years-long bout with depression at that time. It took me a long time to move past it and sort of be okay with how things went down, three years to be able to write this story, and then I reached this same point in the writing and it’s been difficult. All over again, I am struggling with an old demon.

And then there are other considerations about being completely truthful in an account. First and foremost, how will what I say in this story affect my career outside of writing? And how will my friends and family react to it?

As much as we want to tell the story, there is always that worry about how it will affect us, and it doesn’t matter if the fear is unfounded or not. We are forced to consider how other people will view what we write and how it will influence our real lives outside the story. It’s a messy loop of what you want to say versus what you should say to protect yourself and your relationships. We question whether we should even be telling the story in the first place, but then that gives power to the people or experiences that haunt us. I’m still trying to find this line between telling the story and saying more than I should to avoid hurting myself and the people around me. And I still question how much is enough… and how much is too much.

So why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we torture ourselves by reliving difficult experiences through our writing? For me, there are a few pretty simple reasons.

  1. Writing can be an incredibly cathartic practice. First drafts especially are an excellent place for writers to purge their fantasies, to say things they wished they could’ve said before, or to push all of their negative emotions out onto a page where it’s clearer, less muddled by their own thoughts and problems and pain. I can say anything I want in a first draft; it can easily be wiped away in the next.
  2. Writing can give us clarity. It provides a concise way to state what you know about something and, eventually, a way to look at a situation more objectively.
  3. Writing can give us power over a time we felt powerless. Let’s face it. Life isn’t always in our control, or things happen that we feel we have no control over. But writing? We choose what to write, we choose what to say. Even if we never share it. We are able to write the story as we see fit.
  4. Writing through the difficult times can connect us to other people. Ultimately, this is why I write. I want my experiences and the stories that come from them to give others hope and strength to get through their own difficult times.

I don’t know if everything I’ve written recently will see the light of day, because of my own anxieties and other considerations, but I know, hard as it is, I had to tell this story. I had to set it down on paper, this account of a hard time in my life, if for nothing else than to express it on my own terms. Maybe I can share this story one day without any fear at all, to connect with the people I originally wanted to touch with the story.

But for now, it is enough to write.

What about you? Have you struggled through writing something personal? How did you cope with the difficulties? Tell me in the comments!

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