Which one of your friends is this?

November 13, 2007 at 9:49 pm (Writing) (, , )

When I was at university, I had a fiction tutor who subscribed wholeheartedly to the ‘write what you know’ school of literature.  So far did she take this mantra that she had had (fruitless) legal action brought against her for relying too heavily on descriptions of a previous employer in her first novel.  Whenever we discussed character in a student’s work, her first question was always “Which of your friends is this?”  She always looked sceptical when the reply came “None of them – it’s a character.”

I felt uneasy during these seminars.  On the one hand, my 19 year old self thought that I must be doing something drastically wrong if a published novelist peopled all her work with characters from her life and I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.  On the flip side, the idea of using my friends, family, and acquaintances in my fiction felt kind of dirty – as if I was stealing their underwear or something.  I did not subscribe to the underwear-stealing school of fiction.  Towards the end of my third year, thoroughly aware that said tutor would be marking the module submissions, I wrote two series of prose poems that did draw very heavily upon my experiences and the people I knew.  One was set at a student house party and the characters were very obviously my friends; I felt constricted as I wrote, terrified a) that my friends would recognise themselves and be offended by my portrayals and b) that I couldn’t change reality if I was using real people.  This latter fear was, of course, silly – I wasn’t a historical biographer, adhering ardently to the facts; real life people can be a launch pad for fictional characters that end up coming wholly into their own.  At the time, though, it just didn’t seem right.

The second series of prose poems was about my mother.  Again with the dirty feeling – I felt like I had violated my relationship with my mother by using certain details in order to get my degree.  The course tutor raved about these pieces, giving me a ludicrously high mark.  The second marker thought them fairly ordinary – that’s the subjectiveness of a creative writing degree, I guess.  I’ve sat on this piece ever since, knowing that I could never attempt to get it published.  It served its purpose, within the safe bubble of academia, and showed me very clearly where my borrowing-from-life boundaries lie.

Like most writing debates, there is no right or wrong answer to this little puzzler.  How much a writer draws upon their own experiences and real world cast is entirely dependent upon their style, influences, purposes, etc.  Anthony Burgess wrote from his own traumatic experiences and created a terrifying but unnervingly recognisable future world, acting out a disturbing revenge upon those that had caused him pain that he couldn’t inflict in ‘real life’.  Kazuo Ishiguro, of Japanese heritage but raised in England, writes from both inside and outside both cultures.  Literature would definitely be poorer without his particular insight, but does he ever feel that he is betraying his heritage by writing about it?  What do Margaret Atwood and Philip K. Dick borrow from their surroundings to create their dystopian worlds?

Ten thousand words  into the novel that I’m currently writing, I don’t feel that there’s anything of myself, my friends, or anybody else I know in it.  I do feel, however, that it’s shaping up to be my most successful piece of writing so far.  I’ll let you know if either view changes.



  1. JMH said,

    Is the measure of a writer the amount of honesty one can generate beyond the point where it is comfortable or acceptable?

  2. inkandkeys said,

    That’s a really good point, JMH, although I’d lean towards ‘a measure’ rather than ‘the measure’. I think that successful fiction does have to be honest – not true, realistic, fair, representative, but definitely honest.

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