So this got me thinking – is everything copy, or not? Are there some things that as a writer you can't use in your work?
I'm often asked if I use my own experiences in my writing and my response is yes, but it's changed a bit. It may have an incident that really happened as the starting point, but the fiction spreads out from there. I wrote about my experience of depression in And Then That Happened, about much of my experiences of coming out in Best Friends Perfect, about walking into the wrong room at my first writers group meeting in Wrong Room, Right Guy - I could go on, but I think you get the point. I think it's similar with using other people's lives and experiences 'as copy' -I realise that's a disrespectful way to describe someone's real sometimes traumatic experience, but that's the phrase that started me writing this, so I'm using it here.
I think one of the main reasons why we tell stories as humans is to make sense of our lives and what happens around us. We do this by seeing parts of our self reflected in characters we read about / see on screen. I also think we enjoy stories as a form of escape from reality, albeit briefly, which allows us the strength to forge on with our own reality.
Coming back to my question, is everything copy? Or are there certain things that happen to you as a writer, or those around you which shouldn't be used in fiction? If I think of some terrible experiences people have gone through, they are used in what is now its own genre of stories, the misery memoir. I suppose that's a bit different because the author is deciding to use their own experience.
The other thing to bear in mind when considering this question is really how individual to one person is that person's experience? A friend splitting up with her husband isn't something that's only happened to her. A woman finding out her husband is cheating on her -or the other way round. A death and how that affects those around it? My view is if you can write something that is very personal to that one character's experience, it actually becomes very universal because of what I've just described above. The jobs or where the characters live will give the story colour and realism, but the motivations behind what caused the event are, I think, pretty universal.
I also believe, if you use someone else's life as copy, but you do it in a respectful, not salacious and appropriate way, to tell a story about that emotion, and not simply to share some gossip, then a writer is using it respectfully to help others with that emotion. Obviously, you must change enough about the real life and what ends up as 'copy' – names, locations, jobs, relatives etc – to protect the innocent. But at its core, the real human emotions felt by that real human person who experienced that life event, are what as a writer we try to convey in the words we write, so they can be experienced by readers. And that, is why I think everything really is copy.
I went to a writers conference and an author wore a T shirt that said 'be careful, I'm an author, or I'll put you in my next book.' Kenneth Williams kept detailed diaries for 40 plus years and he used to threaten his friends with it. 'Be careful, or you'll end up in the diary,' he'd say.
Am I wrong about this? Are there some things you can't or shouldn't write about? I'd love to hear from you,
Liam Livings xx
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