A piece of advice that seems to appear rather frequently for writers is to draw from their experience. I think this is great advice because if you pull from what you know, your writing will be more authentic and subsequently more intriguing to your audience. This isn’t to say that if you’ve never been a fighter pilot you can’t writer about fighter pilots, but it does require you to do a lot of research so that you have something to say about fighter pilots other than that you once watched Top Gun with your college roommate.
HIIIIIGHWAAAAY TO THE
But when you draw from your experiences, at what point do you go from using what you know to plagiarizing your own life? When I was in grad school, I had multiple workshops with a guy who shared stories that drew from his life. “Drew from his life” is probably too light of phrasing to express what it is I’m conveying here. According to his family, he had a tendency to write down exactly what happened and call it fiction after changing the names.
“It couldn’t possibly be you, Mom! Look, her name is ‘Shmom.’
How much is too much when it comes to drawing from your life? Situations similar to what you’ve experienced? Characters based on people you know? Exact word-for-word conversations?
The last one might sound a little ridiculous. “What do you mean exact conversations? No one remembers those!” Trust me, this is a thing and if you’ve read some of my previous articles, I’ve mentioned this before. I’ve known people who, during a normal social interaction, have stopped the conversation to ask either myself or others to repeat what we just said as they scribbled it down in their moleskine notebooks and said, “That’s a great line! I’m gonna use that in a story later!”
But really, do we even own the rights to what we say in casual conversation? My previous article, “Eavesdropping on Strangers for Fun and Profit” would suggest we don’t. But is it even fiction anymore if you take a real situation and slap some fake names on it?
I don’t really have an answer. If you take a true story and change some details, I suppose that could fall into the realm of fiction. It could also fall into the realm of “creative nonfiction,” such as was the case with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. A lot of people (namely Oprah) got upset that he was peddling a “made-up story” as nonfiction but creative nonfiction bridges that gap which is where a lot of these true fiction stories should probably rest.
I Googled “angry Oprah” and came up with this picture and one of Rihanna crying.
I’m not totally sure where to go from here but I do know that
I am now afraid for that sad-eyed puppy and Rihanna.
How often do we tell stories to people but the small details change over time due to forgetfulness or blank spaces where our minds or other people fill in the gaps? Does that make us all embarrassing liars that should publicly apologize to Oprah and housewives across America? Probably not. But at the same time, that also seems like a much lesser offense than writing down every word people say and calling it original fiction.
I’ve decided to declare, once and for all, what is the acceptable way to plagiarize your life. To all the writers out there, you’re welcome.
Advice ain’t free.
I accept cash and all major credit cards except Discover because fuck you, that’s why.
OKAY: Drawing from your experiences and creatively re-telling a story from your life.
NOT OKAY: Being that jackass at a party who is too busy copying down the words you hear to have a real conversation.
As writers, we’re told to write constantly and we should. But we also need to find that balance and to know when to put down the pen and do something other than spend time with your own thoughts. Going out and experiencing things will ultimately make you a better writer and even if you don’t get a good story out of it, it’ll make you a more interesting person to be around so you can be this guy:
Not this guy:
You can read more at The Next Great American Writer
Written by: Emily Regan