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How Personal is Too Personal?

We've talked about the idea that so many young writers get the advice: write what you know. Then we see this play out with poorly covered self-insert stories that are more melodrama than worthwhile content. This idea is further promoted in TV shows like "Gossip Girl" and "Riverdale," where the writer character is just writing about themselves and everyone thinks they're insanely talented. I always felt like this was poor advice for those starting out because it left young writers with little idea of what to actually write about. Yes, we should have some experience with the topic of our story, but we probably shouldn't be fictionalizing our lives. If that was all writers did we'd never get great works of science-fiction or fantasy. Of course, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about things he really experienced with brotherhood and war, but it wasn't a beat-for-beat recounting of his life with some orcs and elves thrown in. I think the real crux of the advice "write what you know" is to get personal with your writing.

So what does it really mean to get personal in your writing? Well, the first thing I think about is how much of myself am I really putting into my writing? Am I just creating a self-insert story, or am I using my life as inspiration to talk about topics bigger than myself? As I've talked about before, I write mostly about families and many of the small details that make characters or situations feel more real come directly from my life. Things like the mom in my first book having several jars with Sprees all sorted by color is an odd detail that shows she's organized, but fun. It also happens to be something my mother did while I was growing up.

I find adding these little tidbits gives life to my story. What I try not to do is pull whole plotlines from my real life, or the life of someone I know. I don't ever want a friend or family member to look at my writing and feel like I stole their life for fiction fodder, or like they know what happens next because they saw me live through it. What I am hoping happens, is that they see a twinkle of inspiration or a stroke of similarity and know they helped craft my narrative. I'm still "writing what I know" when it comes to the emotions and interactions between the characters when it comes to a little quirk one of them might have. I use anything to make my characters feel more human, but I'm not pulling point for point from my life.

If I'm ever lucky enough to get published and become a widespread author, I don't want my readers to be inspecting my life like it's some kind of puzzle to find out which bits were true and which weren't. I've seen this done with incredible writers like Pat Conroy and Nancy Meyers. I don't want my writing to become like a scavenger hunt for people to dig into my personal life.

The other aspect I think about when wondering what it means to get personal with my writing is marketing myself as an author. Now, this might not fall under the idea of "write what you know," but I do think it's a major issue taking place today when it comes to marketing and trying to get published. Take this blog for example. I put a good amount about myself and my life here, but I also always keep it focused on the writing side of things and how I can use anything from my life in my writing. I wonder sometimes though if I need to get more personal.

Would I get more eyes on the page if I wrote about things like my husband and I being high school sweethearts (like so many of those famous TikTok couples) or maybe if I shared my family drama (people love messy gossip.) Should I be sharing childhood traumas and talk about how I've used writing to help work through them. Yet, time and time again, I see these authors who are making tiktoks or doing an AMA on Twitter (X) or Redditt, and I feel uncomfortable. They are selling themselves, not just their books. I know it might be beneficial to my work, but I really don't know if I have the guts for something like that.

When it comes down to it, getting personal in your writing is going to make it more emotional and vulnerable. That's what readers want to connect with. They want to pick up a book and feel seen by the plot, or the characters, or sometimes just the general vibe. however, they also want to get to know an author personally and know they're supporting someone who aligns with their morals and beliefs. Consumers want to feel good about who they're supporting. So do we as creators owe it to the public to spread our lives out to be examined, or is it good enough to just get personal and be emotionally vulnerable through our fiction?

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