I didn't consciously seek inspiration for fiction in my own life; it just happened. Many writers mine their lives for subject matter, since, as Mark Twain instructs us, we must write what we know, and we know best the people, places, and events that are part of our lives. Moreover, in fictively exploring familiar territory we may come to a deeper understanding of ourselves. If this sounds like therapy, I propose that it is as much therapy for our work as for the psyche. The challenge for serious fiction writers is to give our characters rich emotional lives so that readers care about them. We can find ample psychological and emotional lessons in our own lives to instruct our characters' emotions, just as Toni Morrison and Flannery O'Connor have done.
It may seem like literary grand theft to steal characters and events—personal joys and traumas—from people we know to use in our fiction, but, as Faulkner suggests, "An artist
is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody
to get the work done." Never tell a good story in the company of writers; someone is sure to steal it. It's what writers do: We turn stories and characters we purloin from life into our own creations, and readers thank us for it.
My first published novel, The Seductions of Natalie Bach, was loosely based on a friend's account of growing up in New York in the sixties. It's a coming-of-age novel about a girl struggling with her sexual identity and a competitive mother. The characters she described were compelling, as were the fraught emotional relationships between Natalie, her mother, and her mentor Maxine. A wealth of personal conflict there. The narrative grew organically out of the characters once I had them down; it is total invention. Material we borrow from life should never define or limit a story but only serve as the armature around which we mold the fictive clay.
I wrote the novel in first person from the perspective of two women, which might not seem like a strategy to pursue in mining my own life for emotional resonances. But not all of us are capable of writing unabashed self confessionals. It just isn't in us. So we must hide behind the cloak of fiction and disguise ourselves as others to comfortably explore our own feelings. Perhaps that's why we write fiction in the first place.
My second novel, Going Under, was uncomfortably autobiographical, focusing on growing up, as I did, in a dysfunctional family, with an alcoholic mother and cold, distant father. I posited what might have happened if things had spun totally out of control, my mother's emotional instability had devolved to madness and Dad had abandoned us? It was tough going to relive nights I lay awake in bed as a boy listening to my parents argue downstairs, tires squealing when my drunk mother sped away in her station wagon, taking out neighbors' mailboxes. I was afraid that she wouldn't return. Such memories infused the book with the emotional agonies my sister and I endured as kids. Readers found it disturbing, just as I hoped they would.
Students ask me, "Don't people get p.o.'d at you for writing about them?" Possibly. Although you aren't really writing about them, rather a fictional hybrid which is as much you as your model. Besides, people usually don't recognize themselves in fictive guises, since we don't see ourselves as others see us. They may even be moved or flattered. A friend told me about reluctantly letting his father read a novel he'd written about their tough relationship. He was awakened in the middle of the night by his father sobbing over his book.
Many of my short stories are based on my own experiences. "How I Died" on a near-fatal car crash my wife and I had on the New York State Thruway one icy night—except in the story I die, as I haven't yet done in real life. Quite exhilarating. Many are inspired by places I have lived and people I have known. I urge you: Don't hesitate to beg, borrow and steal from your own life. There's richness there.
I have dug most deeply into my own emotional substrate in my new novel, Beneath The Coyote Hills. Its main character, Tommy, is an epileptic (like me), homeless, down on his luck, possessed by demons, including his abusive father who returns from the dead. Constantly thrown to the ground without warning, he must struggle to get up again. It's taken me years to find the courage to write about epilepsy. I started a memoir about it, but found it tough going. In Tommy, I've found a vehicle to give voice to my own feelings about living with a neurological ogre. Fiction has opened that door for me. The novel is both a "demoniac unearthly shriek," as Thomas Mann described the cry heralding a seizure, and a shout of victory.
When we do invest our own fears, sorrows and joys in our fictions, we must avoid being enslaved by facts and liberate our work from the "reality" that inspires it. Some find this hard to do. They feel they are serving two masters at once—fact and fiction—which are at odds with each other. We must give our fiction a life of its own which transcends the actual events that have informed it. A story can die in our hands if we don't give it breathing room.