Putting Yourself in Your Stories

by Marg McAlister


Every story you write will be filtered through your own experiences and opinions. It's virtually impossible to hide your own likes, dislikes, prejudices and biases. You'll find that your characters often make food choices rather similar to yours, or reflect your patterns of speech. (This is often why fledgling writers find that their characters all sound the same - they mirror the author!) But what if you want to go further? What if you feel you have a story to tell, or a warning to deliver? What if you want to tell others what your life has been like, or to offer help to other sufferers? Should you hide behind fictional characters, or write a tell-all non-fiction book?

First, you need to look at your reasons for wanting to write about your life.

1. Writing As Therapy - Do Others Want to Share Your Pain?

Editors are used to being sent both fiction and non-fiction that explores traumatic experiences. These books are commonly on topics like:

  • Physical, psychological and sexual abuse
  • Drug or alcohol addiction (from the viewpoint of the addict or the families)
  • Victims of crime or cult survivors
  • Imprisonment (whether the subject is guilty or innocent)
  • Death of a family member (through a road accident, murder, terrorism, suicide, or disease)
  • Helping family members through illness or medical conditions (mental or physical handicap, Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, ADHD, Alzheimers, Spina Bifida, Cancer, Anorexia, Motor Neurone Disease, Dyslexia, handicap caused by accidents, etc etc)

There are many other subjects, of course, but those above will do as an example. So... should you write about your experiences, or not?

The first thing you need to ask yourself is "WHY do you want to do this?" The answer, if you're honest, is that you need to write about it to make sense of it for yourself. Experiences like these leave lasting scars, and it often takes years to work through the trauma associated with it. Some people never get over it - they constantly re-live the trauma or difficult times, becoming obsessed by what happened to them. Undoubtedly, there is a story to be told. But do you need to tell it AND sell it? Does it really need a wider audience, or do you just need to write about it privately, to help yourself? Would a journal serve the purpose as well as a novel or non-fiction book sent to a publisher? Would a readership of just half a dozen close friends be enough to make you feel your story had been told?

Writing can be excellent therapy, but not every story needs to be published. Sometimes you are too close to the subject to be objective. Sometimes your pain will be so raw that it gets in the way of the story.

If you genuinely feel that you need to share your story with a wider audience, you can do it through fiction or non-fiction. Fiction can be a short story or a novel; non-fiction can be in the form of articles for newspapers or magazines, website pages, or a book.

Is Your Story Better as Fiction or Non-Fiction?

You may choose to disguise your story as fiction to protect the innocent, or to shield family members. You can invent characters, settings, and plot twists to suit yourself, with nobody realising that your story is created from real life. Alternatively, you may feel that non-fiction is a better option for helping others or giving an insight into the situation.

To show you just how differently similar experiences can be used, I'm going to take a look at two different books that feature an autistic child. One is fiction. The other is an e-book. Strangely enough, the child who is the main character in both is called Adam.

Example 1. "Eye Contact", a novel by Cammie McGovern. (Viking Books, published 2006). Here is the back cover blurb from EYE CONTACT:

"As children wage mock battle in the playground of Woodside Elementary School, two pupils, a little girl and boy, seem to vanish. They are last seen heading across the soccer field towards the woods behind the school. Hours pass and then only one of them, Adam, a nine-year-old-boy with autism, is found alive, the sole witness to an incomprehensible killing. When another child goes missing Adam's mother realizes she must unlock her son's silence, not only for the sake of justice but also for the sake of her child. But as she moves closer to exposing the truth her unsettling past begins to emerge from the shadows. In her desperate desire to protect her child from real life has she made his world a more dangerous place?"

As you read the book, you know you are in the hands of a skilled fiction writer - but the mystery is made particularly fascinating by the author's insight into the world of autism. The reader knows beyond a doubt that this author has experienced life with an autistic child.

Quote 1:

Last week, lost in his own thoughts, Adam very nearly followed the wrong woman off the bus. Cara had to reach out, snap his coat hood, and bark, "Adam, look UP."
"Oh, oh, oh," he said, his face awash in gratitude and relief: Almost lost and then saved! He pressed his forehead against her chest, gasped and giggled and almost cried as he said, over and over, "You're okay, you're okay." Nine years old and in a panic, he still reverses his pronouns, still echoes words of comfort exactly as they've been given to him.

Quote 2: (After the child's body has been discovered - Adam is being interviewed by psychologists for the police)

"t has been decided that Cara won't stay with Adam while he's being interviewed. She offered this with the explanation "if I'm there, he tends to let me do all the talking," so that everyone will understand, he can talk even if they've seen no evidence of it yet.
Once they get inside the observation room, with its eerie silver-gray light and the one-way mirror into the room where Adam will be interviewed, she wonders if this will be a mistake. There are three buckets of toys on the floor, none of which will be in the least bit interesting to Adam.
Once they're seated, Lincoln is all business again, explaining the rules and how it will go. "I have to watch the doctor, make sure she's asking the right questions, not leading Adam in any way. You need to watch Adam, see if there's anything he's doing or saying that might tell us something. The doctor will also be wearing an earpiece that will let us make suggestions. Adam won't hear, but she will. The idea here is that anything we can get from Adam, anything at all - skin colour, shirt colour, facial hair, tall, short, anything - is going to give us a starting point. Right now, we've got very little to go on."
Cara's heart sinks a bit at this. He's a kind man, sympathetic; she wants Adam to magically produce answers that will help him, but how can he when she's never put skin colour on his curriculum, never drilled him on the gradation of difference? It looks like brown, but we call it black. Some people think skin colour matters, but really it doesn't; underneath everyone is just the same. How can she teach Adam this, when he's never noticed?
"I have to say, I don't think Adam's going to to be able to tell us any of those things. He can't describe a person who isn't standing right in front of him.

Finally, at the back of the book, there is a page of acknowledgements by the author. In part, it says: "We are currently in the throes of an autism epidemic that is being fought in Washington, DC, in laboratories, and in a million homes around the world. While parents, given the choice, might not have volunteered to join this battle, scores of unsung heroes have, and I thank every teacher, para-professional, therapist, school nurse, cafeteria worker and principal's secretary who has taken the time to befriend my son and, in so doing, has widened his world and helped him to believe there is a place for him in it."

Example 2. "Getting Adam Back - A Mother's Triumph over Epilepsy and Autism" by Arlene Martell. www.gettingadamback.com

On her website, Arlene Martell talks about her son and their desperation in trying to find something to help him. She says: "When my son Adam was first diagnosed with Epilepsy and Autism, we had more questions than there were answers. Trying drug after drug left Adam disoriented, lethargic and confused. By the age of 4, Adam began to have seizures that came on fast and unpredictably.
After trying 6 different drugs in just 2 years, Adam was hardly able to function. He couldn't stay awake in school, his learning curve was at a stand still and his behaviour was deplorable. His autistic tendencies were out of control and his daily obsessions controlled his life. Adam could no longer dress himself or even find his own bedroom and our family was in turmoil. Adam's personal safety, as well as the safety of our other children, became a major concern. The doctors told us that Adam's condition was incurable and that his prognosis was very poor. The final straw was when someone suggested that I put Adam in a crash helmet and leave him in an institution. I knew that it was time to take matters into my own hands, but I was scared to death."

You can clearly see this mother's pain as she recounts her feelings on seeing her precious son deteriorate. After hearing about a treatment that others had found successful, she went into research mode - then started applying what she found out. As she says: "I am not a doctor, I am a mom who is driven by a dream for her son. This ebook was written as a labour of love, telling the story of Adam's journey and the struggles that we went through to make him well. Adam's story is real and it spans over 14 years of his life." A

rlene knew that when she was searching for alternative treatments for Adam, she would have given anything for something that offered hope and reassurance that she was doing the right thing - and she was very much aware that what she learned, in her search for treatment, were things that the medical professionals were not willing to share with her.

That's what drove her to write her own book, and offer it as a download from the Internet, easily accessible to millions of people at the click of a button.

3. How do You Choose? Some Points to Consider

  • If you just want to write about the experience, rather than offering help, fiction is a viable option. It could influence or educate just as many people as a work of non-fiction.
  • If you are unwilling to hurt or expose some of the people connected with your story, then fiction gives you the opportunity to disguise people, places and events.
  • If you want to offer help to others, you can choose to write your book and submit it through traditional channels (to be published as a physical product, a paperback or hard cover book) or you can promote and sell it on the internet as an e-book.
  • If you decide to create an e-book and sell it from a website, you will need to learn how to turn your manuscript into an e-book - as well as investigating online purchase options.

You can use a website to offer help and to promote your printed book, without also selling it as an e-book. (An example is Melinda Hutching's website to help anorexia sufferers - www.bodycage.com - where she also promotes her paperback books.)

If you decide to write, create and promote your book yourself, it's wise to get an independent editor or proofreader. It's all too easy to miss things when you're checking your own work - often you see what you expect to see instead of what's really there.

© Marg McAlister


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