In any Writing From Your Life Experience class of ten people, there may be ten different reasons why students want to use their life experience to inspire writing. One thing's for certain, it's going to be a lot easier to know HOW to write about your life if you know WHY you want to do it, and WHO you want to write for.
Some are writing as a legacy, because their want their children or grandchildren to know them better. Often this can be inspired by the death or illness of a family member. Loss makes them wish they had known more about their loved one before it was too late - because they know that if their mother/father/ grandparents/spouse had written anything down about their life, they would have devoured their words.
Others are writing to teach, or to be helpful. They have a strong feeling that the hard-won lessons of their life would benefit others, if only they could share them.
There are those who are writing as a means of understand situationsor coming to terms with events of their lives. This type of writing can be immensely freeing.
Some students think that their lives would make an entertaining or exciting story that could become a best-seller.
Others just want to learn about writing and are taking on board the advice to 'write about what you know' because it seems a good place to start.
Students may be writing just for themselves.
For close family members.
For a clamouring public.
It depends entirely on what their BIG WHY is.
There are no right or wrong answers, but it is certainly very helpful to have this knowledge fixed in your mind as you start to write about your life, and this is the reason it's one of the first things I ask my students to consider before we dive into creative writing exercises designed to get those memories flooding back.
I have two Writing From Your Life Experience courses starting from January 2019:
My guest this week for the Write Despite feature is author Emma Rose Millar, a single parent whose inspiring commitment to her work has had her give up watching TV and write through the darkest of times. But I'll let Emma tell you more about it.
What challenges have you had to overcome in order to write?
Hi Margaret, thanks for inviting me. Like many writers, I’d say the main challenge for me is lack of time. I’m a single mum and my six year old is on the autism spectrum. Raising a child with autism is a rollercoaster ride: exhilarating, lonely, joyous and exhausting, but never, ever dull. I’ve also got a day job; I’m a sign language interpreter in further education. At the moment I’m rehearsing with special needs students to interpret their latest drama production into BSL. Again, it’s a hugely rewarding job, but takes up a lot of emotional and physical energy. So I find there’s very little time to write. I only open up my laptop once my son’s gone to bed―any earlier and I start getting that parent-guilt―I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough as a mum. At one time I’d be up writing until two in the morning but that really wasn’t good for me and in the end I started to feel ill. I’ve had to be strict with myself and set a sensible time limit on my writing. These days, before bed I put on some music and do thirty minutes of yoga to try and unwind before I go to sleep. Otherwise my head’s full of ideas and I can’t switch off.
How do you this challenge has impacted on your writing?
Because I’ve reduced the amount I write, it now takes much longer to finish a manuscript, but I’ve come to realise that some things are more important. I’ve taken to writing novellas and children’s stories; they require much less commitment than a full length novel. I do also love my co-writing projects. My last novel Five Guns Blazing was an intricate tale of piracy, slavery and treason, which needed a huge amount of research. Having Kevin Allen as a co-writer meant I could share the workload.
Through our different backgrounds and experiences I think we managed to create a story it would have been very difficult for a single author to write. For my latest project, The Women Friends, I’ve also joined forces with another author. It’s a series of two novellas based on a painting by Gustav Klimt of the same name. Writing can be a lonely business, but writing in partnership with somebody else means you can bounce ideas off each other, share the high points and the low, give constructive feedback and pull each other through at those times mid-story when it’s easy to feel like there’s no end in sight. Marketing’s also so time-consuming that two heads are always better than one.
What was your greatest fear when you first started to write?
When I first started writing I was caught up in a bad relationship. I used to write in secret because I was terrified of my partner finding out. It was an extremely dark time in my life and that came across in my first novel. Strains from an Aeolian Harp was a story of domestic violence and opium addiction in 1920’s Britain where women weren’t allowed to divorce their husbands on the grounds of cruelty alone. I’ve started re-writing it now with a new title, Jezebels! and am hoping to make it more marketable. Of all the stories I’ve written, it’s always been the most important to me because it was so personal. I’m not ready to give up on it yet.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write, but who is feeling held back by circumstances and /or challenges.
I truly believe that if you want to do something enough, there is no obstacle too big. The single best thing I did though was turning off my TV; I haven’t watched it for over four years now and looking back, I can’t believe how much of my life it used to swallow up, or what a negative impact it had on me. Did I need all those soap operas? No. I find writing a much more constructive way to spend my evenings and I love the feeling I get when I finish a novel or short story.
Tell us a bit about something you’ve written that you’re really proud of, or something you’re writing now.
Probably my proudest moment as a writer was winning the Chaucer Award, (Legend category) for Five Guns Blazing last year. The novel tells the story of convict’s daughter Laetitia Beedham who in 1710 is set on an epic journey from London’s filthy back streets, through transportation to Barbados and gruelling plantation life, into the clutches of notorious pirates Anne Bonny, Mary Read and John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“You have been brought before me again, Mrs Beedham!” The magistrate looked at my mother over his spectacles. She must have considered him an idiot if she thought that a flash of her ample cleavage and of her fine eyes would win her any favour. He took the monocle from his breast pocket.
“Theft of a handkerchief, soliciting, affray, the attempted theft of a lady’s purse.”
Her lips twisted at the corner into a little smile, which she quickly straightened, but she looked almost pleased with herself as the charges were read out. I could picture her clear as day, proudly emptying her stolen trinkets out onto our mattress, all shiny and gleaming in the dipping glow of the rush-lights, as a child might present a parent with a painting or piece of needlework. My mother’s eye was as keen as a magpie’s for anything sparkly; she could pick out at ease the glint of a cufflink or a hairpin in the dullest of crowds and would glide her way after it, completely unseen. Later, she would stand back to admire the baubles and bits of finery with her hands on her hips and a look of satisfaction in her eyes, then quickly her face would fall as if she had suddenly noticed they were tarnished or broken and she would snatch them back and wrap them away in her cloth.
Hers was the first case of the day; the beak had seen her at least three times before. Needless to say, my mother was well acquainted with the good magistrates of Holborn; such was her fondness for relieving wealthy ladies and gentlemen of their belongings; handkerchiefs, pocket watches and so on. The magistrate thumbed through a pile of papers on his desk, a history of her sordid misdemeanours, seemingly oblivious to the swelling underclass packing his courtroom, with their poor diction and their sticky fingers. The public gallery was full of them: undesirables and reprobates, sweating, scratching. There were women employed at their needlework, old men dozing, and a girl with some younger children who spread a muslin cloth upon her lap, then proceeded to break up a meat pie and divide it between them. And of course there was me, Laetitia Beedham, the accused’s daughter who had weaved my way through the tangle of legs and crouched behind a man who I imagined might have been a farmer, or gamekeeper. He stood solidly in front of me, cleaning the dirt from underneath his fingernails with a blade.
“Oh, don’t hang me, sir, I beg of you!”
The court seemed suddenly excited by her outburst. It was all entertainment to them; the law after all is only theatre; it did not matter much if one was hanged or not, it was all part of the drama.
“I only did it for my daughter, who was sick and in need of medicine. My husband’s dead, sir, what is a woman to do?”
I felt a blush burning from my collarbone to my temples, and someone laughed and shouted, “She is a liar, sir! The girl is the bastard child of two thieves!”
Sometimes in life, you just fall onto a path without even really thinking about it.
There are no crossroads, no signpost; barely even any discussion on the subject. Your parents, your school, even YOU think, "You are this way, you are good at this subject, therefore you should do this." And that's it. Decision made, future path in life determined, without any maps or charts ever having been taken out of a drawer, let alone consulted.
And obviously, this way of things can work. There are plenty of people out there who were good at maths at school and who are now happily working as accountants. Sporty types who went into sporting careers. Kids who loved science who work in laboratories or in the Health Service.
But sometimes it's a different story. Sometimes the path you fall into isn't the right one for you, and then it takes a little longer, and a lot of blundering along rutted tracks in the dark before you find your true way.
For me, my dark, rutted track was Art College. My school had a strong art department, a charismatic Head of Art, and I had some talent for painting. So that was that; decision made. I would go to Art College in Brighton, and I would become an artist.
Readers, I was bewildered for almost my entire four years of training. Not about how to paint, because for the most part, I could do that, and it came relatively easily to me. No, the thing I couldn't work out, even by the end of my degree, was what the purpose of it all was.
We were given barely any formal training - my parents would have been shocked if they'd ever found out what their money was paying for. Just a space in a shared studio, cut-priced art materials, and periodic visits from a tutor to discuss our work when he could drag himself out of the pub next door.
I loved colour, and my bright interpretations of flowers in the vases I collected from Brighton second-hand shops showed nothing of my intense loneliness and lack of purpose. I felt lost and overlooked, not least by myself. It was only when I finished my degree and started to write a novel with the highly dubious goal of financing my career as an artist, that everything clicked into place and I finally found myself.
"Ah," I thought. "This is who I am."
Even though I had some talent for art, stringing words together to create a book, with the potential to transport people to a whole new world, resonated with me far more than laying oil paints down on canvas ever had. I'd found my map, my natural habitat, and my path through it. I was a writer.
But now it was the turn of those around me to feel bewildered - my friends, my boyfriend, none of them could take my writing seriously, even when I began to get published. They viewed me as an artist who also wrote, when I wanted them to think of me as a writer who sometimes painted.
I don't know why it bothered me so much, although I suppose in those pre-Internet days, I just longed to be part of a tribe of like-minded people, and I couldn't find them. So, I moved away, to make a new start. A different city. A clean sheet.
"Hello, I'm Margaret. I'm a writer. Oh, and I also paint sometimes."
There have been many different maps since then, but even though the terrain has been varied, the maps have all belonged to the same series; a series made for writers.
And my artist friends? I still see them every few years, and inevitably, at some point, they will ask me, "Have you done any painting recently?"
It's a fair enough question. I did meet them at Art College! I really shouldn't let those old feelings of being judged slip over my shoulders like an itchy cloak. And I have been creative occasionally, although these days I'm drawn more to collage rather than to paint.
I suppose it's similar to when your family is gathered together, and you find yourselves slipping into your old patterns of behaviour. But if you can avoid slamming your way upstairs to your bedroom in a parody of a teenage strop, you get yourself back again pretty quickly as you drive home.
I have this long-held dream of painting the red rock formations in New Mexico like Georgia O'Keefe did in the 1930s and 1940s.
One day, I'll definitely go there. Whether I'll reach for my palette or my notebook when I do, remains to be seen.
Perhaps both? Yes, both sounds good to me.
PS, don't miss my new series Write Despite, starting on Thursday 21 January, where writers write about the challenges they have overcome in order to get their words down on paper!