From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, July 9, 2012

Play to your freak side

There are seven billion people in this world who do not share your experience. Nobody else has your perspective and specific knowledge.

C. S. Lewis said "We read to know we're not alone." This is why we write. Maybe it seems incongruous to say that our writing becomes better and more relatable when we write from our own specific and unique experiences, but its true. Readers relate to us and our characters as individuals, not as general abstracts. 

There are 14 million Mormons in this world. That maybe seems like a lot, until you realize that that is only .002 percent of the population.

One in 2500 girls is born with Turners Syndrome, which makes one in every 5000 people. That is a .0002 percent chance. That means the chance of being born both with Turners Syndrome and being a Mormon is .0000004%. Correct me if my math is wrong (I was in English major, remember) but I'm pretty sure that adds up to about 2800 people in the entire world.

Maybe you have a mentally handicapped brother. Maybe you went to juvy for shoplifting when you were fifteen. Maybe your father was a National Geographic photographer. Think of what makes you absolutely unique, and there is something. Everyone has something.

Ok. So that's one thing I mean when I say play yo your freak side. I would love to write stories about Mormons and girls with Turner Syndrome. But I am of course not going to restrict myself to that either.There are other things about our experience that are still interesting if not as unique as other things. Maybe you're the youngest child. Maybe you're grandpa ran a farm. Maybe you moved as a child. These things still play into our experience, and a lot of people relate to these kinds of things because they've experienced it themselves. 

This is my point: maybe these types of experiences aren't especially unique in and of themselves, but the way we experienced these things absolutely is. Maybe there are a lot of oldest children, but nobody was an oldest child like you were an oldest child. Or maybe lots of people visited their grandparents farms in the summers, but not a lot of people visited your grandparents farm. This is why specific and concrete details are so important. Show us the height of the cornfield and give us the smell of the slaughterhouse. We want to feel this place and experience it with you. 

I'm not saying everything you write has to be directly autobiographical, because obviously you are going to write things happening to characters that never happened to you, and characters themselves that may be as opposite to you as it is possible to be. However, I think in a lot of ways the details that really bring our stories to life and the subtle themes that we discover as our stories grow are almost entirely autobiographical.  At least that's how it is for me. My main characters end up being my main characters because they have something important to say. When I describe a room it is often based on a room from a house I lived in as a child, even if I'm not consciously trying to base it off of that house. 

Basically, we are trying to draw our readers in and we do that through making our details as concrete and as specific as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to use details we know first-hand. Not big things, just little things like smells and textures. 

And the way we make a name for ourselves is not by writing the same kinds of stories everyone else is writing, but by writing the stories that nobody else is writing. There is no one in the world like you. Use that to your advantage.

What puts you in the .002 percent? Do you find yourself drawing on your own experience for details and themes?

Sarah Allen


  1. Great stuff! You always write great stuff. It's always touches my heart.


  2. i so agree--i love to read honest stuff about people--and i think our writing becomes authentic whether fiction or fact, when we draw on our own personal experiences and pasts -wonderful post!

  3. Interesting. You've got me thinking.

  4. I was raised by my grandparents, went to Catholic school K-12 but lived in a trailer (talk about a contradictory experience!) until the 6th grade, have had to terminate a pregnancy, have called off a wedding, have suffered a miscarriage, and have had a long-distance relationship that resulted in marriage and a baby. I really haven't pulled from these themes too much in my writing. Maybe it's time! Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. There's a piece of me in every story I write. I once even gave a compliment I received from a guy I fancied to one of my characters - I replicated the exact conversation, mostly so I'd always remember that it happened! :-)

  6. I have nothing that puts me in the .002%, but I do use quite a bit of my later life experiences for my writing. A lot of the people that I've met throughout the years make it into my writings in some shape or form.

  7. My great grandpa did have a farm, and yes it's in one of my stories. Great post - insightful and full of heart. Thank you.

  8. What a fantastic post... I totally felt it. And I love that C.S. Lewis quote. Thanks for this, Sarah ;)


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