by Allie Pleiter
Write What You Know, Right?
Writing about the difficulties in your life sounds like a sure-fire path to emotionally compelling work, right? You know exactly how it feels, you know the gut-wrenching progression of events, and it would feel so cathartic to get it out on the page. It could be like re-writing your life at a time when you could sure use a do-over. After all, don’t they say “write what you know?”
Yes…and no. It’s wise to put some thought into your experience and the message it creates first. To do this, I lean on a concept I call The Universal Truth. Simply put, The Universal Truth is the heart of your story that goes deeper than you. The lesson that goes beyond circumstance or personality or details. It is the essential core of your story that will resonate not only with you and those who know you, but others in similar or even different situations. The lesson you learned, the strength you acquired, the thing that didn’t kill you but made you stronger.
The Power of Close but not Identical
Before you decide to directly mine your transformative experience to serve a fictional plot, consider writing something “close” but not identical. What’s the Universal Truth, the universal emotion of your experience? Is there a similar circumstance where that emotional truth also appears? You might find it wiser to use that for your plot rather than pulling directly out of your own experience.
Let me give you an example. My son was very sick in his middle school years. Writing a novel about a mother in that exact circumstance would have presented a minefield of writing traps because I lacked all objectivity. Instead, I had to find something similar, a situation with the same emotional truth so that I could draw on my own experience without getting bogged down by it. I chose to write Falling for the Fireman, a story about a single mother guiding her son through the survival of a fire that destroyed their family home. Her fears for her middle school son reflected my own: would the trauma of that disaster ever fully leave him emotionally? Could he rebuild after the full-scale loss of all his past belongings?
The Angsty First Draft
Even then, the strategy didn’t fully work at first. I wrote a wildly angsty first draft. And second draft. In fact, it took four drafts to tone that book down to a place where it didn’t feel like an emotional shotgun going off all over every page. Had I decided to write a story based directly my own experience, I’m convinced it wouldn’t have worked at all, no matter how many drafts.
I’m not saying don’t put your life on the page. Every good author knows some of yourself has to go into every work for it to feel true and reach your reader’s heart. Consider, however, that selecting a plot that comes close to your experience, that harnesses the Universal Emotional Truth of that experience without duplicating it entirely, might give you the best shot at success.
I’ll be giving an ACFW Webinar on this very topic on May 18, so please join us! You can register by clicking here.
An avid knitter and French macaron fan, Allie Pleiter spends her days writing four books at a time, buying yarn, and avoiding housework. A friend’s dare to begin writing has produced two parenting books, 29 novels, and national speaking engagements on faith, writing, and her favorite: time management.