18 October 2018

3 things every writer should know about writing from life

Nikita Lalwani, author
by Nikita Lalwani Writing Tips

Nikita Lalwani is the author of two acclaimed novels, Gifted and The Village, and she’s been a core member of the CBC teaching team for a number of years now, working across both our London and online courses. 

When she’s teaching, Nikita is always keen to get students thinking about writing from experience. Not in a reductive ‘write what you know’ sense, but as a way to help their novels read convincingly and authentically (whether they’re writing contemporary kitchen-sink realism, or far-flung fantasy). Here, Nikita tells us what she’s learned about writing from life…

I was reading an old interview with Doris Lessing this week, in that bible of creative writing advice – The Paris review, and remembering that Lessing is always someone I turn to when in writerly doubt.

In this interview she explains not only how to transcend genre as a writer, but also how to avoid taking mescaline more than once, and crucially, how to write about situations that are outside one’s own immediate experience, but which are real ( in this case, women at refugee camps in Afghanistan at the time of the interview).

Within all this, she defines her idea of the writer’s job very succinctly – to provoke questions: ‘I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on.’ This idea of provoking questions rather than providing neat answers is something that I think is at the heart of my approach to writing from life, and with that in mind, here are three tips for those of you who are interested in exploring that aspect of writing fiction:

  1. Treat writing from life as an investigation

What, why, where, when, who and how – these questions will naturally help you to get beneath the surface of whatever interests you as a writer, but are particularly important when using real events, people, or conversations as a starting point. No one wants to read a diary in which stocktaking is prized über alles . Take pleasure in the search for meaning.

  1. Make things up

If you are writing fiction that is based on material that you have mined from life then obviously you should make things up. Don’t get entranced by the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. ‘Truth’ is a malleable idea in the hands of the fiction writer, and besides, making things up helps to keep the plot interesting and disguise people who might get offended if rendered too meticulously.

  1. Look to your heroes for guidance

This goes for all kinds for writing but when you are writing from life, it can be useful to look closely at the work of someone you admire, when you know that the material is related to, but significantly different from, the writer’s own experience. In my case, interviews or essays by Lessing and other writers help me understand authorial intention, and the realisation that the polished fiction I read is a mixture of observation and invention.

Nikita is one of the tutors of our 3-month online novel-writing course.

Our 6-week online novel-writing courses also offer teaching sessions for different stages of the writing journey: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel or Edit and Pitch Your Novel

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