Award-winning novelist Lisa O’Donnell is the tutor of our next six-month online creative writing course. Here she talks about why it’s important to do more than just ‘write what you know’ in your novel …
I’ve had some interesting debates recently around truth as a storytelling device. People tend to say you should write what you know – but I’ve taught students who are so caught up in the slavish telling of their own real-life stories in their novels that they’ve been unable to get proper distance on their work and have struggled to convey their truths in ways that bring them alive to readers.
“But it really happened to me!” they say. I don’t doubt it, but if you don’t blend truth with a confident dose of imagination, you can end up with a boring or incoherent novel. And really, you need to call on imagination to tell a story well because memory is unreliable and horribly evasive – always wriggling around and distorting and creating its own kind of fiction.
When I teach, I am often asked what books a person should read to help them access their imagination better, and awaken the writer within. I tell them they should read anything and everything that inspires them – but that really I see our imagination as an engine that’s constantly running in our lives. In my mind, imagination is a six-foot god inspiring our dreams, kindling our hopes and keeping us strong and able, even in a world that can make it hard to feel strong and able sometimes …
A frustrated writer recently told me they were worried they didn’t have an imagination. As they talked, I could almost see the imagination inside them eye rolling and sighing like an ignored mother who does all the laundry and gets no thanks for it. As human beings we’re always dreaming and fantasising about all kinds of things; love, sex, travel, money, family … We live in our imaginations night and day, and we’re often in many places at once by the power of our imagination. Have you rehearsed an argument in your head? Have you visualised a reunion with someone you haven’t seen in a while? Perhaps you’ve staged a fight, a kiss, a wedding, a funeral in all their emotional intensity, just in your own mind … How did you do that? Imagination is how.
But what about truth in fiction? How do you bring stark and often uncomfortable truth into your fiction without feeling exposed or guilty? It’s a matter of trust, really, and your own willingness to engage your imaginative powers. I sometimes set students a writing exercise designed to get them using truth as a jumping-off point for the imagination:
I ask my students what they wouldn’t write about and why … Eyes widen. Jaws slacken, and suddenly everyone is afraid of being heard. But then I reassure them by telling them the exercise is anonymous. They write down their answers and we share them but nobody knows who each truth belongs to. They’re always fascinating:
I wouldn’t write about my abusive ex-boyfriend because it shames me.
I wouldn’t write about my promiscuous parents.
I wouldn’t write about my wife’s criminal record.
I wouldn’t write about being psychic.
I wouldn’t write about my dead brother’s letters.
I wouldn’t write about my dog because I love him more than my partner.
Every one of these truths could become a fabulous story that belongs on a bookshelf. It’s my favourite writing exercise because the stories we would never write are probably the stories we absolutely should write. My second novel, Closed Doors, was about a spate of sexual assaults that took place in the 1980s in a small town called Rothesay. Now, there actually was a spate of sexual assaults in my hometown of Rothesay in the 1980s – but I used my imagination to tell that story. And my narrator isn’t the eleven-year old girl I was who was flashed at during a power cut one night, but an eleven-year old boy whose mother is raped during a power cut. Choosing a male perspective was deliberate – it created a fictive distance, allowing me to access my imagination, build plot, create believable characters, establish themes and write a story that’s almost true. Almost true is all it has to be in fiction.
As writers we only need a kernel of truth to inspire the imagination – and then we’re off! Your imagination gets to work for you, and you find that you’re writing – you’re really writing, and there’s no going back.
Find out more here about the six month online novel-writing course tutored by Lisa O’Donnell, and apply by midnight at the end of Sunday 28th January …
Or if you’re writing a book for children or young adults, take a look at our three month online course with tutor Catherine Johnson.