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Writing Ideas and Inspirations (7)

Updated on August 17, 2015
FatBoyThin profile image

Colin's novels, story collections and stage plays are available as eBooks and paperbacks.

Medieval scribe at his desk - probably writing stuff about himself...
Medieval scribe at his desk - probably writing stuff about himself... | Source

So here we are at the 7th instalment of my thoughts and musings, reflections, ponderings and completely unbiased opinions about where writing inspirations come from. This time I'm going to focus on that old idea that all writers only really write about themselves. The adage 'write what you know' is pretty true to some extent, because if you have experience, or knowledge of a subject, it must be easier to write about it. But is it a conscious thing to focus on our own lives for inspiration, or does it just come out that way?

Truly in the spotlight
Truly in the spotlight | Source

Writing the Self

When I was at uni studying drama, my final year dissertation was partly about how we display ourselves on stage and whether the 'acting' is truly a 'pretence' ie invented, or is merely a reflection of ourselves. Or something like that. Anyway, my point is that whatever creative pursuits we follow, there must be some flavour of 'us' in whatever we create, and writing is no different.

As part of my final year work at uni, I opted to do a performance of some kind, and the nature of third-year drama students being what it is, that generally meant I had to do something by myself that explored an 'issue'. Examples of student shows at the time included performances about sexual abuse, self harming and schizophrenia.

I wrote a one-man show called 'Oh What a Lovely Wardrobe' exploring sexual stereotypes. The main point of the show, however, was for me to be on stage by myself, performing something I'd written, that would force me to be truly in the spotlight. Being on stage with no-one else to rely on is pretty scary, but it made a huge difference to my confidence.

However, while the show was about me to a certain extent, ninety-per-cent of it wasn't. Most of it was made up, sad or funny stories designed to get a laugh, prompt a few tears or to shock the audience in some way. Here's an excerpt:

"Flash wasn't really a Leatherman..."
"Flash wasn't really a Leatherman..." | Source

He had a way with words.

He was dressed all in black shiny leather.

Well, he wasn't. Not that night.

'Cos it was Thursday and he was playing darts, but usually...

You see, 'Flash' wasn't really a Leatherman.

But he had a bit of a fancy for M.S.

Macho Sarcasm.

It's like S.M. but it really hurts.

Rehearsing 'No Phones on Planet Pluto'
Rehearsing 'No Phones on Planet Pluto' | Source

Telling the Truth

For a long time I would happily deny my writing was in any way a reflection of my own life, actions, history etc and instead declare that because I am a writer, I simply use my imagination. However, I did once write a piece as part of my play 'No Phones on Planet Pluto' that was very much based on my own experience, concerning a bout of depression I went through in the late Eighties (you can read about it here).

Looking back on it, I can see that (even though I say so myself) it was a fairly accurate account of how I felt at the time and though it naturally had some added dramatic tension, conflict and some great one-liners, I don't think I could say it was 'invented' in any way. I think the piece showed more of me than I'd ever shown before, or have shown since.

"It was like walking into the 'Slaughtered Lamb' on Werewolf Night."

Half-Truths and Other Lies

After writing the mental-health piece, I did begin to think a bit more about just how much of myself might be in my work. At the time, I was mainly writing stage plays, so maybe it wasn't so obvious, but looking at some of my stories and novels, I can see bits of me poking through.

Before I got properly into writing short stories, I wrote a children's novel called 'The Devil's Porridge Gang'. (Available as a free download from Smashwords). It's about a gang of kids who discover a kidnapping plot and is set around the time of the moon landings in 1969. I placed it very firmly in my native Northumberland and used (rightly or wrongly) quite a bit of regional dialect:

Mam came in with a tray of tea and biscuits. “What time d’ye call this, then?"

Sam glanced at the clock on the mantle piece. “Ten past ten, Mam.”

“Aye, very funny. Your sister’s up and out already, you know? Ah would’ve thought ye’d be away off wi your pals?

Sam sighed. “Ah’m away now.”

“Not without something inside ye, you’re not,” said Mam. “And by the way,” she took hold of Sam’s shoulder and leaned down to him. “What time did you get in last night?”

Sam looked up at her. “Oh, Ah divvent knaa…aboot nine…?” he ventured.

“About nine?” said Mam. “You weren’t in your bed at nine.”

Sam knew this was a bluff. Mam always went to see her friend Sadie on a Monday night and was never home before half past ten. “Ah was reading,” he said. “Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. It’s aboot these huge plants that take ower the Earth. It's really good.” Sam gave her a wide grin, but he knew Mam wasn’t convinced.

More Half-Truths and Other Lies

While there was definitely something of my childhood in that first novel, it's in my short stories that I can quite clearly see reflections of my past. In terms of inspiration, I think it's fair to say that on some occasions I have undeniably been thinking quite specifically about some aspect of my own life when I started to write. However, what I end up with is something completely different:

The smell of sweat-damp wool hung in Tom's nostrils. He sniffed hard, trying to clear his throat. The shed floor was littered with wood shavings, scattered tools and discarded items of clothing. The woman who lay in his arms breathed slowly, regularly. Lifting his head slightly he noticed the vertical channels of pale light which poured through the dark shadows of their unexpected intimacy. Tom closed his eyes. "Jesus..."

In this case, I had a very strong image of a garden shed in my head when I was writing this particular section, but I'd started the story with a completely different idea. Although the story ended up being called 'The Shed' (and the image I have of it is a very specific shed from my childhood), the story isn't about that at all and it just kind of popped up at the right time.

In my flash fiction story 'The Hermit' I began writing on a day when I was feeling a bit down, and this came out very clearly in what I ended up with:

No, she isn't a solitary person at all. She has, for instance, a very healthy Facebook account and her Tweets are almost continuous on certain days.

In 'Girlfriend, Interrupted' once again, I couldn't escape the feeling I was writing about a particular person, someone from my past who I felt had hurt me very deeply. While the story isn't about her (I keep telling myself), it was incredibly difficult to make the leap of imagination that I usually make, when the truth is left behind and make-believe takes over. But I suppose, you can't win 'em all:

Three days after she told him she didn't want to see him anymore, she called. He was surprised, of course, and more than a little apprehensive, since what could she possibly want but to apologise, beg forgiveness, claim insanity?

But no, none of these.

In 'His Dead Mother' I started writing about something that happened when I was a kid, without really thinking that it was a story (and I'm not really certain if it is a story). A friend of mine's mother had died, but because he never mentioned it, I naturally focused on that very thing, and always wondered what had happened:

Like a series of old photographs, I can see Tony's house and its contents quite clearly, though I know it was most likely completely different. I remember the living room, with its solid, central dining table dominating the space, as those sort of tables did in those days, when families still ate together. I was never invited in, but left on the doorstep while he took a lifetime to find a coat, a scarf, or a football. And often, in those few quiet moments waiting at the half-open door, I'd peer along the gloomy hallway and see his father at the table, or standing in the kitchen, chubby fingers toiling with some unfamiliar routine, a melancholic smile telling of his grief.

The Best Lie of All...

The best lie, of course, is to tell ourselves (as I do), that we aren't writing about ourselves, that the story really isn't about us, that it's all just fantasy and bears no resemblance to anything in our dim and/or distant past. After all, we're writers, aren't we? That's what we do.

But then again, maybe it isn't.

Do you think that you write from your own experience?

See results


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    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Ah well, you see, all this does is emphasise how great your storytelling abilities are - if people think you must have gone through such torment, anguish, pain, horror etc in order to write this way, it must be cos your writing is realistic, so I'd give myself a big pat on the back if I were you! Go girl!

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      3 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I had to come back and revisit this piece because I just had an experience with a friend that relates to putting (or not putting) one's self into one's writing. I've had many similar experiences, but this is the first since reading this six months ago. I think similar experiences are what inspire so many writers to say that they are capable of imagining things beyond their own experiences.

      A friend is really worried about me because of my FICTION writing. She thinks it's a cry for help because it's so weird. She thinks all the abused, previously abused, and shell-shocked characters are me and seems to miss the fact that so many of them are smart, strong, loving, courageous, and all sorts of other admirable things, too. I think it's partly because she doesn't "get" science fiction or even odd stories, but I think it's mostly because of the phenomenon you discussed on this page and her belief that writers (especially autistic ones) can't imagine anyone but themselves.

      I admit it drives me bonkers every time it happens, when a friend or family member comes to me all intervention-like and ready to call mental health services after reading my fiction.

    • profile image

      Julie K Henderson 

      3 years ago

      You are welcome. Keep up the great work.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Yeah, I think it's actually quite difficult to keep yourself out of your writing, though our own experience is probably what makes our work different. Thanks for reading, Julies, much appreciated.

    • profile image

      Julie K Henderson 

      3 years ago

      Bravo. I appreciate all the examples in this article. I agree that a part of the writer is contained in whatever he or she writes. Well done.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      I think if you can avoid writing about yourself, that's great, but some writers carve out a whole career from their own lives - Karl Ove Knausgaard is a prime example. Thanks for reading.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Lowell, MA through the end of May, 2019.

      There have been times I've built whole stories around my childhood, and at least one other story is from my adult life. But I don't know if I can see myself in most of my stories. It would be unintentional if it's there. Thanks for the food for thought.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Hi Lex123 - thanks for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

    • lex123 profile image


      3 years ago

      Interesting and thought provoking ideas.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Hi Dianna, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Indeed, inspiration ain't no good if you don't have the time to use it!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      3 years ago

      Your ideas are very helpful. I do not lack in inspiration but in having the time to write. However, now that I am not working -- I'm setting it as a priority.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Yes, I do think it's one of those things we writers don't often condsider, but being aware of it at least gives us a bit of a 'heads-up' and recognise what we're doing. Thanks for reading, Alicia.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is another interesting hub in your series, Colin. It's also very thought provoking. I will definitely be thinking about what you've said to discover if it applies to me.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks Larry and Bill - getting feedback from you guys is inspiration enough!

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Great hub!

      You have a real knack of finding and describing creative ways to find inspiration.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very useful! Honestly, my problem has never been a lack of ideas or inspiration. I can't figure out how to produce more work in the hours I have. Sigh! I'm only human after all. :)

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Interesting approach, Kylyssa, sounds like a good plan - but just because characters aren't based on you, doesn't mean they don't have elements of your personality in them. Thanks for reading.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 

      4 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I put myself into stories all the time. I become an actor and inhabit every character in the screenplay of my imagination. However, most of my characters are not based on me, but on fantasy people I've based on other people. An exception is Cap, a significant character in Gift of the Gruldak. He's my way of fantasizing myself into the future, I suppose.

      Oddly enough, it's usually male characters with secondary roles that I base on myself. Make of that whatever you will. Maybe I prefer to write powerful female characters and I don't feel powerful?

      Thank you for making me think about it.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks for reading, Lee, much appreciated.

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      4 years ago

      Another great thought provoking follow up, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee


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