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Elle Marr on Mining Personal Experiences for Writing Inspiration

Elle Marr on Mining Personal Experiences for Writing Inspiration

Whether authors will admit it or not, some of us use personal experiences as inspiration for our writing. In the case of my latest psychological thriller The Alone Time, I drew inspiration from a plane crash that I survived when I was a child. The influence of my experience can be identified in the first few chapters of the book, while the rest of the story and its characters are all highly fictionalized. 

Yet, writing this book while drawing on my real-life memories led me to wonder just how many other authors do the same thing. Was I overstepping in mining this moment for creative purposes? Has anyone else also felt the pressure to leave reality as subject matter alone? I learned that I am far from the first author to have existential questions regarding a writer’s duty to their work versus a duty to their loved ones. 

Author of Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer had an interesting take on life’s matrixed path: “My life story is the story of everyone I’ve ever met.” This resonated with me when I first read this quote years ago, and then again as I was writing The Alone Time. Although I’ve had a few individuals insist that I never write about them—and I never have—, I find it strange to think I could write my own thoughts and feelings without bordering or overlapping the moments I’ve shared with others. Safran Foer is right in that we can’t separate our stories from others’, not entirely. 

Another great quote regarding our communal experience is from Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk: “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” This likewise hints at how inseparable our paths are from the people we encounter. I always feel this most acutely when I go to write a dedication page for a new book; how can I single out one person when so many contributed to a new story in overt and inadvertent ways? (Alas, I suck it up and make a choice.) 

Knowing all this—let’s say, being in agreement on the above, Eudora Welty’s words in On Writing hit hard: “Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, that a character becomes in its own right another human being on the page.” Welty could have been narrating my life as I wrote The Alone Time when she said this, as it sums up my perspective here. It’s from the personal trauma of the plane crash I survived that the catalyst for my story was born. It was through imbuing my characters with reactions that I saw or had myself during the actual crash, the weeks that followed, or during the moments just before the crash, that I gave my characters their foundations. This basis in reality led me to explore my characters’ subsequent worlds as alternate realities, in a way, to what could have been mine.

Finally, I think that if we are taking on the complicated task of writing from our own experiences, then it should be done with rigid respect to the story. Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, said, “I realised that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.” To my mind, and to Ward’s point, it’s not enough to take inspiration from an author’s personal life—we must mine the darkest parts of this existence to bring depth and believability to the page, even at the cost of presenting real places or real events in less than favorable filters. 

Bearing this responsibility in mind, I highly doubt that I could ever recreate an actual location or person with my words. We as humans are too complex, layered, and contradictory to fully be transferred to my laptop. And, to be clear, I believe that people who are writer-adjacent deserve their privacy; the individuals who were involved in my plane crash could not have predicted that I would one day write a story stemming from the pivotal event (—and as a child, neither could I), which is why the plot of The Alone Time is the work of my imagination.   

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think we shouldn’t try, occasionally, to build on hurts or shocks that we know well for the sake of the story.