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Writing About Personal Experiences: It’s Tougher Than You Think

Writing from a more personal perspective can be a very beautiful thing. It allows the writer to revisit and analyze certain experiences in their life and challenges the reader to read from a more empathetic mindset. Writing about personal experiences can also be very difficult, sometimes for personal reasons – it can be hard to revisit the past – and sometimes for more technical reasons. Because nonfiction writing is not taught as often and on as universal a level as fiction is in current creative writing curricula, many writers have expressed that it sometimes feels like an intangible genre that operates on a different set of rules. This is true in some ways – it’s hard to approach nonfiction in the same way you approach fiction. However, nonfiction is exciting because it really allows you to follow your own rules. You are the expert on your own experiences, and thus you are the expert in how to best frame those experiences. We get it, though. It’s hard to get started without outside reassurance. So, we thought we’d tackle just a few frequently asked questions about writing nonfiction to give you the reassurance you need.

  • Where do I begin/end?

It can be really tricky to tell a story that is personal to you without wanting to load the reader up with context. Furthermore, if you are trying to convey an experience that doesn’t have a distinct beginning and end, it can be difficult to know where to start and when to stop. Sometimes, the best way to go about creating an outline for a personal narrative is to hone in on the core of the story that you are wanting to tell. What are the key moments that you want your reader to understand? Knowing this might help you narrow down the timeline that you want to cover. It is perfectly alright to want to give your audience context, but try to limit the context to the information that enhances the reader’s understanding of the key points of your story. Think of it as trying to chisel away at the core of the story instead of covering it with more layers of information.

  • Is it okay to lie?

Stories are hard to remember exactly as they happened. It is nearly impossible to get every single detail right. Give yourself the permission to fill in the blanks between what you know and what you are unsure of. This is not lying. Lying is actively misleading someone by giving them false information. Adding things to your story is simply filling in the gaps between your truths. Just because what is on the paper is not what happened beat for beat  does not mean you are lying to your readers. It is still coming from your own personal truth. Of course, this is not permission to make up entire events and market them as nonfiction. That IS an example of lying, and, if you feel compelled to create a fictitious story to sell as nonfiction, perhaps you are writing nonfiction for the wrong reasons.

  • How do I critique it without hurting myself?

This is a tough one. It is hard enough to critique your own work that has nothing to do with your personal experiences, such as a research paper or article. Critiquing a story that comes directly from your own experiences can be brutal. Sometimes, it feels like a personal betrayal. Luckily, there are some options to help you feel less betrayed. Firstly, you can pass it on to someone you trust. Having a fresh pair of eyes to look over your story is a wonderful way to get an objective critique. You can also try to develop your own pair of fresh eyes by taking a prolonged break from your piece before looking over it again. Giving yourself a mental break will allow you to take a step back from the story, pulling you out of the driver’s seat and into the observer’s seat. Finish a draft and then put it aside to focus on other things. When you feel detached enough to return, give the first critique a shot.

Writing nonfiction will always be a different experience for each individual. It is impossible to create a singular technique for all the millions of stories that want to be told. So, the most important thing to remember when starting the journey into writing your own experience is that you are the master of this story. There are no rights or wrongs as long as you are being truthful to yourself.