A regular and popular tutor on our creative writing courses in London and online, novelist Nikita Lalwani will be teaching our next Online Three-Month Novel-Writing Course this autumn (applications close on Sunday 1 October). Here she talks about the issues that surround writing from life.
‘I would rather be in a room with a man who is telling me the true story of his life,’ said writer James Salter in an interview for the Paris Review in 1993 ‘It may have lies and exaggeration in it, but it is the true story essentially.’
Salter is taking here about the frisson that we get from witnessing someone give us their story, the same frisson that we can get from successful voyeurism – the idea that if we wait and listen for long enough it will be worthwhile. We’ll hit upon some treasure, get something ‘true’ out of it. Salter goes on: ‘The notion that anything can be invented wholly and that these invented things are classified as fiction and that other writing, presumably not made up, is called non-fiction strikes me as a very arbitrary separation of things. We know that most great novels and stories come not from things that are entirely invented, but from perfect knowledge and close observation. To say they are made up is an injustice in describing them.’
As a fan of Salter, these two touchstones of ‘perfect knowledge’ and ‘close observation’ have been important to me in my writing life. Facts can be the pegs on which we hang the entire, embroidered emperor’s clothes of an undertaking that constitutes what we call fiction. If these facts are from our own lives, they can feel like they are wrought from tangible precious metal. But even if they are culled from observing the lives of others, they can have the same currency. Facts are important: they have the power to thrill, astonish, sadden, mystify and escalate our emotions. Statistics can shock us out of complacency, or confirm what we always thought we knew. I love facts. Like Salter, I love the true story, and I have no problem with lies or exaggeration, in order to get there.
So… what of the worry that we often have, as writers, that if we write from life, people will recognise themselves.
The reality is that you may start with a character from life, or a situation that has really happened, and that has captured your imagination, but by the time you have finished with it, it may be unrecognisable – whether we are talking about the character or event that provided the trigger. Raymond Carver said once ‘A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.’ So – the best bit of advice that I can give you is write now, worry later. Change the way people look, where they live, jobs, age, race: there are countless ways to protect the people who have provided you with inspiration. Do it early on if it helps your novel. Do it at the end if you find it hinders you to do it too early on. Most importantly, don’t get hung up on whether something really happened or not, or whether you really heard the dialogue or not, when you use real life source material. You still need to work out whether something is interesting or not on its own terms, as fiction.
A novel requires you to see both sides of the story, it requires a level of empathy, to walk in more than your own shoes, and that is why writing from ‘life’ is something incredibly rewarding, for you as a writer, or for the reader, if you free yourself up to do it. It requires a level of generosity of spirit, a reach beyond yourself. Good luck!
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).