This week, I’m talking about where my inspiration comes from, and if it’s okay to use pieces of your real life in creative writing.
Today’s topic came from a Twitter thread (well, kind of two Twitter threads). I recently rejoined Twitter after a very long hiatus. I know, I know, it’s a bit controversial these days, but the writing community is very much embedded there and little old me isn’t going to coax them out any time soon.
So, I joined them in their space, and I have to say that Writing Twitter really is one of my favourite places on the internet.
If you’re a writer who doesn’t use Twitter, I really urge you to join. It’s a very wholesome and supportive place, and you can learn so much over there. You can get advice on any part of the process, from starting as a beginner writer, to querying, to support through the whole publishing process.
Inspirational Tweet 1
Just about ever writer I know has heard something like or seen a mug, notebook, etc. with a version of, “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” But is it true? Fiction writers: Do you agree with Baxter? Do you collect pieces of those around you to build your characters?
(an image showed this quote: “Prose writers […] are unreliable friends. They are always studying you to see if there’s anything in your personality or appearance that they can steal for their next narrative” by Charles Baxter in his essay Rhyming Action)
See the original tweet here
(I have to be honest, I got a bit defensive over the idea that writers are inherently not good friends, but that was really not the point of what he said).
I very much align with this idea that narratives are inspired by the world around us (although, I wouldn’t call it stealing).
I once dated a musician that told me all of his music was totally made up, and he never wrote about real life or real people. I think he must have said that to stop me from wondering if I’d feature in his next song, because I really can’t imagine being so creative without taking inspiration from the world around me.
When I write, all of my stories and characters evolve from real life. Whether it’s a situation that really happened, a daydream, or one really fascinating element of a person, everything I write starts in reality. But it doesn’t stay that way.
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Inspired by the Unknown
Of course, anything that has come from my real life will evolve into something completely different by about page three. Characters take on lives of their own, developing nuances and other personality traits that have nothing in common with the person that inspired them. Plotlines do the same; they run away with themselves, like a ball of yarn rolling down a hill. Maybe you’ve got a vague sense of where it’s going, but sometimes it can surprise you and there’s little you can do to stop it.
To clarify: characters are not often based on people that I know well. Usually they come from people I met briefly or in passing, or someone I know little about. The small first impressions, which are probably not even half true. This unknown is what fuels inspiration; the need to ‘fill in the gaps’ just drives my imagination wild.
The best stories are the ones that come to you unexpectedly.
One of the most cathartic pieces I have ever written came in the days after a breakup. I had broken up with someone who was no good for me, even though it really hurt me to do it. It was during the first Covid lockdown in 2020, and I had literally nothing to do but sit and think about it. I spent a long time thinking about how my life could have turned out if we had stayed together (and it wasn’t painting a pretty picture).
After a few days, I had gone out for a walk in the rain. Just down the road these huge raindrops were making a weird sound as they dropped from someone’s roof onto their blue bin. I stopped and turned around to watch, and what had been a simple daydream about a life unled flourished into the plot of an entire novel in my head. It all happened in seconds, and it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I rushed home to start writing, and I didn’t stop for days.
Is it Ethical to Take Inspiration from Real People?
The implication from Inspirational Tweet #1 was that it could be unethical to base story characters on real people.
This is always something that crosses my mind when I’m thinking about publishing my stories. If the people that first inspired me were to read them, would they recognise themselves? In certain instances, maybe they could, but overall I think it’s unlikely.
So, if they’re never affected by it, does it matter? Or is it an invasion of someone’s privacy?
People and identities and even real names come up in autobiographies and memoirs all the time; is that ethical? If you’re saying something negative about them, could it be slander? How can you prove that what you said was true? I imagine companies that publish these genres have whole teams dedicated to this aspect.
Inspirational Tweet 2
I replied to this tweet saying that when I first started writing in my teens, I had whole playlists for different scenes in my books. Sometimes I would listen to the same song over and over again, because it evoked such a strong emotional response that it helped me to write.
In my response, I also said that I don’t do that anymore, and Liam asked me why. I’d never thought to question it before, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I had to come up with an answer!
I told him (truthfully), that I just don’t listen to that kind of music anymore. I used to listen to a lot of intense or emotionally driven music, whereas now I almost always listen to things that make me happy.
So, I suppose this made me realise that what inspires me has changed over the years. The things that move me now are different to the things that moved me then.
But, really, I think you can take inspiration from anywhere.