Writing From Your Past

A box with old, black-and-white photos in it.
Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

A frequent source of inspiration is our past. You may feel inspired when you think about your high school prom, your first kiss, or the first memory you hold about your life. Taking inspiration from your own history helps create your unique voice because, let’s face it, no one else has experienced your life the way you have.

Whether you dig through old journals, your family’s history, your own memories, or even talk to older people who knew you well as a child, you have a treasure trove of ideas waiting to take hold of your imagination.

Writing About People From Your Past

A common question about writing about your life is, “How should I write about others I know?” Here’s my take on it: In most cases, respect people’s privacy above all else and leave them alone. Put yourself in your family’s/friends’/managers’ shoes: Everyone’s trying to make a place for themselves in the world. If you describe people from your social circles in an unfavourable light (“unfavourable light” defined by your acquaintances, not by you), you could really hurt them.

Of course, we’ll all come across times when we’d like to write about someone. Just make sure you have their permission first. Also stay true to your word and to your relationship: if they let something slip that they would rather not have known to the public, respect their wish.

Then Why Write From Your Past?

Use your life experiences to inspire your writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. For example, I dated many guys before I met my husband. Each one kissed differently. Should I really write a detailed description of each one? No. But the thoughts and feelings of an awkward kiss can be transposed into other scenarios and stories, both fiction and non-fiction.

If you take the emotions your own memories give you and put them into new situations, then you are completely free to create whatever you want. You don’t have to worry about how accurately (or inaccurately) you remembered something. Which means, you don’t have to worry about embarrassing anyone, including yourself.

What to Do With Your Memories

Sometimes, an element of your past simply writes itself into a piece you’re already working on. Other times, though, the emotion of it is so strong that you know you want to write about the event but can’t pull away from the details. So what do you do? Try this exercise, which I first learned about through Mark Levy. It’s called freewriting.

  1. Set a timer for ten minutes or more.
  2. Get your memory in your mind.
  3. Write everything that comes to mind as fast as possible. The page should mirror your thoughts.
  4. Write continuously. Don’t stop.
  5. When your timer dings, read what you’ve written and underline the parts that “have energy,” as Levy describes them.
  6. Then pick one, start a new line with it, and repeat the entire process.

Levy suggests doing a five-to-eight-hour marathon in this fashion. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have done 90 minutes. (I would’ve gone longer but the constant typing tired out my forearms.) He says that a day-long session will really tire out your internal editor and let your own voice show itself for a change. The exercise really digs deep into your mind and spirit, if you give yourself the time to do it.

I suggest this as a way to feed off of your past because it lets your mind wander. You’ll hear questions and their answers. You’ll see yourself writing things like “this is dumb” or “no one will ever read this shit.” Keep going, anyways. If, after your session, you are too embarrassed about what’s on the screen, delete the document. It’s that easy.

Your New Story

Don’t hold your story back by limiting it to its source of inspiration. Instead, let it grow and develop into something new, with its own life. Real-life stories have their time and place, but so does respect for others’ privacy. If you do retell something from your past, be sure your decision to include others you know is a conscious one, not a careless one.

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