11 Feb Storytelling and Self-Awareness by Alex Campbell
How well do you know yourself . . . as a writer?
Know yourself, before you can know others, or so variations of the old adage go. But I’ve always been curious how far that’s also true of writing: do you need to know yourself as the storyteller – before you can truly know your story? To understand the behaviour and relationships of our characters, must we first chart our own? Must we uncover the truths beneath our fears, our gut-tightening tensions, our dread and loss and expectations of relationships, before we can unravel that of others?
It’s long intrigued me, the correlation and connection between the self and the story, to what degree we are tangled up in our own novels. And if the imagination’s our engine, it seems to make sense that as writers we know how it works. Especially for the days when it leaks or refuses to start.
Holding a mirror up while you write might be able to help you see these workings, most especially, detect where the lines blur between your own emotional experiences – both conscious and unconscious – and that of your novel. For instance, that big problem your character is trying to resolve, is it in some way your problem too? Is their motivation, yours? The story’s big question, your question? Your characters’ relationships . . . how far do they reflect your own?
I’m not necessarily talking five years of therapy and a shelf of brand new self-help books (though I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from that either!). No, a simple, regular, dose of poking and prodding often can be enough, to start disentangling the self from the story, and working out how and why and where the two connect.
So if you fancy a bit of a-poking and a-prodding, here are eight questions that might help you get started:
- Why do I want to write this particular story?
- Does my life carry a theme? Does it correlate with my story’s theme?
- If I were to create a plot for my life so far, how would it go?
- How do I draw on key past experiences? Are they present or absent in my story?
- Are there areas of life I avoid in my writing? Are they areas I fear in life?
- What’s my worst fear, memory, relationship? Can they be found in my story?
- Are there relationship patterns in my life? Are these reflected in my writing?
- Is the problem I task my character with resolving, a solution I seek myself?
Of course, any self-analysis works best if it’s continual. Because there will always be more memories and experiences yet to be recalled, or to be made. It’s a never-ending journey as the self merges and mutates along with your writing. But I do believe it’s worth it – that cultivating a better understanding of the themes and intrigues and relationships in our own lives, can translate into bolder plots, a deeper empathy with characters, more authentic settings, as well as new versions of the truth we as writers seek.
Alex Campbell is author of LAND (Carnegie nominated) and CLOUD 9 and also a trained relationship counsellor.