I have the same teacher for both a Journaling autobiographical class and a fictional writing class. While I expected to have to write about my personal life with one, she seems determined to have me gut my childhood with the fiction class as being necessary for fodder for eventual stories. I have no intention of ever writing in that vein, and I am finding this to be invasive and offensive at this point. Is it necessary to delve into my dysfunctional childhood in order to write good fiction?

5 Answers 5


All writing is, in some way, rooted in our experiences

The story you want to write isn’t always the story you need to write. Before finishing my novel, I was under the impression that my characters could exist without unsolicited influence. In other words, I believed that my story would be entirely free from my unwanted personal experiences and emotional obstacles. I quickly learned that I was wrong—it’s almost always impossible to prevent trauma from trickling into your writing.

-- Danielle M. Wong (Writer's Digest)

Whether you do it actively (as your teacher is requesting) or subconsciously, your life experiences will have an impact on what you write. It is inevitable and impossible to avoid. Even if you have the greatest imagination in the world, it is shaped or flavoured by the things you have experienced.

I imagine what your teacher is trying to get you to do is accept this and use it to write better fiction. Rather than holding yourself back trying to avoid it. I once thought as you do, writing about my personal life was invasive and unpleasant. I didn't want to do it and avoided it whenever I could.

In my final year of high-school we were given a writing prompt, "Write a story centered on your favourite childhood toy." I didn't realise at the time how personal this prompt was and went ahead and wrote from it. What followed the piece of writing of which I am the most proud. It is emotive, unique and compelling. I submitted in for multiple assessments and received full marks each time, including one assessment where creative pieces are rarely well reviewed.

What I learned from writing that piece has made me a better writer. It highlighted things I was good at, and where I needed more practice. It added depth to my characters and allowed me to connect with my writing on a level I hadn't achieved before. So while it is easy to say "of course you don't need to" there is no one way to be a great author; the more I think about it, yes, writing about your own experiences is a valuable step on the way to being a better writer.

But it's too personal and I don't want to share it

That's fine! I believe that this kind of writing isn't for sharing, it is for you and making you a better writer. Do what you need to get through these classes, write with the bare minimum of details, or even make something up! They won't know the truth.

But when you feel ready, write something like this for yourself, you might just learn something about yourself along the way.

  • 1
    As a writer who barely remembers their childhood at all, even I think you are probably right.
    – Weckar E.
    Oct 8, 2019 at 20:25

All the other answers hit very important points:

  • our life experiences deeply affect us and how we write

  • writing about life events, personal objects and people in our lives can bring a vitality and emotion to the writing that is more difficult to express about things and people that never touched us

  • while an autobiographic class may require you to bring forth real life events, it can't force one to write and make public something you do not wish to share

  • writing from real life experience supposedly simplifies the writing process (where it comes to motivations, etc), but some people act in ways that they themselves don't fully understand why until they stop and carefully reflect about it

I understand that one's life experiences affect how one writes, but one has so many life experiences, that one can actively pick and choose. Moreover, one can get hold of the emotion and use it for a different scenario.

Let's say that the teacher asks you to write about the loss of someone dear, but you do not wish to share true events. You can create a character that is a differente gender and, if appropriate, a differente age. You could even write about a kitten who's lost his mother! That way you can clearly distantiate yourself from the real people and use only the emotion that you have experienced.

However, if you do not wish to revisit the emotion itself, you can either create a sense of 'emotionless' on the characters (either because they can't feel emotion - ie, a sociopath(1) - or because they're in shock and can't process the events, therefore feeling almost nothing until later on, or even because they're animals and don't feel emotions), or you can detach yourself from the character. Have the narrator be someone else who observes the actions of the person who lost the dear one.

(1) A sociopath doesn't have to be someone who revels in other people's pain and suffering; it is simply someone who feels no empathy. This means they can feel the sense of loss of a parent, and even feel sadness about it, just not in the same way as others.

Is it necessary to delve into my dysfunctional childhood in order to write good fiction?

Once I was told I should include twin siblings in my novel for the simple reason that I'm a twin and, therefore, it is the sibling relationship I'm most attuned with and it would add a touch of real emotion. The person hadn't even read a word of my draft! I felt like pointing out that twins can develop a relationship of deep love, hate or even indifference, just like most other siblings. I've met other twins and I know there's a wide variety of bondings. But the thing is: that particular life experience had nothing to do with my story. Feelings of losing a parent? Reacting badly to criticism? Feeling rejected? Yes. Sooner or later, we all get to experience those, after all.

In order to write good fiction, one needs to manage to put into words emotions that ring true to the reader. However, a good writer may be able to write a poignant love story without ever having been in love. If one understands the emotion (ie, researches and reads about real people expressing what love is for them until one understands the immense variations and faces that love can take on), that is perfectly feasible.

What you need to delve into is how you feel emotions, and then compare to how others feel emotions. Listen when people share their feelings - whether of sadness or happiness - and don't jump to say 'oh, no, I've never felt like that about this event', but instead try to imagine yourself in their shoes going through those emotions. Understand how they feel, even if it may be impossible for you to really know how they feel.

she seems determined to have me gut my childhood with the fiction class as being necessary for fodder for eventual stories.

I'm sorry but I must ask how this 'determination' expresses itself. Does the teacher ask for specific details? Does she actually say 'write about those emotionally gut-wrenching events in order to get a more poignat and vivid tale'? Or does she say to 'funnel' those emotions into your writing?

If it is the former, then have a private word with her and calmly express your desire of exploring more joyful experiences and/or other life stages. If she by any chance mentions how important it is not to disconnect from the bitter past or other such things, inform her your therapist says you have digested the 'bad' enough and it's now time to embrace a brighter future. Which is what you intend to do in your writing. Do feel free to invent said therapist.

If it is the latter, then perhaps the teacher doesn't really want you to re-hash real life events into your writing and simply wants you to use the strength of your emotions. If in the past you felt angry over things that happened to you, write about a grumpy old man who is angry at the whole world. Write about a person who is angry because they have just lost a promotion since the boss preferred to promote his nephew. Use the strength of the real emotion in a completely different event.

However, if you feel there is a great emphasis in dark situations, either talk to your colleagues and see if the group can ask the teacher for some more uplifting exercises, or try to twist the darkness into light. If the exercise is to write about death, then let your characters belong to a religion where death is joyful - since one stops suffering - and then focus all your being on that silver lining: yes, I've lost my dear friend, but I am deeply happy for them and I look forward to meeting them when my hour comes! You know, just like you'd be happy for a friend that moved to Australia to get married and start on their dream job even if that means you can never meet them again.

Good luck with your course.


Chophousepop use this moment as an opportunity.

I would say that for a writer to mirror a character in a story after their own life would be a challenge. So much so, that doing so would bog down the story making character development feeling forced as opposed to being organic. Don’t take your teacher’s request this too personal but rather build a fictional character that you may identify with instead.

You identify with this character because there may be something you and the character have in common. Best commonalities to explore would be values as opposed life events.

Randy Ingermanson has a great expression that your character can speak in their character voice to establish values.

Your character says: “Nothing is more important to me than…”

You feel in the blank.

Flesh your character based on traits that don’t reflect on your areas of your life that you feel are private.


It seems like a decent way to be introduced to creative writing. You already know the plot and the main character's personality and motivations. To me, it seems like your teacher is trying to ease your burden in regards to the big decisions in writing, so you can focus on improving the little stuff; sentence structure, vocabulary, things like that.

Imagine writing a brand new story, as opposed to your childhood. Not only do you have to make each sentence sound good, but you also have to decide everything else; who the characters are, what they want, why, and how they'll try to get it.

If your childhood was traumatic, you could ask your teacher in private if you could write about something else. Or you could simply not tell those parts, surely you don't have to write absolutely everything that ever happened to you.

  • The specificity of the assignment was “make us crg Oct 9, 2019 at 14:54
  • Do you mean "make us cry"? So your teacher already knows that your childhood was traumatic to some degree?
    – F1Krazy
    Oct 10, 2019 at 9:11
  • I think my final point still works. Just because your teacher wants an emotional story doesn't mean you have to tell the most depressing story you can.
    – Ryan_L
    Oct 10, 2019 at 15:29

This is an area in which I believe an entire industry has got it wrong. The creative aspect of creative writing is ignored because you cannot teach it. Fiction and non-fiction are totally different disciplines requiring different skill-sets. Non-fiction involves clearly and succinctly relaying facts. Fiction requires the writer to feed the reader's imagination.

Your teacher is wrong. Personally, I'd prove the point by writing about genuine childhood experiences in one class, and detailing how you were raised by wolves in the other.

  • 1
    I've been in a couple of classes that did make a serious attempt at teaching creativity, or at least made tapping into it easier. To say the entire industry's got it wrong...
    – Weckar E.
    Oct 8, 2019 at 20:20
  • "Your teacher is wrong." Can you support this with evidence or experience? At the moment you are just stating opinion. Answers are more useful if you can back them up. See Good Subjective, Bad Subjective for more information.
    – linksassin
    Oct 9, 2019 at 22:45
  • Allow me this moment to rephrase. I have spoken to a few other professors, who have also agreed that this particular assignment was handled badly or "the teacher was wrong" there was no safety net for the students once she asked them to cannibalize their trauma. Some of the themes, death of a baby sibling during a winter when they could not afford utilities, CWS breaking up families, and sexual abuse. Most of the class is 18. Didn't realize what it would mean to share those things with an open forum. There was no caveat, nor back door for this assignment most did it without question. Oct 12, 2019 at 19:15

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