That’s the most common question people have asked me at the hundreds of readings, talks, and signings I’ve done over the years. It especially comes up if I’ve read a story or part of book that’s been written in the first person.
Sometimes I’ll joke and throw out a figure like “Seventeen percent” or say “The adjectives–that’s where you’ll find the real me.” People laugh, and then I have to add “Everything.” I’m serious when I say that.
Everything I write is autobiographical, no matter the genre, because I wrote it. Each book and short story derives from my experience in one way or another.
That’s what I explain to my creative writing students, too, when they quote the dictum “Write what you know” and feel intimidated by it.
What we writers know isn’t just direct personal experience. It includes all the stories of family and friends we’ve heard and anything we’ve ever experienced secondhand. It includes everything we’ve ever read in whatever form. It includes world events and local events even if we only watched reports about them on TV or the Web. And it includes every dream, everything we’ve ever imagined or hoped for. The nightmares count, too.
Sometimes beginning writers tell me they don’t feel they have anything worth writing about because nothing’s ever happened to them, nothing “dramatic.” I encourage them to step back and realize that their experience is already vast, if they’re open enough to see it, explore it, and mine it. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com. He’s the author of 25 books in many genres including Writer’s Block is Bunk.