Write What Your Soul Sees

accordion busker


“. . . the true artist should paint not what his eyes saw, but what his soul saw . . . if the artist did this, and did it absolutely and continuously — reworking the same image over and over until it reached its most primal level — then something very new and real about what it is to be human might be communicated to anybody who was willing to take an unhurried look.” ~ Don Coles discussing the work of Edvard Munch

But That’s The Way It Happened!

In my workshops — whether for screenwriting or for short stories and novels — there are always people who say they are writing fiction, but really they are writing about their own lives.

The work is presented as fiction, but when comments are received that threaten to disturb the exact order of events or question their logic, the writer suddenly pulls out this familiar refrain — “But, it’s true! This really happened!” It’s a last ditch attempt to preserve the story just as it was experienced by the writer.

Using Your Life As Inspiration for Your Fiction

There’s nothing wrong with using your own life as material for your writing. It’s natural, especially when you consider the edict to ‘write what you know.’ But there’s also a danger in  that, too.

Using autobiographical material, you often lose your narrative objectivity. What makes a good story doesn’t always coincide with what actually happened. Novice fiction writers often think that if they change one element of the “facts,” the story will be ruined. But that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.

The Guts & The Glory

When writing fiction, changing the facts of real events can help the writer get at the heart of the matter. Sylvia Plath said that “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.”

Although details are important in any kind of writing, what is essential for good writing is that you tap into the universal theme of your narrative, because that’s how you make your story matter to everyone else.

Your Writing Objective

Your objective in writing should be to make your readers feel the truth of what you’re saying in their bones. If that means some of the details of what actually happened to you have got to go, then do it.

It’s not the 6 o’clock news; it’s fiction — which is an art form that demands emotional truth. Ultimately, it’s not about what your eyes saw; it’s about what your soul saw. Write that.

Got burning questions about writing? Post them here or tweet them to me @writerjohnston. Then join us on the next “Webinars on Writing” to see if your question was picked. Click here to register for the webinar.