I just returned from spending a week in Georgia meeting in person for the first time my half-sister, her son, and her two daughters. The occasion was her son’s wedding. My sister and I only learned of each other’s existence about five years ago. We’ve talked on the phone often since then but had never met in person, so my trip was emotionally intense, exciting and a bit scary. But I soon bonded with my sister, my nephew, and my two nieces. My sister and I had each been reared as only children and both of us had always wanted a sister. We found we shared a lot in common with regard to interests and attitudes. It was a great experience, and I’m sure it won’t take me another five years to make a return visit.
Several people on hearing me talk about the trip and the experience have commented that they are sure I’ll be writing about meeting my relatives for the first time, that the experience would be used in a novel or a true life account. Well, no, not exactly. I’m a very private person and have no desire to write a personal narrative. As for including the experience in a novel, yes and no.
I could, if I so chose, at some point in some novel put a character in the same situation I was in and have that character express the feelings and anticipation I experienced, describing my meeting my half-sister and my nieces and nephews exactly how it occurred, changing only the names and the setting. I could do that once but only once.
On the other hand, I can use facets of the experience over and over in very different situations with characters who are totally distinct from me and my relatives but who in response to different events feel similar emotions and/or reactions to those I experienced or witnessed my relatives and others experiencing. In this way I can use that life experience and others I have had through the years again and again, recreating in my characters genuine emotional reactions to events totally distinct from the events that produced such reactions in my life or in the life of someone close to me. What I write is in no way biographical except in the sense that all writing reflects the thought patterns and subconscious biases of the writer.
In writing fantasy or science fiction, the settings and the events may be totally foreign to the writer’s and the reader’s actual experience, but the emotions–the hopes and fears, anger and disappointment, joy and sorrow, triumph and despair–must be genuine and must be feelings, attitudes, and responses the reader can relate to. So the writer pours into her work the emotional content garnered from personal life experiences without recreating those actual experiences.
Everyone experiences momentous events and memorable times, and each person’s life experiences are unique. We can recreate them in our fiction exactly as we remember them, but it is better and wiser to recreate the effect they had on us and make that a part of very different fictional circumstances, in that way bringing those fictional circumstances alive for the reader.