Life writing is a style of fiction where the author takes experiences from their own lives and twists them, often quite dramatically, to tell a story.
Most creative writing is autobiographical to some extent. After all, it is easier to write about someone fictional if you base their characteristics and adventures on your own. Life-writing goes beyond this and is closer to biography. It involves places you’ve been to, and can therefore help describe perfectly, for example, how the wind felt against your face walking one winter afternoon, or what a place smelt life. You can write about objects you’ve used or owned, therefore accurately describing to your readers how that item feels and what it looks like, and the sound it makes when put down on a shelf or other surface. These small personal touches from your own reality add texture and believability to your fiction.
There is a difference between life writing and biographical writing, however. Whilst life-writing encompasses everything from real life, its purpose is as a sharp tool with which to turn the factual into the fictional. It borrows the idiosyncrasies and habits of people you know, such as how their hair falls, the way they dress, walk, talk, and so on. For example, if your partner has a small scar on their face, you could use that as a starting point for a story by asking yourself a series of questions and then inventing the answers in a manner that suits the style of story you wish to write; How did the scar get there, where were they when were they injured? Was it an accident or were they deliberately hurt? Did they go to hospital? Were the police involved? Did it need stitches? It should be a long and thereby useful list. Each question can mould your fictional character to make them quite different from the real person who inspired you in the first place – which is not the purpose of the exercise and sometimes wise!
One of the most popular phrases used when teaching creative writing is “Write what you know.” This particularly applies when you are using the life-writing technique. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has a unique voice and perspective when it comes to writing. By using your own life experiences, emotions, adventures and opinions in your fiction, you can understand what you are writing better, and therefore create a more rounded, believable and relatable story.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.