Shared pain? Good grist for the writing mill!

February 28th, 2012 by Kat Kingsley-Hughes

My last post about writing through adversity covered how to use your own tough life experiences as a well-spring of new ideas for your writing. This post is about using those experiences that you share and that others share in return to inspire your writing.

One thing I have learned lately from my journey into the world since the break-up of my marriage is that a lot of people have problems. Not just me!  😉 And sharing your problems with people involves listening to theirs too. Usually a story they share will relate in some way to your own experience, so it becomes a dialogue of stories and experiences shared as lessons for all those taking part in the conversation. Humans love to teach!

Recently I’ve heard a lot of stories. Some that make mine seem very minor indeed. That brings with it gratitude and a sense that ‘no matter how hard my life is right now I am glad I am not in your shoes’.

Right after that feeling comes the urge to write. To save the lesson I’ve learned, record the insights that person has given into my own problems and preserve the gemstones of life experience I’ve received from listening to theirs.

Grist for the Writing Mill?

Maybe, and this is a slightly guilty confession, their problems give me a few ideas for new writing. Fresh unexplored characters spring to life. Scenarios that I had never thought about before are laid out before me like a new and as yet undiscovered landscape.

Should that be a guilty confession? That I use these things to write??  My answer is no. I don’t think so. Most people share their story with you as a lesson, a little parable to help guide you on your own journey.  So if you as a writer are able to take that lesson and make it into something that can be travel further and help spread a little more light in this sometimes dark and lonely world, where’s the harm?

A Few Rules

That said it’s important not to tell their story exactly – use it to inspire you. It’s important not to be mercenary about it or cannibalize their lives. In reality few people’s real-life stories would ever fit exactly into an appropriate narrative structure – especially for the screen – so writing from life almost always requires reworking. This is usually enough to make it difficult to recognise themselves in your writing.

And it’s important never to include names or details that could be used to identify that person.

If in doubt be straight – and ask for the life rights to write about their story. Most people will be flattered at the notion and will happily give you permission.

Giving Back

It is also important to say thank you. If someone has inspired you why not say “Wow the other day after talking to you, I forgot my own troubles enough to write a story and I wanted to say thank you.

Most people are thrilled to be included in a writer’s work. And if they read your work chances are they will only recognise the parts of their own story that you used to inspire you in a casual way. “Oh my God, that’s just like what happened to me.”  People, in my experience, rarely recognise themselves in what you’ve written.


Occasionally, I find people are nervous when I say I am a writer. People will ask me if I am there to steal their story or to make them into characters in a film.  I even got accused once of being “another scumbag writer” by someone  who’d had a bad experience with a journalist once.

Usually though, if you are honest and open people will quickly relax and start to share their ideas and will often even turn around and say later on “you know what because you’re so nice, I don’t mind if you DO use me in one of your stories”. Result!

My main caveat in writing from other people’s experiences is that you must have a good purpose behind what you write. It must be for good – to help, to educate, to raise awareness or to alleviate the suffering of others.

Otherwise that would be just downright scumbaggery that gives all of us writers a bad name!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 at 4:22 pm and is filed under Writing. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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