By Brooke Nind, Khadija Seck, and Daniel Boyko
In my opinion, the best part about writing is that you can get as fantastical or realistic as you want. There are many ways to blur the line between fiction and reality in your pieces. I tend to incorporate a significant amount of elements from my real life into my writing. I’m drawn to creating work about family dynamics, growing up, and mental health-- it makes sense to draw on my own experiences and feelings when approaching these topics.
I would also urge you to make sure you’re comfortable with any personal or realistic content you’re including in your work (which you share with others), particularly if you intend to publish it. I rarely mention family members or friends by their real names (or any name at all), primarily for the sake of privacy. Also, when writing something centred around my own experiences, I’d still like for it to resonate with others. When possible, I experiment with weaving relatable or even universal themes and messages into works based on real-life, so they’re not completely centred around me.
If you prefer to write what you know, that is valid and valuable. If you prefer to write about worlds you’d like to escape to, that is valid and valuable as well. Even if you do choose to incorporate elements of real-life into your work, it doesn’t have to be 100% true or fully representative of your personal life. In the end, like many creative pursuits, it’s all up to you.
From my perspective, writing does not necessarily need to represent anything. Writing allows us to be free to express ourselves in any kind of context we choose-- whether that be fantastical or realistic. Anything you write can be characteristic of you or your interests, but incorporating something beyond real life should not be what holds you back from self-expression or freely being able to write. As a writer, you can create anything and experiment with the pieces you produce. It’s this flexibility and mindset that writing does not need to represent anything that allows for true creativity to show through.
Meanwhile, writing most certainly can represent “real life” in both a direct and indirect way. For instance, maybe you use your “real life” to inspire you or help you draw connections in your writing. In a more direct way of representing “real life”, maybe you incorporate your own experiences or people within your own life to allow the reader to be able to resonate or relate to the writing piece. There is some value in writing to represent “real life” in that it may allow you to build a potential connection with the reader by expressing realistic ideas or experiences that a reader may better understand. Yet, at the same time when writing does not represent “real life”, this connection between the reader and writer can still be made. By placing the writing in some fantastical or unrealistic setting, the reader may be more intrigued by an unfamiliar experience outside of what they know to be “real life” and can be taken to a new place where they too are encouraged to be imaginative.
Writing should not be confined to suggestions of what one deems it should or should not represent. Instead, as a writer, your writing should represent whatever you want it to-- be that an alternate universe or another day at work, you are in control, so let your mind work and your pen create.
Brooke and Khadija both touched on this in their responses, but I want to further dive into an alternative interpretation to the question: do you think writing should represent “real life”—as in, actions, events, and moments that could happen—as opposed to speculative works?
And on the surface, my answer is an overwhelming no. Realistic fiction may dominate English classrooms and AP exams and most other academic settings, but fantasy, science fiction, and, yes, even horror carry just as much weight. Writing in these other genres and reading (and hopefully enjoying) these genres is no better or worse than writing realistically or reading realistic works—even if society has promoted otherwise. This means that writing about a lawyer’s moral struggles working for corrupt mobsters can carry just as much weight as a three-headed, three-armed alien’s struggles working for a corporation dominated by artificial intelligence. That a high schooler coming to terms with their identity can be as significant as a teenage vampire coming to terms with their identity. You get the idea.
But, the part where this gets slightly trickier is that I believe that all writing needs to represent a very specific element of “real life”: whatever the rules of a newly created world or space might be, those rules must be followed and made consistent regardless of genre (just like in the real world). A popular term used to describe this idea is “internal consistency,” and it makes a lot of sense. Take Harry Potter, for example (because who doesn’t love more of our favorite young, forehead-scarred wizard?). Throughout the story (which, I hate to break it to you—and this may come as a shocker—doesn’t quite represent real life), we learn the way magic works in this world. If we’re avoiding the nitty-gritty, a spell is cast or magic is created as long as a wizard or witch has the natural ability and uses the correct wand movement and incantation. Some spells, of course, take more practice than others (such as Harry when he learns the Patronus charm). Because we, as readers, accept this “rule” of the world, this makes logical sense. However, if any ol’ Muggle suddenly starts performing Unforgivable Curses without any practice and of their own accord, this contradicts the rules the rest of the story has made us believe in. This contradiction—and not the wizards or witches or magic or Centaurs or dragons—would make this beautifully fantastical world unbelievable. Illogical. Frustrating.
Think about it. Wouldn’t that completely ruin Harry Potter as we all know it?
But as long as this world and other non-real worlds continue to adopt a very important element of real-life (the consistency of established rules), they will remain real, believable, and something we can transport ourselves into time and time again.
Brooke Nind is a Senior Editor at Polyphony Lit and a Content Editor at Voices.
Khadija Seck is a Junior Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Daniel Boyko is an Editor-in-Chief at Polyphony Lit and a Blog Contributor Liaison at Voices.