Knowing Yourself Better Through Writing

The word “journey” is used a lot when it comes to writing and publishing. It can describe the process of turning an idea into a completed manuscript or a Word document into a hardcover book, or even the metamorphosis of a writer, after years of being rejected, into a fully-fledged published author.

But “journey” can also describe something that’s much more personal: the business of getting to know yourself better through your writing.

I’ve been scribbling for as long as I can remember. I have a box filled to the brim with diaries and journals of all shapes and sizes, in which I documented my dreams and my everyday life for more than 20 years. Rereading them has been incredibly cringeworthy (there is always groaning and eye-covering involved!), yet rewarding because I can so clearly see the person I was at each stage of my life.

I know that girl intimately because, well, I *am* her . . . but the diaries give me a snapshot of whatever I cared about at the time, whatever I felt was important, and how I reacted to different events in my life (because let’s face it, 90% of my journals involved venting about two-faced friends, an unfair teacher, or my parents forcing me to do math workbooks all summer long because of my B+ in calculus).

I think of the manuscripts I write in much the same way.

Rereading my old stories gives me a snapshot of who I was and what was important to me at the time I wrote those books. What I find really interesting is that certain elements linger on and appear in some way, shape, or form in literally every single manuscript. And this happens without me planning it!

Here are a few examples of things that constantly appear in my work:

 

  • Girls and women struggling for agency. There is always a character who is fighting to be independent and have control over her own life. I didn’t plan for this to happen, but I am not surprised one bit, since I was almost pushed into medical school against my will.
  • Controlling, emotionally distant or verbally abusive parents. My stories are most definitely an outlet for venting the experiences of my childhood. Even when I try to avoid this trope, it still pops up in the form of a domineering teacher or bossy relative.
  • Girls and women with astronomical ambitions. I say I’m a Hufflepuff, and so do literally all of the quizzes I’ve taken, yet three of the last four characters I’ve written are cunning, determined, and desperate to be the best at what they do. *thinking face emoji*
  • The feeling of not being loved or important enough. This was a common theme in my journals, and it was interesting to recognize it in all of my books, too. There is always a character who shares my sadness and fear of never being anyone’s favorite, of always being the backup and the least loved.
  • A voice only the main character can hear. This doesn’t show up in every book, but it has appeared enough that I’m wondering if my wish for an invisible friend never really went away. This trope appears in FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, two other early manuscripts, and the Phantom book I wrote in 2012.
  • Fairy tales or a fairy tale feel. I have certain aesthetics I am attracted to when creating a new world. I love the Gothic look and feel of Victorian London, I’m drawn to deep dark forests full of secrets, and I adore the feel of Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tales. It’s no surprise to me that many of my books have a whimsical, melancholy, and fantastical theme.
  • Prickly female main characters. KINGDOM OF THE BLAZING PHOENIX was the first time I ever wrote a main character who was more like me: quick to love, naive, and loyal. Most of the other ladies I write are sharp, sassy, and what some like to call “unlikable,” and I have always wanted to be more like them!

 

Writing, to me, is such a healing and therapeutic outlet because even as I’m weaving stories, my subconscious is unpacking past experiences and my changing viewpoint of the world as I get older and grow as a writer.

Think back to some of your own stories. What are common tropes, elements, and themes that seem to appear over and over, even if you don’t plan for them to?

Feel free to share in the comments if you’re comfortable!

12 Responses to Knowing Yourself Better Through Writing

  1. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh Jun 15 2018 at 10:16 am #

    Such a great post, Julie! I also see recurring themes in a lot of my writing. In my earliest writing, I wrote stories that revolved around girls and women who needed to learn to stand up for themselves, or who needed to figure out who they really were. I still write girls like this, but they (like me) are much better at taking control of their situations. 🙂

    • Jules
      Jules Jun 18 2018 at 11:48 am #

      I love this, Julie! What a great and important theme to see recurring in your work.

  2. Jodi
    Jodi Jun 15 2018 at 12:08 pm #

    This is such a fantastic post, Julie, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, too.

    My books usually involve identity issues. My characters are often discovering who they are, or struggling to stay true to themselves in difficult situations, or trying to hide who they really are from the world. I’ve also got the parent thing going on, and there’s a constant theme of disillusionment with the status quo of the world and the people in charge; this often takes the form of characters realizing the generations ahead of them left them a ruined world or situation, and my teens are going to have to be the ones to fix it.

    • Jules
      Jules Jun 18 2018 at 11:49 am #

      This is an amazing theme to have, Jodi, and it makes for so much narrative suspense when your character doesn’t really know their own self yet! But they have the potential to grow into the person the book’s world needs.

  3. Aimee Jun 15 2018 at 2:01 pm #

    I’ve noticed that I frequently will write an Asian female character who’s sharp-tongued, witty (often in a mean way), and kind of bitchy. She’s been all ages; she’s been the MC’s crush, older sister, and mother; but she’s always Asian and she’s always a *blast* to write. I’m pretty sure this is some sort of reflection of someone I subconsciously would like to be more like if I had more nerve and was more ok with being a jerk, ha.

    Recently I realized that I’m really interested in themes of loyalty and sacrifice, and the questions of who you should be loyal to.

    • Jules
      Jules Jun 18 2018 at 11:50 am #

      Ha, I love the sassy, sharp-tongued characters, too! I’ve always wanted to be that person who has a witty comeback for everything. And I think loyalty and sacrifice are brilliant themes to have in your work.

  4. Rochelle Jun 15 2018 at 2:24 pm #

    I was just thinking about this yesterday. For me, fairy tales–and specifically outgrowing them, learning about the complexity behind the stories we’ve been told–has shown up in some way in all four full-length originals AND my first novel-length work, a fanfic. (And in my ten years focusing on songwriting from like 12 to 22, fairy tales were a recurrent theme.) I tend to have stories in which characters find out their parents (or an ancestor) are/were complicated people as well.

    Basically, I write about the discovery of complexity. A lot.

    My characters have all been very different from each other, but they’re usually really talented at something artistic. Current MC is an exception, unless magic counts.

    • Jules
      Jules Jun 18 2018 at 11:51 am #

      Rochelle, I have found the same thing about myself in terms of fairy tales! And there’s nothing like a character finding out people’s secret pasts. I think these are excellent themes to have and it’s interesting that they always pop up for you!

  5. Joyce Jun 15 2018 at 3:37 pm #

    I find that I write a lot about diaspora and identity. A theme I return to all the time is disappointing your parents, whether through your career choices or things you can’t control, like sexuality. Most of my main characters have fraught family relationships, or complex feelings towards their heritage. I realized a while back that these themes I write about are explorations of fears I have about disappointing my parents.

    Lately, I’ve also been making characters steeped in the arts; photographers have become a recent favourite of mine to write, and dancers and other kinds of artists as well.

    • Jules
      Jules Jun 18 2018 at 11:53 am #

      Joyce, diaspora and identity are big themes for me, too! And I totally feel you about the disappointing parents thing. Writing is a great way to vent experiences like this. And I love that you write about people with artistic souls; I actually think that’s a recurring theme for me, too!

  6. Jaclyn Jun 18 2018 at 4:19 pm #

    What a fascinating topic! Topics I revist over & over: first love occurring much too young for the protagonist to know wtf to do with it, a no-matter-what bff who’s been around since childhood, a strongass woman who does what she wants, a loving father who gives excellent advice, a poor-schmuck sort of guy who means well but Just. Doesn’t. Get it.

  7. Jessica Shelley Jun 28 2018 at 10:22 am #

    Gosh, Julie! This speaks to my heart so much. Gutted I couldn’t come to the workshop a month back, I think we would have got on really well and had loads in common to talk about.

    Pretty much most of those themes, if not all, crop up for me one way or another when writing. Fairytales, feelings of deprivation/unworthiness, loneliness, emotionally strong female characters. Especially the second point on controlling/absent/emotionally abusive parental figures. I’m exploring all those topics in my wip, The Whispers of Stars.

    When I was a child, trying to understand what was happening to me. Realizing that my parent’s treatment wasn’t normal, I went to my local library to find books that could help me understand. But of course, at that age, there is nothing on narcissism or emotional abuse for kids/teens. So I found solace in fantasy books, where there were letters and wardrobes and enchanted trees that led to magical worlds and places. Little signs of hope. Gateways to another, better, world. Fantasy contained possibility and freedom – something I was deprived of in my ordinary life. It softly whispered that better things were coming. If we held onto hope, just a little longer, something really great would whisp us away (a magic carpet), or give us an opportunity (a golden ticket), or lead us to another life. So I now write for that particular child/teen/person in mind now.

    It really is therapeutic to explore trauma and past experiences through writing as a way to heal and make sense of things. I think writing is a great way to explore our absences and problems. Because once we see it, we can heal from it. Or understand it better. And therefore, take what we’ve learnt into our future. And also help others who may be going through the same thing.

    It’s weird and wonderful how we do this subconsciously, whether we know it or not.

    I’m actually writing a paper, for my future master’s dissertation, on this very subject.

    Love how stories can connect & bring people together!

    Cannot wait to read more of your work!

    Big hugs!

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