Posted on Apr 06, 2021
By Peter Wyn Mosey
Peter Wyn Mosey is a participant of People Speak Up Projects, including Story Care and Share and Spoken Word Saturday.
Poet and author Rhian Elizabeth
It is not uncommon for writers to draw on personal experiences in their works. After all, one of the best pieces of advice for any writer is to write about what you know.
Writing about yourself can be challenging for many people. Common difficulties that a writer might face include worrying about coming across as arrogant or self-important or reliving difficult memories. These barriers can cause writer’s block.
It is, however, possible to push on through these feelings and create vulnerable and honest works.
To learn more about writing about yourself, I spoke with poet and author Rhian Elizabeth, whose work is largely informed by her own life experiences.
What tips would you give to other writers who are writing autobiographical or semi-autobiographical work?
I don't have any advice, really. It all depends on what you’re writing about. Are you writing about something happy, something sad, or something painful? I’m not in any position to advise people on how to open their own pandora’s boxes. Writing has always been cathartic for me. I always wrote from the time I picked up a crayon… I never drew pictures of flowers or houses or anything. I wrote words. For fun, for schoolwork, for competitions. I can pinpoint events in my past when writing helped me. When my dad died, I wrote a poem about it. When I was diagnosed with MS, I wrote a poetry collection about it. When I left an abusive relationship, I wrote about it. Writing it down was a form of control- control over my thoughts and feelings and emotions during times when it seemed my thoughts and feelings and emotions were out of control.
I'd only say just take your time with it. Or don't. If you feel compelled to then just get it all down on that page, in those words you are in charge and in control of. It is your story. If you want to write it, write it. If you want to share it, share it. Learn from it, explore it, own it.
What do you find the hardest thing is about writing about yourself?
The feeling of feeling arrogant and self-important, self-indulgent. Wondering whether you have this massive, pathetic ego to be sitting there writing about yourself and having the audacity to think someone else would want to read about you and your little life with all its little stories and problems and points of view. Writing about yourself and sending it out into the world expecting someone to give you money for writing it, and then expecting other people to part with their own time or money to read it, when you think about it, is a really arrogant thing to do.
What do you find is the easiest thing about writing about yourself?
It’s you - no one knows you better than you do. All the research is there already, stored away in a filing cabinet in your brain and you just have to slide it open and have a look through it to find what you need.
How do you approach writing about painful memories?
I guess I detach myself from them, or from what I’m writing about. It's like I'm putting a movie on the telly, or switching on an episode of a show. Then I'm sitting back and watching it all on the screen. I'm there, I'm on the screen, it's me these things are happening to, and I know it's me they are happening to, but I've put a bit of distance between myself and them. I'm watching and remembering it all but it's sort of like I see myself as a character. And there are other characters and situations and places and sometimes horrible things are happening and they are real and happening to me I know but it's okay because I'm just watching, and I can press pause at any minute, or mute, or fast forward or even rewind. I guess this makes me feel like I have control when remembering or trying to write about traumatic things. I can't change the story, I change the script or the ending but at least I can control how I watch and manage it.
Can you tell me about your general writing process?
I have a really nice writing desk set up with lots of art around it, and photographs and poems friends have written me and all kinds of things that inspire me but I barely write at this desk. It gets dusty. I need to be moving when I write or form ideas for writing- on a bus, a train, an aeroplane, swimming. Poems and ideas generally go from head to notepad, and then from notepad into, hopefully, something tangible during the editing process which happens on the dusty desk.
What prompts you to write?
Can you tell us a little about what you've most recently been working on?
As I mentioned previously, it’s not like I have a strict writing regime anyway but lockdown has, like it has for most people, thrown me completely off course writing-wise. Before it, and I can’t believe it was almost a year ago now, flights were booked for various places and I was all set to take my laptop and notepad and finish writing a Multiple Sclerosis travelling memoir I had been working on since a 2018 month-long trip to Sweden. I suppose life is like this- lots of spanners in the works. So while the travel book has been on hold, I’ve been trying to work on a new poetry collection. I feel like I can’t possibly think about putting this together into something publishable until I get back out into the real world again and look at it with fresh eyes- eyes that have been able to communicate with and hug real people and have seen a bit of the real world again.
Rhian Elizabeth was born in 1988 in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales. She is the author of Six Pounds Eight Ounces (Seren Books) and the last polar bear on earth (Parthian Books). Rhian is a Hay Festival Writer at Work and Coracle International Literary Festival in Tranås, Sweden.