When is it right to turn a personal ordeal into publicly-consumed art?
This is a question I'm confronted with regularly. I've had people come to me for professional editing with what amounts to a diary in tow, and I've had to turn them away. But then I've edited plenty of deeply-personal memoir, or fiction with its roots in its author's pain, and it's done well in the mainstream market.
Consider, for a moment, the news story from this week's publishing news roundup (below) about the book editor Daniel Mallory and his recent bestseller, The Woman in the Window. He'd been editing books for years, but it wasn't until he'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was in his third week of isolation while testing new medications that he even conceived of the book that would go on to inspire an eight-house bidding war. This book was clearly born from pain and isolation, so it's easy to assume he simply turned his personal ordeal into art. But those weren't its only origins. Mallory had studied literature for years, both in school and in practice as an editor. He'd been a lifelong reader and worked with books nearly every day. While the book has elements of his personal struggles, it doesn't rely solely on them to tell a story. And therein lies the difference between fictionalizing your struggles and using them to inspire a story. And the same is true for memoir; it isn't enough to publish your diary, you must study the form and learn how best to tell the story to a mainstream audience.
It's incredibly therapeutic to write about a personal ordeal, and it can be instrumental in your recovery. But if you'd like to turn that writing into something sold in bookstores, it's best to study the craft and use your experiences as inspiration rather than the entire plot. Because your readers aren't there just to hear what happened; they're there for the beauty of your storytelling as well.