Using the Personal

The advertisement of MSU’s lecture series featuring Kushner.

Attending a lecture in which Tony Kushner spoke was a wish in life I never thought I would fulfill. This year, however, I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to do so while he made an appearance in East Lansing. His level of intellectual and conversational genius did not surprise me, but his ability to be humorous in both a self-deprecating and racy way was absolutely stunning. Hearing thoughts on writing from the first playwright to ever completely captivate me was incredibly rewarding and his ideas on the history of theater, its current state, the direction in which its going, and the potential for its future was fascinating. The statement that stuck with me the most, however, was not something I found inspirational but something I found disagreeable. When someone asked him how he got inspiration for his writing, either through personal means or through academic means, Kushner replied that a writer shouldn’t just write about what’s in his life, but has to research elsewhere, because “if your life is half-interesting, you wouldn’t want people knowing about it.”

Over the past three years while I’ve been in college, I’ve encountered the exact opposite truth. While I have been interested in a vast amount of subjects all of which I could incorporate into a dramatic text, I found that my strongest writing emerges when there is a personal, emotional core attached to the subject about which I choose to write. Though my characters are usually never complete reflections of me, mimicking my life to a T, I find that if there is a real connection between them and I, my writing will be more compelling. It is also a much stronger challenge as a writer to put personal parts of yourself into a work, yet keep an objectivity from the characters that allows them to flourish as individuals and not just fragmented portraits of the writer who creates them. When I say fragmented, I am referring to the way in which, when I make characters just like me, they tend to be missing a truth behind them because the authorial voice seems too present, as if the writer is only creating the character to state facts about their life, feelings, or experiences. I feel that balancing the line between personal and external is not just challenging, but also incredibly rewarding when done correctly.

Though I do not undermine Kushner’s genius in any capacity, I think that the ability to achieve this balance is one of the strongest gifts a writer can give to an audience. If you can take your personal experience and make it something that an audience can find applicable in their lives and to the human condition as a whole, I think you have given a gift of sharing that takes a level of vulnerability that the impersonal does not. From my repurposing project for this class, I learned that going deeply into the personal and making a personal narrative is the most challenging work I have done because it forces me to share personal information but also only information that I feel can spark conversation on bigger topics.  While a writer who takes a more research/external approach to writing their work must go through very harsh struggles with their writing, I feel that there is a unique truth behind the subjective experience of the author that more writers (including myself) should try to tap into as long as it is beneficial to readers and not merely a diary.

It almost seemed as if this “diary” generalization of using your personal experience to write was expressed by Kushner in a way that wasn’t totally fair. While no writer should blab about their experience without thinking about what it can do for their audience, I believe that the idea of searching your life and having new experiences to enrich your writing is totally valid. In fact, Angels in America, Kushner’s most famous work, was most definitely enriched by his personal life from research I have done. While reading Angels in America and then comparing it to his other work, Homebody Kabul, I found the first to be much more fascinating because it took a more personal, character driven approach to writing than the heady, academic approach that pervades Homebody Kabul.

Though academic, research-based work is definitely an excellent contribution to society, I feel that the writer has a unique gift of delivering their own experiences to an audience in a variety of forms. In the writing minor, I hope to challenge myself to be more personal while always keeping my audience in mind so that I can make work that is both true and beneficial.


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