Self-indulgent crap: Or, how not to be Dawson Leery.

Netflix has the entire series of Dawson’s Creek available currently, and I’m not ashamed to say that I watched it all. I actually started it during NaNoWriMo on the second day of my flu, when the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle was the most complicated thing my sickly neurons could process.

Aside from reminding me that Joshua Jackson’s Pacey is really the star of the show (sorry James Van Der Beek… Dawson is just incredibly unlikable for the first couple seasons, and by the time he grows up, we viewers can’t ever forget his whiny, wide-eyed childishness), Dawson’s Creek teaches budding creative types that their lives are super interesting – as a primetime soap opera. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, allow me to say *SPOILER ALERT* now, and you can decide to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs if you like.

Dawson Leery, naïve wannabe film director, makes a film in the second season to try to imbue his (first? second?) breakup with Joey with meaning. In the final season, he looks back on this attempt and calls it, if I can paraphrase, a self-indulgent piece of crap and waste of money. Then for some reason (mostly because people keep telling him he used to have “heart”) he does it again, sells it as a T.V. show that is exactly the same as Dawson’s Creek – because meta – and it leads to fame and fortune since teenagers acting out tiresome melodramas and deciding over years whether or not to have sex with one another has the “heart” everyone’s been looking for.

Maybe the average person’s life is interesting enough that others will enjoy experiencing it as second-hand fiction. But personally? If I can’t write an amazing story about my first year of high school, then I won’t be able to write an amazing story about “Jamie”’s first year at my high school either (She’s not me! Really! Look! She’s a red-head!).

I’m not saying that characters, settings, and themes need to be completely original to a writer (as we know, there’s nothing new in storytelling). Of course we’re going to pull from our own experiences, relationships, and personal feelings.

I am saying that if your story is simply your clone acting out the exact situations you went through, but it wouldn’t stand up as literary non-fiction, it’s probably self-indulgent crap. It’s fantasy mixed with nostalgia, and it may very well sell as a primetime soap opera to the CW, but it won’t help you grow as a writer.

A caveat or two to my argument: Maybe your story is interesting enough to stand on its own as literary non-fiction, but you want to frame it as fiction for some reason. That’s cool. More power to you. Maybe your purpose is not to grow as a writer necessarily, but to understand yourself as a person. I’m sure exploring yourself as a fictional character could have some psychological merit.

When I’m tempted to write a protagonist that is a not-too-veiled version of me, instead I write a fringe character who is definitely me. For example, I’m writing a young adult short story right now and I began molding “Aly” into a glorified fourteen year old me. So I introduced her parents. I tried to imagine what I would be like at forty, with a teenage daughter, and in the world of the story. This exercise makes me develop a creative version of myself (instead of a version blurred by wistfulness), and forces me to make my actual protagonist distinct from the “me” in the story. Much more interesting.

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