My last post (“The risk of self exposure”) made the case for mining your own life experiences and inner emotional life when looking for potent story ideas. But I ended with stating there’s one cautionary note you should keep in mind.  Here it is:  As possible ideas start presenting themselves, be sure the specific experiences or episodes you’re drawing on from your own life are truly in the past and not issues you’re still right in the middle of emotionally.
     Several years ago I made this mistake.
  I started a play dealing with something I was currently caught up in emotionally which involved the complicated and troubled relationship I had with a friend.  After writing about forty pages of the first draft, I quit in frustration.  It simply wasn’t working; I was too close to the material, my emotions kept getting in the way of my writing.  So I put the draft in a box along with several other files from another writing project and put the box on a shelf in my basement furnace room.
     Six years pass.  One day I’m cleaning out the furnace room, which by now is a disaster of accumulated junk, and come across the box.  I’d written across it “old writing files.”  Curious, I open it and pull out the uncompleted first draft of the play, which I’d totally forgotten about.  I read it and am amazed at where I’d been emotionally six years earlier as it pertained to the characters in the play.  That chapter in my life had long since closed.
     Now I could see clearly what was going on between them and how the play should be written, what it was trying to say.  The six years that draft sat forgotten on the basement shelf had given me the distance I needed to be able to deal productively with the material.  I took the file upstairs and in three weeks completed a new draft of the play.
     The point is that it’s always better to deal with experiences you’ve definitely closed the book on.  It’s almost impossible to write intelligently and well about a specific subject that you’re still tied up in emotionally.  “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”  You’re simply too close to it.  Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman, in my interview with her at the Dramatists Guild, went so far as to say:
     If it’s anything less than ten years it’s too soon to write about it.  Ten years is just the proper amount of time for all of this ridiculous stuff that you don’t want to bore anyone with to fall away and for the really traumatic experience or that person that you cannot forget or that sentence or that puzzle–those things will remain…
Ten years may be longer than most people need to adequately distance oneself emotionally, but the point is clear:  if you’re considering an idea that’s based directly on an unfinished chapter, chances are you should let time bring the overall episode to some kind of emotional conclusion before attempting to shape into a script.