IS YOUR LIFE STORY?
Regarding Autobiographical Fiction
I have a friend who writes memoir and does it very well. He tried his hand at writing fiction, he told me, but found that his stories were “too close to home.” So he sticks with memoir.
I get it. My first novel, written in my late 20’s, was highly autobiographical. It was to be my “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”—or, in my case, a portrait of the theology school dropout, which was my ignominious fate. But, as with my friend’s efforts at writing autobiographical fiction, the story was “too close to home”—that is, it closely aligned in plot and setting with the actual details of my life. As a result, it lacked imagination—i.e., it was dull. So dull that I eventually got bored with it myself and sent it to never-to-be-published-land.
But that failed effort showed me that if I was going to write compelling fiction I had to look beyond my own personal experience for storylines. So for my second attempt at novel writing, I tried something far removed from autobiography: a farce called “The Day the Marines Invaded Disneyland.” It was about a military exercise gone awry when, after a mix-up in target coordinates, a contingent of US Marines on a mock mission to take and hold a strategic location accidentally lands via helicopter in the parking lot of Disneyland. The plot was indeed imaginative and fun, but the setting—Disneyland—was problematic in terms of branding infringement. I changed the setting to a generic theme park named WonderWorld, but the story didn’t hold together as well after that and I finally gave up on it.
Years and many fits and starts later, I celebrated my first published novel, “Tamara’s Child.” It narrates the misadventures of a homeless pregnant teenager determined to make a new and better life for herself and her child, only to fall victim to some loathsome characters intent on stealing her baby from her. The idea for the novel came from my work at our local high school with at-risk youth. The storyline, however, was anything but autobiographical—or so I thought. Not long after the novel was published, I received a note from a reader—someone who had known me for many years, stretching from my youth into adulthood. “It struck me,” she said, “how much of this novel comes from your own personal experience.”
I was taken aback by this comment. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. As a mature male, it was impossible for me to have experienced what 16-year-old Tamara Ames went through in this novel. But there were indeed things in my and my family’s personal history that paralleled Tamara’s experiences. Consciously or subconsciously, I had drawn from these things as I imagined the story. The novel was autobiographical, after all.
I have since come to the not-so-brilliant conclusion that all fiction has some basis in autobiography. Although one’s own personal experiences may not contain enough essence to make for a compelling narrative, they can be a launching pad for imaginative stories that are captivating while also being true to life.
So how should one view autobiography when it comes to writing fiction? I believe John Irving said it best in his novel “The World According to Garp,” when he relates his novelist-protagonist T.S. Garp’s response to the dreaded question of how much of his writing is true—that is, based on personal experience:
… Garp would say that the autobiographical basis—if there was one—was the least interesting level on which to read a novel… (The) art of fiction was the act of imagining truly… Memories and personal histories—“all the recollected traumas of our unmemorable lives”—were suspicious models for fiction… Fiction has to be better made than life...
“Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you,” Garp told an interviewer once, “and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were.”
That’s what I try to do in my fiction—make the details of real life better than they were, whether it’s the details of my life or someone else’s life I am drawing from when telling my story.