- Coming out in August, should be available at B&N in July
- Writing autobiographical fiction
- Some challenges
“We’re in a theory-saturated era—call it trickle down post-modernism—where the borders of fact and fiction are widely debated,” says DeWitt Henry, founder and former editor of Ploughshares. “And what began as artistic discomfort with literary form has served further to complicate the skepticism in readers.”
In contrast, he looks back to his writing several decades earlier: “In the late 1960s, I believed in pure fiction, and as a writer set out to imagine and portray the inner life of working-class characters in my father’s candy factory. I also kept a writers notebook on the side, where I vented and mulled about my escapades and follies as a lonely graduate student. In an entire chapter of my novel—‘Ballgame’ (1971)—I transferred my first-person notebook description of attending a Redsox baseball game into the third person of my old maid character, Anna Maye Potts. What came alive in the fiction was a kind of agoraphobic panic, causing my former mentor Richard Yates to praise: ‘Don’t change a word.’”
In 1972 Henry spoke to Richard Yates, his creative writing professor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, about autobiographical fiction. “Yates responded first about Revolutionary Road, ‘There’s plenty of myself in that book—every character in the book was partially based on myself, or on some aspect of myself, or on people I knew or composites of people I knew, but each of them was very carefully put through a kind of fictional prism, so that in the finished book, I like to think the reader can’t really find the author anywhere.’ Then about his ‘autobiographical blowout,’ the story ‘Builders’: ‘I think that story did work, because it was formed. It was objectified. Somehow, and maybe it was just luck, I managed to avoid both of the two terrible traps that lie in the path of autobiographical fiction—self-pity and self-aggrandizement. . . . Anybody can scribble out a confession or a memoir or a diary or a chronicle of personal experience, but how many writers can form that kind of material?’”
If the line between fact and fiction is being blurred today, the distinction was an issue for Henry as well as for Yates. And for many writers today, if not all, it’s still an issue–at least if reliance on autobiographical fact leads to bad fiction. Let’s say it does. How do you solve the problem? You want to write good fiction, but the facts of your life keep imposing! While a writer of Yates’s stature can transform personal experience, avoiding mere “confession,” this can sometimes pose a real problem for early-stage writers.
Robin Hemley, author of Turning Life into Fiction and nearly a dozen books of fiction, notes two problems fiction writers often face in drawing on personal experience. “One of the downsides is that life is messy and it’s difficult sometimes to decide what to include and what to reject in a story that is largely autobiographical.” The second one, he says, is getting attached to “the way things happened” and not wanting to make any changes. But, for Hemley, a writer of fiction must “always be flexible.” And so he recommends asking yourself “What if this happened?” You should see where that takes you, then go with it if the “transformation ultimately benefits the story.” Yet there are more things you can do to “wean” yourself from the autobiographical facts, including changing a major aspect of the story, the main character’s gender, and the point of view. “Do anything to give yourself some distance,” says Hemley.
Jack Remick, author of Valley Boy and several other works of fiction, notes the same two problems. As to trying to fit it all in, the problem here, according to Remick, is that you’re glued to your own life. If you’re thinking like a fiction writer, “you see right away that the life experience has to be whittled down to size and in whittling, you have to come to grips with the structure of story. Knowing how to do that is one of the keys. You start with life experience, but along the way you must infuse the work with the techniques of fiction.”
As to sticking to your own story, or “what really happened,” says Remick, to write fiction you must get beyond self, or ego, which means leaving “history and self behind.” But let’s say you just can’t separate yourself from the autobiographical facts. You feel absolutely compelled to be faithful to what actually happened. If you’re that committed to the facts, write a personal memoir, Remick advises. “Get it out of your blood and onto the page, then put it in a drawer and get down to the business of the novelist—exaggeration, fantasy, lying.”
Lying. For some writers “lying” about their experiences, and those of their family and friends, may seem wrong somehow. What right does one have to manipulate the “truth” of lived experience, some of it perhaps serious, some of it perhaps very sad, just to tell a story? Initially, this kind of prevarication troubled Melissa Pritchard, award-winning author of four short story collections and four novels. “As a child, I enjoyed lying until I was taught that lying was a serious misdeed. It took a great effort, as a beginning writer, to overcome my fear of lying, of inventing and imagining.” But she was able to move on at some point: “So far as I am concerned, there is no fixed line between fact and fiction; it is up to you, the author or ‘authority,’ to smudge and blur boundaries.” Much of her fiction draws from personal experience. “I use it as malleable, raw material, and the ‘trick’ I learned through trial and error, through practice, was that I could choose what facts and memories strengthened the story and discard others. The power of story lies in the selection and often in the blurring of fact with fiction.”
There is another issue here, though, one many writers surely have encountered–at least as a possibility. “The downside,” says Pritchard, “is the potential to hurt persons you may be writing too closely about. One of my earliest published stories was a portrait of my parents that was unflattering, even a bit cruel. I was a new writer and felt justified in writing what I did. When the story appeared in my first collection, my mother called, crying and hurt. I had thought, that by writing about this experience, I was righting a perceived wrong, pointing a righteous finger of justice at people who were defenseless. My mother and father. I felt so terrible, I vowed never to use the power of the word, the power of story to hurt anyone again, and I do not think I have. Certainly not intentionally.”
Use of personal experience can potentially hurt others, but, says Pritchard, it can also lead to healing. “If you look for and write to the empathic moment at the core of a story, you are unlikely to hurt and more likely to heal,” she says. And so, used in this way, personal experience can be therapeutic, not only for the writer but for all concerned.
But outside of this possible therapeutic value of autobiographical writing, there are other plusses. One is authenticity, says Hemley. “It’s hard to beat the sense of authenticity you get from using details from your life. Writing characters and scenes whole cloth from your imagination can sometimes produce clichés, stereotypes, and hackneyed images.” But, he says, specific details from your own life, even when coupled with invented ones, can have an air of reality, of actual lived experience. So, Hemley encourages writers to draw from their own life. “Why not? Writers have been drawing from real life for centuries. Some writers have even essentially written memoirs and called them novels, such as Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. I don’t really care if you call it fiction or nonfiction in that case. It’s a matter of whether the writer has immersed me in her world or not.” In his own fiction, Hemley has on many occasions drawn from his own life, but he’s also “invented stories whole cloth.” He states, “I have no trouble in my own work differentiating between fact and fiction.”
Barry Kitterman, author of The Baker’s Boy, also sees great value in drawing on personal experience. “If, as some thoughtful person once said, there are only a handful of stories to tell, and our job as a writer is to find a new and fresh way to tell one of those stories, then there’s no better source of stories than our individual experiences, our lives.” As a creative writing professor, he’s worked closely with students who want to make use of personal experience. Doing so is a much better choice, says Kitterman, than some other choices students would like to make. “In working with students, time and again, I’ve had them say they want to write about axe murderers or serial killers (which I’m happy to say few of them know anything about) because their own lives are boring, devoid of stories.” Not true, says Kitterman. It depends on how this experience is handled: “Once the apprentice writer learns how to examine her life, and this often takes a few years of trial and error story-telling, she finds the story that she alone is equipped to tell. That’s rich material.”
Still another benefit of autobiography, says Tara Deal, author of the prize-winning novella That Night Alive, “might be an aesthetic one.” She tends to use “bits of autobiography” in her fiction because, she says, “they provide a different texture, the way different kinds of paper work together in a collage.” For her, it’s a matter of contrast. “Because my stories are often experimental, rather than realistic re-creations of events, my autobiographical passages are usually about sensory or emotional experiences or about my personal philosophy.” She found this method successful in In That Night Alive, which,” according to Deal, “is a mash-up of a futuristic fiction with memoir.” Her method worked like this: “I included short chapters about living in New York and thinking and writing in order to provide a real-world point of reference. Both halves work together to tell a story, but the feeling of reading each part is different, and I think that allows the reader the chance for a more comprehensive experience.”
Writing “autofiction”–a term coined by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 for his novel Fils— has been a real plus for Dina Nayeri, author of Refuge. This is the kind of fiction, says Nayeri, “in which the narrator and the author are conflated. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer is actually writing autobiographically, but that the writer is teasing the reader with conventions of autobiography and fictionalization.” For her, it has to do with writing what you really know–what you’ve experienced firsthand, what you’ve fully processed in the different domains of your being. “For me writing autofiction is the ideal form of expression of what I consider to be the truth. The reason is that this allows me to draw on the things that I know the most–my deepest, I suppose, emotions and thoughts, and the stories that I can tell better than anyone.” And she isn’t “encumbered by facts” because, she says, life tends to be “a little bit messier than you’d like it to be,” not reaching a “point of completion.” But fiction must achieve some point of completion, and so when Nayeri uses autobiographical materials, she’s focused instead on the needs of fiction, which means seeking an overall arc. Writing autofiction allows her “to draw from the best of both worlds”–that is, personal experience as well as the resources of fiction. Writers who feel compelled to stick to the facts of their own life, Nayeri says, apparently don’t trust their “own imagination or their grasp of the situation and they’re not really using the tools of fiction they’ve given themselves permission to use.” What they need is “a little bit more confidence” in their fictional abilities. Or, putting it another way, states Nayeri, “they should listen to whatever voice told them to write fiction to begin with.”
But here’s something you perhaps haven’t considered. For Dennis Must, author of several novels and story collections, in a very real sense, everything we write is autobiographical. “We are stories narrating stories,” he says. “As writers we draw from a reservoir of recall influenced by how we have processed our experience in time. It’s the Roshomon persuasion that suggests that when a writer is ‘drawing from life,’ she is remembering, say, an incident that in itself is colored by her perception.” Must calls it “the lens of our knowing.” For him, writers need to put aside the question of fact versus fiction, use what they can, and focus on creativity, on seeking the universal “from a reservoir of self.”
Consider Kafka, he suggests: “From the pedestrian and suffocating everyday existence Franz Kafka encountered in Prague, in an endeavor to give meaning to that experience, he refashioned a surreal, illogical and often nightmarish world.” And Hemingway: “Hemingway chose Nick Adams as his alter ego in penning 24 realist pieces of fiction that represent a close analogue of the author’s life.” And Fitzgerald: “‘Writers aren’t exactly people,’ Scott Fitzgerald wrote. ‘They are a whole lot of people trying to be one person.’”
There’s a lesson in these examples, says Must: “We are the sum of our encounters in life and within those we are often born anew, i.e., in looking back we acknowledge different selves that make up who we are. At the very least in writing we re-create such experience to memorialize it for ourselves.” We can be highly imaginative with the materials of our experience, as with Kafka, or create a “close analogue,” as with Hemingway, but whatever we do we must depend on our creative resources instead of a mere recounting of our experience. For Must, the best memorializing will be the product of that creativity: “‘I hide behind the door, so that when Reality comes in, it won’t see me,’ writes Fernando Pessoa the Portuguese poet. Employ the facts of one’s experience as a child might churn dandelions into butter. Allow them to shed their temporal origins.”
Dewitt Henry particularly appreciates Tim O’Brien’s distinction, in The Things They Carried between “happening truth” and “story truth.” To tell a true war story (or any story), you need to avoid the conventional lies of heroism and valor and instead expose the obscenity and absurdity of combat. But also, as Henry notes, quoting O’Brien: “‘Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie, another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.’”
Some tips from the pros:
DeWitt Henry: “Do the details add to the thrust of the story?–beware details for details’ sake, and for the lure of remembering. Will the details matter to readers who don’t know the writer’s life? Will inclusion of the details betray, insult or slander any private party including the writer, her or himself?”
Jack Remick: “Don’t be intimidated if you stretch beyond ‘what really happened.’
Seek out the significant detail that defines character, intensifies the situation, and locates the depth of the object.”
Dennis Must: “When referencing autobiographical details in your narrative, remember you are a fiction writer and not a reporter. One’s imagination must come into play.”
Melissa Pritchard: “Examine your motives and intentions for writing autobiographically based fiction–write always from a place of love, not revenge. Fiction addresses emotional truths, not factual ones. Besides, facts and histories are largely selective memories.”
Dina Nayeri: “Put the audience out of your mind. If the story is improved by changing details, do it. But don’t do it to avoid conflict, because you can’t control other people’s emotions. Be kind, but don’t compromise the story. Or, if that sounds impossible, write something else.”
Robin Hemley: “Write first and ask questions later. If you’re afraid that so-and-so will recognize himself in the story, won’t ever speak to you again, or might sue you, you’ll never write the story.”
Tara Deal: “Start small. Add some minor incidents from your life—an overheard conversation on the subway, an encounter on a trip—to a larger manuscript. See if that provides some interesting contrast that you can work with.”
Barry Kitterman: “For me, it’s a dance. On the one hand, I’m going to try to write about what I know, what I’ve lived, what I remember or misremember. On the other hand, I’m going to allow myself to make things up. If a story is rooted in the authentic, and if I’m careful and lucky, what I make up will also be surprising and true.”
As my mother, VPMR, lay dying, I researched the state of elder care in the United States. I was disgusted. At the same time I also came to understand Samuel Beckett’s art in a way I had never before. To age in America is to lose pieces of oneself until there is nothing left. To be old in America is to be brutalized by an inhumane system that leaves us naked, hungry, and abused. This play is my reaction to America’s medieval treatment of its elderly in the 21st Century.
Seattle, WA 2018
You can find it here: A Catastrophe in Three Cataclysms
Sarah Gronostalski is building this website anew. We’re adding old work and some new. I came across this wonderful review of Satori by Eleanor Parker Sapia and had to share it. Here are the last two paragraphs. Follow the link https://bit.ly/2HM0bga for the full piece:
Youthful lust, raw living, the building of America, and Death Waits, “Death waits at the corner/an old woman for the light…” and from Honey Word of Jesus Christ, “…One Sunday, I grew Old. One Sunday I learned of the Man in Me…”.
Once you catch your breath after reading the last line, you will return to page one to savor the haunting rhythm of Jack Remick’s life and the men and women who taught him what he knows. I highly recommend Satori, poems!
Here we learned to write
In mud, on stone, here
We learned to write with sticks
In mud baked in the sun for all time
We learned to write in stone with hammers
That now chisel our first words out of time
Crack the mud five thousand years made
This is where we wrote first of the dark
Journey into the deep place tracing
In stone in mud, our wedges prying
Apart the mystery of the mind to count
To read the steps of the journey from the deep
Now that is ripped out of the rock…
Torn from the mud, the wedges disappear
Opening the black wound that does not bleed
Burying where we came from in dust
This is Daesh, the end of our beginning
Winged bulls, lion-headed men, here we wrote
Of them, of Astarte first in mud in stone
Here we counted first the sheep, the grain
Here we counted the stars first in mud
Then in stone. Later we turned reeds
Into sheets of time and winged men
And bearded bulls and goddesses in white
Now is broken the stone, cracked
The mud—must we dive again
Into that black mystery? Did Muhamad
Know his acolytes would see stone as sin
Mud as crime, and wipe away the wedges
That pried open the pit where now no light shines?
From the crest of the fossilized sand dune, Bru looked out on the wide desert plain. Wind whispered a gritty rattle as it shushed in her hair. She scanned the desert through binoculars— a tower, a wall circling the tower, vehicles, dozens of them. She stowed the binoculars, set the recorder, opened the scanner then worked her way down the dune. The slope was steep, the rock hot and gritty. Several times, she slid, but righted herself. The only sound the scraping of her boots.
Heading across the plain, she stopped to scan the rusting, rotting vehicles, not surprised to find bones in them, bones in ragged black or sun-bleached uniforms, cracked sun-eaten boots. As she walked, the scanner chimed as it catalogued the bones, dated the age and size of the remains, and counted the equipment. Pushing on into the sun, she came to a stack of skulls. She knelt. She found a hole in the forehead of each skull. Legend said that at C-1, there was a daughter who had six hundred kills, all of them shots to the head. But Bru saw no horse bones. Kaavi had written that there were bones of horses at Foundation, but she saw none. Perhaps Kaavi had made a mistake. Bru closed on the wall that loomed up like a rusted red shield.
A structure of welded metal. Leading up to the wall there were killing channels, machines of all kinds strapped together with rusting steel bands. The channels narrowed into kill boxes as they approached the wall where firing slots ranged. And in the kill boxes, the carnage had been catastrophic. She remembered the text written four hundred years before – The Solerian stands in the center of the Citadel like a spindle in the nucleus of a cell. The Founder had written it down and from the writing came the structure of all Citadels.
The walk was slow and hot as she circled the walls. She counted as she paced—one hundred, two hundred, three hundred units. To her left, the sun now behind her, she saw the gate and at the gate thick piles of machines rusting. Entering the kill box, she threaded her way through matériel and skeletons to the gate where she stopped. The gate, a massive barrier of steel plating, still pocked with the black residue of explosions, was shielded by sharp-pointed spiles driven into the ground and anchored in concrete to create a hedgehog. She entered the gate. Inside she saw the tower tilting to one side. The steel latticework had not yet decayed. Around the footings of the tower there were stacks of bones and weapons. She examined the skulls. From the angle of the holes in the skulls, she judged that gunfire had slanted down on the attackers.
She left the tower and approached the buildings—thick concrete blocks—no doors, all blown open, hinges ripped like paper, and she held up. A half-destroyed sign over the entrance, in faded black lettering, read Dese R se Mote . Her heart beat faster. Was she the first daughter to see the mythical C-1. Was this the beginning of time? Her hands were clammy, sweat soaked her jerkin and rolled down her sides. And she then entered the ruin.
It was primitive—wood chairs, a long wide bar, a broken mirror. In the mirror, she saw herself in her transformed body—heavy shoulders, thin waist, long hair the color of rusted steel. Her arms were thick and muscular. Her beard trained down her chest. She was shocked. The transformation had taken two months. The genetic knock-ins had made her sick, the facial hair turned her into an animal. She had not looked at herself in a year and a half. She turned away from the mirror. Her scanner chimed. Body count—ten thousand Exos. She scrolled through the inventory—a thousand daughters. At Foundation, in C-1, one thousand daughters stood off ten thousand Exos for a year. This was C-1. She squatted and ran her fingers through the dust on the floor. If the Founders died there, there would be DNA.
She reset the scanner. She drew the device from her pocket and clicked talk. The first words she had spoken since she left the team in the dry lake bed came as a rough croak in a dry throat.
from Doubles in a Game of Chance—
Baldemar was incredible. Never before had he been legitimate and with the full backing of a powerful Committee member like Dalton to legitimize his actions. No fidaus now. Just legitimate directives sent straight from the heart of the system. He was, Dalton knew, simultaneously destroying and rebuilding the system—the Sixth Phase. No Tribes. No Monarchies. No Republics. No Governments. No Bureaucracies. No Plutocracies, No Oligarchies, no rule by the greedy, just the Sixth Phase of Civilization. When it was all over, everyone would be in a new place. Baldemar was altering human nature, he was altering the nature of society, and in altering the nature of society he was changing the world. …
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Yasha said.
“Yeah.” Dalton took her hand. She sat beside him. Huddled shoulder to shoulder in the quiet. Yasha said,
“It’s like the old society is just peeling away. Like an insect coming out of a chrysalis.”
Dalton puffed on his cigar. In the curve of the road up the Snail, he saw lights. The AFE on the move. Yasha continued,
“It’s great. No matter how you talk about it. You can see the changes. It’s in people’s eyes, in the way they walk, the way they hold their bodies. Hope is being born right here, Dalton, right now, in this country for the first time….ever…”
“They’ll tear down this house,” Dalton said. “They’ll rip it out at the roots and smooth the ground over and plant trees.” Dalton flicked his ashes onto the step.
“It’s a new world,” Yasha said. “This house is old ruling class and it’s being abolished, demolished, deported, sent away, disenfranchised. No more ruling class…ever.”
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a sense of dread. I dream, and when I wake, I am sure it will be the day the world ends. Rose, my therapist, tells me more of her clients have apocalyptic dreams like mine. She doesn’t know what it means.Yesterday at the beach as I watched the beach meat in their combat ritual, I had one of my visions of annihilation. There were four of them. Their sandy bodies glistened. Muscle and sweaty flesh silhouetted in an exploding sunset ripe with blood. Their overhand smashes and digs were laced with grunts and howls and the wail of loss. I imagined them still grinding one another to dust in the chaos of extinction. The shaven-headed one, the tall, muscular and vicious one spiked a set-up and the volleyball blasted his opponent in the face and he went down—on his back, on the sand. Bleeding. The fallen enemy crawled off the pitch, his shamed partner beside him.
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Dear Jack Remick,
Congratulations! We are pleased and proud to publish your 2 essays: “The Wisdom of Finishing” and “The Arrogance of the Princely Mind” in Raven Chronicles Journal, Vol. 26, Last Call issue. The issue will be published in Summer, 2018, in book format. There will be a reading/reception at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle on July 12, 7-9 pm. We will e-mail you a proof copy of your work before publication (a pdf of your page/s). With this contract, you agree to grant us First North American Serial Rights (unless otherwise noted), plus the rights to reprint in any future anthologies. Upon publication, all rights revert to you. Your work will be copyrighted with the Library of Congress.
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For Raven Chronicles: Priscilla Long, Nonfiction Editor Date: 3/10/18