As a fiction writer, what do you write about? Perhaps an incident you saw on the news. Perhaps an experience a friend had. Or perhaps a story you heard and just have to tell.
Probably you’ve been told to “write about what you know,” or at least know it well enough to get deeply into your protagonist and make your story live, breathe, and have a strong air of reality about it.
So what do you know? You know yourself – that’s what you know. Maybe, like most people, you are a bit self-delusional at times (you are human, after all), but you probably know yourself better than anyone else knows you. Because you are the one who has lived your story. And so you decide to write about that. What better plan for a story or novel?
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However, you can encounter a few problems when choosing to put your own story on the fictional page. How do you keep the line drawn clearly between fact and fiction? Must you leave out some of the best parts of your story? Must you change things?
Consider what the professionals say about the challenges as well as the benefits of using personal experience in your fiction.
“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, founding 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 ago. “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,” he explains. “I also kept a writer’s 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 – The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts – I transferred my first-person notebook description of attending a Red Sox baseball game into the third person of my old maid character, Anna Maye. 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 interviewed Yates, his creative writing professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, about autobiographical fiction for Ploughshares. “Yates responded first about Revolutionary Road, [saying] ‘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 [he told me] 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?’”
For many writers today, blurring the line between fact and fiction can be problematic – especially if reliance on autobiographical fact leads to bad fiction. 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’ talent can transform personal experience, avoiding mere “confession,” this can certainly pose a real problem for early-stage writers.
Robin Hemley, author of Turning Life into Fiction and, overall, a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, notes two problems fiction writers often face in drawing from 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/or the point of view. “Do anything to give yourself some distance,” advises Hemley.
Jack Remick, author of Valley Boy and several other works of fiction, notes the same two problems. When a writer tries to squeeze every bit of real life onto the page, he says, the problem here 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, you must get beyond ego to write fiction, 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.”
For some writers, “lying” about their experiences and those of their family and friends may seem dishonest. What right does one have to manipulate the “truth” of lived experience just to tell a story?
Initially, this kind of prevarication troubled Melissa Pritchard, award-winning author of five short story collections and four novels. “As a child, I reveled in making things up until I learned that lying was a punishable misdeed. It took great effort, as a beginning writer, to overcome my fear of inventing and imagining,” she says.
But Pritchard eventually came to terms with her responsibility as a fiction writer. “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, distort, and blur boundaries,” she says.
Much of Pritchard’s fiction draws from personal experience. “It is raw, malleable material, and the ‘trick’ I learned through trial and error was that I could deliberately choose what facts and memories strengthened the story and discard others. Part of a story’s power lies in the overlapping of fact and fiction,” she says.
“The downside,” Pritchard continues, “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 thought that by writing truthfully, I was righting a perceived wrong, pointing a righteous finger at my father and mother, who were defenseless. 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. You can, I discovered, tell truths, right perceived wrongs, and redeem painful experiences without hurting anyone.”
Using personal experience can potentially wound others, but, adds 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 injure and more likely to heal,” she says. Used in this way, personal experience can be therapeutic, not only for the writer but for all concerned.
There are other plusses when writing autobiographical fiction. One is authenticity, says Hemley.
“It’s hard to beat the sense of authenticity you get from using details from your life,” he says. “Writing characters and scenes whole cloth from your imagination can sometimes produce clichés, stereotypes, and hackneyed images.”
But specific details from your own life, even when coupled with invented ones, can have an air of reality, of actual lived experience, Hemley says. He 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.”
“I have no trouble in my own work differentiating between fact and fiction,” he says.
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,” he says.
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,” he says. But 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.”
Another benefit, 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 recreations of events, my autobiographical passages are usually about sensory or emotional experiences or about my personal philosophy.” She found this method successful in That Night Alive, which “is a mash-up of a futuristic fiction with memoir.”
“I included short chapters about living in New York and thinking and writing in order to provide a real-world point of reference,” she explains. “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 provided a creative safe space for Dina Nayeri, author of Refuge. This is the kind of fiction “in which the narrator and the author are conflated,” she says. “This doesn’t mean that the writer is actually writing autobiographically but that the writer is pulling in the reader with conventions of both autobiography and fiction.”
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 emotions and thoughts, and the stories that I can tell better than anyone. I can do this without being encumbered by the facts.”
She says that 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 conclusion, 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.
“When I see students who feel compelled to stick to the facts of their own life,” Nayeri says, “I think maybe they 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 Rashomon 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 this “the lens of our knowing.” He believes 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.”
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,” he says. 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.’”
Don’t be daunted by use of personal experience in your fiction. It can be a rich source of material. But don’t let it stifle your creativity, either. Use it, but get beyond the facts when your story or novel calls for something different.
Don’t allow your lived experiences to be a trap. Use what you can – and then make up the rest.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews.