Columns > Published on December 3rd, 2018

Feedback Loop: Revisiting Autobiographical Fiction

Autobiographical Fiction: Using Your Real Life to Craft Great Fiction posted on Leap Day in 2012 (2/29/12) and in the almost 7 years since then, I have

  • birthed three kids
  • bought a house
  • paid off a car
  • switched careers
  • eagerly awaited and then unhappily endured half a season of the terrible TV series, Under the Dome, which I referenced in that article

Since LitReactor opened in 2011, I’ve written LOTS of articles about craft and grammar, and in that time, I’ve received maybe 20 personal responses total, and 15 of them have been about Autobiographical Fiction. The emails are staggered but steady, sometimes appearing in my inbox in the middle of the night. As I didn’t get permission from the writers of these emails, I won’t post any of their words, but some of them have surprised me by asking my advice on how to handle real life depiction via fictionalization. After re-reading the emails, here is a sample of some of the topics:

  • a writing student asking how to transition into memoir from fiction or out of memoir into fiction
  • a novelist asking how best to declare their real love to real long-time friend via a novel plot
  • a person asking how best to handle being featured (unflatteringly) in someone else’s thinly veiled fiction
  • a writer asking whether a completely true story could be partially fictionalized in order to publish it

I have tried to respond when possible, but sometimes I feel entirely unqualified to comment. In some cases, the emails popped up right in the middle of a particularly busy moment of adulting (see list above), and I simply didn’t have time to reply.

When the most recent email came in a couple months ago, I wondered, what is it about autobiographical fiction that captures so much interest? No one seems to care this much about metaphors or serial commas. I’ve thought about it a lot in the intervening years, so I thought I’d write a follow-up to address some of the questions posed to me.

Maybe It’s Not Just to Make the Story Better

What is the story you need to tell? Can you tell the story truthfully and still make it fiction?

I made some assumptions when I wrote the original article that I would like to revisit. I wrote the article as a light-hearted prompt to use little bits of your real experiences to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise fictional story. I assumed that the real-life elements that authors like Stephen King and Charles Dickens used were purely to enhance the story they were writing. I didn’t consider that there might be some underlying motive—conscious or subconscious—to express a certain feeling about those real events.

For instance, I reference the fact that Dickens may have based the fictional marriage of David and Dora in David Copperfield on his real-life marriage. In the story, Dora turns out to be a bad match for David and their relationship is strained. At the time, Dickens was married to a woman who may also have been a bad match. It’s not entirely impossible that he was trying to express his dissatisfaction via fiction. It’s hard to know if his wife read the book and recognized herself. Did he intend for her to do so? Could it have been a passive aggressive way to tell his wife it wasn’t working out?

That’s inferring a lot, but the question is are there other reasons to include autobiographical elements in your fiction that extend beyond “hey, this could be a cool plot device, or that person would make a good character”?

Stephen King set his book Under the Dome in a small Maine town. I assumed he used said setting because it was a place he knew, and it added relatability to his story. I didn’t think about other things he might have been trying to say. Is there a town in Maine that is now pissed at him for making where they live seem like a such a shit-hole it should be stuck under a dome and left to self-destruct? Was he trying to send a message about small town life (drugs, abuse, jealousy, corruption) by slapping a layer of fiction (aliens?) over an otherwise believable story?

Frankly, I didn’t think all that deeply about it the first time around, but then I got all those emails. Of course there are more reasons for including real people/places in our stories other than creating verisimilitude. And people were really interested in how to blend truth with fiction and how much to use, and their motives for wanting to know this were much more varied than I originally thought.

The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Guilty

I didn’t really consider the sliding scale of truth to fiction and where exactly a story switches from one to the other. How and when should a mostly true story be converted to fiction? And how much must be made up? Is it okay to just change the names or set the story in a different place? How much does the writer have to identify as real? Can you call your story fiction if only the names are changed?

Easy answer: Yes. Write what you want to write. Writing is art, and writers have artistic license, thus writers can push the boundaries between truth and fiction. Can you just change the names? Technically, yes. Heck, if you add a few scenes that never happened (but could have), you could even keep the names. The line between what must be billed as fiction is very, very blurry. I have read memoirs (Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) that have admitted that maybe some parts aren’t exactly true (memory is fallible, right?) And I have read books from the fiction section that were actually biography (again, Dave Eggers’ What is the What?).

Using real things can level up the authenticity of a story (or storyteller). I just watched Tag last week, and while I mostly watched it for the opportunity to ogle Jon Hamm, finding out in the last few minutes that even some of the more ridiculous elements of the story were true made it that much better.

But what about the parts that were made up? Do we care that the script took liberties? Like, was one of the friends really some kind of master of defense—able to jump through glass windows and emerge unscathed as Jeremy Renner’s character does? I think in a lot of cases, if the story is good enough, and the made-up parts help stitch together the true parts, we tend to forgive the storytellers because they just want to make a better overall story. Is that okay, so long as we don’t try to deceive the audience about which parts were true and which were made up?

I think in the case of Tag, we come for the spectacle and the story and are pleasantly surprised to learn some of it is true. But what about the opposite? Consider James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the 2003 bestselling memoir about Frey’s time in prison and addiction to drugs. When the memoir was exposed as being mostly fiction, Frey was publicly shamed, and there was no shortage of hot takes on what could actually be called memoir. I remember some other memoirists being scrutinized, as if any fiction told as truth in print could suddenly be summoned to court for questioning.

But, what exactly did he do wrong? Did he violate the writer/audience trust by claiming something was true just for the book sales? Is that, in fact, why he did it? Was he trying to give weight to a plausible story by saying it really happened to him—even though the things he claimed to have done were not exactly flattering? Why were people so mad if the book he wrote was otherwise good and relatable to a large number of people?

Personally, I think some of the ire was because he made people care about him. But there was no real crime. He is a writer, and he can write what he wants to write. Look up Mr. Frey now, and you’ll see he’s doing just fine. He works as a writer, and one of his books was even made into a movie (I am Number Four). That said, if you write a bogus memoir and you’re found out, be prepared for the consequences. It might not turn out as well for you as it did for James Frey.

Consider, too, the example of the Bob Woodward book, Fear: Trump in the White House, which came out this year. Woodward is an investigative journalist and a famous one who has written books and articles on presidential and political doings since Nixon’s era. As a journalist, Woodward’s promise to his readers is that he makes every effort to put verifiable truths into his books. His latest book is said to be based on hours and hours of interviews and eye-witness reports and first-hand accounts of Trump’s first year in the White House. As this book is labeled a work of non-fiction, every word of the text is purported to be true, and Woodward is responsible for proving it.

True, people who don’t like Trump are likely to have enjoyed Woodward’s book more. Predictably, he received backlash from people who claim the book includes stories about them that are not true. And even some people who support Woodward’s account criticized him for not naming all of his sources, and pointed out a few inconsistencies in events. So, did Woodward lie, even a little, to make his book work? Should he have to be 100% transparent about every person he talked to? (We know journalists DO NOT have to reveal their sources, so why is that an issue?) I think we can assume he didn’t set out to lie to his readers, but we can say he probably knew who would be most likely to read his book and he selected which truths to include for that audience.

Which, I think, is completely legit. Don’t get me wrong. I tend to think Frey erred in misrepresenting himself, and I think Woodward told as truthful a story as he could without doing damage to the people who helped him get that story. But, can you say you weren’t entertained? Can you say they are bad writers? Did the ratio of truth to fiction really matter all that much in the end, so long as the stories these two authors told were good?

The Truth Spectrum

So, on the one end we have cold, unadorned truth, no depictions or quotations that can’t be independently verified. We have a clean, undressed tone, a bare rhetorical style that claims to show the truth and nothing but. As if such a thing were actually possible…but for now, let’s say this is pure nonfiction.

On the other end, we have fantastical creatures, time and space folding in on themselves, bold language, mythical beasts, etc., etc. There is no limit to what you can write in a work of pure fiction.

But what about stories that lay just inside the extreme ends of the spectrum?  We have stories that are mostly true with little bits of fiction peppered in to make the narrative work, and we have stories that are mostly fiction with little bits of truth to add believability. This is where, I think, we get stuck. When I wrote my original article, I assumed people would use a few bits of their real life to liven up their fiction. But I underestimated how much people want to tell a real story using fiction as the vehicle. And, well, duh. Isn’t that what most of us are doing?!?!? We want to use made up stories to tell real truths.

The people who emailed me have real stories burning inside of them, and they want to know how best to get them out. Should they put a little bit of the truth down and pad it with fiction? Or should they tell their stories as is with a few embellishments (or name changes) to shield themselves from backlash should their subjects take issue?

Well, shit: I don’t know. In my responses to the emailers, I asked—what is the story you need to tell? Can you tell the story truthfully and still make it fiction? Or if the whole truth must come out, can you handle the consequences—is it worth it? Dickens ultimately ran off with some actress, leaving his wife and children. Did his wife know he had one foot out the door when she read the Dora character? Dickens faced real criticism during the writing of his stories because he did base characters on people he knew or real news stories, and since most of his stories were published serially, his readers often prompted him to write a better ending for a character than he would have or took issue with an unflattering depiction. The truthful parts captured his readers’ interest, but they also had something to say about it when they were dissatisfied.

Personally, I love true stories, and most of my fiction has been an excuse to talk about real stuff with a layer of bullshit, like an invisible dome, over the top. I read mostly nonfiction. Most of what I have really enjoyed writing has been memoir and essay because I tend to think truth is better than fiction. But I have avoided some stories because they could hurt people. Maybe I shouldn’t have…I really admire some of the brave stuff people have published…and I love to read it, but I haven’t found the courage to write it myself, yet.

Feedback Loop

I read the original article again.

And this follow-up, again.

I re-read the emails people sent me.

And, I feel more confused about this than I ever have. It never ceases to amaze me that I can write a thing and people can read it and see something I never intended to put there—but that is there, nevertheless. I wrote my original article thinking it was a pretty straightforward suggestion, but it wasn’t. Writing, like any art, has so many variations and results. I know what I like to write and what I like to read, but I hesitate to tell anyone what they should write. I read lots of things I would never write. I see other writers put all sorts of horrible truths into print, and I admire them knowing full well I could never be so vulnerable, so brave, so honest. 

I couldn’t respond to some of the emails because I didn’t want to tell the writer NOT to do something I wouldn’t do. Write the story you want to write, no matter how true or made up it is. Your readers will either love it or hate it, but whatever, you can’t really predict that. I’m sure anyone who has ever published anything can attest there was at least one reader who found something completely unexpected by the author. You can’t control that. Dickens often adjusted the course of his stories because of feedback he didn’t expect. So this is me, responding to the unexpected feedback that I have received over the years about this innocent little article I once published:

Write whatever you damn well want to write.

Include as much truth or fiction as you want.

And don’t take writing advice from me.

Who the hell am I, anyway???

Thoughts?

I could talk about this topic all day, and I really want to know what you think. Comment here, or email me, or tweet me, whatever. I hope I get emails about this for years to come, even if I don’t really know how to respond sometimes.

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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