Guest Post: How Much of It Is Autobiographical?

This post appears, courtesy of Robert McGuire a freelance writer and college writing instructor who is working on his first novel. He lives in New Haven. I’m a life-long aspiring novelist making my first real attempt to finish a book at an embarrassingly late age. The big insight I needed to get going was the realization that, of all the ways I’ve managed to psyche myself out from writing, the goofiest and most powerful has been anticipating a single question: How much of it is autobiographical?

Any question a writer anticipates during the work is a way of giving voice to internal critics or fantasies of literary celebrity, and both are filthy habits. But the question of autobiography has been especially troubling because, unfairly or not, I tend to perceive it as a way of discounting the work—as if readers might judge something that is merely autobiographical as less legitimate, closer to exhibitionism than art.

Not wanting to get called out for that kind of cheat, I spent years ignoring any story idea where I could see a thin filament connecting it to my own life, which, for a novice writer, doesn’t leave a lot of material to work with. Thus, the late start. Luckily, I finally got to the point where wanting to know if I could finish a novel was more important to me than any paranoia about what people might think of the result.

That doesn’t mean the anxiety and daydreaming go away, so when I’m not working, I’m usually preparing my answer for when Terri Gross asks me if my own parents were like the hot mess portrayed in the book. I’m sure it will come up, because it always does, unless a book is set in the realm of fantasy or in distant history. And maybe even then. As Rabih Alameddine says, “If you write about a colony of rabbits, someone will ask, which rabbit is you?”

And I’m guilty of being on the other side of the question. I once interviewed Ethan Canin by telephone in advance of his visit for a reading, fighting my urge to ask how much of his fiction came from his own life. After I turned in the finished profile, my editor wanted me to call him back and ask what everyone really wanted to know: Which parts are true?

Most of the time I think the question of autobiography isn’t motivated so much by prurience or a desire to catch the author cheating than by a sincere interest. As a reader I know I taste an extra layer of delight when I suspect that the characters in The Sun Also Rises or To Kill A Mockingbird resemble their authors’ younger selves. Sussing out which parts are autobiographical can feel like another way of living in the work, a thickening in the indefinable atmosphere we breathe when we are reading.

But most authors try to squirm out from under the question, and one could publish an anthology just documenting all the ways they’ve tried. One of my favorites recently is from Colson Whitehead respecting his novel Sag Harbor: “Let’s get the boilerplate disclaimer out of the way—I overlap with Benji, and use my summer of 1985 as a touchstone for his experience, but you can’t make a one-to-one correlation between my life and his, blah blah, it’s fictional, blah blah and etc.”

Usually the author’s answer is some version of: “It’s kind of true, in a literal way in some parts, but none of it is really true in the ways that matter.” As a reader, I feel as if they’re holding out on me. But while at work on my book, I’ve gradually come to understand what they mean.

First, I’ve learned that the common metaphor to illustrate chaos theory applies here; when the butterfly flaps its wings great changes result later on. I may start by using elements from a real event, but narrative flow inevitably requires small changes in detail—the season of year, the age of the character when it happened, combining two real people into one character. Those small changes accumulate, so that the consequences and emotional impact of the event start to diverge from reality, which changes how characters will act in subsequent scenes and so on. Pretty soon, the characters lose their resemblance to the live models and they are causing new complications that never happened in real life.

Second, I’ve come to think of my book in terms used recently by Aleksandar Hemon when The New Yorker pointed out that characters in his story collection Love and Obstacles have “a trajectory similar to your own.” He allowed some similarities in the details but asserted, “I compulsively imagine scenarios alternative to what happens to me. To my mind, my stories are not autobiographical; they are antibiographical, they are the antimatter to the matter of my life. They contain what did not happen to me.”

I recognized in that answer my own impulse to write. I may use elements of my own life, but the purpose is more like the opposite of telling my story—not to reflect reality but to make it come out differently. This is another way of getting at the obvious but hard-to-accept difference between real life and fiction; to get fiction, you get to and actually must impose resolutions that real life never permits. That’s what makes narrative so attractive and, paradoxically, so tempting for readers to confuse with real life.

Mainly, I’ve come to sympathize with the puzzled responses authors have when they’re asked the autobiography question because the more I work the more it seems so much beside the point. I’m reminded of a favorite scene in The World according to Garp. The struggling young writer (based on Irving?) practices his craft by telling his wife stories in bed at night. After one fantastic tale, she asks in delighted shock: Is that true? Did that really happen?

But like Melville's Bartleby, no matter how many times she asks, he only has one response: Which part didn’t seem true? Garp’s only interest is in improving on anything his audience isn’t convinced by. He wants to create something so powerfully honest that it’s assumed to be autobiography. Which parts actually are autobiographical is the least interesting thing about it.