What Is Autobiographical Fiction?

By Mary Frances Erler

I’ve been on a quest to learn the answer to this question for several years now.  It started with an idea to put down the story of my life so my children could learn about what it was like to grow up in a world before cell phones, computers, or even color television.  To my disappointment, they weren’t interested.  In fact, I began to realize that reality is not as exciting as fiction, at least for the writer.  (Montana Women Writers member Marsha Sultz wrote an interesting blog on this which was posted on this site on December 13, 2021.)

As I read Marsha’s blog, I knew I had come across the same problem.  As a fiction writer, I needed to craft my story in order to build the plot and develop exciting character arcs.  I didn’t want to bore myself, for then I knew I would certainly be boring my readers.

The more I looked into some of my favorite authors’ works, the more I found they had similar outcomes.  For example, Laura Ingalls Wilder in her “Little House” books changed sequences of some of her key life events, left out parts that didn’t meet her goal of depicting the westward expansion of the 19th century in what was then called “The Manifest Destiny” of America.

Another author I rediscovered was Walter Wangerin, Jr., best known for “The Book of the Dun Cow”, an allegorical fantasy.  In many of his books, he also drew on reality, including memories of his childhood. Yet he made sure from the start that his readers knew he had “conflated”(merged and combined) some events and characters, in order to better depict the “deeper truth” the story required.  In other words, he was more concerned with the overriding universal themes of life than with a factual account of events.

A fellow writer, Glenn Schiffman* of Authors of the Flathead, suggested I read a book by Alexander Chee entitled “How to Write Autobiographical Fiction.”  Despite the title, this book is a collection of essays, not a how-to book.  Yet, I did learn more about autobiographical fiction from it.  For one thing, Chee says that he can convey the truth better in fiction than in memoir.  To quote Chee, “The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in real life.”

To summarize, this is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. There is a fine line between memoir and autobiographical fiction, but there IS a line.  Memoir deals with actual events, whereas fiction is not limited in this way.
  2. In a sense, everything an author writes is seen through the lens of his or her personal experiences, so one could say that everything is autobiographical in a sense.  The way one person interprets an event is always filtered through his or her own values.  Objectivity is a hard thing to come by, especially in our modern relativistic world.
  3. Even in memoir, the writer can choose what to include or leave out.
  4. For some, fiction is a better way to communicate “deeper truths”.  In my own experience, there have been scenes I’ve written exactly as they happened, which readers tell me are “unrealistic.”  Thus, I’ve had to fictionalize in order to make something more “true-to-life.”

Writing autobiographical fiction seems to fit me better as a writer.  It permits me to weave the story as I felt and experienced it, which may require introspection and creativity on my part to make it “realistic.”  Sometimes, just recording the fact of what actually happened doesn’t go far enough to communicate the true meaning of a given experience to me.

Next month, I will explore the idea of fictionalized memoir. Another area with a fine line dividing it from other genres.

*One final note, Glenn Schiffman is teaching a class this spring at FVCC: “Writing Autobiographical Fiction” on Wednesdays, 6-8 PM, beginning April 6.  I plan to be there, because I still have more to learn about this genre.