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.

Her Name Was Linnie (an excerpt)

By M. Frances Erler PeaksAndBeyond.com

          When I was about seven or eight, my parents hired an African American maid to watch us kids after school when Mom had bridge club.  She also did the ironing while she was at our house.  I remember her running the hot iron over a Colonial Bread wrapper, to get the wax melted on it.  This made it really smooth out the wrinkles in the clothes, I guess.

          My brother was three years younger than me, so he doesn’t remember her.  She was to my childhood eyes an older woman, with maybe a little gray in her hair.  Soft-spoken, but I could tell she was a loving person.  If we wanted to talk, she listened.  I don’t think she tended to start the conversation, though.

          Both of my grandmothers lived in other towns, so for those years, Linnie became a surrogate grandma for me.  I never felt uncomfortable around her, like I did with my ‘real’ grandmas sometimes.  I guess I didn’t see them enough to know them well.  

          One evening, Linnie stayed late and made supper for us.  I’m wondering if it was the night my youngest brother was born.  She warmed a can of cream of chicken soup, using water to dilute it.  Mom always used milk, so I thought it would taste strange.  But it was fine.  Every time I make a can of condensed soup with water now, I think of Linnie.

          I don’t know for sure who brought Linnie to our house.  Maybe Mom went to pick her up while I was a school.  It’s odd the things you don’t notice when you’re a child.  She was just there when I got home, and then she went home somehow when her work day was over.

          Once, though, she needed Mom to drive her home, so we children went along.  This was the only time I saw where Linnie lived.  It was in a shabby part of El Dorado, Arkansas, with only dirt streets, and little rundown wooden houses.  It looked rather sad.

          After we’d dropped Linnie off at her house, I remember asking Mom: “Why do the colored people live in such poor places?”  (The N-word was forbidden in my family, even then in the 1950s.)

          “It’s not their fault, Frances,” she said quietly.  “People who are poorer than we are in things are still just as good as people.  Always remember that.”

          I can still picture this entire scene, even though it took place at least 60 years ago.  The words my mother said took on more and more meaning for me as the years went by.  She went out of her way to make sure we didn’t look down on any of the poorer people who lived in our town.  I never knew, until many years later that her childhood had been lived in poverty, too.  Out of it she forged an understanding of all people less fortunate, and compassion for them.  It’s one of the best legacies she left me.

Change (For the Summer Solstice)

By M. F. Erler

The world is like a river flowing,

          Permanently changing,

          Forever running,

          Building its own land.

And in the same way,

          Changes creep into me, unfelt

          Whirling ‘round my feet and head in eddies.

So my soul:

          Longs for where I’ve been

          Craves where I am going,

But can only be here—in the now.

Why can’t I be like the river?

          At its source—trickling from the deep,

                   dim, in-parts of earth?

          At its mouth—wandering slowly, at ease,

                   before losing itself

                   in the wholeness of the sea?

          –and everywhere in between?

                                      M. Frances Erler, PeaksAndBeyond.com

Painting by M. F. Erler

May Book News

From the Bavarian Alps and the coast of Denmark, across the sea to the New World, and into the Mountain West, this book traces 200 years in the lives and struggles of a family learning to make their way in a hostile world.

MFErler @peaksandbeyond.com

My historical fiction book is finally being released, May 15, after 5 years of labor, researching my own ancestry and talking with elderly relatives to glean their stories before it was too late.

From the Cover:

In this historical fiction novel, thirteen-year-old Cinda Parker knows she and her younger brother Ian have a special connection. It’s not until a mysterious stranger named Lexi arrives from the future that they realize they are more than typical mid-twenty-first century children.

Lexi convinces the siblings to travel back 200 years into the minds and lives of their ancestors, in order to help their father, who is dealing with grief over his own father’s death and anger with his brother’s questionable choices. When their family line is disrupted, Cinda and Ian learn the true value of a single life.

The Importance of Darkness

By M. F. Erler

The Importance of Darkness 

I recently wrote a blog on the value of light in our world, but I also touched on the importance of darkness, when I mentioned how our artificial lights block out the wonders of the night skies.  I have a friend living on a farm outside Grangeville, Idaho who takes amazing pictures of the night skies.  Of course, she has a special camera and other equipment, but she is also out in the country where the city lights don’t wash out the stars.

This past year, I began to explore the idea of our need for darkness.  Many people in our urban world are now sleep-deprived, scientists tell us, because we’ve washed out the night with all our city lights.  I read a book by Jules Verne, written in the mid-1800s, that lauded the advent of artificial light as a boon to mankind, because now people could work round the clock, with no need to “waste time” in sleep.  No one had thought of the vital nature of sleep to our bodies and minds back then, apparently.

Another thing I ran across in my reading this past year was “The dark night of the soul.”  This idea originated with John of the Cross, a monk in the late Middle Ages, who for his beliefs was imprisoned in solitary confinement for several years by the Spanish Inquisition.  Yet, instead of telling of how terrible this lonely darkness was, he praised it was a time of great “enlightenment” to him.  There’s irony for you.Maybe this is what our world needs, not more artificial light, but genuine darkness, a place to recharge our spiritual batteries.  Something that none of our technology can do for us.