Approaches to Autobiographical Fiction

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You could call your storage stuff memorabilia, or, material. We will talk about ways of turning the one into the other.

Over at the Center for Fiction, I’m offering a class in Autobiographical Fiction. The idea behind it is approximately that there are many more approaches to writing fiction using your life than most people consider. Some people think writing autobiographical fiction is as easy as writing down what happened and changing the names—and sometimes, it is—but we will examine many approaches to making use of the writer’s lived experience and history in a work of fiction. Topics will include the ethics and methods for writing about the living; borrowing formally from memoir, diaries and letters; researching your own life and memories; researching and using family histories. We’ll read selections from a mix of autobiographical fiction—James Baldwin, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Colette, George Sand, Chris Kraus, Edmund White, Maxine Hong Kingston, Renata Adler—and workshop work from students.

We’ll read examples of different approaches, and there will be writing prompts based on each approach to help the writer develop some new material–and methods they can use afterward, wherever they go.

That class is full. Interest was such that I’m also offering this online version, for those not in the New York City area.

The course will be 12 weeks, beginning this Thursday, with 6 sessions, two weeks between. There would be weekly prompts and readings, an essay from me on the topic, and workshop work would go up on a private password protected class blog–a blog called Generation Atari, a science fiction blog of mine I never used, that I have decided to take out for a spin as my online writing school.

All student workshop work would be taken down at student request at the end of the class so there won’t be any concerns about the security of the work. Or, it can remain, complete with class comments.

There would be one to two pieces up for workshop each session. Stories would go up a week before they are critiqued. I will read and comment on all your exercises. On workshopped pieces, you would get a workshop letter from me and comments also, within the manuscript. Cost is 450.00. If you’re into it, write to me, and we can discuss it if is right for you. You can pay via Square or Paypal. There are still some spaces left.

Here below, the pre-homework for the class, an expansion of my column over at Center for Fiction. They are 5 research tasks to do either in the first two weeks, or over the 12 weeks, to help build the ground for what you will write.

Research Your Life

One of the most important exercises Annie Dillard had us do when I was her student in literary nonfiction as an undergrad was to research your own life.

You want to write about your life, she said, approximately. How much do you know about your life? Do you know the major industries of your hometown? When was the town settled? Do you know the seasons, the flora and fauna, the population size, the climate… on and on she went, rattling off points for us to check. And off we went, to research our hometowns.

We did not know much, we discovered. I was from a small town in Maine, Cape Elizabeth, on the southern coast, and I felt I did creditably well at the basics without looking: I knew the population was approximately 8,000. I knew there were farms amid suburban stretches, ocean on three sides, two light houses, and abandoned naval installations that I had played inside of as a child. I knew my town was rich, or, parts of it were, and that many of the richest families commuted to work in Portland, sometimes Boston. I knew the winter was long, the summer short, and that the ocean once used to freeze, but no longer did. I knew the shallow water lobster had gone extinct, but that residents once could just find them on the beaches. I knew there were seals and dolphins to be seen in Casco Bay, deer in the woods, and lady slipper orchids I used to stalk in the forest.

I did not know the date the town was settled—1630. I knew it was named for a Queen Elizabeth, but not which one—Elizabeth Stuart, also called Queen of Bohemia, or, Elizabeth of Bohemia, and sometimes, The Winter Queen. This I wish I’d known, growing up—it makes me like it better.  I did not know the lighthouses had been set there in part because of the many shipwrecks, nor did I know the industry, if there even was one—farming was the answer, three major farms, owned by three families, for quite some time. Farming and also tourism—visitors to the beaches, and the two lighthouses. I knew there was a lighthouse museum at one of the lighthouses, and that I had visited the relics there, where I learned first what scrimshaw was, much of it among the relics from the shipwrecks, brought to shore by citizens who would go out on long lines attached to the land to bring back what they could from the dangerous surf.

What I came to find explained a great deal of what had always been a little mysterious to me about the area: the whole town had always had the feeling of farms left on an abandoned station, deep underneath the pleasant suburban surface.

This was an important early lesson for me as a writer: You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it. You are from a place and you believe you know it, but your memories are not just unreliable, they are full of research holes. I returned to this lesson with my first novel, Edinburgh, for example, set partly in my home town, and inspired partly by events from my own life. I was trying to describe a landscape, and remembered there was a red wildflower that I loved in summer. I wrote “red flower” on the page and stopped.

“Red flower” could be anything from a rose to a tulip to a begonia. I went and found a book with the flora and fauna of Maine by season. Orange hawkweed was the name of that flower. Also called Devil’s Paintbrush.

So much better than “red flower”.

As I grew as a writer, I learned the same holds true for yourself: you are the red flower in your landscape. You need to turn that attention to yourself. Research yourself. Where were you born? Why? What were your parents doing at the time? What records are there of it? What are the stories they always tell? Can you interview those who know you or knew you as to what they remember? Is there any documentation? Old letters, old photos, court records. What was in the newspapers at the time you were born? What are your major industries? What is your local population—how many people have you been as you tried to be you, and how many are you? Who are you named after, if anyone, and why?

And once you know all of this, what do you think you can write that you couldn’t write before?

This is all fine for an essay, you might say. How do I use it in fiction? Well, to use any or all of this in fiction, I would start next, for me, with what feels real out of what I want to invent. Using your life in fiction doesn’t have to mean only replicating it. That I call the mistake of verisimilitude. I would start instead with the farms on an abandoned station, the old use of the station unknown to me. I know what that feels like: the sense of old wars and what supplied them, hidden underground. I would begin describing that, and see who shows up to take the rest of the story forward. And once the characters arrive in that landscape, I let them show me the rest of the way.

————————————————————————————–

Since the self is the starting point for our work for the next six sessions, we begin with background research on ourselves.
There are many reasons for this that will be made plain as the course goes on. But to prepare, I’d like you to figure out where all of the casual and intentional records are that are less deliberate than, say, a diary. Where you can discern a footprint to the self that is not a footprint you meant to make. Instead, it is the footprint you made without thinking. We are looking to catch ourselves when we don’t think we are watching ourselves. You are stalking yourself, in some of these exercises–imagine what you would look for if someone who didn’t know you was researching you.
You don’t have to do all of the following to be ready before we begin Thursday, but take a little time beforehand to begin any necessary preparations, mentally. And while you may find what you need to write without doing all of this–but you may want to do all of it or much of it because of what you might find. Another way of working with these five steps is to do one for each of the two week sessions to follow, so it is less overwhelming.
1. Research the facts around your upbringing. What was in the headlines the day you were born? What was in the news that month, the major events of the year?
What was the major industry of your hometown, the population? When was it founded and by who? What, if anything, is it famous for? What is the community of your hometown made up of? How long had your family lived there before you were born, or when did you move there? If you had more than one hometown, do this for them all.
Also: make a list of anywhere you have lived.
2. Make or plan a trip to any storage of records going back past the last three years of your life.
These records might be in your closet. They might be a few blocks away. Maybe further.
A storage space of mine flooded last summer, but nothing was destroyed. It was still a chance to go through 12 boxes I hadn’t touched since moving, though, boxes that I’d simply thrown together. “X Boxes”, I jokingly called them, as they usually had a bungee cord, an old cassette tape, some joke gifts and a Christmas ornament. But there were many talismans of memory large and small inside of them. Sometimes, it was the cassette tape—in this case, Def Leppard’s Pyromania, the first album on cassette I ever bought, and a window into the summer of 1984 for me.
In late March, for example, I plan to go to my mother’s and look through her basement. I remember a few years ago finding an old London Fog woman’s trench coat: hers, from the 1970s. In the pocket: an unopened Peppermint Patty, her favorite candy. I brought it upstairs to show her.
This kind of detail is the sort of thing that you can use to make fiction.
3. Look at your diaries, if you have any, but look also to other records. Photo albums, old letters, letters you never sent. Old note books from classes you took. I am an inveterate writer of notes to the person sitting next to me in class, for example, and so my old notebooks are full of side conversations.
4. Your email records, how far back do they go? When did you last look at those first emails? What about your browser tab bookmarks?
Do you use Evernote? Or some other app to keep track of your
My gmail, for example, dates to 2005. As Zadie Smith pointed out in a recent post over at Rookie Mag, she doesn’t keep a diary, but her email account functions as a de-facto diary.
5. With social media, there’s more than email. Are there any phone numbers you don’t recognize in your phone? Do you have text records? Scroll down to see if you can find your oldest texts–perhaps to a friend you are out of touch with, or your oldest texts to someone you are still close to–be prepared to go back several years.
If you keep a blog, go read your first blog posts, your first Facebook posts and messages, first tweets. So often, we recklessly give away ideas or leave lines behind that, if taken back in, could turn into something. Are any of those updates or Tweets first lines?
If you have an Instagram, look at those first pictures. What did you not say about what you photographed because it would have been public?
What did you not photograph, what did you not post?
As you do all of this, take notes, take pictures, and even consider who you might be able to interview about yourself, or about a memory of yours brought up by one of these items: a relative, like a sister or brother, a cousin.
Notice what seems charged and write a list of them–objects, memories, first lines, possible witnesses–and you’ll be ready to start.
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3 thoughts on “Approaches to Autobiographical Fiction

  1. Sherry Kasman Entus says:

    Dear Alexander,

    re: “ If you’re into it, write to me, and we can discuss it if is right for you. You can pay via Square or Paypal. There are still some spaces left.”

    I’m intrigued.

    Is it right for me?

    If I were superstitious I might take it as a propitious sign, the fact that you are offering to start this class exactly one year since the day I signed up as a reader of your blog, on 27 February 2014, which I did after finding your two brilliant essays in The Morning News (“The Books” and “Annie Dillard the Writing Life”) and then stalking your name across the internet, hoping that you taught writing on line, which it turned out you didn’t, but I signed up anyway, because you never know about such things.

    Am I right for your class?

    Who am I—first things first: A reader. One of your readers. And a writer in life training, I might answer. Or I could say, a Canadian-born boundary dancer, descendant of a long line of wandering Jews, based since 1997 in Indonesia, where I live today as a member of a customary Balinese family compound, where I make a living out of my higher than average facility with words, as a freelance editor and translator, where I struggle to raise a child who is almost five but refuses to use language. I am ageing, I might add, and more than just a little bit obsessed with death and ancestors and invisible people. I am ageing, yet learning how to use words all over again, in these online classes in creative nonfiction I’ve been taking for the past couple of years, focusing on the stories of this me and those I’ve loved, now dead, who brought me here, the story of this child and those, now dead who delivered him to me. I am driven by the untold, unwritten story of my village, once famed as a village of pigs, settled by the followers of a priest who could make himself invisible, visited by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1970s as a side trip on Britain’s first official state visit to the new country of Indonesia, and added again to the world map by the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, whose medicine man lives around the corner from my house. I am driven by my long research on the anthropological history of this island, a paradise created, and all the stories that poke through, to lean toward the light like the tiniest, most fragile arctic flowers, here on the edges between worlds, seen or unseen, in the fertile tropical mish mash of cross cultural othering myths that is post-modern Bali, and here in this place right between me and the world where I must even now learn how to breathe all over again, if I am going to save my own life.

    Is the class right for me?

    Until now I have been coding my explorations as nonfiction, but that turns out to be a thorny thing, because what ends up there on the page is always a creation, a fiction, and what ends up as memory is largely fiction too, according to the latest psychology research. So if you start with the idea of autobiographical fiction instead, what difference does it make? I would like to find out.

    I love the focus on research and on place, and the metaphor of the red flower moves me. Your way of thinking and writing about writing resonates with me in a way that makes my eyes feel more alive.

    Can I afford to pay for it? Can I afford to pay for it this week? I have just splurged on this breathing class. Is it possible to pay by PayPal in two installments two weeks apart?

    Are there still some spaces left? This probably should have been the first question, but I’ve saved it for last. Call me superstitious.

    Let me know what you think, or any questions that you have.

    And if the class is booked, keep me on the list for the next class you run!

    Thanks,

    Sherry

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