By and About You: an Essay on the Theory and Craft of Autofiction by Victoria Costello
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
With readers coveting authentic, personal stories in all forms, these are the best of times for aspiring authors of autobiographical narratives. By aspiring, I mean those like me who write in isolation for decades before sharing a piece of self-revelatory writing with another human being—let alone a publisher. In today’s virtual and international writing community, writers of fiction and memoir can easily find beta readers with whom to share their works in progress and get valuable feedback. They can also choose from a wide array of classes to hone their craft. Just not the same classes.
That’s because of the counterproductive separation of memoir from fiction in the teaching and most criticism of narrative storytelling. This false divide can make these the most confusing of times for writers who consciously combine elements of autobiography and fiction in their work.
My perspective is that of a published memoirist and creative writing teacher with a soon-to-be published debut novel. Indeed, Orchid Child is a three-generation family saga based on the same events I dealt with in my now ten-year-old memoir, A Lethal Inheritance. During the six years I spent writing this novel, I took many workshops, most of them designated for writers of fiction, all useful and inspiring. That said, throughout the writing process I longed for models and specific guidance to help me depict actual events and real people, including myself, in a hybrid, largely undefined literary genre.
I’ve come to think of our current literary culture as a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ environment when it comes to writing and talking about autofiction. In this situation, authors, and readers, are left to essentially figure it out on our own. From where I sit, we need new teaching and workshopping methods to nurture novelists who do more than a little borrowing from real life, and memoirists who freely add flights of fancy to their life stories. The course I've created for Writing Workshops, When Memoir Becomes Autofiction, aims to fill this void.
If asked, most if not all creative writing teachers would agree that the craft of narrative storytelling applies equally to both memoir and novels. Still, most teachers of memoir tell students they owe it to their readers to hew as close to what happened as humanly possible. If a memoirist chooses to speculate, they’re instructed to say so, at the risk of losing readers’ trust. I made exactly this point in an “Idiot’s Guide” to writing memoir I authored in 2011. And it still applies if a writer stays strictly within the memoir genre. But what if she doesn’t? Published memoirs are still routinely subjected to purity tests, with hell to pay if a relative or acquaintance takes issue with the memoirist’s depiction of certain people or events.
Across the virtual hall, instructors of fiction typically say or imply that for a work to be a proper novel, the similarity between the author’s life and art should be less than obvious. And if it is obvious? Then, the unspoken rule for authors is to play coy. The model for this wink-wink literary culture comes from publishers who take the safe way out and call obvious memoirs novels, and from novelists who protest when interviewers, or, heaven forbid readers, ask if any or how much of their fiction is autobiographical.
If anything, the recent discussion of Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Prize-winning body of work underscored the need for this deeper conversation about the art and craft of autobiographical literature. Francine Prose, speaking of Ernaux’s writing in the New York Times, opined, “You can’t really say what the genre is, it’s not autofiction, it’s not, strictly speaking, memoir. It’s as if she invented her own genre and perfected it.”
Am I the only one who wants to know why Prose is so certain Ernaux’s work should not be considered autofiction? Perhaps, it’s because, as Dan Simon, the founder of Seven Stories Press said in the same article, “Everything she [Ernaux] writes, every word, is literal and factually true… And yet these are tremendous works of the imagination.”
Hmmm. A reader can’t help but come away with the inference that the depiction of something that actually occurred requires less imagination. That suggestion is undoubtedly behind the reluctance of many novelists to apply the label of autofiction to their work. Comically, even authors who name their protagonists after themselves and write plots mirroring their readily apparent public real lives are prone to make the same complaint.
Upon the release of her first full-length memoir, author Yiyun Li, who has dealt compellingly with her experience of a son’s suicide in both fiction and nonfiction, indeed the two are often indistinguishable, told an interviewer in 2017, “I always used to say strongly that I was not an autobiographical writer, so strongly it was clearly suspicious. … I can now say that is just a lie.”
Author Ocean Vuong, who in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous recounts his relationship to his illiterate mother in the form of an extended letter which he acknowledges his real-life mother will never read, described the character of Little Dog as “a more patient, idealized version” of himself.
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have Vuong sit down with Li—perhaps invite Elizabeth McCracken, author of the recent ‘novel,’ The Hero of this Book—to break down the creative process of translating their author-narrator selves to fiction?
To explore other related questions that virtually no one is touching, questions like:
When and why do they let parts of themselves go by the wayside in favor of other traits or careers or circumstances?
What story problems do fictionalizations of events drawn from real life most effectively address?
What does a memoirist owe her readers when she takes sizeable liberties with the truth? How can this information be artfully delivered?
In all autobiographical writing, how can authors make creative use of their proximity to themselves as narrators?
There are many more questions and, undoubtedly, solid answers out there in today’s large and generous writing community. Let’s dig in and have the conversation, shall we?
Victoria Costello is an Emmy Award-winning writer, teacher, and the author of six published non-fiction books, including her memoir, A Lethal Inheritance, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Memoir. Her debut novel of autobiographical fiction, Orchid Child, is forthcoming in June of 2023. She teaches writing at Southern Oregon University and for the online platform, Memoir University. See more of her work at victoriacostelloauthor.com