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Why Autofiction? Going beyond real life in trauma-informed memoir. by Victoria Costello

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago


Why Autofiction? Going beyond real life in trauma-informed memoir. by Victoria Costello

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago


Over the last two years I’ve taught or consulted with dozens of memoirists, who, for a variety of reasons, choose to fictionalize major aspects of their real-life stories. The name of the class I offer at WritingWorkshops.com, where much of this work occurs, is called When Memoir Becomes Autofiction.

You may roll your eyes, thinking… Aren’t plenty of memoirists making up bits of their stories without informing readers?  And don’t most novelists base characters and plots on their real lives? Why bother with a separate genre?

My primary rationale for greater acknowledgement and new teaching protocols for autobiographical fiction stems from my own decade long, high-wire act of writing first a memoir and then a debut novel inspired by the experience of ancestral trauma that nearly undid me and my children. Then, seeing similar creative struggles mirrored fellow writers working with similar material.

Inevitably, by the end of the first-class meeting of my eight-week workshop, after I’ve surveyed work from such autofictional authors as Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, Ocean Vuong and Ruth Ozeki, a participant will raise their virtual hand to say… Yes, yes, that’s what I need to write, but what are the rules for autofiction?

It’s not that the craft issues I cover in this workshop — namely characterization, voice, structure, and theme — are unique to autofiction. However, I find that new considerations and opportunities arise when the story being told centers trauma —and the author allows the question of what if to enter their writerly consciousness.

Of course, it all begins with those real-life experiences that won’t leave us alone. The ones that demand to be mined and shared. Trauma is, after all, the bread and butter of memoir and has been since the genre began dominating nonfiction bestseller lists in the 1990s. That translates into two generations of readers (and writers) with our emotional lives shaped by an unprecedented flood of revelations regarding the depravities and vicissitudes that feed our shadow selves. No surprise then that reckoning with trauma has become a cultural leitmotif of the present decade, with new or re-discovered avenues for healing emerging from psychotherapy and spirituality. Of course, for artists who choose the written word as a medium of expression, the inherently torturous, sometimes revelatory process of writing can offer a key step towards recovery.

If a writer’s motivation is to share a real-life trauma with the goal of personal healing, perhaps also to help others in similar situations, an account of what really happened is not always enough. Millennial and Gen Z social media is littered with such unfiltered accounts, often with handy graphics displaying possible emotional responses to such trauma; those being: fight, flight, freeze, collapse and submit, appease and please or cry for help. The effect on readers can be saturation, even normalization. Some literary critics call it trauma porn.

Reflecting where we are as a culture, certain story themes reappear frequently in  the writing of my students and clients.

  • Toxic masculinity, in the form of sexually or physically abusive fathers and a search among men (of all ages) for a different model of manhood and parenting.
  • The multigenerational impacts of war, famine, genocide, and forced immigration.
  • The stunting emotional and health effects of insufficiently mourned losses.

To write a compelling work of autofiction to explore such a theme, an author must answer the same two questions that shape any story, regardless of its theme or genre: what does your main character want and how does that differ from what they need? The distance from the answer to the first to the second question provides the complications that animate the middle of the story. But writers like me, and those attracted to my writing workshop, seem to be looking for the opportunity to ask and answer another question. That is, What if? 

  • What if I write a story with a different response to the trauma that blew up my childhood? What if I imagine confronting the perpetrator of the violence that wounded me? In one of my recent workshops, a memoirist in his eighties wrote such a scene, elaborating on a childhood memory of wishing he could so just that.
  • What if I permit myself to deeply mourn the loss of my parent, sibling, or child (either born or unborn)? Another writer I work with gave her aborted child an omniscient point of view on her life, and that of her family, past and present.
  • What if I go back two or three generations and recreate, even change, the nature of the tragedy that made my ancestors who they were? What if I allow for the strengths they developed, like the will to survive, as well as the physical and mental illnesses they may have epigenetically passed on to me and my children? One client of mine, a descendant of a family lineage devastated by the Armenian genocide, entered the consciousness of a grandmother she never knew to write the story of how this woman’s grief and survivor’s guilt drove her to desert her young daughters and spend the rest of her life in a mental institution. That account, gave her a portal through which to enter and reimagine her own emotional challenges.

While these real-life experiences can and do provide the bases for countless memoir and novels, I submit that when they underly a work of autofiction, the author has the opportunity to pay special attention to the multigenerational effects of the trauma at the heart of their story. This is especially true when they use elements of metafiction; that is, acknowledging the author experience and the writing process as central ingredients of the work.

Even without such authorial self-consciousness present in the work, I’ve come to believe that autofiction intrinsically heightens the healing aspect of a trauma story. I suspect it’s because autofiction inherently presents more nooks and crannies for weaving layers of story that enrich and expand the source material – that is, the writer’s real life.

My next When Memoir Becomes Autofiction workshop begins on May 8, and meets on Wednesdays at 6-8pm ET, for eight consecutive weeks. It is open to writers working at all levels. Please feel free to email me with any questions you may have about whether this workshop is right for you and your work-in-progress at: vcostelloteacher@gmail.com

Victoria Costello is an Emmy Award-winning writer, teacher, and the author of six published non-fiction books, including her memoir, A Lethal Inheritance. Her debut novel of autobiographical fiction, Orchid Child (June 2023).

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