Friday, May 18, 2012

How Autobiographical Is Our Writing?

All novels are autobiographical, except the parts we make up.
How can we write other than what we know?  However, is a novel nothing other than a journalistic memoir?
My first novel, Love Ya Like a Sister, is a young adult novel that had a main character whose mother has died. My first wife passed away when my son was sixteen. The main character also has two sisters who are his neighbors, as did I when I grew up. The story is set in a small town that is much like the small town I taught school in for twenty-one years. 
My second novel, a fantasy novel, is about a young man, Glimmer, who is an apprentice magician who practices his magic only in his dreams. He has issues with dragons. How can that be autobiographical? The Stone Dragon is completely autobiographical, though, excepting the fact that I made it all up.
Actually, neither novel is autobiographical. It's too much fun as an author to make stuff up--much more fun than just writing about my life. However: all novels are autobiographical because they are based on the author's experience.
How do we resolve the paradox?
How do we write about pain or love or walking barefoot in the sand unless we have experienced those things? We do write from our experience, but we also selectively choose from our experience and extend, extrapolate, and transform those experiences into something new.
I have the experience of whacking my funny bone, and my elbow really hurts--for a bit. Almost everyone has had that experience. I use that experience when writing about pain. Or perhaps the needed experience of pain is different, so I remember the pain of getting my finger smashed in a door.
A first kiss in a relationship . . . a moment of discovery . . . jumping into a cold mountain stream . . . being thirsty after mowing the lawn on a hot summer afternoon . . . 
The universal value of the novel is the made-up storyline. A young man in a land where magic exists discovers his magical abilities and conjures a series of dragons--and must face the responsibility that comes with creation.
The point value of all the details of the novel can be derived from personal (or autobiographial) experience. Glimmer works in his garden--the weighty hand mattock, the warm earth in his hands, the prickly thistle to be pulled. I've experienced these things. I've seen movies and photographic magnifications of the boiling, roiling sun. Those experiences were useful in The Stone Dragon.
Perhaps it would be true to say that fiction writing is stitching the fabric of life into a new cloth, of pulling apart the old threads and weaving them into a new garment. We are the sum total of our experiences, plus a significant bit more. 
A novel is an exercise in autobiography, except for the parts that never happened. We tell the story we want to tell. Who cares what really happened?
Copyright 2012 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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