FICTION vs SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Self portrait, Caroline Allen — Budapest 2006

Often new writers work from a semi-autobiographical viewpoint. We write about our families, our lives. We fictionalize it, but still the characters and setting are based on what we know. Well, we need to tell these stories. That’s often why we want to write. We see our lives as universal stories, full of truth and pathos that not only affected us, but can affect others.

I was working with a client on his book recently. He said: Everyone likes my final chapter the best, and it’s the only one that’s fully fictionalized. We started a discussion on why the fictionalized chapter might be more compelling than the ones based on “truth”. I realized that the same was true on a section of Earth, the novel I’m refining. The section most readers often liked the best was the most fictionalized. Here’s a snippet:

We were out back, on the porch. It was summer, and the sun had set, the sweat dried on our skins. The fields and forests were teaming with night, and life. I felt my whole body was that tittering life. I was a patchwork of rustling and cooing. My whole body was the tune of the night.

Lee and I had mason jars. We caught fireflies. They lit up the backyard like fairy lights. We ran barefoot through the back field filling our jars with light.

My father had his fiddle out. He knew 10 tunes. He played maybe twice a year. He picked out Mississippi Sawyer, the bow scratching and heaving. He stared at my mother as he played. I watched them through the glass of my mason jar, on my belly in the dry grass, flashes of light mixed with those edgy strings. They sat on the swing. He held the swing still with one foot on the ground. My mother kept her hands tight in her lap and nodded.

He wasn’t very good, but that night, the sound was like the rivers he fished, the current long and slow, and beneath, muddy sounds, cavernous. The pull of the current, the random meandering of muddy scaly ugly fish.

I looked through the prism of fireflies, at the blaze of my father’s red hair, the blue black night of my mother’s, side by side. I saw him trying to bring the river to her, to try to love her with the sway and heft of the ponderous waters of that landlocked place.
As he played, I found myself in the water, the moon between my fingers on the river’s surface, the water like molten silver. In front of me sat my father’s boat, the sun pink and streaked and slow. To the heavy music, I sunk deep, until I was in the muddy bottom waters, swimming with fish as ancient as the land.

He’d stopped. I was standing in front of them at the swing. I did not know how I got there. They were holding hands. I was staring at him. I was touching the fiddle on the swing next to him.

“What do you want?” my father asked. He nearly screamed it. He grasped my mother’s hand tighter. His other hand was a fist.

“Pearl, go on back to your fireflies,” my mother said.

“I just…”

“What?” He was looking at me with fear.

“I didn’t mean to…” All of the air went out of me. I wanted to say: that was beautiful. That was amazing.

“Git. Go on. Git,” he said.

I went back to the grass. I lay on my back. I looked at the stars.

I think when we write autobiographically there’s such a massive context we’re trying to convey, a context of years, decades, centuries, of place and time, and it’s a lot for any scene to have to convey…whereas fiction allows the context to be simpler and more immediate. We feel we need to “get it right” with semiautobiographical writing; we need to convey it as it actually happened. Whereas pure fiction has its own internal metaphorical mythical truth, that can touch people in perhaps a deeper way.

At any rate, I do know that writers often follow an organic process from autobiography to pure fiction. Sometimes we write autobiographically for decades, only then to flow into pure fiction. It’s all good. It’s all part of the writing process.

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One thought on “FICTION vs SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHY

  1. Dear Caroline, I came up with the term semi-bio because I want to writ my bio and I wanted some freedom mostly for bridges between eras and economy. So I looked up the term on google to see if it was legit. Thanks for your helpful info.

    Dennis Alberson

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