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Is Your Book Autobiographical?

This is a question I love being asked because it is such a fertile one, although my first responses are succinct: “No way!” – pause, then, “Absolutely!” Well, it’s a jumble of both. Here's why.

This is a question I love being asked because it is such a fertile one, although my first responses are succinct: “No way!” – pause, then, “Absolutely!” It’s a jumble of both. As fiction writers, we create stories, but we also plow deep into our hearts and psyches. We may start with something real, but then we’re off and running.

This guest post is by Ellen Sherman, author of Just the Facts. Sherman received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, and has worked as a journalist, editor, and teacher. She also has worked as a proofreader, tutor, Girl Scout cookie counter, and training coordinator for literacy volunteers – all afternoon positions so that she could write in the mornings. Her first published novel is Monkeys on the Bed. Besides writing, her passions are choral singing, playing tennis, traveling, sampling new candy, and most of all, hanging out with family and friends.

Ellen Sherman featured
Ellen Sherman Book Cover

Jack Leggett, who was at the helm of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop for many years, is remembered for advising students to “Write what you know.” I would amend that to “Start with what you know.” This is something I believe most writers do naturally, automatically. They are inspired to write a story because of an incident that occurred (either to themselves or others) or perhaps because of a passionate conversation, or a situation that intrigues them and makes them wonder. Maybe it is just a feeling they’ve been having that grips them so.

Years ago, when I was preparing my first novel, Monkeys on the Bed, for publication, I told my sister, “I feel like under the title it should say, ‘a novel and a memoir.’” The premise of that book – a cartoonist in her mid-30s who has never wanted children inherits her older sister’s two young sons when her sister dies unexpectedly – was wholly invented, as was the protagonist’s search to find out what really happened to her seemingly healthy big sister. Nevertheless, the storyline derived from the often overwhelming feelings of responsibility I felt when my two sons were very young.

[Are you writing a memoir or an autobiography? Click here to learn the differences.]

The idea for the book came to me one summer when I was visiting my mother at her beach house. I had taken my kids to an old playground with challenging equipment. As I chased after my two-year-old, my five-year-old reached the top of a high, steel slide and was now crying out for me, afraid to go down, but being pressured by the older children behind him on the ladder. “This is such a huge responsibility,” I remember thinking as I begged the other kids to come down so I could retrieve my son. A few moments later, I thought, “What if you had to deal with all of this responsibility and they weren’t even yours?”

As we write, plots and characters take on a life of their own, but here is what was “true,” in my novel. I have a sister with whom I am very close. She is my younger sister but, regardless, it is hard for me to imagine life without her. At its core, the novel explores a fear of death and coming to terms with death; years later, I realized that the writing of it was my way of processing the intense grief I felt after my beloved father died unexpectedly when I was thirty. This gets at a reason why many of us write: to face our fears and process difficulties and sometimes triumphs.

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Fearfulness seems to be one of my big themes. My new novel, Just the Facts, is about a timid newspaper reporter named Nora who, against her better judgment, pursues a tip from a stranger and finds herself investigating corruption involving the placement of a new freeway. I made that plot up, even if, like my protagonist, I became a reporter in 1978 shortly after graduating from college with virtually no experience. It was something you could do back then, and it appealed to me to set the book in an era of old-world print journalism when a reporter spent most of her time in her car, driving from story to story. I could have set the book in California, but I was once familiar with the quirky Maryland county I chose, so I could draw on a plethora of remembered details while making up others.

Details and emotions may be borrowed from our lives, but they are exaggerated, embellished, and sometimes transformed altogether, so that in the end they are about as accurate as the details and emotions in our dreams. The truly autobiographical aspects of fiction, I feel, are the preoccupations of the writer, which become a novel’s themes. I am not as fearful as Nora is early in the novel, but I too suffer from existential dread. And like her, I came to realize in my twenties that certain “stories” I had internalized growing up about what I could or couldn’t do were limiting and needed to be revised. Also, as a journalist and novelist, I have long pondered whether any writer can be entirely objective, something I examined in this book.

And then there is the matter of a compelling plot. Although Nora’s roots are my roots, her experiences are quite different. While I had some adventures as a reporter, mine were more comic than daunting. There is an old writing maxim: “To create drama, something must be at stake.” Nothing all that dramatic happened to me during my newspaper tenure, but I needed an arresting challenge for my protagonist in order to involve my readers and make them want to read on. Investigating a scandal allowed Nora to grow both as a reporter and as a young woman.

Ultimately, Nora is much braver than I could have been at her age. In her situation, I would have run for the hills. For me, the best part about being a writer is the ability to create alter egos who confront what you could not. They can have humorous experiences as well.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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