I’ve been thinking a lot about my WIP, and it’s got me to thinking about the process. For that reason, I’m going to be sharing how to tell an autobiographical story.
Now, I’m not here to define what an autobiographical story is. There is so much nitpicking around the topic that I could dedicate a whole post or seven to it. But for my purposes, I’m defining autobiographical story as a fictional story that’s inspired by events that actually happened in my life.
Yes. This is broad.
Yes. This means that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is actually an autobiographical story inspired by Tolkien’s service in the British Army during WWI.
Maybe you think I should just call this a Roman á clef, and maybe I should. But also, I don’t want to.Now, I'm not here to define what an autobiographical story is. I'm here to talk about the effect it has on the writer. Click To Tweet
Look. I’m the one who owns this blog, so I get to say what I want. I’m sure that you have a different definition, as do the 18 other writers whose blogs I scanned when I was doing a bit of research for this post.
But none of this matters. When it comes to how to tell an autobiographical story, I’m here to talk about the effect it has on the writer. So pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in. I’m going to be talking about writerly feelings and doing some navel gazing.
(Don’t even pretend that you came here for anything else!)
Also, I’ll give some tips and tricks for how to salvage a story out of all the emotional muck you’ve scraped out of your heart. So, at least you’ll be able to metaphorically pick yourself up off the ground and work with the words you’ve splashed on the page.
How to Tell an Autobiographical Story
001: Be ready to take your time.
It’s not easy going through stuff that happened in the past. Even if it’s good memories, it’s still like opening some kind of cursed capsule, and even if you like what you see, it’s bound to bring up other stuff.
So, even though I’m really glad I had the opportunity to go to grad school and I consider myself really lucky for the experience, there was a lot of it that I absolutely do not want to process with hindsight.
The protagonist of my novel is a young woman working on a master’s degree in a liberal arts field. She’s also the only non-white person in her program. And she’s a first gen college student. In many ways, she’s functionally who I was about 10 years ago.
The reason I encourage you to take your time when working with a character who is a version of you in the past is this: You will dredge up shit that you didn’t know you experienced.
I’m great at making my way through life and only looking forward to the next big thing. This means I’m rarely present, and I don’t experience a lot of things as they happen to me. For this reason, I wasn’t super aware of the isolation I felt while in grad school, or just how incredibly depressed I was.
But looking back now, with the objective eye of the omnipotent author, I see it. And there are sections of my novel that have taken forever to write because I have to stop and functionally give myself the compassion I deserved back then, but didn’t know I needed.
It’s weird, but it’s important to take your time when you’re writing about a personal experience. In writing this book, I’ve done a lot of healing, and realized what I want in a community of people I surround myself with. Because, y’all. There was no community in grad school.
002: Find what is for you, and what’s for the reader.
When you get in that writing groove, you can forget where you’re taking the story. That state of flow is great for quickly getting ideas out on the page, but it’s not great for creating a cohesive story.
So, when you’re writing a story inspired by events in your life, you may slip into a journaling mindset. Instead of focusing on the story at hand, you’re just rehashing old events and processing them. And that’s fine. The writing process is very messy, and you edit later to fix it.
But you have to decide what parts of this autobiographical story belong to the reader, and what parts belong just to you. I’m not saying that you need to keep secrets or anything, but you don’t want to lay yourself bare for the audience. I’ve definitely learned that the hard way. People have made a lot of assumptions about me (hella slippery slopes, y’all) based on what they read on Instagram or the blog, and they think they really know me.
Except they don’t.
You can keep it real without giving 100% of yourself to your readers. And you should do that. Because people are going to make assumptions about you regardless of what you actually say. So giving them more context and more details doesn’t always make it better. In fact, it gives them an opportunity to make judgments about who you are.
And they will make those judgments. And then troll you with them.
003: Remember that you aren’t that special.
I’m going to try to say this in the most non-shitty way possible. And know that it will only sound shitty if you’re in the middle of writing that autobiographical story. Everyone on the outside is going to agree with me.
(Hell, I’m giving the advice and even I think it’s a little shitty.)
Remember that you aren’t the first person to go through what you’ve went through. And you aren’t the only person to process the emotions you felt about it. So, if in the writing process, you don’t take some time to edit the ramblings down to a sharp message, you’re going to seem really self-centered.
Conversely, if you edit it down too much, you’re going to seem like you don’t have an emotional attachment to the situation the character is going through.
It’s a weird thing, really. But it’s why I recommended giving yourself a lot of time in the first tip. You need time to feel your way through those hairy scary emotions, and time to edit down those emotions to what the reader actually needs to know.
If you spend too much space in your writing dwelling on the feelings you had, it can seem like you have no perspective on the situation, and like you think no one else has ever had feelings before.
004: Use clips, not the whole story.
I think one of the dumbest things that gets passed around by non-writers is that everyone’s life could be a novel.
Here’s the deal: A lot of people don’t actually live their life. A lot of people do what they think they’re supposed to do. So they go to school, get a job, get married, have a kid, and just do those mundane things that make them a productive bit of human capital. And while that is a linear journey, it doesn’t work for telling a story because story structure is circular. Your character has to return to where it all began, only they’ve changed somehow.
(Don’t try to tell me that sending kids to school to start that cycle is showing how the original character returned. If you push your kids to live the same damn life you did, then you have learned NOTHING. And you sure as hell haven’t changed.)
What does this have to do with using clips and not the whole story? It’s this: Real life is boring as hell. If you were to write a story that included the time you spent waiting in line at the DMV or all the hours you spent scrolling through Instagram, no one would read it.
So think about what you want to include. You can’t have every element of your life in your autobiographical story. In fact, you’re going to find that a lot of the details you think are important and interesting don’t matter to the reader at all.
005: Edit so hard.
I’m sure you knew this would be a bit of advice I’d give. And I mean, a lot of the previous steps hint at it.
You always need to edit your writing. That’s something I harp on with my students. They seem to think that the act of writing the paper is enough for an A, and I try to remind them that there is a wide chasm between a first draft and a final draft, and only the purest of heart can make the leap.
It’s not so much a leap, really. You just have to find your footing. Like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he tosses the sand across that weird bridge thing to make the leap from the lion’s head and prove his worth.Editing is like that one scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Click To Tweet
That’s what editing is. You have all this writing, and you know your end goal with the story you want to tell. But you have to make that leap into editing to get where you need to be. And it’s scary and awful, but there’s a pathway there. You just gotta find it.
Also, I will say that one issue I tend to have with a lot of novels based on the writer’s real life experience are that they give precedence to the writer’s experience, and not to the actual story that is being told.
I’m not saying that the life experience isn’t important. It is. And it shapes the characters. But you have to whittle it down to make the story work. That’s the important part.
006: Stay true to the characters, not the experience.
So, you’ve been wondering how to tell an autobiographical story because you have this cool life experience, and you want to share it. That’s cool. But it also doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work with the characters.
You can start with a general plot line based on your experience, and then create characters to work into the story. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s no right way to start percolating your story idea. But you have to let the characters drive.
If the characters just seem like they’re in the backseat, and your personal experience is doing the driving, then you have a problem. And while I will say that plot-driven novels aren’t necessarily a bad thing, I will say that experience-driven novels tend to suck.
Remember how all the advice up to this point was like “edit your shit and don’t include everything you’ve experienced because real life is boring AF?” That’s why you need to write about these characters you’ve created, and not what happened to you that one time.
So even if you start with the experience as the basis for the plot, make sure you have the characters as active participants in that plot.
007: If you want to write a memoir, write it.
So maybe you’ve made it this far in this rambling screed of a post, and you’ve realized you don’t care about telling an autobiographical story. You just want to tell your story.
That’s totally cool. Then, you just need to write a memoir.
Now, I won’t be covering how to do that in this post, and I would like the record to state that I am saying you absolutely need to do some editing for a memoir. But it’s a little different. You do get to focus on you and your experience. But I swear to god, if you leave in every time you stood in a DMV line or lost hours scrolling through Instagram, I’m going to leave you the worst review on Goodreads.
How Do You Tell Autobiographical Stories?
How do you tell autobiographical stories? What do you do when your fiction is centered around your own experience? How do you edit personal details to fit a fictional narrative? Are you able to make the editing leap from the lion’s head? Tell me in the comments!