Edan Lepucki recently raised a question on on The Millions that I personally think about a lot. He asked, “If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me?” More specifically, I wonder if the author would have anything interesting to say about me or whether she would just pass me off as the girl the heroine sits next to in Psychology 101. This question is complicated even more when writing an autobiography—how do you portray your family members, friends, and more importantly yourself? How do you address this question if you’re the author?
A similar topic was raised at an honors conference I attended two years ago, where a student talked about her experience writing her own autobiography. She divulged that her publisher forced her to add information that would link together her story—a kind of common thread that would pull throughout her whole story. Even though she didn’t necessarily experience this one recurring theme, it made for a better piece of literature.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the perennially popular Little House on the Prairie series, wrote a biography that is just now getting published, and, according to , “it contains stories omitted from her novels, tales that Wilder herself felt ‘would not be appropriate’ for children.” The article addresses her portrayal of her father, lovingly referred to as “Pa” in her novels, and how he was “romanticized and idealized” in the series. Her autobiographical books needed a constant father figure that was a contrast to the harsh experiences of life on the prairie, so his character became what she needed him to be.
I personally find it hard to write stories that aren’t at least in some part biographical; it’s difficult for me to write about things I haven’t experienced. I appreciate honest writing, and my own writing comes across stale if I write about something that I know nothing about. But sometimes when I look back on the twenty Microsoft Word documents that contain snippets of stories that were never finished, the situations seems foreign to me. I reread the bits of a story I wrote based on a date and think, “Did that really happen, or did I add that for some unknown reason?” Even looking back on my own stories seems unfamiliar and otherworldly at times.
No matter what you’re writing, it’s hard to separate the autobiographical from the story you have imagined in your head—the story where the guy wears a nice-fitting suit to the date instead of cargo shorts and a t-shirt—but that’s the beauty and purpose of writing. Writing allows us to express or vent our feelings about situations that did happen but also to reimagine them into something that gives us a little bit of control in a world that gives us none.
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