One of the most vital questions in fiction, and in any art for that matter, asks simply enough: How does the created object of art relate to actual lived experience? This inquiry can be spun in countless directions. Should art mimic reality, or should it represent some “higher reality”? Should an artist seek to represent her own experiences, or should she seek to move beyond them through artistic creation? Why do people spend time creating art (and here what I really mean by “creating art” is writing fiction) when pressing problems in the “real world,” like environmental destruction and genocide or simply earning a decent income, go unsolved?
These are all worthwhile aesthetic questions, but what I want to focus on in this aligns most closely with the second spin-off question, which broadly put is a question about the autobiographical side of fiction writing: why does so much fiction draw so directly on the lived experience of its author? And is it advisable for an author to write only about experiences that are very near to her own? In other words, should writers just write what they know?
In the span of a few months, I heard three lectures by three fairly distinguished fiction writers (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fr. Uwen Akpan, and Junot Díaz) who each offered differing answers to the question of autobiographical fiction. In what follows, I will compare their answers and offer my own assessment of the influence of autobiography on the artistic process. Ultimately, I will conclude that “writing what you know” makes sense for writing Realist fiction, especially for novices, but that the guideline actually ends up being pretty limiting when taken as an artistic mantra.
Autobiographical Fiction: A Definition
To start, what do I mean by autobiographical fiction? Allow me to define through a list of examples that first spurred my thinking about the above question: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. All three are regarded as great works of literature, and all three portray protagonists who are, to various degrees, fictional versions of their authors. Mr. Henry of A Farewell to Arms is an American who drives an ambulance in Italy during the First World War and has a penchant for drinking vermouth, just like Hemingway himself. Heart of Darkness depicts a voyage up the Congo River during the colonial period, a voyage eerily similar to one in which Conrad took part. The Young Man of Portrait, Stephen Dedalus, attends Jesuit boarding schools, lurks around brothels, and longs to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, just as Joyce did. These novels are all artistic representation of their creators’ lives, and very, very near ones at that.
Now, if you simply take an account of your life (or someone else’s, but usually yours) and switch out the names of the characters and a place or two, you create what is known as a roman à clef, French for a “novel with a key.” The original impetus behind novels like these was the ability to discuss political and social controversy through the protective veil of fiction, which could be converted back to real situations through a “key.” That is, if readers knew Mr. Z was King Louis in real life, they could understand the novel for the political commentary that it was. But this isn’t really my concern. What I’m wondering is, why do so many great works of fiction—and just about every new novel I come across—borrow so directly from the life of its author?
The most straightforward answer is that writing about your own life just comes more easily than inventing characters and circumstances with which you as a writer are unfamiliar. In the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” the contemporary American novelist Jonathan Franzen claims that “In thirty years, I don’t think I’ve published more than twenty or thirty pages of scenes drawn directly from real-life events that I participated in.”1 He also claims that “most novels” are not autobiographical in the sense of basing themselves around a character who “closely resembles the author and experiences many of the same scenes that the author experienced in real life” (128). Yet, he also relays how he turned to autobiography when he hit a dry spell while writing a manuscript that would become The Corrections, one of his most critically acclaimed novels to date. After several false starts with an invented protagonist, Franzen began writing about “two older characters, Enid and Alfred Lambert, who’d appeared out of nowhere and were not unlike my parents,” and compared to the pages he’d drafted for the initial protagonist, “The chapters about them poured out of me quickly” (134). This actually makes quite a bit of sense, since the Enid and Alfred characters didn’t materialize from “out of nowhere.” Rather, they came right out of Franzen’s own memories—like Franzen’s own father, Alfred works for a railroad and lives in a small Midwestern town. Elsewhere in the essay, Franzen mentions the truism that ‘we all have one good novel in us,’ namely, the story of our own lives—our autobiography.
But does this mean that autobiographical fiction is just lazy fiction, a sort of crutch we turn to when we have nothing else to say? I do think it depends. My next contention, though, is that many writers, both novices and award-winners, write autobiographical fiction not because it’s necessarily easier, but because they feel that other material more foreign to their own direct experience is simply verboten, ill-advised, OFF LIMITS.
Adichie and Dìaz on “Writing What You Know”
Back in March I attended a lecture by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is probably just as well known for her nonfiction as her fiction: her slim treatise We Should All Be Feminists (and accompanying TEDx talk) probably won her even more notoriety than did her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun which tracks the lives of various characters during the Nigerian civil war. Adichie covered a lot of ground in her talk, from her experience growing up in Nigeria to her fondness for natural hair styling, but what she didn’t talk about a whole lot, oddly enough, was the substance of her fiction. She said plenty about the fiction writing process, about how necessary it was for her, but she didn’t say a whole lot about her novels.
Surprise: her novels are pretty autobiographical. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus is narrated by a Nigerian girl named Kambili whose tribal family comes from Abba, the same village where Adichie has her roots, and who visits the university town of Nsakka, where Adichie grew up (Adichie’s father, however, was never as openly abusive (or rich) as the doctrinaire disciplinarian who raises Kambili). Half of a Yellow Sun is not so much autobiographical as biographical, but her third novel Americanah follows a Nigerian woman who travels to America to attend university, which Adichie herself did.
However, when Adichie was asked about whether she would consider branching out to write novels not set in Nigeria, she expressed hesitations about creating characters who would not resemble the Nigerian neighbors and relatives of her youth because one must, after all, write what one knows.
Two months later, I found myself listening to the Dominican-American author Junot Dìaz pass on similar advice. He spoke about the importance of representing the community he came from, which features just as prominently in his fiction as southern Nigeria does in Adichie’s novels. His journey toward becoming a writer centered on his life in a poor Dominican neighborhood in New Jersey which both hindered and fueled his artistic dreams:
“For me, it became a matter of life and death if I could find a way to present the complexity of my community, as an artist, as a writer, if only because, by highlighting that complexity, I could start to make some sort of sense.”
Since Dìaz presented the artist’s role as essentially community oriented, it makes perfect sense from his perspective that art should grow out of an autobiographic influence. Hence, just about every story Dìaz has written centers on Dominican or Dominican-American characters, often young men or boys chasing after women. He was asked about and directly acknowledged the close resemblance between him and his character Yunior, who narrates the novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and recurs in many of his short stories. But as with any fictional construction, Yunior is still disconnected from reality. Dìaz described his nearly autobiographical protagonist as an “imposter,” like someone who “lives in your room and uses all your shit” but who is not quite you.
I rather like this model of autobiographical fiction as involving “imposters,” characters who take on aspects of real people, but who exist as part of some separate scheme. What this scheme is meant to do, what its goals are, can vary. For Adichie and Dìaz, the scheme functions to bear witness to communities, or more specifically in Dìaz’s case, to confront communities with the darkest, most complex parts of themselves. But I don’t think this is the only scheme in town, and I don’t know that it is the best one for encountering the most complex parts of oneself.
Fr. Uwen Akpan on the Other Side of Autobiographical Fiction
In between hearing these two heralded authors, both the recipients of MacArthur Fellowships (Adichie in 2008 and Dìaz in 2012), I heard a lecture from a Catholic priest and lesser known author, Fr. Uwen Akpan, who also happens to be from Nigeria. His collection of short stories Say You’re One of Them was chosen for the Oprah bookclub reading list and won the PEN Open Book Award, the same award which Adichie notched with Half of a Yellow Sun two years earlier.
Fr. Akpan read at a podium, huddled over a pile of unbound printer paper, a manuscript of a story in progress. The plot involved a Nigerian man’s journey to New York City and subsequent bout with bedbugs. The story, Fr. Akpan revealed at the end, was autobiographical—he had himself suffered from bedbugs in a dingy New York tenement. But what Fr. Akpan had to say afterward about the reception of his decidedly un-autobiographical short story collection really stuck with me.
Say You’re One of Them takes five stories from five different African countries, many of which are beyond Fr. Akpan’s purview. He writes from the perspective of an AIDS orphan, for example, an experience entirely foreign to him. Though he has been criticized for attempting to embody experiences beyond his own, he made what I found to be a very convincing defense of his fictional reaching. Don Cheadle, he noted, didn’t get any flack for playing the role of a Rwandan genocide survivor despite the absolute foreignness of that experience for him, so why should artists of other sorts be chastised for exploring experience not their own, provided they can do so convincingly? If you can only write about your own experience, he seemed to say, your art becomes bogged down in yourself and fails to identify and direct attention toward other moments of suffering and importance.
Now, there are clearly difference between acting and fiction writing, and there are clearly forms of writing-beyond-one’s-experiences that could be misconstrued as cultural appropriation. But I do feel more inclined toward Fr. Akpan’s position on the question of autobiographical fiction. I do feel that limiting one’s writing to what one has experiences can easily become insular and unchallenging. Needless to say, both Adichie and Dìaz explore quite a range of terrain within the constraints of writing what they know. But since writing fiction, of all things, is defined by its inventiveness and creative capacity, writers should unmoor themselves from the familiarity of their own experiences and take risks in imagining characters and experiences far different from their own. Isn’t that what we look for as readers of fiction, after all?
A Concluding Note on Realism
While listening to an interview with David Foster Wallace on To The Best of Our Knowledge, I considered that part of the limitation with autobiographical fiction might have to do with the constraints of Realist fiction as a style. All three writers I heard talk, as well as Jonathan Franzen, write what might broadly be described as Realist fiction, fiction which is realistic, which often features real places and attempts to mirror lived experience. Here’s Wallace on the matter:
“I don’t know many writers who don’t think of themselves as realists, in terms of trying to convey the way stuff tastes and feels to you. A lot of stuff that’s like capital R Realism just seems to me somewhat hokey because obviously Realism is an illusion of realism and the idea that small, banal details are somehow more real or authentic than large or strange details always seemed to me just a little bit crude.”
Now, if you’re trying to write fiction that captures the “small, banal details” of lived experience, it would be quite advantageous to have actually lived the experiences you’re writing about. One can’t simply write convincing Realist fiction about Ukrainian mining villages unless one has lived there (or done very thorough research). But Wallace challenges the supremacy of such a writing style (the kind you’d find in just about every Best Selling novel), arguing that even the most realistic fiction remains an illusion of reality. Just as autobiographical fiction isn’t the only game in town, neither is Realist fiction.
Wallace himself, though, did start with seemingly autobiographical fiction in his novel The Broom of the System which is set partly on the campus of his alma mater Amherst College and which he called “a coded autobio” in his 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery. Infinite Jest borrows from his childhood obsession with tennis and his time in Boston-area halfway house, but there’s plenty of departure from his own life as well (and certainly from the Realist style). By the time we get to his unfinished novel The Pale King, Wallace is writing about tax examiners in Peoria, a town he’d never lived in (although he claims fictitiously in the “Author’s Forward” that the novel is a memoir from his time working for the IRS). This is all to say that, although much fiction is autobiographical, it need not be.
In Franzen’s essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” the largely Realist writer mentions Kafka—a writer far from the Realist camp—as a writer who is, in his own way, deeply autobiographical.
“Kafka’s work, which grows out of the nighttime dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experience at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. […] And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There’s an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.” (129)
Essentially, Franzen is reimagining autobiographical fiction as writing that delves deepest into one’s own struggles and desires rather than reproducing the experiences one has had firsthand. Thus, pure autobiographical fiction in the case of Kafka wouldn’t detail the life of an insurance salesman like Kafka—those are just “the random particulars.” Instead, Kafka’s fiction is at its most autobiographical when it uncovers the crushing guilt and inadequacy he held inside himself (and this correspondence between an author’s work and his innermost self is far harder for an audience to discern). Confronting us with ourselves is just what fiction should do, as Kafka wrote in a letter to Oskar Pollak, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”2
By Franzen’s model, then, most works of fiction that we think of as autobiographical (because they’re set in their authors’ hometowns, or because the protagonists are also fiction writers) are only superficially autobiographical. Pure autobiographical fiction, by one author’s reckoning, happens when authors hack away at the crust of ordinary experience to encounter the feelings below the surface.
For my own part, the fiction that I have written which has been best received is that which least resembles my day to day experience. Maybe this is just because my own life makes for rather uninteresting fiction. Those more successful stories of mine did, however, grapple with the same philosophical and personal problems that I found myself contemplating.
Perhaps, then, the formulation “write what you know” requires some revisiting. When it comes to Realist fiction, writing from your experiences helps conjure up a believable reality of “small, banal details.” But writing only from your experiences might prohibit you from showing what you really know, that is, what you are harboring in that “frozen sea” within you. To get at that, you might be advised not to “write what you know,” but to write, to dream, and to forge away, in order to know.
This is fiction as self-discovery rather than self-presentation. Fiction which confronts the self, rather than being about the self.
1Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012), 128.