Autobiographical Fiction: Emotions, Not Facts


A primary reason why I write is to understand myself, my life and my environment. Facts get in the way. I already know those, superficially at least. Creative writing inspired by my experience, but not literally descriptive or duplicative of it, helps me find the principles that underlie these events. I guess I’m still an Ayn Rand disciple in that sense, believing that the wise person should always try to deduce universals from particulars in order to find a rubric for maximizing good outcomes and avoiding repetition of the bad ones.

I prefer poetry and fiction for this purpose and avoid the personal essay form. But fiction can also slide into thinly disguised autobiography, with the same danger that the author will be distracted by the task of replicating key events, rather than exploring the emotions and insights that those events triggered.

Prizewinning author Eric Wasserman explores this dilemma in his article “Embracing Emotional Autobiography Over Factual Representation in Fiction”, published last year in Writers Ask, a writing advice newsletter from the literary journal Glimmer Train. He writes:

One of the most important lessons a beginning writer
can learn is that emotional autobiography should always
take precedence over factual representation. This took me
years of trial and error to grasp when I was first hungry
to become a writer. It’s difficult to convey to a young
writer that events that are deeply personal are usually not
going to be engaging to readers. For instance, all of the
salacious details of your own sexual history may be riveting
to you, but I guarantee they will not be to 95% of the
reading world. However, if one has something fresh to say
about the universal nature of sex, that’s a different story,
and where emotional autobiography becomes crucial.


Wasserman goes on to suggest some writing exercises that can help you differentiate

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