By Sarah Earle
In the MFA program I attended, I remember people’s shock when a student in the nonfiction track took a fiction class. This alone was unremarkable, but this student made it known that the prime reason for taking the fiction class was to have a vehicle for interrogating a real-life relationship they were having. In the short stories that came forth, this person did not hide that the characters were real, the details real, and the locations, situations, dialogue even, were real. This bothered many of us. The general consensus was that it was gouache, artless even, to just change a name, write your life in all its truthful detail and call it fiction. Not unlike the students in the 1980’s that grilled Elizabeth McCracken at the Iowa Writers Workshop when she turned in a “nonfiction short story,” we wanted to know: “Is it fiction or is it nonfiction? It matters.”
But does it? It was only later, reading first the memoir The Possessed and then the novel The Idiot by Elif Batuman, that I realized that student had been onto something. Batuman mines her memoir for the story arc, characters –jokes even–of her novel to dazzling effect. There they are, published side by side, like guidebooks for each other. Batuman writes, “I think that there’s a tendency, especially in the US, to overvalue the extent to which writing a novel is an act of creative imagination—that inspiration comes to you from the sky.” Perhaps autofiction, a term in popular use since the 1970’s, has been coined so that writers can come clean about the inspiration at the heart of literature since the dawn of time: the author’s own life.
There are other interpretations. Autofiction can also seem to exist solely as a rejection of memoir. Chris Kraus, in her cult-classic novel, I Love Dick, wonders why female emotional vulnerability is more accepted when it’s “neuroticized and personal…Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” In this vein, the fictive elements of autofiction work to take the focus off the author-self, to propel the reader beyond the specificity of a single story and into universal territory. A variant still, Ocean Vuong, a poet who wrote the debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous writes, “For me, as a poet, I was always beginning with truth, so I think my impulse was the impulse of the poets before me, from Dante to Homer to Dickinson. They wrote myths out of reality.”
Whether you’re making myths from truth, or truth from myths, it’s the slippery to and fro nature of autofiction that makes it exciting. Elizabeth McCracken’s workshop teacher disagreed with her classmates all those years ago. A fiction writer whose first book was a successful memoir, the teacher said, “If I know one thing, it’s that it doesn’t make any difference. Call it what you want.”
If you want to learn more, join Sarah’s Exploring Autofiction online workshop, this Saturday, June 10th 9:30-12:30 pm.