Owning What My Book Says About Me, and Denying What it Does Not

I’ve heard it said that all writing is autobiographical. Even if you’re not writing the true story of your own life, the assumption goes, you’re inflicting your life experiences on the people you make up, or writing their relationships to mirror your own. One way or another, your purportedly fictional story is really a blueprint of your own darkest desires, fears, and memories.

It’s true that many fiction writers do infuse their stories with essential elements of their lives. There’s something heartbreakingly true about Junot Diaz’s THE SHORT WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, or Celeste Ng’s EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU. It’s one reason we can’t forget them: somebody lived this, we say to ourselves. In the alternate universe that is the real world, a version of this story happened to the person who wrote it.

But, while writing fiction that really connects with people means writing with unflinching emotional honesty, a writer doesn’t need to experience the traumas her characters do in order to do that. She need only be able to imagine them with enough empathy to make them true on the page. Tana French, for example, didn’t go to a private school and have her secrets written on a bulletin board for all to see, as do the girls in THE SECRET PLACE, but she could imagine what that would feel like, and that’s why readers understand so well the shame and rage those characters experience, and how it might drive them to murder.

The misperception that all fiction must be autobiographical worries me when I think of people I don’t know reading my novel. THE LOST GIRLS is a dark story about deeply unhealthy relationships between mothers, fathers, daughters, and sisters. I worry that strangers who don’t know my family will assume it’s as fraught with jealousy, betrayal, and unrequited love as the one I created. Nothing could be further from the truth: my mother and sister are among my dearest friends, and my father is one of the best men I know. Still, because I know readers look for autobiographical elements in novels, I can’t shake the feeling that by publishing this story I’m slandering them by proxy.

On the other hand, novels definitely do reveal some things about their authors, and mine is no exception. In it, I explore themes I care deeply about, such as the enabling influence religion has on those who want to cloak their sins in righteousness, the crippling effects of guilt, and the long shadow a profound childhood loss can cast. Again, these are not things I’ve experienced myself, but they are things I believe to be true because of what I’ve witnessed in the world. They are truths I’m proud to own, because I hope they’re the sorts of truths fiction can sometimes illuminate better than fact.

Yet because, like most debut authors, I’m a babbling bundle of angst, I also worry about them. I have many relatives, good people, devout and conservative Midwesterners by birth or heritage. I’m afraid they won’t like what this book really will tell them about me. Like the fact that I’m capable of imagining monstrous crimes and writing them down. Also that I hold organized religion in disregard, and believe the way to free yourself from the past is, in some cases, to burn it to the ground. My aunts, uncles, and cousins have been such ardent champions of the book as it wends its way toward publication. What will they think of me when they read it? Will they look at me, as a friend did upon reading a galley, and ask, “What goes on in that head of yours?” — not with wonder, as she did, but with horror?

So I’m simultaneously afraid people I don’t know will assume my fiction is true, and that people I do know will figure out my truth is true. Basically, I’m kind of a mess.

Writing a novel may be one of the most private of acts, but publishing it is one of the most public. It’s what I signed up for. It’s what I wanted, and I look forward to it more and more as every day passes. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also worry myself sick about it.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. I struggled with this when my debut came out in 2013. At some point I realized something important. Okay, two things. First, you cannot control what people think about your novel in any way. You can’t sit with them and explain what you meant or what you were thinking. Second, people are intrigued when think something might, sorta kinda maybe be a little true. Which means BOOKS SELL. I’ve taken the view now that once my books are published they no longer belong to me and I let go. You know the truth and that’s all that really matters. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Amy. Your advice makes perfect sense. The idea of relinquishing control over my books once they are out in the world is boggling, but I am managing (mostly) to do it with my children as they move toward college, so maybe, if I think of it as something of the same emotional process, I can pull it off.

  2. Oh Heather, I can really empathize with your feelings, because I have often thought the same thoughts, although I am not a writer, (but wondered if I were one) I do know what you are saying has to be so true. In that regard, I guess just know what other folks want to think is only their opinion, your truth is what matters and how you write with such great emotion and sensitivity takes courage but that’s what makes great authors!

  3. Oh, how I relate to this. It’s a big relief to have someone else put it into words. My family and friends have been so proud and supportive, and I have a nagging worry that when they read the novel, they may be disappointed, surprised, betrayed …

    It would be paralyzing (and impossible!) to only produce work that everyone in your life 100% approved of. But it’s hard not to worry.

    Your last paragraph really sums it up. That tension between the private act of writing and then the very public act of publishing. And it’s beyond thrilling to have a chance to make your work public! But also nerve-racking. Especially when it comes to the people who know you personally.

  4. Sara, thank you for this! It’s so comforting to know others feel the same. This business of becoming a published author is so much more emotionally complicated than I had foreseen, and though I wouldn’t trade it for the world, it’s taking much more of a toll on my psyche than I thought it would.

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