Thursday, February 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, February 11, 2010 10 comments
I'm once again picking up my "why I don't write autobiographically" series. (I gave you fair warning it wouldn't be sequential!) My earlier posts in the series include:

Pitfalls of autobiographical writing, part 1: truth

Pitfalls of autobiographical writing, part 2: perspective

Without further adieu, here's part three:


Distance is one of the beautiful things about writing fiction. I can explore worlds and try all manner of crazy behaviors without leaving the comfort of my office. And while I might identify strongly with my main character, at the end of the day, she IS NOT ME.

My MC is a bit whiny at times. She makes snap judgments and is overly influenced by how things appear. She takes big risks that aren't entirely sane. I can trash-talk Dani all day long without feeling bad at all, really. Because I ultimately control who she is and who she'll become over the course of the story. And if I don't succeed in making you like her intelligence, her sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor, her deep love for her father, her courage and her desire to do the right thing, it doesn't mean I have no redeeming qualities. It means my vision hasn't made it to the page yet.

While I have a certain responsibility to Dani, I also have the freedom to distance myself from her. Her foibles are my ideas about foibles, rather than my direct foibles. When I show my manuscript to readers and they say, "Wow, she's kind of a brat here," my response can be "Yes, indeed," or "Hmm, I didn't realize she came across that way. I'd better rework that bit." What I should not think is "Ohmigosh! You think I'm a brat! Selfish! Annoying! You hate me! You wish I'd never been born!" That kind of thinking is harmful to craft. It leads to self-protective measures, like discounting or even ignoring useful critiques from those you believe have deliberately wounded you.

Distance is necessary. That is, having clearly defined boundaries between your work and your identity. It takes time to get there, even with purely fictionalized characters and scenarios.

When writing from life, it seems to me, getting that sense of separation is darned near impossible. People read about your escapades and say, "Wow, that was a pretty idiotic thing to do" and the label hits who you are: I did that. Me. And I'm a big, fat idiot. You've exposed some aspect of yourself and now it's out there to be judged for good or ill.

As I'd mentioned in part 2: perspective, distance is also essential for shaping your story. Only from a vantage point can you discern which experiences are most important. If you're too deeply enmeshed with the experiences as they happened and can't prioritize, your work will be muddy, laden with boring details, and fail to really go anywhere.

Perhaps I'm over-sensitized to the first danger, exposure, because of my growing up experiences in a home with highly stigmatized problem: mental illness. Who's to say the stigma wouldn't lose a lot of its sting with repeated exposure to the light of day? It might.

I sense that many people who write autobiographical work believe it helps them process their experiences. They can even distance themselves from their past selves to a degree that they can be uninjured by criticism and clear-eyed about how to best present the story.

Reaching that clear-eyed state is a beautiful thing, a sign of maturity and great wisdom. It's a worthy goal for any who undertake it.

How, as a writer, do you protect your identity (your deepest self)? Have you developed distance from your characters?


  1. I guess I write bits of myself into my fiction because I a) am slightly masochistic, b) don't care much what people think of me half the time, c) don't know how not to. But there's also the fact that it's the only way I know how to make my fiction real.

    Maybe I'll learn to stretch outside myself someday.

  2. I write in 1st person, so I often find it hard not to insert my opinions and beliefs into the voice of the character. I usually just step back and say, is this really how she would react to this, and if it's not authentic, just strike it... I guess that's how I set up distance, after its written in the edit.

  3. It's fiction, so there's the distance already. Of course, parts of you, your thinking, your understanding of the world, emotions, will be inserted into all sorts of characters and situations. I wrote a short story for the Highlights contest, and I felt like parts of me were in every character (except maybe the pitcher. I can't pitch a baseball to save my life!).

  4. Simon: I wonder if your second point--not caring too much what other people think--is one of those male/female differences. I think women are socialized to care far more than we ought.

    Good point though about being present in our work as a means of keeping it real. Finding a way to do that without becoming excessivly fragile is the thin line to walk, I guess.

  5. Melissa: It does get tricky in first person. For the emotion to be real, it has to come from you. It's good that you wait until revision to step back and make decisions about what is author intrusion and what's genuinely the MC's experience.

  6. Mary: My series was looking at autobiography that's thinly veiled as fiction--writing from life. It's something that's hard to do well because of some of the reasons I outline in the series.

    I think the distance issue is really my biggest hang-up in NOT wanting to write autobiographically. I like being able to parse myself out here and there in the characters I create. There's a certain amount of breathing space to be my best and worst selves without the worry that I've laid out my full identity for public scrutiny.

  7. I've found writing in thid person helps. My mc is based on me and some of my life experiences, and I like giving her some of my nuances.

    However, I let myself keep a few secrets, and give my Laurel room to be a character -- more like a reflection of me, or maybve an amped-up version of me.

    I agree this distance is so important, and I can't let the facts get in the way of the fiction -- or the way I choose to carve out my story.

    Great post!

  8. My characters have bits and pieces of me, but less so as I become a better writer. When I was a teen the distance between me and the characters was almost non-existant. Now, I have to think about it to find any bits of me :)

  9. Amber: good point, about POV choice being a help. I'm thinking of writing an autobiographical piece for the So-Long Blogfest and might try third person.

    It's good your thinking through how to separate Laurel from you, so that you can have control of the story.

  10. Jemi: interesting observation--that distance becomes more natural with maturity of craft. I've definitely seen that in my work, too.