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How to Write an Autobiographical Short Story

by John M. Daniel

Many autobiographical stories concern rites of passage. Rites of passage are changes we all go through. Although we may not experience them in exactly the same way, in any society there are some experiences that are common to most of its members. These happen periodically, throughout our lives. The important thing about these shared experiences, in terms of short fiction, is not that they happen (because by their nature there's nothing unusual about them), but the psychological changes that happens because of them, which are as different as the people they happen to. They are called rites of passage, a term borrowed from anthropology, because they mark a change from one psychological "place" to the next. 

A case can be made that all fiction is autobiographical. Just as we can assume that any adult writing about childhood has experienced childhood in some form, it's a fairly sure bet that anyone writing convincingly about troubled marriage is, or has been, married; and even if the writer's marriage is or was quite happy, the writer knows from experience what hard work marriage can sometimes be. Even writers deliberately writing about things they've never done are drawing on their own experience. A story that takes the reader through a swamp full of hungry crocodiles draws on the writer's knowledge of danger, perhaps learned during his first day in a new school or her first time driving on a metropolitan freeway. 

But for the purpose of this discussion, autobiographical stories draw on real memories of real events. 

There's nobody in the world who doesn't have memories worth writing about. Flannery O'Connor said, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." The difference between writers and the rest of humanity is that writers almost automatically tend to translate their experience into art, usually in retrospect. We artists tend to process our universe, turning chaos into transcendent order. Perhaps that's what keeps us sane; perhaps it's just our way of being nuts. Either way, we must do it. 

And so we write about what we know about. We write about our first family, our parents, and we talk about the havoc reaked by the Oedipal conflict, and we talk about the the generation gap, which opens the first time we discover that our gods are human beings. We write about our siblings--our first friends, our first rivals. Friendships rewarding and sour, and love in all its inevitable forms--romantic, sexual, explosive or enduring. Courtship, marriage, decay and divorce. We write about the second family, the one with our own children, and the generation gap that reopens when we realized we've mistakenly created monsters instead of angels. We write about critical moments large and small: toilet training, summer camp, bar mitsva, first menstruation, the accident that happened the day after getting our first driver's license, discovering sex, annorexia, getting eyeglasses, sacrificing friendship for tin trophies, an abortion, being born again, finding your politics, turning to crime, going to war, passing the bar, the death of a best friend, the death of a child, the loss of a love, the fall from grace, being promoted, the painful change of attitudes, the birth of a grandchild, the death of a marriage, the rebirth of your youth, crippling illness, retirement, the final adventure that lies ahead. 

These are just a few of the moments in life that work as the beginnings of short stories. Anyone who reads this list had gone through at least a few of them, and everyone who reads this list has heard or read stories about all of them. We all have stories to tell, stories from our past, stories that others will easily relate to. 

On the other hand, just because we've all had lives does not mean that the memories of our experiences will translate to good fiction if only we write them down. It's not just a matter of having a good memory. The process of writing autobiographical fiction is more complicated, more artistic than mere oral history. Here are some techniques that do the magic of translating narration into dramatization, and some common ingredients of successful autobiographical short stories. 

The autobiographical story should subtly inform the reader when the story took place with respect to the history of the world. Since different eras have different values and expectations that play on the events and their consequences, it's important to know what atmosphere is involved. You can establish time with an actual event, a news flash, or you can establish the era more generally, in terms of customs or social trends. 

It's also important to let your reader know where you were in your life's journey. That can be a simple matter of stating an age or it can be shown by details. The more important change, as we've seen, is not a matter of age or physical development, but the milestone marked by the outcome of the story. This is the milestone that is unique to your character/yourself. By saying how old you were when the events happened, you find a link with your reader (who has been that same age, presumably, or can expect to be); by telling how your experience was your own, you're giving the reader something new. 

Keep in mind three words that begin with S: Selection, Significance, and Style. 

Your personal history will get you nowhere if you're not artfully selective about what you include. Don't try to tell everything about your life; you'll end up with a story as tiresome to read as it was to write. Instead, decide what the story is really about and use only the details that apply. 

A story, any story, should be significant, and the significance should transcend your personal experience and growth. The significant aspect of a story should challenge the reader to think and to learn something new about the human condition. 

The importance of style almost goes without saying, because if you enjoy writing, you enjoy doing it well. You treasure irony, and you love choosing the right words and placing them in the right order. You know that your story must not reek of overwriting, but you also have confidence that your reader wants to hear the sound of your voice. 

The main difference between oral history and autobiographical fiction, of course, lies in the word "fiction," with all it implies. I just said it's more than having a good memory; now I'll say good fiction requires the ability to forget what really happened from time to time. The most amateurish defense of an unsuccessful scene is "but that's the way it really happened." So what? You have permission to tell lies if doing so makes a better story. You'll still be true to the lessons learned in life. 

Caution: writing autobiographical fiction can be dangerous to your health. If you write about your family, don't show your family the story until it's already in print, and even then you can expect to hear such comments as: "That's not the way it really happened," "Uncle Dwight was not a drunk," "You might have mentioned that my second marriage was much happier," or "You weren't that easy to live with either." They'll think they're looking at snapshots from Thanksgiving, and they're probably the kind of relatives who think any picture taken of them is unflattering. 

Another reason to embrace the lie. 

Don't be gratuitousy unkind, and remember that your stories may also celebrate the joy of your experience and the heros of your past as well as the hard lessons learned. Be sure to let your family see those positive stories as well, but even then, it will be safer if you wait until they're in print. 

But write your stories anyway. Change the details if you need to keep your family happy. Change names. Turn men into women, the women into men, and set the stories in Indianapolis. Throw in a few nice things about your ex-spouse, even if they're not true. The important truth will come through, and if your friends and family can't live with that important truth, tough. 

From whom do they think you learned that truth anyway?

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