Essays & Opinion Professor Wu's Rulebook

Writing as autobiography – is there no difference between fiction and non fiction?

Dickens’ Dream, by Robert William Buss.

The line between fact and fiction has always been fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. It is a common line to argue that the work of the novelist is engaged with the creative imagination, while the memoirist is engaged with some accountable “truth” or “reality”, and is trying to tell us – the reader – what really, actually happened.

It is a distinction that is easy to voice but perhaps harder to sustain in logic, for there is a good argument to be made that any account of a person’s real, lived experiences can never be “true” in the sense that any such account would be verifiable if it were recorded on CCTV cameras. Equally, fiction – and ultimately all art – comes from within the writer or artist’s own mind and own heart, and their choice of words and the way they use language is designed by their own personal experiences of the world. The writer of a fantasy novel exposes their true selves to the same extent that a memoirist does.

Consider the words of J.M. Coetzee – recipient of the Novel Prize for Literature – here:

“In a larger sense, all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.”

Or else, of Jorge Luis Borges:

“I wrote a story once about a man who began a very large picture, and therein was a kind of map – for example, hills, horses, streams, fishes, and woods and towers and men and all sorts of things. When the day of his death came, he found he had been making a picture of himself. That is the case with most writers.”

The idea that writing is about self-exploration and self-discovery is not new. Harper Lee said, for instance, that writing “is a self-exploratory operation that is endless”. Emerson said there was neither fiction nor history: “only biography”. Samuel Butler wrote that “Every man’s work – whether it be literature or music or architecture or anything else – is always a portrait of himself.”

Something that may therefore be inferred from this idea then is that all stories – whether they concern goblins or spaceships or Russian princesses or Greek warriors or a middle aged man from Croydon (or all the above) – are, indeed, true. On some level, there exists within every work of fiction an element of reality – an ultimate truth perceived perhaps only in glimpses; that truth being the human being, their feelings and thoughts, behind the words on the page, behind the typewriter (minimalist or otherwise).

Writing in the Guardian, the writer Belinda McKeon clarified this position: “Writing cannot be anything but autobiographical. To try for distance, for the narrative which is somehow purely imagined, would be the most nakedly autobiographical effort of all. […] Writing, all writing, comes from the well of the self. From the way the mind works; from the places to which the mind goes.”

If fiction, then, is autobiographical, what does this mean for those works that actually attempt to be autobiography? What does this mean for memoir?

There are plenty of examples of fiction – and of imagined or perceived truths instead of actual happening truths – in memoirs and autobiographies. Some of these are blatant. Consider, for instance, the “choose your own autobiography” memoir of actor Neil Patrick Harris, who, having not actually lived “a miserable childhood that later in life you can claim to heroically overcome”, simply invents one.

Then there are those autobiographies in which the fictions are hidden more deeply. Lance Armstrong’s memoirs, for instance, in which he supposedly overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France repeatedly without the aid of performance enhancing drugs, are now revealed to be largely self-congratulatory fabrication.

The outrage surrounding Armstrong’s supposed “memoirs” reached a nadir when people who had bought his book demanded refunds from the publisher. In a similar reaction to how readers responded to the revelation that James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, actually hadn’t done very much of anything he claimed to have done in his “autobiography”.

But perhaps the “untruths” or what we might call fictitious elements that are contained within memoirs and autobiographies may be expected. As David Shields suggests in Reality Hunger, “A lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. “Fiction/nonfiction” is an utterly useless distinction”.

This is a position suggested by memoirists themselves. For instance, Mary Gaitskill said, “My books tend not to have the narrative and story you associate with fiction, but at the same time they are arranged and structured, to put it pompously, as works of art rather than accumulations of information. To that extent, I like to think they’re more novel than many novels.”

Perhaps a reason for this is the inherent, slippery nature of language, and the act of writing. Jonathan Raban, for instance, posits that “the moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature. The words themselves begin to suggest patterns and connections that seemed at the time to be absent from the events the words describe. Then the story takes hold. It begins to determine what goes in and what’s left out. It has its own logic and it carries the writer along with it. […] that is fiction making.”

This idea suggests that the moment you begin to write a narrative account of anything, be it a real ‘lived’ event or something from your imagination, you immediately stray from the real actual happening truth. It is an idea also proposed by Sebald, quoted in The Emergence of Memory: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretence that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth, which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylisation. What I’m striving for is authenticity; none of it is real.”

There may seem to be a paradox here: that to create something that is “real”, one must fabricate and imagine. One must invent; one must write fictions; one must lie. Yet it is the inverse of the paradox encountered in writing and reading supposed fiction: that what may set out to be an entirely imagined story contains within it more reality and truth than supposed fact-based narratives.

Ultimately, perhaps, the gap between fiction and autobiography is entirely artificial. Perhaps it always has been. This may, at its heart, point to some ultimate, universal truth. As David Shields writes: “to be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary.” Writing and literature, then, are the craft upon which we travel this journey. Writers, in that context, may then be seen as the pilots.



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