The How, When and Why of Writing Autofiction

Image: a colorful pair of wings are painted on a cinderblock wall. Seeming to float midair in front of the wings as if they belong to her, a woman sits crosslegged.
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Todays post is by author Adele Annesi (@WordforWords).

As a writer and instructor of autofiction, I find the genre an inspirational way to explore pivotal life experiences. In this nexus of fact and fiction, writers can mine, select and transform their real life journeys, turning points and discoveries into story. First, let’s define the genre.

Working definition of autofiction

Short for autobiographical fiction, autofiction uses elements of autobiography and fiction to examine decisive aspects of the writer’s life. The writer then melds these realities with fictional plot elements, characters and events in a way that often reads like memoir or autobiography. With the lines of fact and fabrication blurred, readers are engaged in wondering what’s real, what isn’t, and how they can figure out which is which. So whether you write fiction, nonfiction or both, at some point you’ll probably consider this genre. Here are its features.

  • Names: Autofiction writers may have the same name as or a name similar to that of their protagonist.
  • Parallels: Autofiction includes similarities between the writer’s and protagonist’s life. For example, the protagonist may also be a writer so the story may explore the role of writing in the character’s life and may include elements of metafiction: writing about writing and storytelling.
  • Uncertainty: In a genre that blurs reality, there is an organic tension in the story over what’s real and what isn’t. This engages the reader in thinking deeply about the work and the protagonist’s (writer’s) life.

Autofiction examples:

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019): Named a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Fiction, this work by Ocean Vuong is a letter from a son to a mother that unearths a family history rooted in Vietnam and serves as a window into aspects of the son’s life his mother never knew.
  • Every Day Is for the Thief (2007): This bestselling first novel, in diaristic form, by acclaimed Nigerian-American Teju Cole depicts a young man’s journey to Nigeria to discover his roots.
  • A Death in the Family (2012): One of the Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century, this novel series by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard examines childhood, family and grief.

All about adaptation

The auto aspect of autofiction often shares more with memoir than autobiography because the story the writer chooses to tell doesn’t usually cover their entire life. Rather, the writer selects key events, turning points and discoveries that revolve around and elucidate one main theme. Other characters, settings and events can be fabricated to support what the story is about.

To begin the autofiction journey, consider the exploratory dreamstorming technique described in From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. Here is Butler’s general principle. Go to your writing space, and give yourself time to remember, to watch yourself move through your life. The journey doesn’t have to be linear or chronological. As you recall your life, list your experiences and why they might figure into your story.

Once you have an initial list, differentiate it between events and turning points. Describe what led up to these occurrences, and note their outcome. Beside each, list what you learned or discovered. To develop these moments, consider this from The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance … the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say [about the circumstance].”

Reflect on how to arrange your experiences and their depiction, as well as what you’ve learned, possibly in order of increasing clarity. You might save the most important discovery for last or use it as a prologue, promising the reader you’ll reveal how your discovery or change came about and how it impacted your life.

Last, decide how much to tell and how accurately to tell it. Writers are at liberty to decide how much of their life events they want to reveal and how precisely they want to reveal them. One way to decide is what twentieth-century English author (of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels) and essayist Dorothy Sayers described as “serving the work”, meaning whatever best accomplishes your vision for the story.

Revising and completing autofiction

What She Takes Away by Adele Annesi

All revision occurs in stages. In autofiction, perhaps more than other genres, the writer uses trial and error to decide whether to depict key story points as mini-scenes, straight narrative, dialogue, summary, or a combination thereof. It’s also important to balance how much of an insight to depict overtly and how much to present as interiority—what a character thinks/feels. And since your story’s theme can change, even in autofiction, consider writing the story first for itself, then revising it based on what you feel it’s really about.

My autofiction novel What She Takes Away (Bordighera Press, 2023) began with a real event—my family’s decision whether to move to Italy. Recalling that time, the warp and weft of family life, and the role of discovery in creativity inspired an entire novel. And if the writer is inspired, the reader will be, too.

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