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.
- 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
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.
- From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler: A must for writers seeking to escape mundane writing
- Elements of Fiction by Walter Mosley: How to master fiction’s most essential elements
- The Elements of Story by Francis Flaherty: A primer on key nonfiction techniques that also work for fiction
- Word for Words blog for writers
Adele Annesi’s current novel is What She Takes Away (Bordighera Press), and she is co-author of Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA. A founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference and a former development editor for Scholastic, Adele has published with 34th Parallel, Authors Publish Magazine, Dawntreader, Fresh Ink, Fringe Blog, Hotmetalpress, Midway Journal, Miranda Literary Magazine, Orca, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Washington Independent Review of Books and Southern Literary Review, where she was managing editor. Her work has been anthologized for Chatter House Press and Fairfield University, where she received an MFA in creative writing. Her essay on Italian citizenship is among the Clarion Award-winning Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers, and she received the Editor’s Choice award from the National Library of Poetry. Adele’s sudden fiction has been adapted for the stage, and she has served as poetry and short story judge for the Danbury Cultural Commission. Adele is an instructor, editor and coach for Westport Writers’ Workshop. She is a member of AWP, Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association, Historical Novel Society, and Italian American Writers Association. She is also a screener for the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival and a columnist for The Authority and Book Marketing Matters. Adele’s long-running blog for writers is Word for Words; her website is AdeleAnnesi.