Description: This panel will examine the ways that writers formed by memoir and the personal essay utilize their life story as a catalyst for fiction. How do writers use the emotional capacities of the self as a model for a fictional character? How do they embellish, complicate, and make revelatory the known self, the self whose paradox is the tension of their being? Such characterization suggests a delicate negotiation between vanity and abjection, aggrandizement and repression. Why not stay with memoir?
Panelists: Marilyn Abildskov, Alice Elliott Dark, Bonnie Friedman, Patricia Foster
Moderator Patricia Foster, who teaches nonfiction at the University of Iowa, described the essay’s ascendancy in the last century and how autobiographical fiction came to the forefront in recent years with authors such as Knausgaard, Ferrante, and Cusk. But it wasn’t slavish adherence to trends that compelled the nonfiction writers on this AWP panel to move from nonfiction to fiction. Each felt an inner necessity born of circumstances. Following are some takeaways about their craft discoveries.
When Bonnie Friedman needed to write a novel after a career of nonfiction, she faced some obstacles. “For one thing I tended to want to draw intellectual conclusions,” she said. “The personal essay had taught me to think on the page.” The fictional terrain proved different. “I had to learn to put the emphasis on the scenes between characters and to let their significance speak for itself.”
Creating round characters was key, she said. “I needed greater distance on my characters to allow them to be drawn decisively and to shed some of the confusion and sheer profusion of life so they could become cogent characters on the page.” As she worked, “The characters became real characters, not memories of real people. they acquired the slightly emblematic or slightly distant, more-recognizable characters that fictional characters, fictional round characters, have.”
Marilyn Abildskov began her career writing fiction, continued with the personal essay, and then returned to fiction when her material demanded she enter through fiction. She noted that although fiction is prized above essays in some literary circles, the most important aspect of either form is the quality of the writing. “Absence of substance or style is what makes a failure in either genre.” She added that: “We who live in the house of dreams believe there are rooms devoted to memory and rooms devoted to fiction, and the walls are fixed, but truly the walls are porous.”
Alice Elliot Dark turned to fiction in part because she was forbidden to write about her mother. But once inside fiction, she found the advantages were many. “Fiction, by nature, doesn’t happen. It’s like life but it’s not life. Fiction strips away what doesn’t belong. Reality is inconvenient when it comes to shaping an aesthetic unity.”
Her use of life in fiction has evolved to the point that she will base a story on feelings instead of particular circumstances. Such feelings can infuse a daily pattern of light, as in “The Gloaming,” her best-known story.
Patricia Foster noted that “So much of writing surrounds issues of loyalty and betrayal. I’ve thought about that a lot.” In her experience, “An autobiographical novel is often not the literal representation of the self, it’s not the events, the secrets, the daily rhythms …. it’s about psychic structure.” In the case of Girl From Soldier Creek, she represented her own psychology within two sisters, not just one. “The development of characters depends more than anything else on our emotional DNA.”
Some recommended reading:
“Ruthless Intimacies” by Vivian Gornick
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Laura Moretz is a fiction writer with work published in r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, and Stoneboat. Two of her stories have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She is an assistant editor at Boulevard and the interviews editor for The Review Review.