How does autobiography work in fiction?

by Mary L. Tabor Mary L. Tabor is the author of the novel Who by Fire, the connected short story collection The Woman Who Never Cooked, which won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award and was published when she was 60. Her short stories have won numerous literary awards. Her memoir (Re)Making Love is a modern real-life love story that has been profiled in Real Simple magazine. She interviews other artists via Rare Bird Blog Talk Radio in her Goodreads Book Club and where she and other authors exchange and discuss books with the members. A born and bred liberal, she wrote an occasional column on the arts, love and creativity for The Communities at The Washington Times and now here for Facts and Arts. Her experience spans the worlds of journalism, business, education, fiction and memoir writing, landing her in both Marquis Who’s Who in America and Marquis Who’s Who of American Women and she is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She taught creative writing for more than a decade at George Washington University, was a visiting writer and professor at Universityof Missouri-Columbia in their graduate creative writing program. The Smithsonian’s Campus-on-the-Mall, where she taught for many years, has called her “One of our most prized lecturers on the subjects of “Getting Started as a Writer” and “Starting Late.” She has appeared on the XM Satellite radiobook-talk show “This Is Audible” to discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. 08.12.2015

You know the line: Truth is stranger than fiction? I have a twist on that. I’ve learned through the writing of three books and a fourth in process as I write this essay that the fictional account of my stories have greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual ones.

As memoir has increased in popularity* both in books and movies—“A True Story” being the familiar movie tag—I’ve continued to argue that fiction, written close to the bone, will likely provide the reader with a deeper look into the life and soul of the writer, but more important, the reader if the story is worth your time.

Think first of this question, one that I pose to myself for purposes of this essay: Do you think self-revelation is part of the process of writing?

My answer: Any serious writer who denies it, lies.

I agree with David Shields who argues in favor of self-revelation and to a large extent against the novel that is not self-revelatory. He does so in Reality Hunger through a series of quotes, occasionally his own—unabashedly without full attribution (but that’s another story) using only the name of the writer. Here’s John Berger, “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.” And later, the late David Foster Wallace, “I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over that wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel human and unalone.” **

A serious writer can’t help but reveal even as the lie of fiction operates.

Lee K. Abbott, a writer and teacher I know and admire, has put the issue succinctly this way: “All stories are true stories, especially the artful lies we invent to satisfy the wishful thinker in us, for they present to us, in disguise often and at great distance, the way we are or would want to be.” ***

My collection of short stories includes three memoir pieces I don’t identify and I will use them here to explain why I argue that the fiction is more powerful, more truthful, if you will, than the so-called true story.

First, I give as example a comparison of what is essentially the same story told in fiction and also in memoir.

I put aside my novel Who by Fire (reviewed by Michael Johnson, regular columnist on art on this site, here) that was close to finished when my husband said after 22 years of marriage, oh-so-Greta-Garbo, “I need to live alone.”

This event stopped me in my tracks—and eventually I blogged my life while I was living it. That blog turned into the memoir (Re)Making Love. That book like Who by Fire is a love story but oddly one that fiction would probably not find credible.

I learned through these two books that the fictional account of my story has greater emotional truth and intellectual significance than the factual one that you can find online and in the 2011 Valentine’s Day issue of Real Simple Magazine where my husband and I tell our story.

Here’s how I learned what the so-called true story didn’t reveal. I am the reader for the version of Who by Fire. While reading it aloud in an NPR recording studio, I discovered my own book as if for the first time. I realized I’d written this novel to find the man I must have known on the unconscious level I was losing. Good fiction, meaning you know while you’re reading that the writer is risking her life, can go to this place of hard truth in a way that memoir because of its hold on the so-called facts can’t do if the writer is honest—and honesty is the key word here to understand my meaning.

In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland explain our resistance to fiction—or to any art—this way: “[T]he prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of the genius (or, on occasion, madness). … [A]rt itself becomes a strange object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.

“Clearly, something’s getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. … [W]hat we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.” ****

I decided to further prove the force of fiction by revising the title character’s name to Olivia in each of The Woman Who Never Cooked’s stories. The allusion is to that character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the comedy that takes center stage in the story “Madness and Folly” about my father after he broke his hip—in real life and here in fiction.

I did this on the free site and I list the collection as non-fiction though it was originally published as fiction. *****

I could say that I am hidden inside the fiction—but in fact I am not. In the fiction, I used food and adultery as metaphor for the grief I bore through my mother’s, my father’s and my sister’s illnesses and deaths. I wasn’t sure who I was. As a prime example, I didn’t know when I wrote “The Woman Who Never Cooked,” the title story, that I would become that woman.

When I first wrote each of the stories the central character had the same name in every story because I knew that what I was doing was direct, tough purposefully artful exaggeration of autobiography. My agent at the time suggested that I change the main character’s name to hide that fact. But the book only achieved publication after I added two of the three memoir pieces that had been published in literary magazines. All the stories have been published first that way, and the importance of the small literary magazine, I talk about here on this site.

The stories in the collection that are memoir are: “Rugalach,” a tribute to my mother; “Losing,” a tribute to my father; and the eponymous closing story “The Woman Who Never Cooked.”

Let’s talk about the fiction and why I am now convinced that each of the other eight stories is more powerful, more truthful than the memoir—with the exception of “The Woman Who Never Cooked.” I say this about the last because it is written in third person like a fairy tale. The opening line is, “There once was a woman with 327 cookbooks who never cooked.” Through food, this true-to-its-core memoir tells the story of my mother’s, my father’s and my sister’s illnesses and the effect on living that their trials had on me.

On, I changed the central character in all the stories to “Olivia.” But here on FactsandArts you may read for free “The Burglar” that won two prizes and was published twice before appearing in the book of short stories. I’ll use this story to explain.

You would think me mad if I’d written this as memoir because the actual burglar is alive and well in this story—something only fiction can achieve without madness. Even Robin Hood and maid Marian appear in the story in an Internet game. But the burglar himself is essential to express the love letter to my husband that I wrote here in the aftermath of my mother’s death and a burglary that actually did occur in our home while we were away visiting both our children at college. These facts I compress into the story’s essence.

So where is the truth? Does Ruth/Olivia actually desire the burglar? Does a burglar come to her home from his on Virgilia, a street near mine where the burglary actually occurred? Does it matter that I still own the locket that is in the burglar’s pocket and that the actual burglar chose all my other jewelry to steal and left behind the locket with its crude seal?

With that fact, the story wrote itself. Locket in hand that my mother had saved with a lock of her mother’s hair sealed inside, I went on the journey of discovery and the result is heartfelt non-fiction that cannot accurately be called that.

Joyce Carol Oates has put the conundrum of literary fiction so often spurned for the “true” story because, What can one learn from a “fiction”? this way:

“So much of literature springs from a wish to assuage homesickness, a desire to commemorate places, people, childhoods, family and tribal rituals, ways of life—surely the primary inspiration of all: the wish, in some artists clearly the necessity, to capture in the quasi permanence of art that which is perishable in life. Though the great modernists—Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Lawrence, Woolf, Faulkner—were revolutionaries in technique, their subjects were intimately bound up with their own lives and their own regions; the modernist is one who is likely to use his intimate life as material for his art, shaping the ordinary into the extraordinary.” ******

What I hope to have done here and for all the stories I’ve written that are quote fiction is to lift the curtain on that much misunderstood word. I argue that to dismiss out of hand the truth that close-to-the-bone, self revelatory fiction reveals is to miss a connection that may reveal to you those quote truths that would otherwise remain unspoken. The reason? Fiction, like all the arts that reveal through artifice, frees the unsayable. Why oh why would any of us who read or go to movies or art museums or photographic exhibits wish to miss that unsayable truth because we want the quote true story.

·         * As an example, Leigh Gilmore, author of The Limits of Autobiography, notes that “…[T]he number of new English language volumes categorized as ‘autobiography or memoir’ roughly tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s. (Analysis based on data from the Worldcat database). See p. 1, footnote 1 of her book, Cornell University Press, 2001.

·         ** David Shields, Reality Hunger, “412’ John Berger, p. 139; ‘421,’ David Foster Wallace, p. 141, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

·         *** Lee K. Abbott, “Fifty Years of Puerto Del Sol,” Puerto Del Sol, Vol, 50, 2015, p. 194.

·         **** David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear, Capra Press 1997 p. 89.

·         ***** Mary L. Tabor, The Woman Who Never Cooked, Mid-list Press, 2006. Mary L. Tabor, The Woman Who Never Cooked, kindle version, Outer Banks Publishing Group, 2013.

·         ****** “Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature,” Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015.


This essay is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

Rate this literary essay

Click the stars to rate

Recent Literary Essays