Is It Autobiographical? If not, why not?
All works of fiction are autobiographical, whether one intends them to be or not. I tend to mask the autobiographical elements in my work, thinking it’s better not to get too personal in my writing. This is how I keep going. If the goal is to produce not a single work but a life’s work, which is doubtless the only standard by which a writer can be judged, then I can happily pat myself on the back for at least being productive. Twelve novels and novellas ain’t bad, I can tell myself. So far, so good. And yet, my dream is still to produce that one master work of fiction, that novel or series of novels that lives forever.
Like most writers, I’ve set the bar high. In the middle of each night as I lie in bed silently awake while my precious and lovely wife sleeps, I dream and re-dream (if that’s a word) of new stories, new plots, new characters that I can somehow bring to life, or if they can, equally somehow, bring me to life. Typically, I have about a half dozen narratives that I touch and revisit in the pre-dawn hours, hoping one will take hold, steal the energy it needs from my waking life and splatter the necessary words on the page to create itself.
Every writer comes to stand on that island split off from conscious life that defines him or her as an artist. The standing is not easy. You may wobble in the sand, spin off into zones of discontent, never quite see the first light of morning. There are countless pressures in every direction, pressures to make a living, put food on the table, care for loved ones, and the like. The artist wants no part of that. The artist must rule. The artist express itself in work that is truly its own, not formula, not mechanical, not belonging to anybody else. In my early writing days, I was hopelessly driven by formula: I copied the works of others mercilessly. Probably, I still do, to a certain extent, trying to absorb many rivers and streams of influence from all my years of reading works in many languages. Yet the artist, again, wants no part of that. It wants work that is original, that hasn’t been done before, nothing less.
And it won’t look back, it won’t allow you as a writer to look back and repeat what you’ve written with previous strokes of the pen. Editors and publishers most dislike writers who refuse to rinse and repeat their work. They’ll shout at you that you’ve abandoned your readers who expect the same story, more or less, with each new work of fiction that you produce. Writers are forever in a bind. Keep my readers happy, as well as my publisher, or else. There is no easy answer. Probably Latin American and European and Asian writers have it easier because their readers are conditioned to read you as an author and follow you as an artist rather than a worker on the assembly line in a factory of repetitious words and phrases who steadily grinds out the same product year after year.
Those readers come to each work as something of a revelation, something unexpected, a surprise in plot and character and emotion they haven’t experienced before. This attitude helps sustain you and your work over time, even when there are fallow periods and you can’t commit a single word to page.
I remember reading somewhere that after Joyce finished Ulysses over a period of seven years, living in exile on the continent, always seemingly on the edge of poverty and half-blind in one eye, with many difficult family obligations, having scratched and scrawled a million revisions in the margins of his masterpiece which he handed to Sylvia Beach in Paris and her printer, he confessed that he could not write a single word for the entire next year, a man drained of language, a man who had in fact created more language than any of us might create in a lifetime.
The parts of one’s work that are autobiographical are best left to future readers to decipher and come to terms with. Are they relevant? Of course. Do they matter? I’m not so sure.