In “Autofiction: What It Is and What It Isn’t,” Brooke Warner wrote: “Autofiction, which is short for autobiographical fiction, is one of those labels that ultimately doesn’t matter to the industry.” I agree, so let’s dispense with the term up front. My contention is that all fiction is, to some degree of another, autobiographical. And yes, this extends to like science fiction and fantasy, which are otherwise defined by their disconnection from the “real world” experience of pretty much anyone. I’ve written novels set in the Forgotten Realms world but I only figuratively lived there. Surely there is no autobiographical aspect to any of the fiction set there, or in Middle Earth or Westeros or Narnia… or so you might think, if you’ve not digging a bit deeper.

Where the “fiction” in “autofiction” comes in is where the author’s real life falls away and is replaced with some form of fiction: conjecture, some sort of aspect of the fantastic, an assumption of what other people were thinking, conversations the author was not actually privy to in real life, and so on. The distance between the fictional version of the author and the actual living author can be very close, as in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, or seemingly separated by a chasm of impossibility as is assumed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Of course Tolkien never claimed to be reporting on real events in a real place in LotR, but still he infused that work with an awful lot of himself: what he was thinking (at least at the time) about politics, society, race, gender, authoritarianism, nationalism, manners, and so on and so on.

We all do this, including Arundhati Roy, who told The Paris Review: “For me, everything I see I absorb, I harness it, I turn it to my purpose—which is to tell stories.”

We not only tend to but absolutely must dig into your own past, and not just for plot and research details but to find the emotional centers of characters who will never be more or less than versions of ourselves. Consider this, from “Proust’s Panmnemonicon” by Justin E.H. Smith

Another thing happened in 1996 that I still remember: my father convinced his mother, Bertie, in the aim of helping her to stave off mental decline, to write an autobiography (or, more likely, to dictate an autobiography; the polish of the spelling and grammar are clearly my father’s). It’s not very long, sixty pages or so, but it’s filled with passages that move me to my core, and that I wish I could cite at length. I’ll content myself with just one.

In the summer of 1936, in rural Arkansas not far from the town of Monticello, the Cruce family had guests:

They had this little boy that had been spoiled by his mother. He was such a cry-baby and tattled on the other kids all the time. While the grown-ups were eating, we took him out in the garden and talked him into eating a red hot pepper. He went blubbering back into the house and his mother gave him a chicken leg. He came back outside grinning, and the rest of us kids were mad at him because we were all so hungry.

Seen from the perspective of the long history of literature, this document amounts to a sort of demotic Proust. My grandma had no real knack for it, she was only doing it to pass the time. Yet the very idea that you could retrieve such a singular event as this one from sixty years prior, and in some sense you could eternalise that blubbering boy’s small triumph in textual form, and that it is good and worthy to do this, is something my dad only thought to encourage because the template for such undertakings already existed.

The brilliant Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, also in The Paris Review, drilled it down to:

I haven’t seen many great things. I haven’t been to a new world. I haven’t had many strange experiences. I have experienced many little things. I write about those small experiences and revise them and reexperience them through revision.

It was in this way that Tolkien reexperienced his simultaneously conservative and complex worldview into The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert did the same in Dune, and Harlan Ellison dissected the feeling of being a short Jewish kid surrounded by early 20th century middle American anti-Semites over and over again for decades worth of brilliant genre fiction.

Sometimes, this is easy. If you have a strong opinion about Donald Trump you make him the villain (hopefully) or hero (yikes) of a fantasy story and work some shit out. But the easy route rarely gets you to the village of Good. Usually, and I think this is particularly true for Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard in particular, this sort of exploration into your own past in search of not necessarily an event but a feeling, requires exposing one raw nerve after another.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott wrote:

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Stephen King, in conversation with George R.R. Martin, put it a bit more simply: “You just have these sick ideas… and instead of going to a shrink and paying the shrink we write them and you pay us. It’s a pretty good deal.”

Just not an easy one.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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