For the Curious Reader

Readers often believe that writers draw directly from their own lives . . . that we don’t make anything up. Some critics have alleged that even what seems like and obviously imaginary story still comes from the writer’s unconscious and therefore is, whether the writer owns up to it or not, autobiography.

The truth is (and we should be wary of anyone presuming to know, but still . . . ) that a few people are lucky enough to have memories that automatically turn into short stories or novels or plays. That all the writer has to do is write them down – or type them up. But Memory is a tricky muse. Many families, when discussing an incident from their shared past, have discovered that every person recalls it differently or has a different interpretation. Even a so-called memoir is, to be fair, just the author’s point of view. That’s one reason why I admire The Liar’s Club in which the author admits that her sister would have a different view of the same experience. But the writer in the family gets to give her side.

So what is autobiographical fiction, a curious reader may ask?

After putting together a collection of short stories, and discovering that they run the gamut from stories with similar characters, to stories that were stimulated by an idea in a newspaper article, to stories whose source is a total mystery to me, I found one answer in the quilts my mother collected.

Think of a quilt made up of scraps saved from the quilter’s life. A flannel shirt worn the first day of kindergarten; a piece of lace from a communion dress; a grandparent’s favorite scarf. Each scrap calls up an emotion that accompanies the memory. The quilter chooses those scraps that connect emotional relevance to design possibilities. Eventually, the quilter/designer stitches a particular group of scraps together with the thread of imagination in order to create an artistic patter. (Those scraps didn’t simply fall into a heap when accidentally dropped on the floor.)

The writer also may choose among her life experiences (fabrics) those that seem to connect emotional relevance to story possibilities. Rarely, however, are these personal experiences sufficient. Therefore, she includes (from memory and journals) her observations of other people and even the stories they tell about their own lives. Finally, “what if” questions are tossed into the story (like a game made up of random words written on cubes or magnetic pieces) to see what turns up. What if the character is older, writes greeting cards, never owned a bicycle? Real life events may have been separated widely in time and space but the writer may decide to place them all in one location, at a specific time, if she discovers that the meaning of her design demands it.

The point is, none of these creations – quilts or stories – exist until a “designer” arranges the components in a form that pleases her. It is the hope for and joy of discovery that drives the creator to keep seeking connections . . . and creating new designs (meanings). The writer also hopes that her readers will find those hard-won discoveries equally meaningful.

 

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