Life Writing and Fiction
I often feel that writing that claims to be about the author, the telling of a life story, can be very self-involved, and “fake”, begging the reader for sympathy, making this the last thing the reader feels inclined to do. I find that reading fiction often feels much more real, much more convincing, simply because, the author is not directly asking for my sympathy. As for my own writing, I have yet to find a way in which I can write about myself, without it sounding pretentious or self-involved. I enjoy life writing greatly, although I tend to write about my relatives, and only through them, explore myself. To write a piece that is directly about myself, and my opinions, thoughts, and experiences, seems like an impossible thing to do with success. The only biographies that I find convincing and readable are ones that deal with events such as war, for example, Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Marie ‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov, and Vera Britton. The detached tone that is often adopted in these war diaries, especially those of Primo Levi, begs for the reader’s sympathy and understanding, without being too obvious about it. It is these kinds of autobiographies that I find hold the most truth, and that, if I ever were to write one, is what I would be seeking to do.
You ask where I would draw the line between autobiography and fiction, and this too, is a complicated question, that I believe only the author can answer. If a book is claimed to be autobiography, than the reader will trust what it says, and yet, as I have already said, truth can never be truly attained, even in autobiography. To strip away all the masks, deceptions, and little white lies that everyone tells throughout their lives is impossible, especially if something is being written to be published. “Fiction”, “autobiography” are simply labels, and there aspects of both in the other.
Nevertheless, there are differences, differences that cannot be ignored, between fiction and autobiography. The world, characters and situations of fiction come, originally, from the author’s imagination. Their personal experiences may become a very large part of what they write, but at the start, the root of the writing comes from the author’s mind. Fiction is developed from the dreams, thoughts, imagination of the author, whereas autobiography, always has to have a certain amount of fact in it.
This paradox is something I came across in my own life writing, and at first struggled with. For my two major pieces of life writing, “A perfect marriage”, and “Bert Wyer” (which is included in this portfolio), were both based on the history of some of my older relatives. Therefore, in order to write these, I had to do a significant amount of research into their lives, in order to write an accurate account. However, to write everything, exactly as it happened, as people remembered it, is an impossible task, and so I found myself editing sections, and using only the sections that served my purpose. There were times, also, when the order of events, or the perspective from which I had been told them, did not suit the piece, and so I would twist the facts, once again, to create a more coherent, dramatic piece of writing. Therefore, although my life writing is exactly that, writing about somebody’s life and the effect that has on me, it is also fiction in the sense that it cannot be said to be based on one hundred percent fact. In investigating the bounds between fiction and life writing, I wrote “Princess Margaret”, which is also included in this portfolio. Here, I was writing about a real person, and about a real event in her life, whilst actually knowing very little about it. I would defiantly classify this piece as fiction, or is it fictional life writing? The line between these two is often very blurred, and the only way to make it clearer, in my mind at least, is to accept that no life writing can ever be wholly based on truth.