From the Forge: Autobiographical Material in Fiction


  1. A furnace where metals are heated or wrought.
  2. A workshop where pig iron is transformed into wrought iron.
  3. To form by heating in a forge and beating or hammering into shape.
  4. To give form or shape to, especially by means of careful effort.


This morning I was reading Betsy Lerner’s book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and in chapter three, “The Wicked Child,” she says, “You must give yourself permission to tell. Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it.” Lerner is telling us that the writing should touch a nerve.

In this chapter Lerner is talking about the particular problem writers have using biographical material in their fiction, the fear of offending Mom or Granddad or Aunt Myrtle when a problematic character is based on her. It’s a valid concern. People are sometimes offended by what is written. Lerner comes down on the side of telling. She says, “In order to tell the truth (and I don’t mean what happened in ‘real life’ in any conventional sense, but the emotional truth), to raise what is only hinted at, the writer [has] to risk his place at the [dinner] table, which is often too threatening.”

In writing fiction, the writer is not as much concerned with what actually happened with members of the family as she is with the story she is telling. As Lerner says, “Everything you put on the page is a deliberate manipulation of what happened” in order to serve the purposes of the story. It is a fiction, after all. But most writers know that autobiographical material cannot always be concealed. If she bothers to read the book, Aunt Myrtle will recognize herself. In fact, people who never entered the writer’s mind will see themselves too. If the writer’s fear of offending a friend or relative is greater than her devotion to writing a great story, then she may have to find another story.

Not every story has to be told. But if you are going to tell it, tell it well and tell it true. If “Aunt Myrtle” is the one who drove her son to commit suicide, that emotional truth is essential to the power of your plot. You can’t remake her as the old sweetie who was blindsided by her little boy’s shocking end. Family dynamics are one of the richest sources of dark conflict. And remember, “no conflict, no story.”


Published by Gary Guinn

Retired English professor. Dog lover. Craft beer lover. Occasional writer.

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