How To Write An Autobiographical Novel
A step-by-step guide to creating fiction from your own experiences.
You are like someone left in the woods with only an axe and a clear memory of houses deciding to build a house.
You will furnish everything with that axe.
Also the woods is your life.
You are the axe.
The vision of it sits like a gift from any god you might be willing to believe in.
A novel, or is it, you aren’t sure yet. But it is as suddenly real as an unexpected visitor. Someone you both know and do not know.
You watch each other, carefully, perhaps for years.
What do you want with me, you want to ask, but you know, and it knows too.
I will tell only the truth, you decide. It’s right there, perfect, after all.
You must write it. It would be so easy.
And yet when you sit down to try, the perfection is gone.
The beautiful symmetry, the easy way of it, all of it is replaced by awkwardness, something worse than if your mind made only noise.
When you stop, dejected, you see it again, perfect again. As if mocking you.
Soon you learn you only see it when you do not try.
This may be its way of stopping you, but regardless, you do stop trying.
And then start. And then stop.
Perhaps you are unfamiliar with why you would try to undo yourself.
Why you would be your own worst enemy or best friend, or that person who is sometimes both.
Now you know.
What is the way into the place where it is, you wonder.
Perhaps it is like the Venetian towns built to confuse pirates. You think you are headed toward the square with a fountain, and instead find yourself in an alley, or out along the cliff wall. Another life.
You remain sure the way in is underneath the what left behind. There is a noise, drawn over the surface of the entrance like camouflage.
You find this only when you decide you must try again.
You don’t know this yet, but gods, even when you don’t believe in them, do not give something easily. Not even when the god is you.
You didn’t make this up, someone says to you, when finally you write it and give it to them to read.
You feel as if you have dropped your disguise.
Is this me, they ask, coldly.
Their disguise, also dropped.
Perhaps it is them, and you forgot somehow, some way you now feel must mean you are stupid. And yet you hoped they also would see how perfect it was.
The living, who reside uncomfortably in prose.
Which includes you.
On this day you are like the child who believes they are invisible because they stood in a shadow.
In the meantime, perhaps this other person, the reader, says, There is no plot.
You see this also.
What you thought was a novel was a string of anecdotes, perhaps a few chapters, and you cannot see what comes before or after.
Plotting a novel out of what has happened to you is like decorating your house by leaving the furniture wherever the movers left it.
The events of your life, you eventually understand, do not describe what you have learned from them. Like pointing at an empty field and shouting “novel.”
The writer who cried “novel!” — yes. Yes, that was you.
You must invent something that fits the shape of what you know.
To do this you must use the situations but not the events of your life.
You must invent a character like you but not you.
You, in the forest of yourself with the axe, building the house, sealing yourself in its walls.
You are the ghost of the house. You will never live in this house you make of your life.
The space you occupy is like the space between the wall and the paint.
This is the difference between you and the one you have invented to be you.
A golem of the self, this house and its occupants, capacious, something anyone could visit and understand. That is what you hope for now.
This golem more or less careless than you, more or less selfish, more or less remorseful.
More or less you, but not you.
Perhaps remorseful exactly the same way as you, but something else is what changes as you write them, until you understand you are apart.
If you are a professor, then the character is a professor. If you are tall, he is tall. If a woman, a woman, and so on. But then other things change that will make the difference.
Give the character your name only if it will make this difference plain. Anything else is museum theater.
Instead choose a name with the same music.
Invent the other characters also, the same way.
Or change all the names.
Use neither the names of the willing or the unwilling. Especially those who may say all is fine, but will change from willing to unwilling once it is published and understand what they have given you.
This is because you must betray this character in the way all writers betray all of their characters, done to reveal the ways they are human.
To do less than this is only PR.
If you begin to self-deprecate, remember that is not that authorly betrayal of a character. Self-deprecation is also PR.
You have invented this self because the ways you are human are not always visible to yourself.
For this reason, be prepared, always, to stop and set the novel aside, until you are prepared to do what you must do.
Why is it not a memoir, people will ask.
I tell more truth in fiction, you might say.
The memoir a kind of mask too, but one that insists you are only one person.
All fiction is autobiographical, they might say.
You know you would go into a casino and bet all your money that it is not. This is in fact what you have done in the writing.
We should speak of the price.
The price is you do not get it back, after you write it, whatever was at its heart.
This is the meaning of a sacrifice.
Give this over then only if you can make something greater than what you had.
Anyone who unhappily saw themselves in your characters will most likely see themselves, even if they were not described.
If you are tempted, the legal standard is that a stranger must be able to recognize the character in life from the description before the person can sue.
You cannot sue yourself.
There is another standard, something else, and its demands and punishments will stand unrevealed until they are before you, waiting as the book once did, in the place where you live.
Anyone not in your life will believe it is your life and also the people in your life, despite what they might remember.
This price is paid until no one is left alive.
Here are the warnings then, dressed as thieves.
Say you do not see the point of the difference, you are prepared to go on without making it.
You can’t stop me, you think. I must do this, you are thinking.
You will stop you, in fact, blocked until you figure yourself out.
Lost in the trap of "That happened." You struggle because "that is how that really happened" and yet cannot make it convincing in fiction, cannot figure out what happens next.
Your novel or story only an anecdote, your plot a series of aversions, dodges in disguises, trauma dressed as friends saying “yes you can no you can’t yes you can.”
Ready to steal as much of your life as you let them, more than what they already have taken.
One last price, hidden behind the rest.
Write fiction about your life and pay with your life, at least three times.
Here is the axe.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and Lit Hub, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He curates the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel New York and lives in New York City.
To learn more about The Queen of the Night, click here.