One of my major interests is inner worlds: the subjective experience of being human. Perhaps, then, it goes without saying that I love to write the self, and I love to read the personal accounts of others. So I’ve been thinking about the different ways we choose to do this, and in particular the various methods available for presenting it. Here I share some distinctions I’ve made along the way.
Autobiography is the most ‘objective’ method for writing the self, with the aim of presenting events as they really happened. It will usually (but not always) be in chronological order and span most of a lifetime.
Memoir is a collection of memories from a specific aspect or time period of the author’s life. It is usually presented in an entertaining way, with some distance between the narrator and the subject, some hindsight, but also some intimacy of emotional context.
An Autobiographical Novel is the semi-fictionalisation of real events. It puts more distance between the narrator and the subject, and allows the use of plot devices, imagined events or characters, and heightened drama. There is an expectation that the author will do this not in an attempt to mislead, but to make the text more attractive to readers. Like memoir, autobiographical novels will usually cover a specific aspect or time period in the author’s life.
A Semi-Autobiographical Novel is the same as above, but anticipates a little more artistic licence in the telling.
Autobiographical Metafiction is a narrowing of scope to the period during which the book was written. The text is aware of itself, in that the writing of the book is referenced along with the form it is taking and the experience of writing it. The book may be about another part of the author’s life, but it aims to capture the experience of writing and remembering rather than the events themselves.
Autofiction is a comparably recent addition to this list and blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction the most. It will often appear that we are reading a personal diary or journal, with events rooted in the narrator’s present. The narrator may share the name of the author, and other characters, places, jobs and events may also match real biographical detail. The immediacy of this format, however, can be an illusion, with authors often striving over years to make it seem as real as possible while actually drawing mainly on informed imagination. Due to the nature of this illusion, there may be little plot in the traditional sense, and there is no contract between author and reader that ever confirms the amount of truth in the pages.
Free Writing is the practice of committing words to paper (or screen) without regard for form, convention or rhetoric. The author is free to write whatever comes to mind, and to explore trains of thought as they arise. The result is an authentic stream of consciousness that may or may not make sense to a reader. This kind of writing is rarely published in its raw form, and will instead be used in the personal development of the author or to inform the structure and points to cover in more purposeful pieces. It may also be spliced into otherwise fictional accounts.
Automatic Fiction is similar to free writing, but draws from the intention to write on a particular theme or starting point. It aims to bypass the surface-level thought and access deeper, unconscious notions carried within the psyche. Although what results may seem fictional, it is only so in the way dreams are: it can be interpreted using personal symbology and archetypes common to all. I wrote more on this topic here.
Fiction as a broader genre, of course, tells us stories of imaginary events and people. But as we have seen above, most methods of writing the self involve some level of fictionalisation. So I would stretch this just a little further to say that everything that comes from our imagination is a form of writing the self. In our fiction we write from our experiences, memories, perceptions of the world. We write the things that scare us and the things that we believe could improve our lots. We write fiction from a perspective that no one else could.
What do you think? Would you choose one of these methods over another to write your personal experiences? Which do you think is most authentic?
Honestly, I think autobiography is the least reliable method of imparting facts. The writer gets to choose which to leave in and which to leave out.
I’m a fiction writer, but for putting down personal experiences, I would choose memoir. That feels the truest based on how I think of memory: individual scenes. Remembering a moment, a feeling, a fragment. Trying to tie those fragments into a narrative seems to be taking a step beyond memory. Of trying to make sense of scenes together, trying to apply logic to them. But each scene is its own pebble. As I get older (I’m 48), I’ve interpreted those scenes differently than when I was younger. And I’m sure I will interpret them differently as I keep aging. If writing them, I would rather keep the fragments as they are.