Writing a fictional autobiography has disadvantages. Among them, readers think maybe it’s not so much fiction as fact. Another factor threatening to stop you cold before you start is the uncomfortable question: What about your life makes you think anyone, let alone a lot of them, wants to read the details?
We’re not talking about memoirs here or ghost-assisted celebrity bios. This is your life. Do you want to be that exposed? And what makes you think readers will be interested when you're standing there naked?
Henry Miller Writes Novels About Henry Miller
Nobody influenced me more than Henry Miller. I discovered him… Rather, his books hit me like an emotional tidal wave of vicarious adventures and freethinking when I was eighteen.
In this three Tropic novels, Cancer, Capricorn and Black Spring, Miller wrote about a struggling writer, an American expat living in Paris, bedeviled by a woman he can’t hold and and can’t let go, after leaving his wife and child behind in Brooklyn. The struggling writer’s name? Henry. And Miller, during the time recounted in the stories anyway, just happened to be living in Paris, struggling as a writer and trying to recover from June, the woman who would haunt him for decades.
(At the time Miller started writing Tropic of Cancer, he was by then being well cared for by Anais Nin who, with her husband, paid for his apartment and necessities. Without her husband, Nin handled some of his less material needs.)
What got me stirred, starting with Tropic of Cancer, was Miller’s free style prologue in which he wrote passionately about the value of writers writing real stories from life. At the time, he was frustrated after several unsuccessful novels and pretty much let it rip. The results are still stunning to read.
Later, Gore Vidal confirmed something I suspected by noting that he never saw anything written by Saul Bellow that wasn’t autobiographical. The intense intimacy of Bellow’s books make them feel that way, but Bellow never wrote a novel about a writer named Saul. He just edged his ideas and experiences into the emotionally hapless Moses Herzog and even the dignified Polish holocaust survivor, Artur Sammler.
I loved Bellow’s writing even more than Miller’s. Bellow had an elegance about himself and a keener awareness of others. In Humboldt’s Gift, he pointed out that the way people presented their rear ends told us about their general, public attitude, but he did it with such diamond, polished precision...
While my take on writing fictional autobiography falls about halfway between Miller and Bellow, my life hasn’t been as fascinating as either. So, I wrote my books about the times, which were, using some personal incidents, adjusted to fit the story, and some wholly made up characters.
(You can find all of my books, by the way, on my Amazon Author Page.)
How Fictional is My Autobiography?
Look at it this way. It took four novels and 300,000 words before I ran out of storytelling gas.
I never rambled around Paris, as Miller did, and I didn’t consort with gangsters and renowned intellectuals like Bellow. Living in interesting times wasn’t, for me, the fulfillment of a Chinese curse, as some believe the phrase to mean. My times are my material, observed from a personal standpoint as reflected in stories.
When I started a novel, one that blossomed into four, that I originally titled “The Autobiography of X,” I was inspired by the historical coincidence of being around for two events I believed changed the world, at least for Americans, forever. The first was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, witnessed in my high school classroom in Binghamton, New York, hundreds of miles from the scene; the second, the World Trade Center disaster I witnessed from near enough that I felt the vibrations rattling downtown when the first jet hit the North Tower and watched when the second impact sprayed a billowing cloud of fire and smoke in front of those of us who walked up to Broadway, hoping to figure out what was being confusing reported on television.
What lay in-between? For me personally, hippies and the counterculture. The Vietnam War and the peace movement it inspired; political assassinations unlike anything we thought conceivable in America; Watergate; the personal computer revolution and the internet; running and physical fitness; a president having oral sex in a White House closet; the AIDS epidemic; and the conservative backlash against human rights advances… you could go on for a long time about what happened in America during my lifetime.
On the other hand, there were times as dull as white bread. How do you deal with those? And how do you show how events personally affected individual lives or how they really didn’t? How could I get my hands on my own experiences enough to reshape them into interesting events?
I solved that by refusing to write a narrative dependent on chronology. My narrative was built somewhat randomly — in the way I believe we run personal histories through our heads. We jump around, mix and match, to explain ourselves and the world around us. I was a big fan of free style books. I thought the traditional style had run its course. So, like Henry Miller and James Joyce jumping headfirst into Ulysses, I just plunged in with the most general idea and let events pile up. I let them snuggle next to each other to see how, like with color swatches, they looked in close contact. It was the antithesis of the traditional novel storyline, and it suited me.
I could emphasize and deemphasize as it suited my sense of things. I could leave things out and invent some to fill in. Would my original philosophical take attract readers? I had no idea, but I loved creating paragraph after paragraph.
Soon, I realized I had way too much for a single set of covers. I made a mental commitment to three and wound up with four.
Hazards of Writing a Fictional Autobiography
In this kind of writing, there’s a fine line between writing intimately enough to tell a story charged with meaning and saying too much, especially about others. You might embarrass yourself, but you can injure innocent people. Truman Capote’s defense that his friends knew he was a writer and had to expect that he’d write about them was lame enough that his Answered Prayers left him with so many fewer friends that gaps needed to be filled with drugs and alcohol.
I guess my observations about my friends are more generous, and I’m less inclined to gossipy swipes at people who trust me. I also kept a safe distance. My fictional autobiography tracked close to contemporary times but only a little. I disguised people with false names, even keeping a list to help me keep up with all the fake names.
More importantly, since most of my stories are drawn from incidents decades before, few of my characters were likely to be recognizable now. Some were, however, and I even got a note about one not so prominent character, an old friend asking me to confirm his identity.
Flattering though it might have been to my sense of mental prowess, I assumed that no one believed I could recall thirty and forty year old conversations in the detail in which they made it into the books. When I’ve run into friends, many years later, I’m surprised that they remember things that happened differently than I do. It makes me realize how memory's necessary compressions can change history.
In the end, my life as I remembered it amounted to fictional autobiography, even when unintended. Memory is creative. It fills in gaps and deletes the unwanted.
I bet it was the same with Henry Miller.
Try the first chapter from Traveling Without a Passport: