“Did you base your characters on your friends and family?” “Where do you come up with your ideas?” “Was this story inspired by your life?”
These questions are the bacteria of the literary world. They exist everywhere. They spring from the cold desert dust on the surface of Mars in scifi; they get busy in the stomachs of the cookbook industry; they drift in the oceanic depths of classic literature.
All writers are familiar with them, and most of us have responses ready to claim (or disclaim) our work:
“I don’t base my characters on my friends and family. You can all relax.”
“Yes, this is a collection of verbatim stories told to me by Aunt Eloise.”
“The idea popped into my head while I was giving my heel a quick once over with my pumice stone.”
“I read about it in the newspaper.”
“The story is about me, which is terrifying.”
Perhaps the spectrum of answers we, as writers, give to those who ask about the extent to which our work is or is not autobiographical feeds the pervasion of the questions themselves.
Personally, I believe that all books are autobiographical.
They are autobiographies of our internal life, and while your reader may never know where you were born, how long you went to school, or the name of your first love, they will know what you find funny, poetic, meaningful. They will sense the places your miss, the futures you fear. They will know what you brood about.
Take, for example Jane Austen. Austen’s works are clearly not “autobiographical” in a literal sense. Her heroines always end up married and relatively dependent on their husbands (with the exception of Emma Woodhouse), whereas Austen remained single and independent for life. Yet, when you read Austen’s works, you can’t help but getting a sense of the things that mattered most to her in life: sisterhood, wit, absurd social conventions, the ability to learn from mistakes.
Or consider Malcom Gladwell. One of the bestselling non-fiction writers of our time, Gladwell is famous for threading together personal interviews with scientific data to reveal impactful (and often counter intuitive) cultural trends. Gladwell is not a writer who you would expect to divulge very much personal information in his sociocentric books, yet the epilogue of Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is devoted to his mother’s story. It is worth wondering if Outliers could exist independent of Gladwell’s personal life and history.
Perhaps books become even more autobiographical as we write them.
Even as we create, our creations become part of our lives. Our characters feel like family members, our settings like home. In sharing our creations, we are sharing part of our life.
Think of JRR Tolkein, a famous introvert and a prolific creator. In addition to characters, settings, and plots, Tolkein also created maps, lineage trees, languages, and fieldguides of the world inside his books. One could make the argument that his life belonged as much to his work as his work did to his life, and that by sharing his work, he shared his life.
But that doesn’t mean we deliberately write autobiographies or that we lack creativity.
Reading back over my works, I am able to spot a few recurrent elements. I don’t insert these elements intentionally. I don’t think to myself, “I feel conflicted about my love of home and my desire to explore the world. I am going to write about a girl who lives happily inside a hedge, yet feels duty bound to get outside of her hedge, for the sake of advancing her scientific theories.”
And yet, I wrote Eleanor.
Sometimes, when I re-read my writing and notice how characters are similar to me or how plot twists symbolize events in my own life, a critical voice in my head starts in, nagging me for my lack of creativity. I tell it to be quiet.
There is boundless room for creativity in a novel, even if the characters and plot are straight out of real real life. The words you choose, the images you paint, the dialogue you craft to express an idea which life has revealed to you–that is your creation.