I have been asked by people who know me fairly well if I have a background in biology. I don’t, not at all. I barely slogged through biology in high school, and completing my two-semester science requirement in college was one of the biggest reliefs of my life. These questions about me and the world of science started after my story "Care" (retitled “Designated Driver” in Faulty Predictions) was published online. This is a story about a recovering alcoholic who currently drives a city bus. Previously, she had been in veterinary school, but she dropped out of school after she spayed a cat while hung over and made a mistake that forced her to euthanize the cat. Here’s the paragraph from the story that describes the surgery:
Then there was the white cat. Her abdomen had been shaved and she was ready for you. Your head was pounding and you couldn’t focus your eyes. You made the incision through the skin and abdominal muscles, and the line your scalpel made was crooked, but you kept going. You’d meant to remove just the ovaries and uterus, but you slipped and the scalpel plunged into her stomach. There was no reasonable way to save her. Since she was already anesthetized, you opened her chest cavity, injected the sodium pentobarbital intercardially. The next day, you dropped out of school. In the two years since, you haven’t trusted yourself to touch an animal, not even a quick pat when a dog runs up to you in the park. You thought you were dangerous, poison to animals.
I think what people really want to ask is “Is this true? Did this happen to you?” Maybe asking if I have a background in biology feels like a safe question. It’s a more polite question, certainly, than “Were you an alcoholic? Did you have to drop out of school?” As more of my writing has made its way out into the world, I’ve gotten more questions about what’s true and what’s not in my fiction. I’m grateful that people are reading the stories, but I want to ask, “Why does it matter if something is autobiographical? Does it make it better if it is? Does it make it worse if the story is wholly imagined?”
So if I don’t have a background in biology, how did I know the details of the surgery? Research. For this story, I didn’t do heavy-duty research; I just consulted a few sources online that seemed to have reliable information. I hope I got the details right, but even if I didn’t, I think I’ve convinced at least a few readers that I know something about spaying a cat. In a chapter titled “Write What You Know” from the excellent Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern discusses how what we know extends beyond just personal experience. One way of knowing that he writes about is research: “We do have to acknowledge research as a legitimate way of knowing, or much fiction will be impossible. Writers immerse themselves in books on medical remedies, legal procedures, and haberdashery history for background information. They talk to plumbers, police officers, and podiatrists to gather authentic details.” Stern also discusses imagination as another way of knowing and states that fantasy and science fiction wouldn’t exist without imagination. I think readers can clearly understand that these genres fall into the realm of the imagination, and readers can also assume writers do research for works of historical fiction. However, things may get confusing with stories that are set in the contemporary world in which we live and contain events that seem as if they could plausibly occur. The desire to conflate author and character seems to occur even more when there are similarities (in terms of age, profession, geographic location, etc.) between author and character.
The question about what is true doesn’t just come from readers who aren’t writers. In one of the first fiction writing workshops I took, the students spoke to the authors throughout the semester as if they were the protagonists in their stories. They’d say things like, “When you got into that car accident on page seventeen, I thought your reaction was kind of melodramatic.” A lot of the people in the class confused author and character, and it’s something that I’ve seen happen in every creative writing class I teach. Before we start to discuss student work, I tell the class that unless an author explicitly says that their poem or story is autobiographical, we shouldn’t assume that it is, and we should use “the protagonist,” “the narrator,” or “the speaker” instead of jumping to the conclusion that the protagonist and the author are the same person. I remind students of this often throughout the semester, and the fact that students keep saying “you” instead of “the protagonist” indicates that they’re thinking of the protagonist and the author as the same person. The issue seems especially pronounced when a poem or story is written in first person.
In that early workshop, I wrote a story about a young woman whose grandfather was very sick and slowly dying, and my classmates referred to the grandfather as “your grandfather” throughout the discussion. This made me uneasy because the grandfather was decidedly not my grandfather, and when I revised, I wrote the story from the grandfather’s point of view because I wanted to make sure no one would think the protagonist and I were the same person. This perspective shift wasn’t productive for the story, but back then it felt important for me to have readers understand that my characters and I were different people. Throughout the rest of the semester I only wrote stories in which the protagonists in no way resembled me. I wrote no more stories about young women. I felt that if I wrote young female characters—especially if I wrote in first person—I couldn’t let my characters do what I wanted them to do, and I certainly couldn’t let them cause trouble. I was afraid that everyone in the class would assume I was a troublemaker. Now I’ll readily admit that I was too sensitive back then, cared far too much about what other people thought, but I can’t imagine I'm the only aspiring writer to ever feel this way in a workshop. It was profoundly uncomfortable sitting in a classroom and listening to people dissect an imaginary character and her flaws while looking at me and referring to the character as “you.” As a teacher, I don’t want any of my students to feel constrained, to feel as if they can’t write about certain topics because readers will assume their writing is autobiographical. As an adult, many years beyond that early workshop, I care very little about whether people assume I’m the same person as my characters, but I think this assumption that writers are their characters can be a problem for a sensitive budding writer.
Last year I took a poetry workshop. One of the poems that was part of my first batch of submissions for my poetry class was, in a way, autobiographical. In the poem I lamented the fact that we no longer use card catalogs in libraries. I wrote about the memory of feeling the softened edges of index cards beneath my fingers as I flipped through the cards in my elementary school library. The first comment I got was from a man who said, “You’re not old enough to know what card catalogs are! How could you write this?” Perhaps I should have taken the comment as a compliment because I am most certainly old enough to have encountered card catalogs in libraries, but instead I wondered why it mattered whether I had actually used one. What I wanted to know from readers was whether my description of the card catalog seemed convincing. Could they picture how the child in the poem had to climb on a stool to reach the highest drawers? Was my description of the softened edges of the index cards that had been pawed through for years vivid enough? That’s what mattered to me. And what if I wanted to write a poem about the Civil War or Gutenberg’s Press or, heck, dinosaurs? Would I be disqualified for not living through the 19th century, the 15th century, or the Jurassic period?
I don’t think the question for writers should be “How do you know this?” The “how” doesn’t matter. The question should be whether the information in the poem or story feels right and accurate and authentic, and it doesn’t matter whether the writer knows this information through personal experience or some type of research.
Now, I’m not discounting using autobiographical material in poetry and fiction. A lot of writers do it and do it well. But what I’m warning against is assuming that all creative writing is autobiographical. Readers need to keep in mind that although some poetry and fiction might have roots in what the writer has experienced, not all creative writing does. There are lots of ways of knowing (including imagination, empathy, research, and interviews), and personal experience is only one of many ways.