Tunnels kind of scare me. There are a few on the bike path that I frequent. I used to approach them cautiously looking for someone or something lurking in the dark along the walls and then run through — fast. I walk through them now. I guess I feel more comfortable than before.
“You have the best stories, you should write a novel.” Yeah, I have heard that more than a few times after I have divulged (usually with the help of wine or a momentary lapse of judgement) some harrowing or crazy experience I’ve had, mostly from the past when I was traveling around a lot and single. One thing I’ve learned is young women out alone in foreign countries tend to come home with interesting stories. More than you know…unless you’ve been there.
I stopped writing six years ago while I was working on a novel that was about 45% autobiographical. Only recently did I feel like writing fiction again. The story that caused my hiatus I think is a very good story set in Spain when I was a student living in a dorm, the only American and it deals with bullying and sexual harassment.
I made the story better (in fact changed the outcome and attempted to bring myself satisfaction and a sense of justice) by fictionalizing parts. I entered the first three chapters into a national writing contest and it got the attention of one of the judges, an editor from a NY publishing company.
She sent a very nice note along with my entry and asked me to make sure the manuscript was in tip top shape and to send her the whole thing and she sounded enthusiastic. What did I do? Freaked out. I did not send it. I booked a flight to Spain three months later to face what was haunting me.
While researching the story I dug out a journal, photos, letters I had written from the time and saw that time from the point of view of my 21-year-old self. I even found a cassette tape of interviews that I made at the time featuring my own voice, the voices of friends and strangers alike. There wasn’t a way to fictionalize that in my own head and I wasn’t dealing with it very well or sleeping much.
No way could I go forward with sharing that novel because I couldn’t handle exposing myself to it. I know the risk of using autobiographical material – being too close. But… I’ve been through a lot since then and lately I am thinking that maybe I can walk through that tunnel to the other side without spooking.
There’s a novella — or maybe a novel that I think I will take a stab at, even if it’s only an exercise kept for myself. It’s another good story, not the same one. I think people will it find exciting but it’s somewhat less painful. Let’s see if I have the guts to write it and put it out there. Fictionalized or not.
Have you used autobiographical material and what are your thoughts on it? How does it help or hurt your story? Do you think it’s worth the risk to expose very personal experiences?