• Elisabeth Kinsey
  • Deborah Batterman - Autobiography in Fiction (What "to" do, and what not...)
Deborah Batterman - Autobiography in Fiction (What "to" do, and what not...)
Written by
Elisabeth Kinsey
March 2012
Written by
Elisabeth Kinsey
March 2012

Autobiography in Fiction



As a young girl growing up in a small Brooklyn apartment, I have strong memories of noise – aunts and uncles sitting and schmoozing around a table that sat nestled in an alcove just outside the kitchen. Cigarette smoke drifted across the table. To listen in on the conversation was always a temptation. To escape into my room – into the worlds opened by books and music – was always an option. 


The daily dramas at the heart of it all – love gone bad, money never enough, the heartless aunt who walked out on her three kids and the one with a heart of gold who lost a son to drugs – could, as the saying goes, fill a book.  Every writer starts somewhere.  How we take the stuff of real life and turn it into fiction that (hopefully) has resonance is something of a balancing act between holding on and letting go.


Holding on:  In my memory, rising about the family chatter at a wedding or bar mitzvah, I hear my father’s voice, microphone in hand, Bye Bye Blackbird or I Wanna Be Around, no mistaking that his broken heart was singing to my mother.  I was young. I was mortified.  And yet, that very mortification held the seeds of a story.  Three treatments of the same beginning are as good a way as any to illustrate how autobiographical fragments are turned into fiction:


#1. I hated when my father sang.  He sang at breakfast. He sang in the shower. But worst of all, he sang at parties. In front of everyone. I wanted to crawl under a table and die.


 #2. My father loved to sing. He sang in the morning, sometimes in rhythm to the teabag he dunked in a cup of hot water. You’re nobody till somebody loves you/ You’re nobody till somebody cares.  He sang in the shower.  Grab your coat and grab your hat/ Leave your worries on the doorstep. Just direct your feet. To the sunny side of the street. But worst of all, he sang at parties. In front of everyone. I wanted to crawl under a table and die.


#3. My father loved to sing. He sang at breakfast. He sang in the shower. He sang in the car. But worst of all, he sang at parties. In front of everyone.  He was happiest when we were at a wedding or a bar mitzvah, where a band would be on stage playing the kind of music I hated but grown-ups always seemed to go mushy over.  Like a magnet, the microphone beckoned him. He would start to sing his favorite Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett song. I wanted to crawl under a table and die.


While each beginning reflects a young girl’s embarrassment at her father’s expressive (duh!) nature,  #3 opens up narrative possibilities best. The first beginning, with its focus on what the young girl ‘hates,’ has a contractive quality. The second begins to show more of the father in a way that takes the girl out of her reactive state. The third, expanding on the second, begins to sing, and did, in fact, become the opening lines of My Father’s Voice.


Letting go: Nothing comes from nothing.  Even if the events leading up to the family funeral that ended in a fistfight amounted to a (near) perfect narrative arc, something would, of necessity change as I sit down to write. A sunny day might become a rainy one, the aunt with short, teased, frosted hair might have soft waves of gray. The son whose nasty remarks about the second (now widowed) wife of his (now dead) father triggered the fistfight might say nothing at all, and, instead, spit on his father’s grave. Recording something is never as interesting as imagining the range of possible outcomes, the twists and turns not taken, the telling detail that lifts even an everyday occurrence from banality.  It’s what keeps me interested and challenged as a writer. The perspective of looking in a mirror is a limited one. As a writer, I need refraction as much as reflection.  Or, as Raymond Carver put it in a Paris Review (Summer 1983) interview, it takes a certain daring and skill, he says, to make fiction of out-and-out autobiography: “A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.” 


Which brings me to two books that, together, serve as a kind of study of how the stuff of real life becomes the grist for transcendent fiction. Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in the Combat Zone – written when the immediacy of serving as a foot soldier was still with him – is a nonfiction chronicle of his time in Vietnam. Twenty-some-odd years later he would publish The Things They Carried, a work of fiction that crosses boundaries between a novel and short story collection and epitomizes what O’Brien himself calls ‘story-truth’ in contrast to ‘happening-truth.’ “I want you to feel what I felt,” he writes in the opening page of a chapter called, “Good Form.”  “I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”  The very fragmented nature of the narrative brings even more power to the underlying themes.


More to the point, writers sometimes find themselves writing the same story (stories) over and over again – in different forms. It’s almost as if the core of a story – especially one that has such a profound impact on the writer’s life – just won’t let him or her be. Or maybe it’s the critic within, unrelenting as it is, not so much from self-doubt as a nagging insistence: you didn’t quite get it right the first time.  Then there’s the question of experience, growth, perspective.  And the images that keep haunting you – a singing father, a child left crying by her mother, a solder at war, a boy in love. What you write in your twenties – and the way you write it – is not what you write in your forties.  Or, as O’Brien puts it so eloquently in the closing chapter, “The Lives of the Dead.”: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”


 Deborah Batterman is the author of SHOES HAIR NAILS (Uccelli Press, 2006). A story from her debut collection was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.


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  • Nora Barry

    Two good writers cited here:  Carver's quote about a little autobiography and a lot of imagination AND Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried".  That book was an incredible blend of real and imagined--you're half way thru before you realize it's not an autobiography.  Or maybe it is...to use another great quote, "fiction is the art of making reality believable..."