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April 29th, 2005 - Trickle of Consciousness — LiveJournal
In response to nothing in particular, but rather due to the tangents my brain sometimes heads off on: I think we need to ban the non-label that is "semi-autobiographical."

Really, what does that even mean? If the story in question is an event or series of events that actually happened to the author (allowing for the subjectivity of memory, of course), then it's autobiography. If only some of the events happened, or only some of the characters come from real life, or only some of the conversations are meant to reflect actual conversations the author's had, and the rest is artificially constructed for the sake of story, it's not autobiography. Mining characters and conversations and other details from your life isn't kind of sort of doing an autobiography; it's being a writer.

The only thing semi-autobiographical does that I can see is provide some sort of pre-criticism protection. You see, if the writer suggests that some of this really happened, but won't commit to what those segments may or may not be, the fictional elements get a kind of truth by association. Readers are automatically (meant to be) predisposed to believing plot details and characters because they're based on reality. If a character seems stock or cliche, or a setting thin, or a series of events oddly coincidental, well that's not the writer's fault; it's what happened, after all.

I don't tend to call that semi-anything. I mostly call it lazy writing. If your writing is solid, your characters well-rounded, your plotting thorough, you don't need a big ugly crutch like "but it really happened." If you find yourself reaching for it, smack yourself several dozen times and put more effort into the writing and less into the ready-made excuse.

It doesn't help, either, that the existence of the label means readers are sometimes a little too eager to apply it. So if someone reads a story about a protagonist's sexual exploits at a summer camp, and that reader has information that not only is the summer camp real, but the author once attended it ... well, suddenly and without any intent, we've got ourselves a semi-autobiographical sex confession story. Which I'd actually think a bit of an insult if it's not true--not because the author might be embarrassed to have people thinking he had a crazy sexual adventure out on the boat dock, but rather because all of his crafted imagination has suddenly become reporting, and his gift for invention is swept aside in favor of the belief that he happened to live an eventful life (or month at summer camp. Or whatever).

That sounds like I'm dismissing actual autobiography, but I don't think I am. The kind of person who can take the story of her life and tell it honestly and compellingly is someone to be admired. But she, too, suffers from semis. Good autobiographers open themselves up to the world. They expose the good things and the bad things. They write about people they've encountered who may not want their own part in the author's life exposed. They say "all of this happened," and then they offer it up for scrutiny. If something's blown out of proportion, it hurts their credibility. If people discredit elements of the story, the tale of their lives suddenly has holes torn in it. That takes a kind of courage I certainly don't have.

Consider, then, what semis do here. They scrape off the respectability of tales of true life, then they make shit up. It provides for a kind opposite protection to what I mention in regards to fiction, though the effects here are more localized: anyone who happens to be one of the subjects of the story hasn't much in the way objection to what they may see as inaccurate portrayals. After all, whatever deviates from their memory of events is obviously the part the author made up, and he said "semi," so readers know it's only partly true. Except that they have no idea which part that is. In the end, the story acts like a raw exposure, but without the genuine laying bare of the full-fledged autobiographer.

Enough. Give us fiction, and let its believability stand or fall on the strength of your writing. Give us autobio, and leave your life open to the full scrutiny that implies. Stop letting a label take the big hits and start bleeding on the page already. Or are you only a semi-writer?

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