Monday, December 06, 2010

An Accidental Autobiography

I'm proofing the scan of my 1988 novel, Mattie (Doubleday), about a pioneer woman physician on the Nebraska frontier in the late nineteenth century. I'm thinking I'll post it next on Kindle because it's short, the rights have reverted to me, and it won a Spur Award as Best Western Novel from Western Writers of America. Roughly based on the life of Georgia-Arbuckle Fix, who practiced medicine in Benteen, NE, it is purely a work of fiction, chronicling the central figure's struggles in medical school, her relationshp with her mentor, her medical practice on the prairie riding miles to see patients, and her marriage and its dissolution.
I probably haven't read this in the 20-plus years its been in print, but I was struck by how much autobiographical material is in it. There may be more of me in it than of Arbuckle-Fix. I was six years divorced when I wrote it, and I wove into Mattie's marriage all the early happiness and then later uncertainties of my own marriage. My daughters were teen-agers then, and I'm afraid those difficult years are reflected in Mattie's only daughter. (Must add that my daughters are my best friends these days, but it wasn't so in high school!.) I researched frontier medicine and living conditions thoroughly for this novel, but my own life and my own feelings kept creeping into the first-person narration.
This has gotten me to thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of writing yourself into fiction. The classic wisdom is "Write what you know," and certainly it's more clear to write about emtoions you've experienced--the disappointment of divorce, the heart-pounding desperation of an anxiety attack, the loss of a parent. I could never, for instance, write about the loss of a child, because--praise the Lord--I've never experienced that. So in this sense that writing what you know brings a certain authenticity to a manuscript. I wonder if that's why critics talk about juvenalia--people write, sometimes very well, at such a young age that they haven't really experienced the world and don't have the maturity or insight that comes later with experience. Maybe that's what Mattie is, even though I was near fifty when I wrote it.
But there are pitfalls, and one is getting so carried away with sticking to the reality of your own life that you never let your fictional character have any freedom to develop. You force him or her into the mold  you have in your mind. I remember the first adult novel I wrote--for a newspaper serial at the time of Sesquicentennial. The editor who was coaching me kept saying, "This is fiction, Judy. Let yourself go." I was writing a fictional chronicle of the lives of a prominent Texas ranch family, but he didn't want me to be bound by the actual facts of their history. And eventually I wasn't.
The other danger, it seems to me, is the sort of narcissitic one of letting the manuscript get top-heavy with emotion, so that it collapses under its own weight and interests no one. Each of us has a tendency to think we're the most important person in the world, or the most interesting, and yet we have to strive to keep ourselves out of our fiction lest we get carried away with our own feelings.
Mattie is accidental autobiography. Certainly, I wrote it without knowing I was writing about myself. Now, twenty years later, I think it may be a little top-heavy with angst, but readers will have to see for themselves. I hope to have it up and running on Kindle before the holidays. I know it's not the book I would have written today. The mystery I'm working on has autobiogrpahical elements, but they're not as harsh and emotional. Maybe I've matured in twenty years.
For the novelists among you, what about you? Do you stick autobiographical elements into your fiction? I may be all wrong on this one, with egg on my face.

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