The (Auto)Biographical Act of Story Telling

There is an adage used to help novice and beginning writers to “write what you know.” It is a helpful piece of advice to assist new writers to tap into personal experience to develop an emotional, spiritual, physical authenticity to their writing. It helps to frame the emotional resonance of story that makes a reader want to continue, tapping into the shared emotional journey we all face.

At some point a new writer needs to move beyond this adage and into the broader realms of imagination. Once you understand the emotional focus of the story you are telling, the characters take on a life of their own.

The emotional repertoire at your disposal is based on your own life experiences, stories you’ve heard, read or seen.

But at what point does the author separate herself/himself from the character of the story? How much of a character is a reflection of the author? What is deliberately included or excluded.

The answer to that is up to the individual author to decide. Some authors may make a character a thinly veiled version of themselves or a direct parody. It may even be an autobiographical version in a fictional universe.

For me it is the engagement with the character as presented on the page, their trials, tribulations and triumphs; engaging with the emotional core of who the character is and how I see myself within, or influenced by, the character.

Poetry is perhaps more problematic when using the first person pronoun as it is, I suspect, interpreted by the reader as the persona of the author. This may be true in some cases but what if it is not?

I posted this poem to Twitter recently and use the first person pronouns yet it is not autobiographical, nor is it based on the experience of another.

our intimacy is found 
in the peeling of a mandarin 
damaging the skin to eat 
the flesh inside 
uncertain of a bitterness 
or sweetness

It is drawn from my emotional repertoire, an understanding of human relationships. Is there a part of me in this poem? Perhaps. But it was not written from my perspective. You, as the reader, will not know my intention or purpose; you read the poem as it is and respond to it from your own experiences and perspectives.

Within the act of reading poetry I think we internalise the focus of the poem if it is written in first person, taking on a new perspective and seeing the world as presented through the poem. It is an intimate connection with a text separate from the persona presented or the author’s intent behind the construction.

All of this is academic meanderings, like searching through your underwear drawer for the odd sock to make a pair.

Do you read a story differently to a poem? Why?

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4 responses to “The (Auto)Biographical Act of Story Telling

  1. The way we “interpret” a poem, a story, a piece of music or a visual image all reflect our inner state of being. Like mirrors, we reflect to others all that they do not see in themselves and we project ourselves and our life experiences on all else.

    • I’m old school exegesis interpretation of texts; comes from when I was studying biblical theology. Understandably the reader brings their own values and attitudes to a text, independent of the author. However, sometimes that interpretation can be incorrect, or tangentially skewed. I like both sides. More of a modern thinker in that regard, rather than post-modern.

  2. Like all art. If you ask 10 million people to draw a flower, each will look different as it will be the artist’s perspective.

    • And those 10 million will understand it to be a flower as will the audience due to the shared experiences. We’re all human in the end.

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