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Is Our Fiction Autobiographical?

Robert InmanRobert Inman will lead the Fiction Workshop at the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s 2012 Squire Summer Writing Residency. This conference runs July 19-22 at Queens University of Charlotte. Here’s what Inman has to say about writing fiction—the idea that at heart, we always “write what we know.”

Kris Kristofferson: that gravel-voiced singer/songwriter/actor who came to fame during the folk craze of the ‘70s, a wonderful lyric writer and storyteller. A line from his song “The Pilgrim” goes: He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. I think about that whenever I muse over what I do as a fiction writer, and why I do it. I think it applies to both me as a writer and to the imagined characters who populate my stories.

Is our fiction autobiographical? A lot of writers swear vehemently that it isn’t. But where do our characters and stories come from? Ourselves. I’m a product of every place I’ve been, every person I’ve known, every book I’ve read, every thought I’ve had—in short, the sum of my human experience. So when I imagine characters, I take bits and pieces of fabric from my own experience and weave them into something new. They are of me, and I am of them. But then I have to turn them loose and let them be themselves, the unique person I’ve imagined, warts and all, let them bump up against other characters and their time and place, make sparks, confront a dilemma, make a story. And that’s when the fun begins.

The late Barry Hannah, my fiction teacher in graduate school, said that if we carry a tape recorder around all day and record everything we experience, the overwhelming mass of it will be mundane and boring. But if we listen carefully to the recording at the end of the day, we’ll perhaps find a nugget of truth, and that’s what we write about. Barry called it fracturing reality and putting it back together as truth, which we express in fictional form. A kind of walking contradiction.

Kristofferson’s most-recognized and -recorded song is “Me and Bobby McGee,” and there’s a line in there that says, Bobby shared the secrets of my soul. So do we and our characters. And if we do it honestly and compellingly, we connect with the secrets of our readers’ souls. That’s fiction at its finest.

Novelist, playwright and screenwriter Robert Inman left a 31-year career in television journalism in 1996 to devote full time to fiction writing. He is the author of four novels, all published by Little, Brown and Company. His fifth novel, The Governor’s Lady, will be published in 2012. Down Home Press published a collection of his nonfiction work, Coming Home: Life, Love and All Things Southern, and he has also written seven produced plays for the stage, and the screenplays for six motion pictures for television, two of which have been “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentations. Inman is a member of the Alabama Communication Hall of Fame, the Authors Guild, Writers Guild of America, Dramatists Guild, PEN American Center, North Carolina Writers Conference, North Carolina Writers’ Network, and Alabama Writers Forum.

For more information on the 2012 Squire Summer Writing Residency, and to register, visit

One Comment

  1. Richard Sharp wrote:


    I very much enjoyed your piece on “Is Our Fiction Autographical?”– especially since it made similar cultural references to those in my recent Indie novel, “The Duke Don’t Dance,” a tale of my so-called “silent generation.”

    Of course, any novel is autographical in the sense of drawing on one’s own experiences as a narrator/observer and (to an often lesser extent) as one or more the protagonists. (In “Duke,” I’d say about 40-50% of my personality resides in each of the male protagonists; 10-20% of the female protagonists.)

    I don’t think, however, that it is the writer’s obligation to fully bare his or her own soul through one or all of the characters. After all, we don’t know exactly what secrets Bobby McGee shared… and probably they were different secrets depending on whether the singer was Gordon Lightfoot or Janis Joplin. One of the challenges of my own writing was how much of each protagonist to leave unresolved. While I write as a third person narrator, my perspective is not really omniscient but shifts among the protagonists’in-the-moment views and emotions as the story evolves. The novel cannot provide a complete autobiography of any of the characters and, in my view, should not. Ahter all, the human experience is full of incomplete understanding. The best fiction writing, in my view, does not impose the author’s views and allows the reader to figure out much for herself or himself — including what that elusive writer is all about!

    You should have an interesting workshop in Charlotte. I don’t think I’m able to participate, but congratulations on a good topic.

    Richard Sharp

    Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

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