Lucia Berlin and the use of auto-fiction
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture. You are reading my bonus ‘Afterthoughts’ letter, where we delve into the themes behind the writing.
On Sunday, my newsletter featured a piece on the late short story writer, Lucia Berlin.
I received many comments from readers that they had not come across Berlin’s work before, which was of no surprise to me, because as I wrote, I only discovered her by accident a few years ago. She appears to have gone fairly unnoticed on the original releases of her short story collections, making something of a resurgence on their re-issue in the collection A Manual for Cleaning Women in 2015.
Other readers were also interested to learn of the form of Berlin’s stories, which were often referred to more as ‘sketches’ and referenced as ‘auto-fiction’.
“The form of ‘auto-fiction’ (also called ‘self-fiction’) references work narrated as though straight from a writer’s own life, almost unchanged, but selected and told artfully, so as to create its own kind of fiction.”
It is often said that writers sometimes mine their own lives for stories and to create fictional characters. But what Berlin did was to take literal real life events from her own life and that of her family, and change small elements that she needed to in order to make it a piece of fiction.
Although this makes for the kind of authenticity I can appreciate in her stories, I find myself wondering how authors manage to lay bare their personal demons in this way, in order to create a piece of work.
I am a big fan of the personal essay, and have been practising writing a little more of these in my own creative practice. But I often wonder if I could publish the personal elements of my own writing in this way.
In Berlin’s work, the addicts and alcoholism that populated her reality unfolds in a seamless narrative, at turns fascinating, shocking, funny, and ultimately very real.
I am not moralising about this: I love to read such personal narratives and learn from others’ experiences. But it did make me wonder how other writers feel when their words are out into the world in this way, and whether this affects their relationships with others who may be affected by their stories. In Berlin’s case, as writer Lydia Davis confirms, even Berlin’s own sons claimed to be confused as to what was actually the truth of their mother’s story, and the fictionalised account she had portrayed of it.
I also wondered as I researched Berlin’s work and process of whether, where stories relate too closely to real life, why the author may have chosen to write in the form of auto-fiction rather than simply writing a memoir of their experiences. I think that perhaps the use of fiction (or auto-fiction) likely allows for the author to at least provide some level of distance from their reality.
I was reminded of my dissertation studies which were built around the ‘fictionalised memoir’ of Mary Borden, a nurse during WWI. Borden wrote similarly in ‘sketches’, or what she referenced in her introduction as ‘fragments’, relaying visceral accounts of the devastation of the war and the mutilation of male soldiers. In my paper, I argued, amongst other things, that Borden’s use of short fragments to represent her lived experiences (rather than the usually accepted form of a nursing memoir) allowed for some distance between the horrors she had seen and the facts of the war. Many of the ‘characters’ in her stories appear to be suffering the effects of trauma, something I argued represented Borden’s own trauma at bearing witness to such images, and therefore perhaps the only form she was able to convey this in.
I think Davis’s claim that Berlin’s writing is so enjoyable because we can relate some of it to our own lives, is interesting and holds a nugget of truth. We have all experienced something of what she has been through. Maybe not addiction or alcoholism directly, but there are always skeletons in family closets that can help you to connect to a story or narrative essay. I wonder then, is Davis right in her assumption that this is what allows for more enjoyment of an author’s work?
“The story itself becomes the truth, not just for the writer but for the reader. In any good piece of writing it is not an identification with a situation, but this recognition of truth that is thrilling.” The New Yorker
I think if you are a writer of any kind and wish to explore traumatic or even just mundane events from your past, using auto-fiction in your work may offer a way to distance yourself whilst still exploring the truth of your experiences. Alternatively, you can always share your most personal writing for yourself in a journal or notebook, and I know some people find this a cathartic practice.
As I noted in my original piece, I think that what makes Berlin’s stories so rich are the ways in which she reacts to the characters in a wholly humane way. She does not distinguish good from bad; these are real, flawed people, in all their humanity. She refuses to label her characters as simply bad people or stereotypes; just as she negates the darker sides of life with humour and light.
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