"What Did You Think Was Missing?" The Anxiety of Autobiographical Fiction

In conversations leading up to any family-gathering holiday, it’s common (at least among groups of writer-friends) after summaries of family tension and drama to hear someone say, “Oh my god, you have to write a novel about that.” Nobody ever seems to mean it literally so much as a less direct way of saying, “that sounds horribly stressful and I’m sorry.” In fact, the traditional response is a laugh and “I could never.”

The annual resurgence of these conversations has made me think about the two contexts in which I most often hear autobiographical fiction discussed—first, authors’ anxiety over writing it (“I could write the story but I could never show it to X,” or even “I’d have to wait for Y to die”); second, the anxiety of an interview in which the question is raised. Sometimes this is global, a piece’s clear autobiographical content an elephant in the room that a savvy interviewer is loath to bring up but powerless to ignore. But most often the discomfort is the author’s alone, as writers are asked broadly how much of their story is “true” or “real” and end up having to defend their work, their personal lives, and the distinction between them. This usually feels to me like an issue of underpreparation, with “how much of this really happened” standing in for a more thoughtful or specific question about the book on its own terms, asking the author to supply the nuance and direction in their answer.

In general this line of questioning isn’t especially fruitful—not just in interviews, but for readers and audiences as well. But sometimes there are rule-proving exceptions, works of such ambiguous genre that the matter of autobiography is fascinating and impossible to sidestep, even if the audience were determined to try.

I’m thinking here, today at least, of The Big Sick. The film is based so directly on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s lives that to ignore the question of autobiography in fiction would feel absurd. When I’m interested in a complicated interview, I’m always happy to see Jesse Thorn at the helm—he’s thoughtful and complex, and hoo boy, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard one of his subjects respond to a question with an un-canned, stricken variation on “oh my god, nobody has ever asked me this.” In his interview with Nanjiani and Gordon, instead of “asking” so, this really happened to you guys, huh, Thorn asks Gordon “When you read [Nanjiani’s first draft of the screenplay], what did you think was missing from it?” After the couple gets out a few of the stricken oh my gods I mentioned earlier, her answer is fascinating, and leads to a conversation about how art grows out of life in general—and how our life experiences impact our creative work, not just in plot but in process.

I guess that’s the upshot of this being on my mind this holiday week, post-Thanksgiving and making a dent in my reading and watch-lists. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this may be the time of year we think most about why we write what we do—about what moves us in life and in art, what we're obsessed with, what’s off-limits and what’s too important to be off-limits. Nobody “has to write a novel about” anything, of course, especially their and their family’s personal lives—and in general, the percentage of autobiographical content in any work of fiction is irrelevant. But I think it’s worth asking ourselves as writers the more interesting alternatives to these pat questions—the “oh my god, nobody has ever asked me this” versions. What’s missing from our first drafts?