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When is the Truth Better Written as Fiction?


by A.V. Dicken


One piece of writing advice most every writer has heard is: Write what you know. So, in some way, every writer, regardless of genre, pulls from their own life for inspiration in their work. For me, that advice showed up as memoir and creative nonfiction writing. However, the requirement that the events and experiences in the stories I wrote be factual retellings made one particular story very difficult to pen. I tried to write it many times over a ten-year period. It became the story clogging up the funnel any other ideas were trying to come through. Like author James Baldwin said of his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It On the Mountain: “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” This is where I found myself when I decided to try my hand at semi-autobiographical magical realism.


Semi-autobiographical fiction (SAF), or roman a’ clef for the literature majors, is more than just a covert memoir. While the central elements of the plot or the characters are based on the author’s real-life, they are reimagined creatively to tell a different story altogether. When taking on the work of writing SAF as fantasy or magical realism, a writer creates the paradox of telling truth in a world much different than our own, not as an escape from reality, but a unique reflection of it.


Semi-autobiographical fantasy allows us to practice greater vulnerability.

When author Thomas Wolfe published his coming of age novel Look Homeward, Angel the community in his hometown was reportedly so upset with the depiction of themselves, the author didn’t return there for seven years. There are repercussions to writing stories based on our lives and the people in them. Practically speaking, SAF gives us freedom to write difficult things without unintended consequences to ourselves or others.


Fiction is a safe place to practice vulnerability, to discard the defenses of self-protection which can inhibit our writing, and explore honestly our own experiences. If we are looking over our shoulders while writing, worrying about what our family might think, self-censoring and doubt can diminish our work. Writing semi-autobiographical fiction has allowed me to close the door to my writing room and “write hard and clear about what hurts” as Hemingway recommended.


Semi-autobiographical fantasy makes hard stories more accessible to readers.

Some true stories are harder to tell than others and even harder to read. For those writing about traumatic experiences or looking to read stories that reflect their own painful pasts, straightforward memoirs can be a polarizing trigger. Writing those difficult stories in fantasy or magical realism can give language and voice to situations many readers couldn’t receive when written as nonfiction. The fantasy genre has the power to disable our defenses with some distance from reality and make something hopeful out of shared sorrow. Magic can be the mediation between difficult stories and empathetic readers.


Semi-autographical fantasy lets us explore and speculate on the truth.

When we write fantasy or magical realism, we are set loose inside a whole new story, and often a newly imagined world, to speculate, to dream, and to work out anxieties and worst-case scenarios that the limitations of creative nonfiction can’t offer. We can play with what happened to us and tell the story of how it could have been, for better or for worse, or how we wished it would have happened. We’re the author after all, and get to write the story as many times and in as many different ways as we please.


This includes multiple points of view. Semi-autobiographical fiction doesn’t require a single honest narrator to tell the story. There’s space to examine the perspectives and motivations of the other characters adding richness to the complexities of our story. We can write hope into an experience that never felt hopeful, or forgiveness into a relationship where it never existed in the true version of the story.


Fiction isn’t the face itself, but the reflection of that face in the mirror, and in this case, it’s a magic mirror. Semi-autobiographical fantasy or magical realism is a reflection of the truth, a chance to portray our own sorrow, happiness, lament, and laughter while letting it all be swept up in the magic of a fantastical tale. We can release a difficult story into the world without the factual constraints of memoir, not pointing directly to ourselves, but telling a story that points at the greater complexities of truth, nourishing others with the magic some of us suspect has been with us all along.


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