Writing a Short Story

That Feels Autobiographical

by Kathy Coogan

I write short stories. Fiction. I read them to a group of writers, some strangers to me. Inevitably, one of those writers asks, “Is this autobiographical?” Inside I smile for that is the greatest compliment. If fiction seems like memoir then I have succeeded in making my character as real as myself.

I am a woman. My characters are often women. In that case I can understand the question, “Is this autobiographical?” Even if the woman/character is an alcoholic or a dying anorexic or a widow who is happier since her husband died or an abused wife who gets her abuser good. I understand the question and I am complimented by it. The woman character, unlike me as she is, must seem as alive as I am as I read the story to the listeners.

But when the character is a stuttering seven year old boy or a girl who has gotten her first period and fears that the alligator floating in the pond nearby can smell her, then I feel truly accomplished when the listener asks, “Is this autobiographical?”

For a moment the listeners/readers believe in the existence of this fictional character; believe that the character is as real as the writer standing before them. And they are right. If I have done my job, in that moment of listening or reading, that character - whether woman, man, boy or girl - that character is alive even if it isn't me.

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