Autobiographical Fiction: Write a Short Story from Personal Experience | Adam Janos | Skillshare

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Autobiographical Fiction: Write a Short Story from Personal Experience

teacher avatar Adam Janos, Writer/Reporter

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Turning Life Into Fiction


    • 3.



    • 4.

      Turning Yourself Into a Character


    • 5.

      Example Reading


    • 6.



    • 7.

      Golden Details


    • 8.

      Exposition vs Scene


    • 9.

      Editing Down & Outro


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About This Class

Plenty of great writers admit to basing their fiction on their own experiences. As such, their fiction can come across as effortless: as if all Hemingway did was type out his memories. But there’s a big difference between writing down what happened and writing a story that’s true. In this course you’ll hone your skills in autobiographical fiction writing, culminating in a short work that is both true to your lived experiences and yet untethered from the constraints of a memoir.

You’ll learn how to brainstorm short story ideas from your life, how to turn yourself into an engaging character, and how to effectively write details. You’ll also learn about focusing on a central conflict, and balancing exposition and scene, which—together—will help ensure your story is properly paced. This class is great for aspiring writers taking a first crack at putting together a short story, as well as for more experienced memoir and fiction writers who want to dip their toes in the other genre.

The class will reference two short stories: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Diaz, and “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian. While you can still take the course without reading these stories, having done will help clarify some of the points being made. They are available for free online.

Meet Your Teacher

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Adam Janos



For years I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal's Greater New York bureau and I hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden. I've written and staged five musicals and published numerous short stories, personal essays, and op-eds. I currently live in Brooklyn with my cat Frida, where we're working on my first book.

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: I think a lot of people when they set out to write fiction for the first time can get intimidated about where to begin. That's because they'll look at a great work of literature and they won't understand how the author got from the blank page to this really richly imagined finished work. It seems almost like creative magic. But in this class we are going to demystify that process. My name is Adam Janusz and I am an autobiographical fiction writer. I worked for years as a reporter for the Wall Street journal's Greater New York Bureau. I'm also a published short story writer and memoirist. I've written and staged half a dozen plays in New York City, and I've taught creative writing at Rutgers University as well as [inaudible] So to better explain autobiographical fiction writing. If I were to ask you to write about Madison Square Park in New York City, you might not know where to begin, especially if you've never been to New York City. You might mention a yellow cab or a pizza shop or Lincoln skyscraper or maybe a business guy in a suit taking an important phone call. But if I were to take you to Madison Square Park, the situation will be different. Your scene would become a lot more vivid. Everyone seems to get that visual artist's draw from models. But what a lot of people don't realize is that storytellers do the exact same thing, except for instead of using a bowl of fruit, you're using your memories to bring your story to life. That's what we're going to do in this class. We're going to mine some of our most vivid memories and turn them into works of literature. Works with a compelling narrator and a clear, concise plot with a satisfying story arc, and descriptions of people, and settings that really shine from a first draft to revision, we are going to make something come to life. Can't wait to get started. 2. Turning Life Into Fiction: During this eight unit class, you're going to be producing a work of autobiographical fiction that is at least three pages long, which is about 750 words. Now, just so we're clear, that's a very short story. So if you go a little bit over or a lot over, that is totally fine. The quality of your writing is a lot more important than the word count. So over this course, I'm going to teach you how to avoid some common mistakes in fiction writing while also teaching you the basics of good storytelling. Here are those basics, an Engaging Protagonist. You want to create a central figure in your story that the reader is really compelled by and by the reader. I don't just mean your friends and family. I mean complete strangers. They are going to want to hear what this person has to say. A clear narrative arc where your protagonist who is engaging is wrestling with the central conflict and ultimately changes in a way that satisfies the reader. A central conflict where a problem is introduced, grappled with, and ultimately resolved for your very compelling protagonist. Evocative descriptions of settings in characters, which means mindfully avoiding lazy, cliched writing. A proper blend of scene and exposition, which means giving your rear a front row seat to all the action, but also allowing the reader into the head of your protagonist in a way that other art forms like film and television cannot. This sounds complicated, but a lot of it boils down to some really easy to learn tricks. So let start learning them. 3. Brainstorming: In the last class, I outlined for you the basic elements of autobiographical fiction writing, and in this class, we're going to start brainstorming, so that by the end of this lesson activity, you will more or less know what your story is going to be about, and I'm going to model the activity for you as we go. First, I want you to choose a negative emotion to center this brainstorming activity around. I'm talking about anger, or humiliation, or stress, and you might be wondering, well, why do I have to do a negative emotion? What if I want to write a happy story? But the thing you have to remember is that, even if your story has a happy ending, there has to have been some discomfort at some point in the lived story. That's because that's what going to give your story its dramatic tension, which is going to propel your story forward. You take this dark feeling, and then I want you to make a list of five to seven times that you can really remember having this feeling. For me, I'm going to choose anger, and here's my list. Here is my anger brainstorm. I remember, in college, my ex girlfriend, shortly after we broke up, got together with my best friend. That made me very angry. I also remember, in middle school, my brother was in a car accident, and the next day in school, I was teased about it by one of my classmates. That made me very angry. I was scammed out of several thousand dollars in Southeast Asia, also in college. Let's put that one on there. Cliche one, but maybe not nonetheless worth thinking about is the first heartbreak. There's no anger, quite like getting dumped for the first time. Then let's do professional one. I lost pay one, so I was never paid for a story that I wrote for a magazine, because the magazine shuttered while I was working on it. Now you have your list, and the next thing you want to do is you want to try to put them in order of intensity. I might say that the order went something like this. Now you want to make sure that the story you're writing about, it really reverberates with you, it's got to have an intensity to have the necessary emotion. I know that, I'm not getting paid enough, these just aren't stories that, I think, have enough juice to carry me through. But you also want to make sure when picking your story, that it's a time when you changed. Even though my ex girlfriend getting together with my best friend might be the time I felt angriest, there's not really too much of a story there, I didn't change, I was just aggrieved and bitter, and then life went on. Instead, I'm going to focus on getting scammed out of $2,000 in Southeast Asia, because that's an example of a time when something happened and I really took a lesson from it, and now I know not to just blindly trust strangers while traveling abroad. As this next writing exercise, what you're going to do, is after you've got your topic, you're going to write 250 to 750 words, answering the following questions. Why did this event matter so much to you then, and how did it impact your life moving forward? If you can't answer one of those questions, you have to either make up an answer, or you need to come up with a new topic. If you can answer those questions, congratulations, you have a clear conflict and a narrative arc. Now you have the basis for story. Go ahead and post that writing reflection on the project gallery, and if you're feeling really stuck, go ahead and look at some of your classmates notes, and maybe that'll get you unstuck. Next up we're going talk about how to turn yourself into a character. 4. Turning Yourself Into a Character: In the last class we found a time from your life that you are going to write about now, and in this class we're going to talk about the importance of turning yourself into a character. I want to really emphasize this point, you are not the same as your character. You may share a loose plot that you are now going to draft this character around, but whereas you are a flesh and blood human being with a variety of goals, many of which are ego driven, your character only has one goal, and that is to be a vehicle, with which you are going to drive an effective story forward. Now let's take a little bit of time to talk about what it means to drive a story forward. First, you need to establish for the reader, really quickly, who it is that's speaking. When you write the word I on the page, it can be really easy to believe that you're conveying a lot of information, all of the experiences you've had in life up until that point, and if the reader is your friends, or your family member, that may very well be true, but if the reader is a stranger, that I isn't going to convey anything, it's just a thin, solitary line on the page. As a writing exercise, I want you to write down the following qualities of your character. I want you to write their ethnicity, I want you to write their age, their gender, their economic class, their geographic location, where they are, and their politics, if they have any. This might sound identitarian, but these qualities actually say a lot, because a 75-year-old farmer living in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco is going to have a very different set of circumstances, than a 17-year-old libertarian woman who was living in Lawrence, Kansas. Next, I want you to write down some of your characters' works. What makes them different from other people who are of all these qualities? Maybe they have a sleep disorder, maybe they're still in love with their first grade crash, I don't know. Next, take a minute and write down some of your characters' flaws. This part is really important. I think, a lot of autobiographical fiction writers who are just starting out, like to focus on stories where they were a victim somehow, and though that story will definitely play with a parent or a close friend who will not knowingly remembering the time, a stranger who's reading the story, they just don't trust the story where the speaker doesn't have any problems and is above reproach. Remember, your goal in writing autobiographical fiction is to amuse your reader, not to win them over about some old fight you had. It can be one of the hardest parts of autobiographical fiction writing is, really being critical of yourself. I want to remind you again though, that this is not you, this is a character. I'm reminding you of that for two reasons right now. One, is, you can change any of these qualities and stray from yourself if it serves the story. You do not carry the burden of factuality in a fictional story. But the other reason is to remind you that you don't need to impress anyone with this character. After the story ends, this character goes away. Once you've finished writing down these qualities, and changing the ones that you wish, we're going to look at how a professional writer might introduce some of these characteristics into a story. 5. Example Reading: In your last lesson, you looked at some of your characters, basic qualities, and you mapped them out, but it is important that you not only write them down, but also that you deliver them to your reader and quickly. I want to look at how a professional writer does this. More specifically, we are going to look at Junot Diaz and his story, The Cheaters Guide to Love. This is from the fourth paragraph of that story. You can read it in its entirety in our class resources. In this story, the protagonist has been caught cheating by his girlfriend. "You try every trick in the book to keep her. You write her letters. You drive her to work. You quote Neruda. You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails. You change your phone number. You stop drinking. You stop smoking. You claim you're a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo do Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would, so the two of you can dance together. You claim that you were sick, you claim that you were weak. And every hour, like clockwork, you say that you're so so sorry. You try it all, but one day she simply sits up in bed and says, No more and Ya. And asks you to move from the Harlem apartment that you two share when you're not teaching in Boston. You consider not going. You consider a squat protest. In fact, you say you won't go. But in the end, you do." So this is only the fourth paragraph of the story, but we already know so much about the protagonist. We know that he is Dominican American. We know that he lives in Harlem. We know that he teaches in Boston. Of course we know his big flaw, which is that he is unfaithful. Also, notice that he seems to give a lot of this information indirectly. It is almost like you are learning it incidentally while he is telling the story. You know he is Dominican because he says, you blame Santa Domingo. We only know that he lives in Harlem and teachers in Boston because his girlfriend kicks him out of the apartment. In the next class, you are going to start writing your first draft of your story. As you are doing that, keep Junot Diaz's story in mind and think about how you can give your own characters information to the reader in a way that does not feel like you are just listing qualities. 6. Pacing: At this point you've got a flawed character who's based on you. You've got a memory that you're going to base your story on. It's almost time to write a draft. But first you have to figure out what goes into the story. Well, it's actually pretty straight forward. Anything that advances your conflict goes in. You need to really hone in on what the central conflict of your story is. It's a very short exercise. I want you to take a sentence or two to describe what the central conflict of your story is. For example, in the Cheaters Guide To Love by Junot Diaz, the central conflict is a man who has cheated and is now heartbroken, is trying to bring his life back together. A lot of inexperienced fiction writers will try to write all about summer camp stories. Don't do that. Find the central conflict, hone in, that's the anchor of your story. After you've identified your conflict, it's time to start writing. I like to think of autobiographical fiction writing as more like a performance rather than a conversation. Don't think of it like you're whispering confessions to your therapist who already knows your whole backstory from all the sessions you've had before. It's more like you're Al Pacino doing this exaggerated caricature of yourself in a way that's so big that everyone understands it even in the back row. First thing I'll do is I will set a timer for 30 minutes, I'll put my phone on mute and then I will just go and I'll sit in an armchair and think. Or if I'm feeling really antsy, I might still do the 30 minutes, still everything on mute, but it'll be a jog. The important thing for me is that I take a beat and without having pen or paper or computer, I just really allow my thoughts on the story to marinate. Once I've done that, I will write a very rough outline. This is usually something like a scene list where I'll write 2-3 word notes of the things that I think are going to happen in the story. I said that I was in a right about being scammed out of several $1000. I might say, I want a scene where the plane arrives, in which I introduce my characters. Maybe we'll have walking around Bangkok. We'll have the scam location one, which was the taxi. Then I'll do scam location two, which is the temple. Then will have location three, which is the jeweler. Then we'll have the discovery and the final confrontation. Now I want to emphasize that unlike the stuff about the central conflict or a flawed protagonist, this process is not a hard and fast rule that all writers do. I like to use the arm chair or the jog or the timer, but I have a writer friend who likes to, for example, write her first draft by hand. Then the process of taking that handwriting and typing it out is how she gets her first draft of her story. The important thing is that you find something that works for you. What I will say is that when you're first writing your story, don't worry so much about getting things right on the sentence level. It's much more about getting the structure out. That first draft, it's almost like you're writing and advanced outline because it's much easier to edit something and work with bad writing or rough writing than it is to work with a blank page. You want to make sure that your central character is flawed, that you'd get a lot of important biographical information to the reader soon so they know who's speaking and that you allow the conflict to drive the story forward. Finally, I will start writing. It's important for me not to get caught up on the sentence level stuff. I'm just trying to get things from the brain to the page, the beginning of the conflict when it's introduced until the resolution. This is my first draft. Once you've written your first draft, go ahead and post it to the class page. Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect and in fact it can be very rough. Over the next several classes I'm going to teach you about sentence level work and we're going to make sure that the next draft will also be posted and really shines. 7. Golden Details: So at this point, you've written a first draft of your story which focuses on a flawed protagonist who faces a central conflict, and as a result of that conflicts resolution changes in some way. Now, we're going to start looking at some of the descriptions you should be putting into your story to help make it a little bit more vivid. But first, let's talk about what you shouldn't be writing, so you shouldn't be writing cliches. Now what are cliches? Well, it's a grouping of words that you've heard so many times as to feel redundant or they don't strike any new feelings or thoughts in your head. Saying that Paul was strong as an ox or that Nancy is graceful as a swan, these are cliched descriptions of people. Saying that some place is a city of contrasts, that's a cliched description of setting. Instead, your description should feel specific, and original, and to the thing that you're describing for example, my friend Joel always hunches because he hates towering over people. Now, please understand, not every sentence needs to be this spectacular display of originality. Sometimes it needs to be pedestrians, sometimes you just need to get the information across, right? The dog walked up the hill, that's okay to do that. Just never say, I was tired as a dog. For the next exercise what I want you to do is that I want you to make a list of every setting that's going to appear in your story. For each setting, I want you to make a list of just descriptions of that place, and really use all five senses because writing is not like film, you're not restricted to sight and sound, right? You can talk about what a place smelled like, you can talk about what something felt like, really get in there. Keep writing until you are all dried up. Then once you're there, I want you to go through your list and I want you to cross out everything that feels like a cliche because you're not going to use it in the story. Now, do the exercise all over again except for this time, instead of settings do with the characters that you encounter. What makes these characters really unique, between that first draft of the story and these descriptions of characters and places you now have the who, the what, the where, and the when, that's a lot of scene. But you don't have as much of the how, and the why, that's exposition. In our next lesson, we're going to look at the difference between scene and exposition and how to balance the two in a story. 8. Exposition vs Scene: In this lesson, we're going talk about the difference between Exposition and Scene. Your scene sentences are all the sentences that occur at a very specific time and place. Jeremy caught a scent of popcorn as he passed the concession stand or I looked her in the eye or a line of dialogue these are all your scene sentences. But other sentences in your story won't occur at a specific time and place. So for example, tourists always made Jeremy feels sad or I was broke and needed a job. That's not happening at a specific time, in a specific place and that is your exposition, those your expository sentences. Exposition is a huge advantage that literature has over film. That ability to go seamlessly into the thoughts and feelings of a character. It's a really important tool that the writer know that they have in their toolbox. But too much exposition is going to drag your story down. The reader is naturally hungry for scene because it's their front row seat to the action. They want the blow by blow account of what happened. I find that a lot of inexperienced non-fiction writers will lean way too heavily on exposition with not enough scene. Meanwhile, inexperienced fiction writers often make the mistake the other way, they include a ton of scene, but don't include enough exposition. As a general rule of thumb, I think it's good to have about 80 percent scene, 20 percent exposition. Those numbers don't have to be exact but when you have more or less that ratio, the reader is thoroughly engaged with what's happening. They have a lot of images in their minds to keep them compelled, but they also know why the story matters and they have a sense of the interiority. As a short exercise, go to your first draft and highlight all the exposition sentences. Then look at the whole thing, where you falling on the 80-20 rule. If there's a lot of scene, that means, you know, you have some room to add more exposition. If there's a lot of exposition, the opposite is true. In our next lesson, we'll write a second draft. 9. Editing Down & Outro: This is the last lesson of our Skillshare class. Congratulations. You are now ready to write your second draft. But before you do that, I want to remind you of some of the stuff we learned, which you can keep in mind as you are putting it together. So you should have an engaging protagonist. That means a character that the reader is going to get, even if they have no idea who you, the writer are. Make sure you include a lot of relevant information in the first page or two, and include a sufficient amount of quirks and flaws. You should also have a clear conflict and narrative arc. That means that there is a central tension that the reader just understands is driving the story, a conflict that is introduced, wrestled with and resolved. Over the course of that time, your narrator changes. You should also have golden details in your story. Sentences that really make the reader know where they are. That means avoiding cliches and favoring simple sentences over unoriginal ones. Finally, there should be a good balance of scene and exposition. For me, I like to make it about 80 percent scene, 20 percent exposition. As for me, and this is totally optional and not something that you have to do or in fact something that most writers do, but I like to take my story when I think I'm happy with it and put it into a text to speech program and then just listen to it back. There is something about having a voice read it to me that is not mine, even if it is a robot. That really gives me a sense for the pacing of the story, maybe figure out where it drags, it also lets me hear the music of the story, and of course, it allows me to catch any sentence level errors that I might not have seen. That is it. You should now have a polished story. I really hope you will upload your story into your class project, because I really want to read it and I am looking forward to seeing what you have created.