Screen Porch

A Conversation on Autofiction with Heather Hasselle


Elisabeth Moss

Heather Hasselle, a writer and educator in New Orleans, is teaching The Art of Autofiction, an upcoming class about exploring and experimenting with the blurred line of facts and fiction. Heather spent two years as an editorial assistant at American Short Fiction and has attended various workshops, including the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2016 and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2021. She currently teaches art and writing through the non-profit programs Young Audiences of Louisiana and Community Works. Her fiction has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Nurture Literary, Joyland Magazine and The Harvard Advocate. She is at work on a novel, Dirt Don’t Hurt, based on a childhood spent at the dirt track races across the American South.

Heather was kind enough to answer my questions about autofiction and her upcoming four-week class starting on February 20, via Zoom. 

How would you define autofiction? What distinguishes it from memoir?

I only first heard the term a few years ago, and honestly I prefer the longhand of autobiographical fiction. Autofiction sounds like the literary version of Instagram. I imagine a robot voice: au-to-fic-tion. Anyway, I think it describes the approach of using the happenings of one's life to give breath to a story, without trying to tell THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE, if that makes sense. Memoir, I think, is more of an attempt to do that—to use memory as the foundation rather than flare, though of course memory is so malleable and fiction-leaning itself. So, who's to say! Many writers have spoken on this in a much more eloquent way. Elisa Gabbert's Unreality of Memory comes to mind. Ultimately, I'm not all that interested in making clear distinctions between these genres. I think the more important question for a writer is: Which approach will help you tell the better story?

You mention Jo Ann Beard and Ocean Vuong in your description of the class. How do these writers balance fact and fiction in their work? Who are some other writers to study? 

Jo Ann Beard is a master of riding the line. Her essay collection, The Boys of My Youth, tells stories of her childhood (and beyond) and contains an essay where the narrator, Beard, is a baby. In an interview with the Guardian, Beard makes a good guess as to why Boys has such a cult following: "as a memoir told in essays that read like fiction, perhaps burgeoning artists were attracted to the idea that their writing didn’t have to fit into one category and didn’t have to obey certain rules." Yes! Ocean Vuong does something similar in terms of "borrowing from his life" to create his fiction/poetry. In On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (perfect title, incredible book), Vuong uses his life as a backdrop for his particular prosaic flare, elevating his personal narrative into something beyond just a recounting—an emotional, poetic experience. In a Paris Review interview, Vuong said, "I wanted the book to be founded in truth but realized by the imagination." That's what I'm talking about!

"I think autofiction describes the approach of using the happenings of one's life to give breath to a story, without trying to tell THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE."

Do you think creative liberties can be taken “too far” in autofiction? Where do you draw the line between truth and fiction, especially when other characters are introduced? 

I don't believe in too far. Please, be at liberty to be creative! Always. I suppose if you're creating a character from a real person in your life, the easiest and most courteous thing to do is to change the name. Slight changes like that free you up to fictionalize your way into the character you need rather than the person you know, anyway.

What’s a writing exercise you recommend to start channeling life experiences into words? 

An exercise I learned from Megan Stielstra in a Porch workshop (about teaching workshops) is to draw a timeline from the day you were born to right now, marking the most pivotal moments in your life, and then write scenes from those moments. My additional suggestion to fictionalize it is to change something... the year, the location, the narrator. Mash your parents together into one person, what would that character be like? Try things like that.

William Faulkner calls plot the “thin red line” that runs through a text. In what ways do you trace a connecting thread through your life, and does it require some level of fictionalizing? 

The only way I know how to write about my life is to fictionalize it. I've tried to write more direct creative nonfiction or memoir, and I always end up making shit up. So, I don't think too much about the thin red line of my life, just the thread of the particular story I'm telling, whatever color it may be. Sorry, William. 

How might writers from all genres benefit from taking this class?

I want to spark a conversation about how we cull our experiences and mold them into stories, poems, essays, etc. What it's like to turn yourself into a character, into a narrator, into the speaker of the poem...or not! This class will be more interesting if we have a group with varying approaches, so I hope all you weirdo fiction writers, poets, and essayists take this class. I want it to be generative in all the ways: generate conversation, generate words, generate stories. Okay the more I say generate, the more it's also sounding robotic! Gen-er-ate. Hell, robots are welcome to take the class too. But only if they can finally figure out what a stop sign looks like. 

Join Heather for The Art of Autofiction, a four-week class meeting Tuesday evenings from Feb 20 to March 5, online via Zoom.


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