Twenty-four years ago I decided to become a writer. In particular, I wanted to write a novel and had an idea for a semi-autobiographical story based on the experience that had inspired my desire to write. Around this time, my family bought its first computer. The way to write a book, I presumed, was to sit down and type.
I wrote the opening scene, and since I more-or-less knew how the story would evolve, I abandoned a linear approach in favour of writing later key scenes that were grabbing me now. I must have looked at a writing advice book or two because I recall reading that semi-autobiographical fiction rarely works. My book would be the exception, I felt, like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, one of my favourite authors when I was a child.
While I enjoyed writing my dramatic scenes and even cried while composing one, I soon realized that I knew nothing about writing. I hadn’t written a fictional story since high school. A year after starting the book, I registered for two continuing education courses at Concordia University in Montreal, where I lived at the time. For convenience, I chose ones that were back-to-back on the same night: Magazine Writing taught by Denise Roig and Introductory Creative Writing by poet Gerry Shikatani.
Gerry, I was recently pleased to learn, is, among other things, the founding director of Lorca’s Granada: writers’ retreat & colloquia in Granada, Spain, a city I visited last year and am thinking of using as a story setting. Denise has published two critically acclaimed short story collections. My writing instruction began in good hands.
A few classes in, I had my first revelation: my novel-in-progress was crap. Semi-autobiographical fiction didn’t work, at least it didn’t for me. The facts — what really happened — were preventing my imagination from taking flight and I was also holding back on portraying my psedo-real characters with all their conflicts and warts. Non-fiction had the compensating benefits of being true, while semi-autobiographical fiction seemed to combine the weaknesses of fiction and non-fiction. In addition, my instructors were steering me in the direction of writing shorter pieces, which was good for learning. I abandoned my novel-in-progress and went with the flow of the courses.