8 Tips for Creating Semi-Autobiographical Work

I’m currently working on my latest play, For a Black Girl. It’s a semi-autobiographical, semi-verbatim exploration of the experiences of BAME (predominantly female BAME) citizens in the UK. To use a little less jargon, I used dialogue from situations I’ve encountered in my life and also dialogue collated from discussions with people I have known, to shape the world(s) of the play. This blogpost is all about my experience of performing in (and writing) such a play. Of course, I’ll be talking largely about For a Black Girl but feel free to extrapolate what I’ve learnt to your own work. Here are 8 things you should consider when making semi-autobiographical art…

  1. Check Your Motives 

I would advise against using any type of autobiography as a tool for revenge. Yes, we’ve all had people hurt us in the past. And yes, the story you’re trying to tell may very well examine the hurt and the people that caused it. But check your motives!  Ask yourself if you really need to mention that ex boyfriend or girlfriend by name. Is it imperative to the narrative that your audience can pinpoint who hurt you in real life, or is it simply imperative to your own frustrations? Yes, it can be highly therapeutic to lash out at figures in our own lives but you’re writing this for a reason other than revenge, right? (Because revenge comes in many forms and I’m not sure a poetry anthology/play/novel is gonna hack it). What are the wider implications here? What is the message of your art?

By all means, use real life experiences to shape your world. If you have a strife-filled relationship with your father and your work is about abusive fathers and therefore negative filial relationships are evident in your work, then that’s fine. (That’s basically the ‘write what you know’ maxim). But if you just want to one-up someone, I would advise seriously thinking about why and how (if at all!) this is benefiting your audience. Autobiography’s first consideration shouldn’t be the exposure of others. Don’t be fuelled by hatred!

 

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2. It’s okay to have secrets 

Here’s a crazy suggestion: unless you’re  fine with everybody knowing the ins and outs of your personal life (if you are then that’s awesome, kudos to you), put limits on what you will or will not reveal. Remember – you don’t have to tell people which parts of your work are actually based on you and which parts are fiction. This type of secrecy helped me immensely during the debut production of For a Black Girl – there was a freedom which accompanied the knowledge that, at the end of the day, no matter how much I revealed, people wouldn’t know what was about me for CERTAIN.

I would even go so far as to suggest that even if you think you’re fine with spilling the metaphorical beans, test yourself first. Reveal secrets to your audience little by little. Let’s say, for example, your play is about addiction. Let’s also say, for the sake of example, you are battling a few addictions yourself. Why not try revealing just one of these addictions to a trusted few? If after your first ‘revelation’, you feel emotionally exhausted, paranoid, and downright terrible, this will show you that you’re not yet ready to be so honest about your experiences with everyone. Protecting yourself is key. Yes, art is important but if you’re going to be mentally unstable as a result, your art is going to suffer anyway. Let’s remember that our audiences are not delicate. They can deal with your secrecy. Will they be pissed off? Maybe. Does it matter? Probably not. Nobody has a right to know EVERYTHING.

 

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3.  Protect Yo’self

In a particularly harrowing scene in the play, I ended up being much more emotionally fraught than I ever thought I would be. When we finished the run through, my fellow actor turned to me and said, “Should we have safe words?” I think understanding, trust and empathy go a long way, particularly when working with topics close to home. Be ready to revisit emotions. Be ready to face your inner emotions but also be ready to deal with them externally. Putting yourself in the public eye can be daunting and audiences as a whole are varying in their abilities to be sensitive. In fact, sometimes the public have done nothing wrong but their mere reaction creates heightened emotion.

For example, there are some things I have included in my play that I am no longer hurt by. You may be in a similiar position. Let’s say a person caused you pain or said a particularly horrible comment (that also happens to make a killer line of dialogue – yes!) You’ve forgiven the person but it’s dramatically relevant so you include it in your work.  Life goes on. BUT when certain audiences experience the play, they may be shocked, indignant, and angry on your behalf. You begin to realise: woah, that time my girlfriend called me  ****x@!!** was actually NOT normal. Or, wow, I’ve actually had it tougher than I realised. 

If this happens, take a moment to breathe. Revisiting situations can be helpful but reigniting pain due to the perception of others (also known as reopening wounds) may not be helpful.

So keep yourself safe and decide beforehand how you’re going to employ this safety (whether physical or emotional). Do you need safe words? Do you need to debrief every now and again? Do you need to step away from the project once a month? Do it.

 

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4. Not Everyone Will Get It 

You may be stupidly honest about a particularly joyful moment in your life or a particularly sad moment. But to an audience, it is ultimately just that: a moment. (Well okay, it should be more than that but you get what I mean). People may niggle with certain details or straight up disbelieve something which blatantly happened in real life. I remember writing a short story during my university years, in which a character from a well regarded profession said something very offensive to the Black British protagonist. Immediately my creative writing class came alive with cries of:

  • Unrealistic!
  • Inauthentic!
  • [Someone like that] would never say [something like that]
  • The part that didn’t ring true for me was…

I found it very difficult not to laugh because of course, this was the one and only part of the story that was literally verbatim. It had happened. It does happen. In fact, my lecturer at the time was the only one to stand up for me! Remember that other peoples’ experiences may blind them to your own. (My lecturer is black so I wondered after if this was the reason he was the only one to understand…) We walk the world in different ways, which may leave some of your audience like…

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Being easily offended will not serve you well. In fact, I would go so far as to say…

5. Be prepared to be offended 

I’ll be honest – this can be difficult for me. In the past I’ve had a tendency to diminish myself simply for the sake of not offending others. But let me tell you right now – if you work on anything semi-autobiographical, be prepared to be offended. After all, you’re putting your life (or at least a part of it) on display for everybody to see and critique. Bear in mind that people are going to have a problem with your life and with your experiences. I know. Crazy right? They are, after all, your experiences not theirs. But nonetheless, you’re putting yourself out there, so be prepared for the worst case scenario of (gasp!) disagreement and/or outright mockery.

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6. Artistic license is great. Sometimes.

There are pros and cons to using artistic license in semi-autobiographical work. Pros? Well firstly, the form wouldn’t exist without artistic license – it would just be a memoir or an autobiography. Secondly, you’re an artist right? This is where you get to have a bit of creative freedom! The con is that you cannot control what other people think about you. Even if you explicitly say that a particular part of your book/play/whatever is not about you, people may forever wonder if it really is. Even if you adamantly stick to point number 2, you cannot control what people assume is real and what people assume is fiction. And as nice as it would be to boldly and honestly declare: “I don’t care what anyone thinks!” I haven’t quite reached that point. Realistically, I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting you care about how you are perceived – to an extent (see point no. 5). After all, if your semi-autobiographical performance is all about alcoholism, are you okay with people questioning your own recreational activities? (I think the assumption that characters take after the author happens to many artists, regardless of whether their work is pure fiction or not. But with semi-autobiographical work, such assumptions aren’t entirely illogical!)

Following the first read-through of my new play, one of the cast members turned to me and her first question was: “Is this autobiographical?” It isn’t. It’s semi. But people naturally jump to conclusions when they sense parallels between you and your work. Especially if you share certain characteristics with your protagonists – age, sexuality, race, etc. So make artistic license your friend.

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7. Be aware of form 

This is similar to artistic license; don’t be so precious about recounting everything that happened in its exact format. Create work that fits the form! For example, there are a number of conversations in For a Black Girl which, if I’d transcribed word for word, would make a pretty boring visual and auditory experience for the audience. Just because in real life the conversation began: ‘hey how’s it going?’ ‘pretty well, you?’ ‘yeah good thanks’ ‘how’s your mum’? doesn’t mean that all of this needs to exist in your text. BORING. A balance between truth and fiction needs to be reached and you can achieve this by a) moving on to the most interesting parts of the conversation or b) abstracting dialogue & relationships. Perhaps in real life a stranger made a comment that you want in the play. However, if adding in an extra character for this one line is impractical, neither suiting the theme nor atmosphere of the play, can you assign this dialogue to someone else? A friend? A lover? Does it have a similiar vibe? Does it achieve the meaning? I think novelists are pretty adept at doing this, simply because a book is so vast there’s bound to be a whole loada dialogue in there that was gleaned from overheard conversations. But other art forms can use this technique too! Get creative.

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8. Be flexible but don’t forget the original intention

Perhaps the most important. Any work of art is a long and emotional journey. Be prepared to edit, revise and listen. But remember your original intention, always. You’ve done so much hard work – you owe it to yourself.

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So that’s it. Nikki’s 8 tips on creating semi-autobiographical content. Hope this helps! Any more you can think of? Let me know!

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