Teaching Students to Write Autobiographical Fiction by David Lee Finkle
Once, I produced a science fiction epic film.
Well, I attempted to.
I was in junior high school in the early 1980s. Armed with a Super 8 camera, styrofoam spaceships, cardboard sets, and homemade robot costumes, my friends and I managed to film about four minutes of the two-hour saga I’d envisioned.
Sadly, my friends moved away, and my movie studio collapsed - literally. My father, drunk at the time, rammed the garage that housed my daydreams to the ground with the family car late one August night.
The science fiction story we attempted to film before the studio destruction wasn’t great material - but the “making of” story surrounding it was. I knew, even at the age of 14, that I would need to write about it, but I wasn’t sure how.
But with inspiration from daydream stories like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes I eventually wrote a novel, Making My Escape. It is the story of a boy named Daniel Finn who tries to produce a sci-fi epic and his braver alter-ego Zack attempts to escape an evil cyborg.
It was published in 2002. I have taught it to my students for many years and used it to encourage their own creativity by having them write their own autobiographical fiction.
From what I’ve seen, fiction writing isn’t encouraged in many schools, but I would argue that fiction writing is more rigorous and requires more thought than the essays about fiction we have students write.
I teach fiction writing for several reasons:
narrative writing is important in many contexts (college essays, for example)
it’s in the standards, even if it’s not tested
it develops students’ creativity, and
it forces students to think about fiction differently, which allows them to analyze it better.
To get students started, I ask them to look to their own lives for material, just as I did. As we read my novel, I give them prompts that relate events in the book to events from their own lives: Write about your daydreaming, being creative with friends, a goal you tried to achieve, how you cope with problems, or a zany neighborhood figure.
These prompts always generate lots of sharing and tons of useful material for each writer.
The next challenge students face is curating their own experiences and fictionalizing them.
Here again, my own writing experience helps. I don’t tell my students about what was real or made-up as we read my novel, but once we’ve finished, I let them ask questions about my creative process.
They find out that nearly everything in the book was based on reality, but that nearly everything was changed somehow to make the story work as fiction. The movie-making events took place during 7th grade; the drunken father events took place during 8th grade. I mashed those two years together for a tighter plot.
I combined my three brothers together into one. I revised the science fiction movie plot, creating two planets, gray and white, to match my family’s two garages, my father’s gray work garage and my white movie studio.
I didn’t lose touch with reality and delve too far into my daydreams - but Daniel did, because it made a better story with stronger themes.
We talked about the choices I made, and why I made them. I changed events to tighten the plot, highlight themes, clarify symbolism, and create ironic twists that gave the ending its punch. Autobiographical fiction is reality, shaped and molded to create meaning.
With those concepts in mind, my students have written their own stories over the years - some funny, some tragic, some touching.
Some students learned more than just writing skills from Making My Escape. They took it, and my personal story, to heart. Daniel Finn discovers, as I did, that daydreaming and writing can be an escape from reality and also a way to deal with it.
Reading Making My Escape with my students allowed me to show them that I survived my own childhood by writing about it - transforming it.
Writing their own stories, I think, showed them that they could do the same.
David Lee Finkle has been teaching in Florida for 28 years. He currently teaches Creative Writing and English I. He also teaches fiction writing at Stetson University’s HATS program, leading students to write collaborative novels in a week. He is the author of two professional books for Scholastic, and for 20 years has been drawing Mr. Fitz, his comic strip about teaching, online and for local newspapers. He is currently revising Making My Escape to make the sci-fi sections into a graphic novel/storyboard.