Thursday 1 May 2014

Writing semi-autobiographical fiction about disability #BADD14

This is my post for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014.

Well. I've finally taken the leap of faith, and started writing the novel that's been tunneling out of my subconscious for the last couple of years. And they do say write about what you know. So I'm writing in the first person about a woman who develops MS.

But is writing semi-autobiographical fiction really worthwhile? And can a novel about disability be interesting to a general audience?

If my story was purely autobiographical, it would be a thinly disguised version of my own life story, with names and locations disguised. Firstly, this would certainly be excruciatingly boring for the reader. Secondly, parts of it would probably be actionable!

So what I'm doing instead is using my personal knowledge of my condition - multiple sclerosis - and how it affects me, and inventing a background, relationships, and story for my protagonist. I have access to the emotions I felt when I developed and was diagnosed with MS, and anecdotes from friends with MS of how their family, friends, and work colleagues reacted.

A novel is not just about the one central plotline, or it would be very short indeed. I can use my experience, both of disability and everyday life, as inspiration for plot points and to help me understand my characters' emotions. So, for instance, a real-life neighbour who takes her ferret for a walk every day in an animal carrier will be making an appearance, along with her pet.

Real life isn't connected. Random things happen at random times. Wild coincidences take us by surprise, that we wouldn't believe for a second in fiction. In a novel, however much it draws on your own life, you have to order and arrange your material to make some sort of coherent narrative .

In the end, as Tom Clancy said:

The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.
Do novels about disability have to be serious? Not in the least. You can see humour in any situation. My heroine is a strong, funny woman. Yes, being diagnosed with MS is a major, serious life event. But looking back on it, the process is full of humorous moments. If I can see that, so can she. Real life isn't always funny at the time. But a book can be.

And who knows? Perhaps if I can make it funny and accessible (and anyone wants to read it anyway!) it'll get over a bit of information about disability in general and MS in particular along the way. Which would be no bad thing, right? The more people know, the less stigma and disablism we'll hopefully all encounter.

So. If there's anything you think from your own experience I should try to include, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I'll keep you updated as much as I can. And rest assured, once it's finished I'll pimp it to death!


  1. I think that it's cool that you are doing it. I want to read it, grin. Not to mention I think you are inspiring me. Good luck. I'm glad she is the protagonist.

  2. I've got CP. But if any stranger ever asks why the chair it's almost always along the lines of "have you got MS" even a physio (not the one who was treating me but one who came along to help for a moment) went "so when did you get your MS diagnosis?" The only real exception is old people who generally ask if I had polio.

  3. I need to add, you inspire me because I did the same thing. I wrote 2 pages about a girl with autism having a fantasy adventure. I gave it up because I didn't think I could write her without writing it about me. It would be too much like an autobiography and not another person. If that makes sense I don't know if I could do it now but I was thinking about trying again. You just reminded me I should do it not just think.

  4. Really excited to hear about your novel, Margo - the very best of luck to you!

    Thanks for contributing to and helping to promote Blogging Against Disablism Day! :-)

  5. I've written three cripfic novels which have been published in Finland and I'm currently trying to get the translation rights sold. None of them are autobiographical - the first one is maybe 5% based on true events and most of them are things that happened to my friends. But because the main character has the same illness as me, people assume it's autobiographical. Oh well.

    With autobiographical novels, as any novels, it's all about whether the story is interesting. Some of us have intrisically interesting stories, some haven't, which is where the fiction comes in.

    If you want to read an excellent autobiographical novel about a neurological illness, try The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry. The MCs in my novels treat disability and illness often with an ironic attitude and/or black humor (some people have found my novels too dark; other say they are not in any way dark because of the irony and humor), but her approach is somewhat different.

    Sensuous detail is very important. It makes everything more real in all types of writing, but at the same time it helps in making sure that the whole thing too dark/heavy or too diary-like.

  6. What happened to your novel? Still writing it? Finished?