Elise Hooper: Is All Writing Autobiographical?

Author of "The Other Alcott": What writing fiction taught her about herself.

Posted Sep 05, 2017

Contributed by Elise Hooper, author of "The Other Alcott"

 Elise Hooper
Source: Used with permission: Elise Hooper

In sixth grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and promptly used my savings to buy a little white diary with a teddy bear on the cover and a lock on the side. It didn’t take long before my younger brother snuck into my room, found the diary’s key, and proceeded to unlock and read it. When I approached my mother, wailing about my lack of privacy, she remained unmoved. “Always be careful what you write down because who knows who might read it someday? What if the house were to burn down and your diary were to be thrown out on the front lawn for all of the neighbors to read?”

Her pragmatic warning left me rattled. Though I couldn’t have articulated it at that age, writing introspectively, either memoir or fiction, suddenly became a risk, one that could open me up to all kinds of dangers. Still, the heroines of my youth — Jo March, Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley — these characters had all longed to write, so I steered my own interest in writing toward journalism. The idea of reporting the what, who, who, where, and how of a story removed me from anything too personal, too revealing. Just a straightforward telling of the facts; I could handle that.  

Over the years, my career in journalism shifted into teaching literature and history, but the call of creative writing nagged at me. Snippets of stories stuck with me like cut grass on wet bare feet. I grew older. As my fortieth birthday approached and the first day of kindergarten for my younger daughter approached, I realized it was time to take some risks. I wasn’t alone with this newfound bravery. Friends were climbing mountains, forming bands, exhibiting their paintings and photography, leaving safe jobs to become entrepreneurs. I committed myself to trying something I had always wanted to do: I would write a novel.

The subject of my new project was obvious to me: it would be historical fiction about Louisa May Alcott and her sisters. I’d grown up near the Alcott family-home-turned museum and along with touring it many times, I’d consumed every book by Alcott on the shelves of my local library. My research led me to the youngest Alcott sister, May, better known as Amy March in Little Women. She led an adventurous life filled with travel as she pursued becoming a professional artist, so she became the protagonist of my novel.

At one point, one of my writing mentors met with me to discuss a scene. “Keep working on it,” she urged. “You’ll discover why May interests you so much. You’ll find something of yourself in her.” I looked at her blankly. This was historical fiction, not a memoir. Nothing of my life was in this story. Still, her words echoed in my head. Why was I writing about May Alcott?

Though I’d always longed to feel kinship with the writer Louisa May Alcott, she had always intimidated me. Even in my girlhood, I knew I lacked her discipline. Instead it had always been May who captivated me. This lesser-known sister, the free spirit, this creative girl —was she really the brat portrayed in her sister’s novel? I was suspicious of Louisa’s account of her. After all, I had a younger brother. God only knew what he’d have written about me given the chance. And honestly, all of the character flaws heaped upon Amy March were things that I could relate to. Vanity, insecurity, self-indulgence—these were imperfections with which I was well-acquainted. If trading pickled limes with classmates, as Amy March does, would have increased my popularity at school, I’d have shown up for fifth grade with a backpack full of them.

Is all writing autobiographical? For years, I told myself it wasn’t, but now I’m not so sure. We write to explore questions and these questions are often uncertainties we have about ourselves. The more and more I mulled over the question of what drew me to May Alcott, I realized her struggle for creative legitimacy was something I could understand. While Louisa had dedicated her life entirely to writing, never marrying and rarely traveling, May had sought more. Yes, she wanted to be a painter, but she had also wanted love and a family of her own. And she had done all of this in the shadow of her infinitely more celebrated older sister, a sister who often disparaged May’s creative efforts as those of a dilettante’s.

Over the course of my own life, I didn’t need a judgmental older sister to undercut my confidence. I was able to fulfill that role for myself. Since girlhood, I had told myself to avoid laying bare anything that could expose too many imperfections, including my worries, uncertainties, and fears. My fear of failure made me stick to safe choices. In college, when faced with the opportunity to take a class with a novelist whose work I’d always admired, I chickened out and didn’t sign up for her class, worrying I’d have nothing compelling to contribute. After college, I took a creative writing class and listened to a guy read a story about talking dogs. As the class laughed along with the story, I glanced down at my own work. It was not ironic or clever. I slipped it under my notebook and told myself to find a new interest.

So, what changed? What made me finally decide to write, no matter the risks? I think I needed time. I needed to get tired of the drudgery of telling myself I couldn’t do something. By imagining May’s inner journey to become an artist, all while in the shadow of a successful writer, I found the emotional core of my novel, while also tapping into my own insecurities. V.S. Naipul said, “fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.” It took me a long time, but finally I can live with this idea.

Although a New Englander by birth (and at heart), Elise Hooper lives with her husband and two young daughters in Seattle, where she teaches history and literature.