Autofiction and You

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on November 08, 2021 # Lifestyle

Allen wearing a blue button up shirt and a blue baseball hat. He smiling and is using a wheelchair in front of a pool.Every day each of us makes up a story in our head. It’s our own story – who we are, how our life has unfolded, our strengths and foibles. We keep revising this story as circumstances change. What we tell ourselves are not “the facts.” It’s our own invention – our own myth – containing certain selective facts, for sure, but also conjectures, fanciful illusions, ego projections, and a lot of rationalizing of missteps and moral lapses. These stories are important. You would be lost without them.

You are inventing, for yourself, a version of one of the trendiest literary genres of the day: autofiction.

Autofiction is short for autobiographical fiction. Generally, the author is the “I” in the story but feels like it’s a better, and maybe truer, story if they elaborate on or embellish or fabricate some external details of the “true” story. Your empirical brain and your imaginative brain come up with a collaborative product. Many serious books are defined as autofiction, but the funniest example I know of is in the late Norm McDonald’s half-memoir/half-satire, “Based on a True Story.” Re his showbiz career, he promises, facetiously, “I’ll let the filth fly, like a mad dog digging up bones he buried deep and long ago. And I’ll name names. And I’ll drop bombshells. I bet they’ll pay good money for that kinda thing.”

My father died of a freak head injury from a fall when I was two, and in trolling for sympathy as a kid, I stretched and embellished the truth every time I recounted this woeful tale. I said the house was on fire, when there was only a small electrical short in the basement. I said he was carrying me when he took his fatal fall, a complete fabrication. I said he went to sleep next to my mother and never woke up, another imagined truth. It worked every time.

When I became paralyzed, I realized I had to come up with a whole new future in my head, based on a checkered past. If I simply recounted the immediate facts of the matter to myself, it looked like a miserable road ahead. I was crippled, in a financial hole, seemingly permanently depressed and useless, needing help for every bodily activity, and was one of life’s losers. I had no future. I had to make one up.

My first step was to tell myself that paralysis was no big deal and that I could get right back to work. I had always told myself I was a “worker,” even in periods where I sat around feeling sorry for myself or wasting time on Facebook. I started writing on a TV assignment five days after I got to the hospital. This was, in retrospect, a stupid thing to do. Because I took no time to recuperate, I then rushed into working on two jobs at once, had a pulmonary embolism less than a week later, and came damn close to dying. In other words, my made-up future almost killed me.

Because of the stories we create in our heads, some people going through a trauma like paralysis never leave the house. They look back on their lives, consciously or not, and craft a narrative mostly based on their failures and bad turns. They fooled around in college, never had a real direction, were chronically unlucky in love, and just not good enough to advance in the world. Add paralysis to that, and it’s time to throw up your hands and spend your day bemoaning your fate, yelling at your caregiver, and making up an ever-expanding list of excuses for your lethargy and stasis. Maybe you try like hell to get it together, but a few failed attempts and the burden of that loser story in your head and you decide to “cut yourself some slack” and do nothing but watch “CSI” reruns all day.

Obviously, the answer, in part, is to change your inner story, but that can often be tough sledding. The first step is to see the details of the tale you’ve already invented. If enticed by a charismatic evangelist, many lonely, hapless people can be instantly saved and redeemed and start with a blank slate. Most of us don’t have that power of blind faith. We have to reinvent ourselves without divine intervention. And the only way to proceed is to pick away at your personal narrative one misperception at a time and find all the help you can to do so. Just make sure your reinvention is life-affirming and won’t land you in the ER or the drunk tank.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.