The True Horror of the Autobiography by Jay Wilburn

Write what you know is a standard bit of writing advice for all literary and genre writers. This can mean establishing the setting with the region in which one lives. It can mean building characters out of individuals you know from life to add realism to their choices and actions. It can mean focusing on careers, industries, and cultures with which we are familiar so the story can be conveyed to the reader in the most believable way possible through the small strokes of detail.

The problem with genre writing is that there is a limit to the concept when visiting an alien world or dealing with the supernatural. Things have to be extrapolated and the things we know have to be applied in the framework to support the abnormal portions of the story more securely. With horror, much of the blood, violence, torture, and terror have to be extrapolated as well. We know fear in various forms, but often times we are applying that fear in a new way or to a new degree. Technique has to be applied to express the fear in a way that communicates to the reader. A racing heart, quickening pulse, and various parts of the body sweating at just the right time will help, but can only take us so far.

As a ghostwriter, I have completed a wide range of freelance jobs from self-help to lesson plans to children’s books to blog posts to romance to zombies to historic fiction and more. It is its own world of literature and nonfiction. The works that hit hardest for me are the autobiographies.

The typical pattern is that the client is a nonwriter with a story to tell or they are somewhat of a writer, but don’t know how to express their own story. Writing your own life is difficult because you don’t know what details to include or exclude. It is tough to see one’s own life objectively. We may have a hint of our flaws, but they can’t always be seen for what they are or for the full impact on the pattern of our lives viewed from the inside. Sometimes the pain is too great to pen yourself.

I usually begin by having the client talk to me by phone or by Skype. I encourage them to not worry about storyline, organization, or even thinking of a book. Just talk. I take detailed notes. Sometimes it takes more than one sitting to get the first chapter, but usually it begins to pour out. Even as I am taking notes, I start to see patterns. Themes present themselves pretty quickly. I find bits that tug an emotional string and I know I will expand there. I see patterns of bad choices, character flaws that the person intends to hide, but inevitably end up revealing through their actions as all characters do even through a first person filter, and the pieces that will make their ordinary life interesting to others.

The first chapter of the draft is jarring for them. Reading back their own story in their own words through my hand is a shock to the system. They hear their own voice in it, but they don’t always like how it sounds. They see the truth in the virtues and flaws I feature, but they don’t really like what it says about them. I always stop after the first chapter or section and let them digest it. We go back and forth to correct the details and adjust the voice, but we get there. Later chapters run more smoothly because I get their voice better and they trust me more.

I see some dark things in these true stories. I’m often writing them in first person. I’m writing them as the client. I am digging around in their heads and I am translating their pain for them. All the skill I have learned through writing horror fiction is applied to communicating real stories of abuse, homelessness, murder, crime, drug addiction, and other darkness. Creating the mind of a broken character is a new brand of horror when you are building off a living, breathing, and participating subject.

In one of his New Testament letters, the apostle Paul stated the warning that “the days are evil.” This is a throwaway line for many Christians that read on for the promises or the light, but that phrase haunts me. It says something deeper than there is a Ying and Yang spiraling through life. It says something different than there are evil people out there. It implies that darkness is the default. The day itself is set for evil and if we do nothing, that is what will happen. I can live my life and ignore the pain of others around me, but evil will rule the day as I buy my coffee and watch my shows. Someone is in pain near me, on the other side of the wall or behind the doors I pass. They know what the day is made of when those that have to power to do something just live their lives and do nothing to take the day back from its evil default. I used to be a teacher and I am a father, but I don’t do much in my life to save the world these days. I think maybe helping some of these survivors to tell their stories about the days that no one did anything about is some help. But it reminds me that so many people are held captive in evil days waiting for someone to reach out and take the day back.

When a person has a story to tell about their lives, there is usually something intense in their background. Every person’s life involves struggle. It is shocking though how many stories of abuse, violence, and real-life horror are out there among us.

I have to shuffle myself off to some corner of my house with the door closed to protect my family from the things that the person is sharing over Skype. They often, in their effort to unload these stories, tell me things they have never told anyone else in their lives. And then I have to write it.

It is amazing the things people have survived in their lives. These things are going on now in the houses right around you. Every autobiography has the opportunity to share the horrors that others are dealing with and think they are alone in the world as they do. Every time a new offer to bid on an autobiography ghostwriting job comes up, I feel a little wave of fear as I consider my next move.