Exploring the art of prose


Life, the Universe, and Everything: A Primer on the Writing of Autofiction

Image shows a starry backdrop with pine trees in the foreground; title card for the new craft essay, "Life, the Universe, and Everything: A Primer on the Writing of Autofiction," by Sarah Twombly.


By Sarah Twombly •

I am at work on a novel, and have been for more than a decade. It is autobiographical fiction, which is to say it’s about me, but also, it isn’t. The same way Einstein might say that time is passing, but also, it’s not. In Einstein’s model, all of time exists simultaneously—past, present, and future unfurled, spread-eagled, the one on top of the other. By this mode of thinking, I will be at work on this novel forever, but also, I have finished already.

Autofiction is an intimate form of writing. Moreso than memoir, in some ways. Unburdened by facts, you are beholden only to the emotional truth of your story. As you write, your memories may soften and disintegrate like paper left in the rain, only to reconstitute later as fictional scenes that often feel more accurate than what actually occurred. Friends and acquaintances combine, or cleave, changing shape until, at some point, you find yourself writing a cast of characters so unrecognizable, and yet so deeply familiar, you won’t know whether to call them figment or kin or both.

I began this project grappling with questions of fact and fiction—what was true versus what was truth, and why was this a book that needed to be written, or rather, why was this a book that I needed to write? Sometimes a writer feels drawn to a subject. Sometimes a writer is compelled, as though the story is one that lives inside them, a story that in some sense already exists, and it is the writer’s job to fold that story into the shape of a book. That is what this project has been for me: the folding of a story I already know into a shape that reveals something novel.

Astrophysicists used origami to launch the James Webb telescope. The circumference of the telescope’s primary mirror—a parabolic reflector designed to capture light from the distant universe—was too wide to fit into the nose of the rocket meant to haul it into space, so NASA’s engineers designed a folding mirror. They pieced eighteen hexagonal sections together in such a way the pieces could swivel and bend, almost like a sheet of paper. In this way, the telescope became compact enough to fit inside the rocket, and was carried to its destination one million miles beyond the earth’s orbit, where it unfolded and turned its attention toward the cosmos.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to peer into the cupped hands of that mirror as it fills with light from the first galaxies, as it fills with time itself. It’s staggering to imagine that delicately folded instrument, how it jettisoned into the black vastness of space, how it broke free from its capsule and origamied itself into the shape of an unblinking eye. Right now, it is peering through light-years of space and time, gazing farther than the Pillars of Creation, farther back than the Big Bang, deep into the supermassive black hole churning at the heart of our galaxy, hoping to stumble upon answers to those most enduring of questions: why are we here; where did we come from; where are we going?

This is how it is to write autobiographical fiction. You gaze through time, you gaze at the self, you find reflected back a gaping abyss, a dark chasm, as void of light as the mirror of the James Webb telescope is full.

Odd, isn’t it? To find that, at the center of everything—your book, this universe, the self—is nothing?

I chose a retrospective narrator for my novel, which means she is speaking about the past, but from a point in the future. She is wiser than I was, because when the real events of the story transpired I did not have the advantage of hindsight. Einstein insisted that time is not linear, but there is a distinct linearity to the way humans experience it: one second followed by another, one day followed by another. I think she is a wonder: this girl inside my book who is me, and also isn’t me, how she warps time, how she is able to reach into the past and refashion her future.

I exist both inside and outside these pages, here and there, both at once. I recently printed a draft and was surprised by how much the sheaves of paper resembled a book. I don’t know what I thought it would look like, but I suppose I was surprised, the same way the origami artist must be surprised when, upon the final crease and fold, against all logic, a crane emerges.

Maybe time is not a folding. Maybe it is an unfolding. Perhaps each moment is a flap falling away from the neck of the crane, opening to reveal the dazzling white of a paper square. The blank page is chilling, no? From it, you can excavate anything. If you look with the eyes of the origami artist, if you look with the wonder of the astrophysicist, if you look with the desperation of the writer, in that square you will find not a void but the infinite potential of the universe—the shiver of your own mortality.


SARAH TWOMBLY’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, The Normal School, The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and Contrary among other publications, and is forthcoming from Ploughshares. She is the recipient of the Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction, the Glascock Prize in Poetry, and the Katherine McFarland Prize for Fiction. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfictions. She lives in the woods of Maine with her wild family, and her very tame dog. Find her on Instagram @twombles­_2.


Featured image by Ryan Hutton, courtesy of Unsplash.