A Literary Experiment in Autobiographical Fiction

Foreword: Here follows a short paper I wrote for my Tolstoy professor after we studied Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. The task was to write an autobiographical account from a time in our childhood, and afterward to analyse the process we went through to write it, in order to better understand Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Since these works by Tolstoy were fictional, I made this fictional as well.

An Alaskan Altitudinal Adventure

I’d seen people talking to one another in movies while in a helicopter, but in real life the propellers make such noise that you can’t hear anything. Across from me sat my best friend, Kayla, wearing a ridiculous grin as she peered out—so much as she could in spite of her fear—into the white, cold mountain air. It wasn’t snowing, and the sun shone on the other side of us, lighting up the crystal mountains. The Alaskan wilderness stretched out for miles beyond, sprouting woods and mountains, pouring out rivers. We’d nearly reached the top of our mountain. 

My dad grabbed my left shoulder to get my attention. His mustache flecked with frost, great sunglasses obscuring most of the rest of his face, he grinned and shouted, “You ready?” 

I nodded and looked at my uncle, beside Kayla—he held his eyes closed for fear of heights, gripping his poles hard. 

The helicopter slowed down, landing on a solitary peak high above the surrounding mountains. We unloaded, and I watched the helicopter whirl the snow away as it coasted up and soared away. I put on my skis, adjusted my boots. As I fixed my helmet, my dad said, “You and Kayla will go first. Uncle Andrew and I will follow.” He looked over to see Kayla looking at him. She nodded, still smiling. She had never heli-skied, nor had I. We were 14. Uncle Andy put on his helmet and stretched his neck. 

“You ready?” I asked. 

“Yes, ma’am. Just don’t go losing your uncle and dad in those trees. I saw you eyeing them on the way up here.” 

“I thought you had your eyes closed the whole time.” 

“That was a ruse,” he replied. 

I laughed, turning my gaze to the slope we were to descend. It quickly declined, so you couldn’t see the whole of it, and it flattened out later on, where the trees began to appear. 

“Don’t make too loud of a noise,” my dad said. “We don’t want an avalanche to outrun.” 

I smiled, thinking that if I were alone then that would be wonderful. I moved closer to the edge of the peak, putting my hands through my pole loops. “Alright,” I said anticlimactically. I pushed off with my poles, quickly gaining momentum. Three seconds later, the ground sharply descended, and I with it. 

Some people listen to music when they ski, which of course is dangerous, but I’ve never wanted to. One of my favourite things is to listen to the sound of my skis on the snow. The gentle slide and slice as I’m magically led further and faster into a brilliant unknown; the cold air, bitterly reminding me that I am warm and alive and do not belong here in this winter vale; everything still, perfect, as I move and fight with the wind in an epic journey through the whiteness—all this is for me the music, the taste, the smell in this place that no living thing before me has touched. I picked up speed, shifting my hips back and forth slightly to shift my path from a straight shot to a wavy line. The wind’s arms hit and wrapped around my body and face, my legs fighting hard against the snow and pull of gravity, making long, slow turns, as I gained speed up to 30 mph. The champagne powder sprayed with every turn of my skis; my whole body moved uniformly, freely, at an increasingly frightening pace. As the slope began to flatten slightly, I made larger turns back and forth, interweaving with Kayla, who’d caught up with me. The deep, white foamy sea hid my skis, rising to my ankles, as I became a part of it. Before me lay the whole of God’s creation: I took in the mountains, frozen rivers, lakes, and thousands of trees illuminated by the sun behind us; and I felt like glass, that I must radiate their beauty in my eyes and in my face as I laughed out loud. 

“What is it?” Kayla asked. 

As we approached each other I pointed my pole toward the valley below: “I can see everything and it’s wonderful!” 

Analysis 

As a visual person, I started out by picturing the scenes in my head, which required a mixture of imagination and memory. I had to go back and forth between closing my eyes to visualize everything and then writing. Often I’d get carried away and want to write an interesting story, rather than what actually happened. Of course, none of that happened—I’ve never been heli-skiing, never been in a helicopter, and I made up all the persons in the narrative. Still, to me, this person I was pretending to be had had this experience, and I had to tell her experience. After getting into the mind of a particular person (real or not), the story in a way tells itself. This is similar to how I write fiction: I come up with the characters, and then let them guide the story. This time, however, not just the story was guided by Micaela (the narrator), but also the perspective—and from her perspective she was not guiding the story, but experiencing it. So I had to reflect back on this as a memory, as a visual experience, and then retell it as it happened, not as how I would necessarily want it to happen. This resulted in my having to change from the present tense to the past several times, because in visual recollection things happen presently. Nevertheless, I used affectively present language, expressing what I (Micaela) thought or felt at the time. For example, the “anticlimactically” note expresses a self-consciousness when it was said; and the mention of headphones makes sense to mention right when the skiing began, and one would have put music on just a moment before (I also imagined that maybe Kayla would listen to music, but I wouldn’t, and I ought therefore to mention why). 

I found Micaela’s experiences that differed in nature from mine more difficult to express. Of all activities that don’t necessarily involve another person, skiing is my favorite. But I would listen to music if it weren’t dangerous; I would not willingly “shift my path from a straight shot to a wavy line;” and the last two sentences before Kayla’s line are things I have never experienced. 

In Tolstoy’s Boyhood, I enjoyed the the narrator’s paradoxical expression of a child’s experiences while often commenting with an adult’s mind. While Micaela was 14, with less of a contrast, I noticed that though she was 14 when she experienced this, she is not necessarily any younger than I when retelling it in this text. Thus, outside of dialogue and action I could write more freely, expressing a 23-year-old’s perspective of an adolescent experience. This gave me a glimpse into Tolstoy’s experience of writing his first-person narratives, and all of these paradoxes and struggles give me a better understanding of his stories’ uniqueness and his skill in authoring them so well. 

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