One of my favorite Alice Munro stories is an older one called "Material." It's about a woman whose husband is a struggling writer. They get divorced and years later he's a successful writer, and she finds a story of his that's based on an experience she recognizes from their time together. His story is a good one, but it still makes her angry -- angry that he can take reality and distort it for his own purposes, but also that he can actually interpret and process this material, which a non-writer has no choice but to leave as experience.
(It's especially interesting that the object of the anger in Munro's story is the writer -- it's as if Munro is angry at herself, or at least exploring her own weaknesses. Her willingness to do this is one thing that makes her great.)
I had a friend in graduate school who was a good writer, but whose stories were a little bit light, a little bit emotionally distant. One day she told us a horrifying story from her childhood -- a story so powerful and emotionally resonant we were just flabbergasted. "Wow," we said, "have you ever considered writing about that?" No, she said. "You wouldn't have to write about it directly, but you know, that's powerful stuff --"
NO, she said again.
I think this instinct -- the unwillingness to tap one's deepest wells -- can be a very good one. Writers who rely too much on autobiography for their work often find themselves tapped out. Or else they end up telling the same story again and again.
Still. We all carry around a mass of themes and experiences that can't help but inform our writing. Recently I reread an ancient collection of stories I'd written in college. Not one of them was even slightly autobiographical, but I was startled to see that every single one of them was about the same thing: disillusionment.
Weird! I wasn't aware of that at the time. What about my life back then made me so stuck on disillusionment? I don't remember. But it had to come from somewhere, didn't it? I wonder if the stories would have been better if I'd recognized this recurring theme and dealt with it head on. Instead, the repetition of theme gives the stories the same impression as room full of women of varying ages and hairstyles, but all wearing, say, capri pants.
Anyway. It's interesting to see how different writers take the stuff of life and turn it into fiction: some slap it in uncooked, others let it metamorphose.