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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

What Is Life Writing And How Is It Evolving?

by Jo Parnell 20th August 2019

Jo Parnell expands on the evolution of life writing as a literary form to share our stories.

What is life writing?

Life writing means writing about our own lives and experiences, with reflection. It can also mean writing about the lives and experiences of others. Life writing allows us to see our experience out on the page, where we can view it and make sense of it for ourselves and others.

It’s human nature

Literature and history tell us that long before the word was ever written down, people socialised and connected to each other through the oral tradition. Human nature being what it is, most of us love telling our stories and are curious about the real-life experiences of others. As Caroline McMillen points out in her Foreword to my book, New and Experimental Approaches to Writing Lives, our stories are important to understanding our own lives and those of others.

In this age of the internet, digital humanities, automediality, lives online, and forms such as graphic memoir /autographics (and other visual-verbal-virtual texts that once were actually considered as lying outside the conventional, accepted autobiography/ biography text corridor), are now all prominent and widely-practiced life "writing" genres. This means addressing new and unusual ways of writing lives not just as texts (digital, print, and interchangeable), but as practices, is essential.

Now, in this age of the internet, it must be asked why these “new” literary forms which demonstrate exciting new and unusual approaches to writing lives, and are accepted by many practioners and scholars as deserving of a place in scholarship, should largely be denied their rightful place? Why do theystill await formal acceptance under the hallowed umbrella of life writing as recognised categories separate to the more conventional texts? Rather than being viewed merely as off-shoots, they should be included in the syllabus alongside the more conventional forms in life writing programmes.

Telling our stories anew

Successful life writing brings the subject to “life” for the reader, and this allows the reader to safely share in the subject’s experience and learn about the lives of others. As Hugh Craig writes in his Introduction to my book, “[t]here is always a balance between established and new ways to present life writing. Familiar modes of narrative take the burden off audiences, who can rely on trusted conventions and an existing shared understanding with writers, but there is also a role for innovation. New approaches catch the attention. New ways of understanding experience and new kinds of experience require new modes of expression.”

With the advent of the Internet these more experimental trends have been thrown into sharp relief. More and more people are writing about themselves and the things we see and hear during every day and putting these depictions out on show via the net, in a readily available and easily accessible space, where everybody can see and share in them. With experimental creative practices being accepted and commonly acknowledged as a fact, of ordinary everyday life, along with developments in the advances in technology, and with world politics undergoing sweeping changes, people’s ideas and ways of looking at things are also changing. Increasingly, these experimental creative practices are resulting in the production of new experimental literary texts and cutting-edge methodologies, creating a whole new platform for practitioners to seek and invent even newer and fresher ways of writing lives.
Placeholder Image
Inside Out Art Project to place emphasis on people and their stories
Photo by JR. Avaliable on Wikipedia via CC BY-SA 4.0
More recently, adding to this tradition, there are “writings” we all recognise and can connect to, such as, for instance, comics, collections, blogs, social media forums and some online and board games, as well as asylum seeker or refugee zines; and, yes, even some types of graffiti. Somehow, and even though some of these depictions may seem to have no apparent borders or easily perceived systems, we instinctively know they are life writing. In their own way, they are to some degree or another revealing of the writer or creator or collector. The problem with these experimental “writings” is how to categorise them. What labels do we use so we can discuss them? How do we tag and explain them to understand exactly where and how they can fit into the accepted life writing genre?

“New” writing

Of course, nothing in life writing can be said to be absolutely new. All the various forms and modes and fashions of writing lives have behind them a rich and diverse history that stretches all the way back to The Confessions of St. Augustine (published in approximately 400 AD), and beyond, to still further back. Even though it is sometimes commonly referred to as the first autobiography ever written, St Augustine’s innovative Confessions was neither memoir nor autobiography. But it does provide an unbroken record of his pattern of thought, and it did, and continues to, influence recognised life writing genres such as memoir and autobiography. Augustine’s work introduced new techniques and methods and perspectives, and ways at looking at writing lives differently. It set a precedent for future generations of writers to expand borders by seeking new modes, methods anda host of terms specifically coined to describe particular “new” ways of writing lives.

Thousands of years after Saint Augustine wrote his Confessions, Shakespeare pointed out in his Hamlet (1599—1602) that the telling of one’s own life must always differ from the way in which someone else might tell it or tell their own story. When Hamlet begs Horatio “tell my story,” it sounds so very simple and straightforward. What can be so difficult about telling your own story or telling that of someone else? But the complexities and difficulties inherent in telling some other’s story, or in telling your own story, are unending, and writers keep inventing new ways of doing this.
Featured image credit. Photo by William Jones. Avaliable on Flickr via CC