On Life Writing: Thoughts from the field

Why I love thinking and writing about autobiographical acts and practices

When I’m visiting other campuses, faculty and graduate students often ask me what it is about life narratives—true (or true enough) stories rather than fiction—that makes them so intriguing to you?

This is, of course, a complex question, one that evokes an autobiographically-inflected response. Let me allude to three aspects of my commitment to thinking about autobiographical acts and practices over the long run. The first is a story of origins. In winter of 1970 I was teaching a freshman seminar in African American Literature at Case Western Reserve where I got my doctorate. I taught it so I could learn something about the history of African American writers and literary traditions. That spring brought the Kent State killings and mobilization around the march on Washington. With the march, the semester abruptly ended, classes unfinished, classrooms vacant. At the same time the person I wanted to work with on a dissertation suggested that I think about exploring African American autobiography, given the explosive publication of autobiographical narratives by writers and activists in the 1960s. There had been little written on African American autobiography, little critical writing on autobiographical texts generally. I liked that aspect of the project, especially in comparison to the challenge a friend of mine experienced writing on the endings of Henry James’s novels, about which there was just too much written. The field was open rather than foreclosed by what had accumulated as canonical scholarship.

Fast forward to the late 1970s, early 1980s. At the University of Arizona where I had found a tenure-track position I joined other women faculty, energized by the emergent field of Women’s Studies and feminist theory, in the project of collective retraining for a new kind of scholarship. I started thinking about the history, theory, and politics of women’s autobiographical writing systematically; and it was through that genre that I could focus my theoretical interests and preoccupations, with the status of truth-telling, with identity and subjectivity, with complicity and resistance, with voice and structure, with the complexity and ambiguities and nuances of the “I” and its narrated and narrating avatars. There was something renegade at that moment in becoming a feminist in the academy and there was something renegade in being in a discipline in which the genre of autobiography was devalued, obscured, and dismissed as a focus of targeted inquiry.

Over the long run, I’ve found working in the field that is now most often referred to as life writing has consistently brought something into view that is fascinating – the project of de/colonizing the subject, of everyday life writing, of human rights and narrated lives, of technologies of travel and travel writing, of online life writing, of visual and performance modes of self-representation, of graphic memoir. I have been able to range restlessly across traditions and eras and media and genres and uses and politics of life writing.  And I have been able to take students, undergraduates and graduates, with me, asking them to think again and then again about how people, how they themselves, tell stories about themselves and others.