What does it mean to write a life? The biographical impulse is an ancient one: to record, to commemorate, to pluck an individual story out of the relentless erasure of history and render it on the page. But how do we wrestle experience into narrative; how do we give a life a form? Life writing engages this complex, rewarding task through close attention, by sallying forth on journeys of empathy, inquiry, imagination, and understanding—explorations that sometimes pose more questions than they answer, and often encourage us to see these lives in relation to our own.
In literature classes, we attend to the relationship between tradition and innovation as it emerges in unexpected ways and in unexpected genres. Poets, for example, often find indirect ways of shaping and of representing their own life stories. And in African American literature, from the slave narrative to the present, life writing has made a profound impact on the canon.
In creative writing classes, whether we’re reading and writing personal narratives or taking a more journalistic approach, we confront topics such as the ethics and limitations of representation, the slipperiness of memory, and the inward or personal gaze as a means of looking outward (of illuminating a world) through such forms as the profile (or portrait), the oral history, the personal essay, the diary, and the memoir.
Photo Credit: Garden of Selves, 2000. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison