Monday, January 24, 2011

Life Writing

One of the areas of writing that has grown considerably in recent years is Life Writing. I was thinking while introducing the review of the new book about American Folklorist Alan Lomax, that Life Writing is a form that allows people to be their own Folklorist. Individual collectors of narratives not just of their own lives but their own times and places.

Where this differs from traditional biography and autobiography is those forms focus generally on people who are already well known as subjects. Or someone with a particularly dramatic true tale to tell. Life Writing is more a stick placed in the sand, a statement that 'I was here, these were my times.' So the field of Life Writing by ordinary people in New Zealand becomes a storehouse of our collective folklore, in the way that folk music and folk art does.

There are many reasons people wish to record their lives:

  •  as a legacy, for family, for those that come after them
  •  to tell of a time and/or a lifestyle now past
  • as a cathartic experience for the writer, and perhaps for the reader
  • to write of a particular issue that has perhaps been recorded from a limited perspective that the writer can enlarge upon

When I was researching and writing my first novel I found some official military histories (from the early 1920's) which were no help at all. They were a catalogue of troop movements and maneuvers from an exalted position way above the ordinary soldier. Fortunately there were some beautifully written and compiled collections of personal narratives to refer to.

Life Writing should be not only of the writer but in the writer's voice, as that captures their essence. I'd shudder at any attempt among those teaching or editing Life Writing works to attempt to 'normalize' the voice, or flatten or universalize the perspective. If we follow Hemingway's maxim that 'What is most personal is also most universal' then someone's story (behind the text) already has universal elements. We all know love, loss, guilt, the need to try and rebuild. The job of the Life Writing teacher or editor or compliler could then be described more as one of arrangement, of getting the proportion right to allow the writer to be able to bring both the personal and universal elements of their story out. 

The fundamental building blocks of effective storytelling (including Voice, Point of View, Character, Narrative Structure etc...) apply in Life Writing as they do in other forms of non-fiction and fiction.

One of the great opportunities e-publishing will give is it dramatically increases the opportunities for people to get their own stories out into the community.The value of this cannot be overstated. Whereas publishing a life story with a traditional publisher has always been extremely difficult, e-publishing will give us far greater opportunities.

It is crucial to the health and history of any community for stories to be told from the ground up. Not just from our 'leaders.'And our written histories should never just be a catalogue of the famous. Living in Auckland is a constant reminder of a city has torn down its historic architecture all too easily, often via decisions made away from the public. We need to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to us.

There are courses offered in Life Writing in most communities. Keep your eye out for one. Bear in mind that your story has its own validity. Because you were here, these were your times.

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