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About this book

With recent advances in digital technology, a number of exciting and innovative approaches to writing lives have emerged, from graphic memoirs to blogs and other visual-verbal-virtual texts. This edited collection is a timely study of new approaches to writing lives, including literary docu-memoir, autobiographical cartography, social media life writing and autobiographical writing for children. Combining literary theory with insightful critical approaches, each essay offers a serious study of innovative forms of life writing, with a view to reflecting on best practice and offering the reader practical guidance on methods and techniques.

Offering a range practical exercises and an insight into cutting-edge literary methodologies, this is an inspiring and thought-provoking companion for students of Literature and Creative Writing studying courses on life writing, memoir or creative non-fiction.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

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Successful life writing animates the lives of its subjects so that readers can enter into others’ experiences and live parallel lives to their own vicariously. These stories, like their siblings, invented fictional stories, predate writing and go back to the dawn of language itself. There 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 our attention. New ways of understanding experience and new kinds of experience require new modes of expression.
Jo Parnell

FOUND LIVES: REFRAMING THE LOST, THE INANIMATE, AND THE HIDDEN

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2. 1 Obituaries: Behind The Final Tribute

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An obituary is a public announcement of the recent death of an individual, together with information about the upcoming funeral. According to Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman the obituary can “be described as a published notice of the details of a person’s death together with a biography cataloguing” the deceased’s past life (334). In Manel Herat’s view also, “The meaning the word [obituary] has nowadays is ‘a record or an announcement of a death or deaths, especially in a newspaper; usually comprising a brief biographical sketch of the deceased’ (OED)” (118). The obituary notice is not usually written by a person prior to their own death but rather by others on what they remember or want known about their newly deceased. For Jennifer King, “Obituaries are the first draft of a person’s [entire] history and act as a snapshot of society at a particular point in time”. Mushira Eid presents a wider picture when she points out that obituarists often reflect aspects of their culture, their gender, and themselves in their writing: obituary notices “conform to a certain format and reflect aspects of the social context within which they are written—its values and perhaps its attitudes towards death, its people and perhaps how they view themselves and, by implication, their perception of gender” (14). Importantly, Douglas Vipond sees that although they are “often overlooked, obituaries are an important form of ‘epideictic’ or ceremonial discourse, ‘composed in order to celebrate or reaffirm the community values’Crowley 1990, 157)” (Vipond 102).
Jo Parnell

3. 2 Object Biography: Writing The Lives Of Objects, Artefacts, And Things

Abstract
It is commonplace to suggest that individuals and societies are saturated, even drowning, in the objects that are the products of the contemporary commodity culture and that our memories and identities depend on this material culture (Horton and Kraftl). Yet these things have not been widely understood as worthy of being the objects of inspiration for life writers. As Thing theorist Bill Brown has asked, “What habits have prevented us—prevented you—from thinking about objects, let alone things? Or more precisely, perhaps: what habits have prevented you from sharing your thoughts?” (7). An innovative type of life writing, not only does object biography offer a form for such writing practice, but once mastered, it can also be used in other subgenres of writing about lives, as well as in a wide range of fiction and non-fiction narratives.
Jo Parnell

4. 3 Burra’s Giant Onion And The Battle Of The Somme

Abstract
“There is no such thing as an ordinary life” (Twain, Mark Twain’s Notebooks 49). All lives are extraordinary. All lives have their secrets and speak to the times and circumstances in which people live. Yet it remains true that most people do not leave substantial documents that trace their life journey let alone their interior world. When researching for my book Not Dark Yet, a personal history a family history narrative with a difference, I found there were large gaps in the family records. As I discovered, though, few lives go entirely undocumented: all who enlist in the armed services have detailed war service files, and all who marry, give birth, and die (hard categories to escape) generate records. I was surprised at the range of sources available, and I found that the gaps in the family records had their own kind of challenge and interest. I became intrigued by how best to reveal or reach undocumented lives by taking an experimental approach when writing lives. This experience led me to consider some of the processes involved in producing a personal work combining elements both of memoir and of family history. In this chapter, using Not Dark Yet as a practical demonstration, I examine the ways in which a writer can capture “ordinary” lives and the importance of doing so.
Jo Parnell

5. 4 REVEALING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN: THE NATURE OF LITERARY DOCU-MEMOIR

Abstract
Pioneered by the British writer Tony Parker, literary docu-memoir is a rare form of creative non-fiction as life-writing—a mix of fact, lyric, and story. It involves the writer interviewing and audiotaping ordinary people for their unusual experiences and their thoughts and feelings as the resource material for a literary production. In everyday conversation, people use a language of their own to make sense of their experiences for themselves and the person or people they are talking to. Literary docu-memoir brings out a deeper level of meaning in the speech and reflections of the subjects, as elicited by the literary docu-memoirist. In this chapter, I tease out the key aspects of literary docu-memoirand discuss Parker’s innovation. I take a brief look at The Seamstress: a memoir of survival by Sara Tuvel Bernstein et al. and offer my own work, See Saw Margery Daw (2012), for consideration as a new way to write a work of literary docu-memoir.
Jo Parnell

6. 5 THE STRUGGLE IN KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD’S MY STRUGGLE

Abstract
The conflict that drives Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book One (first published in Swedish, in 2012) is not the quotidian project emphasised by many critics and reviewers—the protagonist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, struggling to deal with the painstaking trivialities of parenthood and his own adolescence—but rather one that relegates these aspects of the book to a preliminary role in the writer’s intricately staged confrontation with a more fundamental question: how can one write about what is most difficult to relate in one’s own life? For Knausgaard, this becomes the struggle to write about his relationship with his father. The climax of Knausgaard’s book, the account of cleaning the house in which his father died, symbolises the transgressions and transformations inherent in this struggle, operating both as a vehicle to depict the self-destruction of his father and as a metaphor for the nature of the transaction that occurs between the autobiographical writer and the reader. It operates simultaneously on a literal level: we follow the author/protagonist in visceral detail as he prepares the private space of a family home for public consumption, and in the literary sense, we see how private material is staged to become a public currency.
Jo Parnell

MOVING LIVES: RELOCATING IN TIME AND SPACE

Frontmatter

7. 6 MAPPING LIVES: (RE)MAKING PLACE

Abstract
The notion of the wanderer, the map, and the act of making the map has been one of the most vital preoccupations of literature. In my own writing projects, I explore and describe mapped “visits” to a landscape—which may be encapsulated in a walk but do not have to be—to sample this landscape and create individual and collaborative subjective maps of that landscape. The resulting picture of the map suggests new relationships.
Jo Parnell

8. 7 SPATIAL EXPERIMENTS: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL CARTOGRAPHY

Abstract
Cartography has recently undergone a renaissance as a creative form, with maps and mapping practices being used across the creative arts, as versatile and cross-disciplinary methods of making literary work: “Every map tells a story, and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them” (Cep). Maps are used in creative, critical, and hybrid modes that combine artistic and literary genres and subgenres; for example, Rebecca Solnit’s highly collaborative, colourful reinvention of the traditional atlas, Infinite City (2010) (which Michael Berger calls “a labour of love between Solnit and a legion of historians, writers, artists and cartographers” (Berger)), and digital literary geography projects such as the ambitious Literary Atlas of Europe project (1 October 2006–), led by Barbara Piatti.
Jo Parnell

9. 8 BRIEF ENCOUNTERS: CURATING GIFS, MEMES AND SOCIAL MEDIA FOR SHORT STORY LIFE-WRITING

Abstract
From Samuel Johnson’s comprehensive work The lives of the most eminent English poets, with critical observations on their works/by Samuel Johnson (1781)—which I refer to here as his “Little Lives” of eminent poets, to the academic tools of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—brevity and life-writing have enjoyed and endured a long association In this age of the Internet, the documenting of everyday lives has migrated from the page to the digital space, hence allowing learner writers and others more freedom to easily access and actively participate in some form of life-writing practice as a part of ordinary life. Increasingly, life-writing has become instantaneous and fragmented yet inextricably connected to others’ experiences. Brevity, instantaneity, and replication are the watchwords of social media, and with them come an association with the ephemeral.
Jo Parnell

10. 9 BIOGRAPHICAL LYRIC: WRITING LIVES IN POEMS

Abstract
One of the most beautiful and new shapes for writing lives comes from the oldest genre in English writing: lyric poetry. The landscape of lyric is always changing and so too are the materials for life-writing. Before the 18th century, idealised hagiographical descriptions of the exemplary or infamous life had long been the original benchmarks for meriting a life story. Lexicographer, journalist, and biographer Samuel Johnson extended the perimeters of biography to include interest in the history of nearly any life. In 1750 he famously wrote, “I have often thought there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful” (S.Johnson, Rambler LX): traditionally, modern English biographical writing is associated with prose and, in particular, with narrative. Modern-day biography, Hermione Lee explains, “is a form of narrative,” carrying with it deep associations of journalism, detective stories, and even gossip (5). She adds, “The telling of life-stories is the dominant narrative mode of our times” (17). Catherine N. Parke notes that “the origins of biography and the novel are substantially allied”; there exists an expected and ongoing “dispute” of near relations, whether of technique or interwoven elements (19). Ann Thwaite describes the kinship differently: biographers, she says, are not “primarily fact-gatherers” but essentially storytellers, like fiction writers of plots (17). Eric Homberger and John Charmley put it plainly: “Biographers share with novelists … a love affair with narrative” (xiii).
Jo Parnell

11. 10 WRITING LINES, WRITING LIVES: THE ART OF POETIC BIOGRAPHY

Abstract
In the last several decades, the biographical long poem—or “poetic biography”—has enjoyed a period of quiet prosperity. Including more formal works such as James McAuley’s Captain Quiros (1964); the feminist experiments of Susan Howe in The Liberties (1980); the humorous games in Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack (2002); and the speculative biographical work in Campbell McGrath’s Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2009), this “genre” demonstrates a breadth of play that has the potential to expand our understandings of how biography can be written and framed.
Jo Parnell

YOUNG LIVES: NEW GROWTH

Frontmatter

12. 11 GIVING VOICE: A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO LIFE-WRITING

Abstract
Inexperience and age are not barriers to good life-writing. While there is the temptation for some young people to write shallowly about their experiences—“Krazy Me at Kuta Beach”—most are capable of writing riveting tales that move beyond superficiality and convey insight, if not wisdom, if they put in the time and effort. While creative writing, even fact-based writing, is much harder to produce than a social media post or a diary entry, aspiring writers can craft stellar work once they accept that it takes planning, imagination, and a great deal of rewriting.
Jo Parnell

13. 12 AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITING FOR CHILDREN: AHN DO’S THE LITTLE REFUGEE AND MALALA YOUSAFZAI’S MALALA’S MAGIC PENCIL

Abstract
Ahn Do is one of Australia’s best-known and most highly regarded comedians, having success in stand-up, on television, in films, and in print. His comedy, across these forms, is infused with autobiographical storytelling. Do has also penned two award-winning autobiographical texts: the first of these is The Happiest Refugee (2010), which details his family’s dangerous journey to Australia as refugees from Vietnam and his and his family’s experiences settling into life in Australia. The second is (the written and illustrated) The Little Refugee (2011), which tells his migration story and is written for a child readership.
Jo Parnell
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