Life writing is much more than just a listing of facts: dates, figures, events, etc. It is the animating of a life in such a way that others are engaged, interested, inspired even. If life writing is not simply the facts, what is it that people look for in autobiographies, biographies and memoirs?
Readers look for a well-crafted story: a good story, a unifying thread that draws connections to various events, and overarching and universal themes. And where better to discover the art of a good story than to look to fiction. Life writers today, often use narrative techniques usually found in a fiction writers’ toolbox. For example, an autobiography can feel completely different if written in the third person rather than the more intimate first person perspective.
But again this raises questions of boundaries. What are the differences between fiction and life writing? How much of this borrowing can a life writer undertake before the writing becomes a work of fiction?
Life writing is as much about what is left out of the story as what is included. The writer carefully selects information about their subject in order to portray their life, or aspects of their life, and in order to create a narrative. It is not a blow-by-blow account of a life, the work is shaped.
In ‘Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life‘, Philip Gerard writes, “No matter how you record an interview, as a writer you always apply art to what the subject says – in Janet Malcolm’s phrase, you owe it to the subject ‘to translate his speech into prose.’ … When the interview finds its way into your piece, it will make the transformation in pieces – selected, edited for sense, truncated, all out of the original order.”
Does the very process of recording the story thereby fictionalise the life?
You can apply the above statement to any aspect or event from your subject’s life. As a life writer, this means extrapolating key ideas and interpreting events from the subject’s whole life then presenting this in an engaging manner.
What is this ‘art’ of the writer? What are the narrative techniques used by fiction writers?
- Plot, subplot, backstory
- Point of view
- Narrative roles
- Narrative structure
- Genre (eg: travel, historical, etc.)
- Sequencing of events
- Symbolism metaphor, allusion
- Intertextuality (relationships and connections with other texts)
- Moral positionings
- Insights into human behaviour, history, the future
- Ideological preferences
- Confliction, suspense, tension
- Narrative arc
Here’s an example from a memoir that I wrote:
“Step right up, step right up, to the greatest show on earth. Toss a bag, try your luck. Come on over and have a go, you can win some candy. Step right up, step right up.” The ringleader, the boy, must only be about 10. He adjusts his signs, rearranges the sweets. A girl comes out of the front door of her apartment, the ringleader waves her over, “Come on over, try your luck with the roller ball. Roll the ball along the wires, it’s easy, but don’t let it fall in the holes. Come on and have a go.” She skips over and joins the growing crowd. The ringleader hums circus music to himself, “Da…doo, doo, doo, do, do-do, da, da, doo, doo…” You know the tune, open the flap to any PT Barnum circus tent and there it is, the quintessential circus music and in the centre, the ring leader building the excitement.
This is what I mean when I say that life writing borrows from fiction. Look at the list of narrative techniques and see which of these are at work in my example:
Written in third person perspective, you begin to get a sense of the main ‘character’, the subject of the memoir, as a young boy. You start to glimpse a setting. The classic image and atmosphere of a circus is evoked through the use of PT Barnum and the image of the ringleader in the central tent. These are well-known symbols that tap into universal themes associated with childhood, excitement and anticipation, and this helps hook the reader into the memoir.
There are many fantastic life writing books available. While certainly not a comprehensive list, here are a few that I have read – some of which are examples of questions I asked in previous blogs: Defining Life Writing and Life Writing: Finding Boundaries.
- Helen Garner: ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’
- Mary Ellen Jordan: ‘Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land’. Read my critique of this memoir: Book Review / Critique
- Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Eat Pray Love’
- Ted Hughes: ‘Birthday Letters’
- Janet Malcolm: ‘The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’
- Noelle Oxenhandler: ‘The Wishing Year’
- Marjane Satrapi: ‘Persepolis: The story of a childhood’
- Jeanette Winterson: ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’
- Elizabeth Best & Colin Bowles: ‘The Year We Seized the Day’. Read more of my thoughts on this book in my previous blog: Narrative Techniques in Travel Writing.
Do you read life writing? What have you read?