Life Writing

image of woman

What is Life Writing?

“Life writing” is the study of how lives are “written” in autobiography, biography, diary, memoir, letters, and related genres; in literature, theology, history, social sciences, and related disciplines; and in oral, visual, auditory, tactile, and electronic forms such as genealogy, testimony, music, gossip, comics, film, photography, art, Facebook, etc.

Though not as familiar as biography, autobiography, or memoir, life writing as a term has been in use since the 1700s, and has gained widespread acceptance since the 1980s as a more inclusive and open reference that crosses and challenges genres, disciplines, and media.

Rooted in the fields of history, literature, and religion, and in the study of exemplary and notorious lives, life writing is now regularly explored in such social sciences as anthropology, ethnography, psychology, and sociology; in the biological sciences; and in professional fields like law, medicine, and education.

As changing theories of identity, feminism, indigeneity, trauma, ethics, gender studies, postmodernism, and postcolonialism, among others, have expanded and contested traditional understandings of lives and life narratives, debates in life writing have centered on such issues as conflicting or hybrid identities, genre and self, media and self, personhood and the legitimacy of lives, the ethics of writing other lives, the intricacies of memory, etc.

For those interested in life writing theory and criticism, the list below suggests some places to start—beginning with the four-volume

Encyclopedia of Life Writing, edited by Margaretta Jolly (Routledge, 2001)

Adams, Timothy Dow Adams
Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography (North Carolina, 1999)

Besemeres, Mary
Translating One's Self: Language and Selfhood in Cross-Cultural Autobiography. (Peter Lang, 2002)

Booth, Alison
How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago, 2004)

Chute, Hillary
Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Culture. (Columbia, 2010)

Clifford, James L.
Biography as an Art: Selected Criticism 1560–1960 (Oxford, 1962)

Couser, G. Thomas
Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing (Cornell, 2003)
Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (Michigan, 2009)

Eakin, Paul John
How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Cornell, 1999)
The Ethics of Life Writing. (Cornell, 2004)

Edel, Leon
Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (Norton, 1984)

Egan, Susanna Egan
Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography (North Carolina, 1999)

Epstein, William H.
Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism (Purdue, 1991)

Franklin, Cynthia G.
Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today (Georgia, 2010)

Fuchs, Miriam
The Text Is Myself: Women’s Life Writing and Catastrophe (Wisconsin, 2004)

Fuchs, Miriam, and Craig Howes
Teaching Life Writing Texts (MLA, 2007)

Gilmore, Leigh
Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation (Cornell, 1994)
The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (Cornell, 2001)

Gugelberger, Georg M.
The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America (North Carolina, 1996)

Heilbrun, Carolyn G.
Writing a Woman’s Life (Norton, 1988)

Hirsch, Marianne
Family Frames; Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Harvard, 1997)

Holden, Philip
Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity and the Nation-State (Wisconsin, 2008)

Kadar, Marlene
Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice. (Toronto, 1992)

Lejeune, Philippe
On Autobiography (Minnesota, 1989)
On Diary (Hawai‘i, 2009)

Lionnet, Francoise
Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Cornell, 1989)

McAdams, Dan P., and Richard L. Ochberg.
Psychobiography and Life Narratives (Duke, 1989).

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form (St. Martin’s, 1984)

Olney, James
Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton, 1980)
Studies in Autobiography (Oxford, 1988)

Padilla, Genaro M.
My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography (Wisconsin, 1993)

Reed-Danahay, Deborah E.
Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (Berg, 1997)

Rugg, Linda Haverty
Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography (Chicago, 1997)

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson
Reading Autobiography. (Minnesota, 2010)
Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (Minnesota, 1996)
Women, Autobiography, Theory. (Wisconsin, 1998)

Whitlock, Gillian
Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit (Chicago, 2009)

Back to top