Blake Morrison launches The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Voicing the Self’

Blake Morrison, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’

Hi there, Nanette here for OCLW publicity, and I’ll be summarizing for you the first of the OCLW Weinrebe Lectures, given by Blake Morrison on Tuesday 4th February in the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Blake Morrison began his lecture last Tuesday by revealing that his lecture title, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’, was the original title for his 1997 book about the James Bulger murder case.  The story of the two ten-year-old boys who tortured and murdered the two-year-old James Bulger is examined in conjunction with Morrison’s own life, and in the end he titled his book, As If. Asking us to think about private and public deaths and the bad things we do in our own childhoods, Morrison explained As If was an attempt to ‘reclaim’ for humanity the children who do bad things.

Morrison went on to explore things that bother us about memoir as a genre. Confessional memoir, and talking about yourself have something ‘indecent’ about them, he said. The intimacy and painful truths of the form lead us to think about mortality: life-writing often turns into death writing.

The connection between this opening and the remainder of Morrison’s lecture was the theme of ‘motive’: we question the motives of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger; perhaps they are impossible to know or understand because children do not have a fully developed moral sense. The motives for confession and memoir are manifold, and can be difficult to discern because a certain amount of strategy and calculation are required to structure a narrative. Morrison described the following as some of the motives for confessional literature:

  • Shock value / sensationalism: attempts to redefine what is shocking by exposing lies and secrets
  • Performance / showmanship: writers who bear witness versus confessional writers who dare readers to judge them, and self-dramatization or the pleasure of constructing the narrator’s persona
  • To set the record straight: incorporating elements of ‘objectivity’ and journalistic witness, but intimacy sets this writing apart from reportage
  • Catharsis / cleansing: writing as therapy and memoir as a form for airing grievances and for grieving

Blake Morrison concluded his lecture by reading Sharon Olds’ “First”, a poem from her 2010 collection, The Wellspring, that describes a scene of sexual abuse to the young speaker. Morrison explained that the poem employs the confessional mode to transform a memory of abuse into one of empowerment, and this transformational element is one of the most liberating motives of confession.

Questions afterwards ranged from ‘how do we know a confession is true’ to ‘does confessional literature say anything about its audience?’ In addition, a reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as being ‘recollected in tranquillity’ spurred the question of ‘whether there is something to be said for what’s recorded in the heat of the moment and will be shaped later as memoir?’ Final questions considered the stigma in academic writing of using the first person ‘I’, and the importance of understanding any writer’s subjectivity.

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