What is Life-Writing?

Life-writing involves, and goes beyond, biography. It encompasses everything from the complete life to the day-in-the-life, from the fictional to the factional. It embraces the lives of objects and institutions as well as the lives of individuals, families and groups.

Life-writing includes autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, journals (written and documentary), anthropological data, oral testimony, and eye-witness accounts. It is not only a literary or historical specialism, but is relevant across the arts and sciences, and can involve philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, ethnographers and anthropologists.

Recent areas of interest in life-writing studies include the relation of biography to scientific discovery. Life-writing is also an integral part of studies relating to the Holocaust, genocide, testimony and confession, and gender and apartheid. 

We’d really be interested in your thoughts: how would you define life-writing? Which recent trends in the discipline particularly fascinate you? What would you like to see taking place in a Life-Writing Centre? Please do get in touch with us, and join the conversation. 

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7 thoughts on “What is Life-Writing?

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  1. I am glad to see the Oxford Life Writing Centre ask this question, and specifically not just think about classic biography. I would like to suggest that auto/biographical comics are a major area to think about. My own work deals with automedia in addition to other contemporary forms of life writing including and beyond the codex. I am in the UK next year on sabbatical and would participate in a conversation about life writing with you, if you would like.

    Regards, Julie Rak, University of Alberta

  2. It is really gratifying that life writing is finally getting recognition as a rich source of knowledge for a variety of disciplines – literary, historical, anthropological, ideological, etc. Way back in the early 1980s, when I completed my PhD research in the Literature Department, School of Comparative Studies, University of Essex, on the early black autobiographies in South Africa, it took many months to assemble a team of Professors with research interest in the area to conduct my defence. Eventually, the work was published under the title, “Autobiography as Social History: Apartheid and the Rise of the Black Autobiography Tradition in South Africa”.
    Since then, I have really developed interest in life writing and all its sub-categories and have attempted researches into different aspects of formal subjectivity expressions, especially in societies that had not been covered before, like the mid-17th Century Hausaland and beyond, in Africa.
    I really feel happy for the operations of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing and pray that it will spread its research focus to cover all parts of the world.
    Best regards.

  3. Before I stumbled on this site, I did not realize there was a scholarly field called “life writing.” Perhaps I am like Moliere’s character who had been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it, for I have been keeping a daily diary since August 1969. In the past few years I have published about a million and a half words from my diary entries (currently up to early 1982) online at a website called Thought Catalog. http://thoughtcatalog.com/richard-grayson/page/40/

    I do wonder about the value of diaries from my own experience. Although I enjoy publishing my diary entries, I don’t think they have any literary value and am not certain what value they have at all for anyone other than myself. I have heard from a few readers over the years who say that they were interested in specific aspects of my diaries — attitudes toward homosexuality, the doings of a father (an African-American activist with the Black Panthers who never spoke of his past), how younger people tried to break into writing fiction in New York City in earlier decades, an account of a political meeting of Democrats who wanted to dump Jimmy Carter from the 1980 ticket that apparently has no other source) — I question the use of diaries for others besides the diarist even as I keep putting my diaries online, where I am grateful they are, like most Internet material, hiding in plain sight.

  4. Continued thanks to the OCLW for providing rich resources and discussion about life writing! My coauthor and I recently wrote a book about the question, (what is life writing?), in the context of qualitative inquiry and education:

    Mulvihill, T. & Swaminathan, R. (April 2017). Critical Approaches to Life Writing Methods In Qualitative Research. Routledge Press

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