Life writing

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Life writing is the recording of memories, and experiences, whether one's own or another's. This applies to many genres and practices, under which can be found autobiography, biography, memoir, diaries, letters, testimonies, personal essays and, more recently, digital forms such as blogs and email.[1]

Life writing can also be linked with genealogical study: when recording one's life it is common to become curious about the lives of others that have affected one over time and, if they have not recorded their own life, to start doing it for them.

In the eighteenth century there was an increase in life writing and life narratives[2] produced due to the rise of literacy and the increased circulation in global trade.[3]

The continued popularity of the biographic form can be seen with the recent publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, an updated version of a 19th-century publication, containing 50,113 biographic articles about 54,922 people who have significantly affected and shaped Britain.

Why Life Writing?[edit]

Life writing has become increasingly popular and, as a result, academic research into the subject has also increased. Life writers and historians state that life writing and life history are useful academically as they provide first hand stories and accounts of individuals and their relationship with society, history, public life as well as detailed personal insights. At the same time, the prevalence of confessional writing, reading and related audio/visual 'reality' shows has been argued to reflect the extreme individualism of late modern societies.

In 1975, psychologist Ira Progoff noted the positive effects that journal writing, or autobiographical writing could have. The findings of Progoff's research showed that not only could an Intensive Journal Method enhance personal growth and learning, but also that it could "draw each person's life towards wholeness at its own tempo"

Research into life writing has also found that it can facilitate the expression of feeling, a shift in personal thinking and the development of a feeling of self-control and confidence, especially in individuals with low self-esteem. It has also been claimed that autobiographical writing helps with these deep issues as it allows the problem to be dealt with in a new, different and unusual way.

Another benefit to life writing is the pleasure and positive experience in re-living old memories and events, while knowing that they are being recorded and therefore will be remembered in years to come by future generations. People want to be remembered and through family orientated activity such as life writing the process can be more rewarding.

Life writing also enables family information, as well as emotions and feeling about history to be remembered, for example life writing can give the opportunity to pass down family traditions, recipes and memorabilia.

With the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer's and other degenerative and dementia diseases, especially in the developed world, it is being seen as even more important to leave a record of oneself and one's times. There is also some evidence to support the claim that increased intellectual activity and brain stimulation i.e. recording one's memories can lower the individual risk of dementia and Alzheimer's.[4]

Academic Study[edit]

There are now Centres for Life Writing Research at both King's College London and the University of Sussex.

The Centres are multi-disciplinary, with contributors from history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, cultural studies and psychology as well as English language and literature and aim to produce academic publications in the field of life writing as well as contributing through other mediums, such as television, radio and the internet.

The University of Sussex Library is also home to the Mass-Observation Archive, a large collection of material from everyday life, personally kept routines and diaries that were collated between 1937 to the early 1950s. More recently Mass-Observation Archive has been collecting new material since the early 1980s, in order to generate a comparable record of everyday life from a personal perspective. The archive is considered of great social and cultural importance as well as supplying previously unheard accounts and stories of routine wartime and contemporary Britain.

The International Auto/Biography Association holds a biannual conference which brings together some of the leading scholars in the field.

Famous Examples of Life Writing[edit]

Life writing has been evident for nearly 2,000 years. St Augustine's autobiographical work being one example from the late 4th century AD.

Margery Kempe, an early 15th-century English woman, is believed to have written the first autobiography in the English language, though it was a production that depended upon the help of scribes. This text provides what could be the best insight into a female, middle class experience in the Middle Ages.

Other well-known examples include Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.

External links[edit]

  • SAGA Document Collection – Women’s autobiographical narratives from the UBC Library Digital Collections
  • The Oxford Centre for Life Writing [1]


  1. ^ "Wolfson College, Oxford". Retrieved 2018-12-11.
  2. ^ "Narrative identity", Wikipedia, 2018-10-15, retrieved 2018-12-11
  3. ^ Smith, Sidonie; Watson, Julia (2002-01-23), "Life Narrative in Historical Perspective", Reading Autobiography, University of Minnesota Press, pp. 103–126, ISBN 9780816669851, retrieved 2018-12-11
  4. ^ Verghese, Joe; Lipton, Richard B.; Katz, Mindy J.; Hall, Charles B.; Derby, Carol A.; Kuslansky, Gail; Ambrose, Anne F.; Sliwinski, Martin; Buschke, Herman (2003). "Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly". New England Journal of Medicine. 348 (25): 2508–16. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa022252. PMID 12815136.
  • Jolly, Margaretta (ed). 2001 The Encyclopedia of Life Writing. Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Routledge, London and New York
  • Epstein, Helen. 2010. Ecrire La Vie. La Cause des Livres. Paris