Autobiographical Writing

In this course, we will be reading and discussing, but primarily writing, autobiographical texts. Philippe Lejeune has famously defined the autobiographical pact as an agreement between reader and writer that the “I” of the text is in important ways also the narrator of the text, and the individual identified on the cover or title page as the author. This formulation has been challenged, and we will challenge it as well, but this course will definitely focus upon representing or constructing in words, and perhaps images, the “I.”

Such a commitment will lead us into encounters with memoirs, personal essays, confessions, testimony, “creative non-fiction,” autofiction, new journalism, and a host of other rhetorical and literary genres. But the emphasis will be on writing autobiography or memoir, and there will be a significant (8–10) number of assignments of varying lengths—some huge—leading toward a very substantial revised piece at the end of the semester. You can assume that you’ll be writing and/or revising over 100 pages.

There will be mandatory conferences with the instructor for all writing assignments.  You will also be sharing drafts of your work with other members of the class.

Though the emphasis is on writing, there will be reading. G. Thomas Couser’s brief overview of memoir will be a critical text, and we will read a number of autobiographical texts as well, including at least two full memoirs.

And finally, a few governing principles.  One of our major concerns will be the issue of disclosure—in short, what you decide to present in your writing as a representation of your life, and what you choose to withhold.  This course is not group therapy, nor will the grade be tied to your bravery—or rashness—in presenting traumatic, or outrageous, or intimate secrets about your life, and the lives of others in your life.  One of the finest Honors theses ever written in our department was an autobiographical work entitled “I Don’t Remember,” which can be a choice as well as a statement of fact.  We will talk frequently about the ethics of life writing.