Life Writing Projects is about creative representations of lived experience that set their own rules rather than following the conventions of genres such as memoir or biography. The projects selected for publication here all involve writing, but they may also explore the relationship between writing and photography, visual arts, film or video.
Our contributors, who include new and established writers, artists and poets, embrace the concept of life-writing as a project. They work here within a set of self-imposed constraints, in order, as Michael Sheringham puts it, ‘to allow something unforeseen to happen’.
The experiments with new forms of life writing that we publish here are grouped under headings – clothes, body, books and place. As these titles suggest, gender, sexuality and social class are explored in these representations of contemporary lives, but perhaps the most striking (and unexpected) common theme is loss and grief. In Wardrobe Diaries Louise Kenward grieves for her grandmother by working with her dresses and old wardrobe; Tanya Shadrick connects her grandmother’s loving and playful care for her as a child with her own newly discovered capacity to be creative. Katherine Collins revisits the beaches of her childhood, connecting present and past, while Jenni Cresswell’s Three Green Dresses almost literally threads together past, present and future. Tom Ottway works through his own and his mother’s grief for his father in Negative Spaces: Postcards Home, and Nirmal Puwar laments not only the loss of close relatives but austerity’s legacy of neglect and deterioration in inner city Coventry where she grew up and lives again now. In The Uses of Photography Annie Ernaux and Marc Marie make a literary project out of their erotic relationship and Annie’s treatment for breast cancer, defying death and grief. Similarly, in the poetry, prose and photographs of Breastless: Encounters with risk-reducing surgery Clare Best tracks her journey through grief and loss to a new physical shape and powerfully creative identity. In The ‘Campus’ Blouse, Lyn Thomas describes the uncertainties and disorientation of arriving in Oxford from a working-class background, and the pleasure of at least looking the part. In all of these pieces, the playful aspect of making a life writing project becomes a source of resistance and resilience.
In the Books section of the site our project is to explore the role of encounters with books and reading in life history narratives. We are delighted to publish an audio recording of bookshop browsers’ memories of favourite books made at independent bookshop Much Ado Books in Alfriston, Sussex. In Desperately Seeking Susan, Lyn Thomas reflects on her childhood reading of Jane Shaw’s Susan books, and her return to them in later life. Alexandra Loske’s contribution on reading Emily Brontë will follow soon.
Life Writing Projects is a new collaboration between The Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research (CLHLWR) and REFRAME. It was devised and is edited by Professor Lyn Thomas and was designed by Dr Tanya Kant.