Approaches to Life Writing, Fall 2013

The course site for MALS 70900

Category: Uncategorized


Happy Holidays!

by Enito Mock

Good Afternoon All,

I would just like to wish everyone a wonderful and happy holiday season to you and yours. May everyone enjoy the festivities and company of family, friends, and colleagues. Also may Santa give you all you wanted this year and many more. Cheers!

A Spring Course of Potential Interest

by Carrie Hintz

IDS 81630 – Life Writing: The Art of Biography

GC: T, 2:00 – 4:00 p.m., 3 credits, Prof. Annalyn Swan


This course will be a sustained look at what makes biography, at its best, a genre that combines the strength of both non-fiction and fiction – the precision of historical and biographical scholarship with the insight and thrust of a good novel. As literary genres go, biography has always been something of a stepchild – and understandably so. Far too many people approach writing biography as a nuts-and-bolts recitation of a person’s life. But the best biography is as different from this pedestrian approach as Jane Austen is to pulp fiction. Great biography tells the tale with panache, in short, while building on painstaking research and analysis. The course will explore the biographer’s (and autobiographer’s) craft through a range of subjects and styles. It will also provide students the opportunity to write a biographical introduction to, or chapter about, a person who fascinates them. Annalyn Swan is co-author, with Mark Stevens, of de Kooning: An American Master, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.


Universal & Feminist & Specific & Relatable

by Rachel Eckhardt

In our class discussion of The Bell Jar, the question came up about how a memoir is specifically feminist or universally relatable. We debated whether a book could be feminist without being instructive, and can a feminist story be relatable to all humans of every gender?

I immediately thought about Barbara Hammer’s memoir. Hammer is an extremely prolific and accomplished experimental film maker and lesbian activist who has been doing work in the community since the 1970’s. Her memoir is entitled Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life.

The second question that followed, the one about how an author can create recognizable content when talking specifically about their own life, in particular reminded me of my favorite quote from Hammer: “Radical content deserves radical form.” (176)

How can a feminist story be relatable? And does work need to be relatable to be understandable? An interesting thing about Hammer’s assertion that radical content deserves radical form, is that it asks us to think about the relationship between form and content in all art forms. In The Bell Jar, if Plath is not asserting feminist values herself, is the work feminist via the explanation and detailing of horrendous sexism? In class we arrived at some agreement that we can relate to the protagonist and her specific experiences of sexism without needing to have experienced them ourselves. (Similarly we discussed in an earlier class that we related to Heaven’s Coast even when we hadn’t lost a partner to AIDS.) We seem to be quite concerned about relating to the specific life contained in the life writing we studied!

But Hammer’s questions took me to still another place. I started wondering if a feminist memoir could be both radical and follow the traditional narrative form. Is, for instance, a certain story of Genius and Genius’s Wife, thereby not radical because unlike Stein’s other work, it is a conventional narrative in chronological order with a plot we can follow? Or maybe The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas does have both radical content and radical form, because it is detailing the lives of two women living as a couple and the voice is complicated by notions of actual authorship and who is really telling the story and who is the story really about. It was radical at the time to take for granted the understanding of their romantic partnership, and the complex narration of the book actually speaks to the complexity of their relationship. In this case, form and content are in kind of dialogue.

Hammer’s memoir itself is structured by decade by decade, a very conventional choice for the form of her own writing. I suspect this choice is deliberate, as she has often expressed a (very feminist) concern for her own accessibility to different audiences. “I have found that the audiences who go to experimental-film screenings are unfamiliar with the concerns of lesbian representation in film. Conversely, lesbian audiences know little about experimental cinema. In an effort to educate both audiences I talk and write about both experimental film and lesbian representation.” (198) So for the radical content of her own life, she chose a more conventional form for her memoir. Although I would like to question my own assertion of convention here, by mentioning there are tiny sexually explicit images from her 1974 film Dyketactics printed on every right-side page of the book. When you flip through the pages from cover to cover, the book’s margin serves as a flip-book version of a scene from the film. Hammer repeatedly breaks with, and sticks to, convention in order to be both relatable and feminist, to have both her content and form speak to each other.

Field Trip

by Carrie Hintz

Melanie Locay has been in touch with Jason Baumann, who curated the “Why We Fight” AIDS exhibit.  He would be happy to offer us a guided tour of the exhibit.
With this schedule and my own travel schedule, late January seems to be best”  January 28th at 6 PM.  So let’s plan for that time…and just meet at the NYPL.  Please let me know if you are coming by adding your name to the comments below!

Thinking about “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

by Nikola Durkovic

I am in the middle of the process of writing my final paper and some thoughts and questions are going through my head so I wanted to share them:

Although “The Year of Magical Thinking” speaks of terrible tragedy, its not a downer! The writing, by one of the main participants of the tragedy, is exciting! How crazy is that? As Joan Didion once said: “The way I write is who I am, or have become.”

Dissembling nature of memory and grief?

Does the fluid narrative structure represent disorientation by stress caused by sudden death?

Juxtaposing of hard, cold, documents-supported facts with most personal and precisely expressed feelings – the signature of Didion’s alchemy.

Mystical quality of the book?

Musical quality of Didion’s writing? Rhythm is life!






“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

by Nikola Durkovic

In “The Year of Magical Thinking”, Joan Didion writes about the year she tried to come to terms with twin calamities of December 2003: the life threataning sickness of her daughter and death of her husband. This book is extremely honest, precise and shocking story of loss, grief and sorrow. The quality of Didion’s introspection is simply fascinating. It is also a book that gives us detailed portrait of a four decade long marriage. The term “Magical Thinking” probably has a few meanings but one of them , for sure, refers to the process of memoir writing itself. It takes a lot of strength, courage, intelligence and personal power to be able to rethink, to reconstruct the most painful and so recent memories in one’s life. Joan Didion demonstrated an extraordinary character, perfect reportorial eye and admiring capacity for honesty. As a result, her book is a gift to all of us: it can not only help us be better prepared for the inevitable, but also remind us to appreciate life much more that we do every single day.

Just a Reminder

by Carrie Hintz

…We are not meeting tonight…
Please check this blog over the next week or so for finalized January plans…for our optional class “fieldtrip.”



Self Reflection in Life Writing

by Ryan Tofil

I was fascinated and pleased with the wide array or life writing pieces we explored in class.  I felt everyone’s understanding and reactions to the pieces to be intriguing.  Through this course I continue to see and hear how much everyone continues to ‘question’ what is fiction or non-fiction in writing.  I wonder how much people did that say even 50 years ago.  Were things more cut and dry, at  least in the explanation of them, such as the way teachers relay the genres to schoolchildren?   Also fascinating are the ways in which things are now categorized in movies: Like, what really is the difference between: ‘A true story’ vs. ‘Based on a true story’ and  ‘Based on actual events’ vs. ‘based on true events.’  No matter, this class has opened me up to knowing that I am free to write, however I choose–even about an actual person or event.

Ethnographies: Self Reflection in Life Writing

by Enito Mock

Hi All. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to read any ethnographies in the course and its a qualitative technique that I love. As a Sociology and Psychology major at the City College of New York, I read quite a bit of ethnographies in my day. Some of the ones I loved was Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life in the City by Elijah Anderson, Rachel and her Children by Jonathan Kozol, Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier, and Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. There was something about ethnographies that dragged me in. Being able to follow others in their footsteps and see how they lived, felt, and survived a situation is ideally in my mind something I am very interested in. In thinking about ethnographies as life writing, I had asked Dr. Hintz if this would be okay as a research paper

“As I was reading Kozol’s Rachel and Her Children this past weekend, I came to realize that an ethnography not only gives readers insight into the lives of others but also challenges our own perceptions and stereotypes of these populations we read about. Often when we read ethnographies, we go into the descriptive writing with an intent to read more about the lives of others ie. the homeless, African Americans, Chicana and Chicanos, etc. But when we begin to read them and begin to understand more about the lives of others, we have an opportunity to realize (lightbulb moment) that what we think about people are wrong.

In thinking about this, I would like to explore ethnographies as a life writing and show how ethnographies are not only good to talk about the lives of others in a descriptive way, but also how we can reflect upon them as well to shed a light on what we think is true/untrue. I would also like to talk about the advantages of ethnographies as a reflective glass, in which we can relate to the subjects more so than individual subjects.  This is not to say that we can’t relate to Malcolm X or Florence Nightingale, but I think we can relate more to what is going on in our communities which makes us informed citizens in society. ”

I look forward to writing this paper and understanding more about ethnographies as a reflective mirror.


American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

by Enito Mock

big-100081As I sat in the back of the Leon Levy Center for Biography yesterday, unforunately blocked by a number of white haired ladies and gentleman, I couldn’t help but ask this question to myself: who was Norman Rockwell? The name rang a bell but I still didnt know who he was. I was hoping I would learn more about his life and to my expectations, I did. Maybe a little too much I think.

The event consisted of a conversation betwen art journalist Judith H. Dobrzynski and art critic Deborah Solomon, the author of American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Ms. Dobrzynski asked questions about Rockwell’s life, artwork, and her inspiration for writing this book. Ms. Solomon admitted that before she wrote the book, she had no interest in Rockwell’s life. It wasn’t until she looked at his work and realized its mysteriousness and his love for people that she become obsessed with him. She used the internet and to find the information for her biography and used interviews from Rockwell’s sons. She also analyzed his artwork and discussed their meaning to the audience.

I learned four things from the conversation

– Rockwell was obsessed with the human figure. He was not interested in landscapes at all. A majority of his workwork depicts a gaze on a particular person or object. Unlike Dutch paintings where most people looked away from one another, Rockwell’s paintings had figures looking at a particular object or person. Rockwell looked at people carefully with his gaze because he loved faces and figure paintings.

– Solomon was treated at the Austin Riggs center in Massachusetts. He was treated by Erik Erickson, the second to best known psychologist behind Sigmund Freud. In most of his sessions, he would complain about his wife. He said that he would kill himself if this wife had to go with him anywhere outside of the city.


– Solomon said that in most biographies, theres a blame on the mother rather than the father. I can’t dispute this claim since I haven’t read alot of biographies. But I can see this could be the case. No offense (lol). Solomon said Rockwell blamed and disliked his mother because she was a hypochroniac and took the attention of his father away from his kids. He disliked her so much that when he would paint or draw illustrations, he would either leave her out or put her in the background. Rockwell’s Thanksgiving painting below depicts this dislike. The lady in the white hair showing only the face is his mother.




– Rockwell displayed homoerotuntitledic tendencies in his paintings. His 1968 painting The Runaway is an example of his love for men.

Solomon said that in most of his paintings, he would have two kinds of men or boys: a stronger more rugged man and a skinny boy. He felt empowered when he was able to identy with a manly figure, which could mean he had self esteem issues. Drawing two men of different proportions brought Rockwell emotional warmth. He enjoyed the male face and beauty as opposed to female beauty, which he drew unfrequently.

Overall, I was able to see Rockwell not as just a painter, but as a person who had joy, love for people, and problems. Not to say we all don’t have problems but his unique eye for art makes him a very interesting figure to learn more about.


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