Approaches to Life Writing, Fall 2013

The course site for MALS 70900

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.


The Province of Children

by Carol Scott

In The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing we see great societal efforts both intellectual and coarse through the eyes of a child who is a functional tool in those efforts. Octavian is pure object, existing solely for the advancement of a greater good he has no voice in defining. Using Octavian’s perspective brings this nightmare world into the reader’s present moment.

TheOnesWhoWalkAwayFromOmelasAn earlier example of a society served by the suffering of a child is Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, sourced here online from the San Diego State University. The brevity of Le Guin’s piece adds to its impact as the awareness and complicity of the citizens is revealed and justified. This is not life writing as we have defined it so far, but rather place writing. With no intention of trashing anyone’s holiday spirits, I highly recommend The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. You will not be able to read it without reflecting on the hidden suffering that makes our standard of life possible.


The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is also available in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.

Why? The Fictions of Life and Death – James Woods

by Jesse Allen

I came across this article and thought that it related to what we discuss in class about the nature of a life in readable form. Is there really a beginning, middle and end or is this a contrived convenience for a more unexplainable phenomenon?


Life Writing: The Sandford Meisner Technique

by Ryan Tofil

Sanford Meisner

Sanford Meisner

Link to the Matthew Corozine Studio in Times Square

As a teacher of the Sanford Meisner Technique, part of the process of studying the craft of acting requires the actor to write a personal monologue from one’s life.  The point of the exercise is to write something difficult to say that you wouldn’t tell just anyone.  The story must be true and from your point-of-view.  Within the exercise the actor can be as creative as they like, telling the story through different stages of their lives, as a letter, however they like, so long as the feelings and stories expressed are true.  One of the reasons for doing the exercise is to allow the actor to deliver a piece that requires no research or imagined emotional life.  The piece already has a built in point-of-view and feeling.  The actor’s job is to write the piece and then fully memorize and deliver the piece at least 3 different times to the class.  Traditionally in the Meisner Technique the activity is tackled at some point at the end of the actor’s first year of training.  At the studio I work, Matthew Corozine Studio in Times Square, Artistic Director Matthew Corozine has the actors do the assignment at the start of the training process. The purpose is to set the foundation for the actor that “acting” mostly requires no acting at all, and that the emphasis on good acting is being truthful and fully expressed.  The emotional life and experience the students face in the course will all be built from truth and reality.  Yet, even though the piece is true, the way in which they express their feelings may be different from how they may have actually expressed them in life, or if at all.  Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting is ” Acting is living and behaving truthfully and fully under imaginary circumstances.”  Though there are no imaginary circumstances in writing the personal monologue activity, the actor is encouraged to “fully express” and “give the piece away” by delivering the story to another person.  Throughout years of teaching this technique we have heard many amazing, sad, tragic, unbelievable, touching, heartbreaking stories—everything from feeling abandoned, to suicide attempts, abortion and rape.   The life writing technique opens actors to truly expressing personal and connected feeling to an audience.  Many of the monologues that the actors write go on to be developed into scenes and in some cases plays based on their experience.

Recommended Reading: Nancy K. Miller’s But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives

by Megan Feulner

Nancy K. Miller

Our last class raised provocative questions about life writing and its readers. Is the very act of reading relational? The conversation pointed to the ambiguous tensions that life narratives generate: what factors facilitate familiarity or distance between reader and text? What are the politics of making a story “easily” translatable to a general audience? How do various social locations shape or limit this? With this in mind I want to recommend Nancy K. Miller’s But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, a classic text which addresses some of these issues as central to the genre of life writing itself.[1]

In the preface, Miller offers a blueprint for her book: part autobiographical account, part “collective memoir” of second-wave feminism, and part critical reflection on life narrative as writing and reading practice. She writes of the theoretical premise: “I explore two propositions: the first, that the subjects of life writing (memoir, diary, essay, confession) are as much others as ourselves; the second that reading the lives of other people with whom we do not identify has as much to tell us (if not more) about our lives as the lives which we do.”[2] Miller contends that life writing is not an isolated or self-centered practice, but instead hinges on a connection between reader and text. She states, “…the genre of memoir is not a terminal ‘moi-ism’ (as it’s been called), but, rather, a rendez-vous with others. Put another way, it takes two to perform an autobiographical act—in reading as in writing.”[3] Miller is challenging the popular criticism that the “memoir boom” simply grew out of our modern cultural preoccupation with narcissism and confessional spectacle. In contrast, she offers a more sustaining description of the genre: “Memoir is the most generous of modern genres. Indeed, the point of memoir—when it succeeds—is to keep alive the notion that experience is a form of art and that remembering is a guide to living.”[4]

Miller combines personal and critical writing to explore the unique way that contemporary memoir functions as “the record of an experience in search of community.”[5] At the outset she promises to recount sketches from her own life, yet the book is simultaneously “organized by a plot not about me.”[6] Her structure reveals the titular paradox: we seek out “other people’s lives” for what they reveal about our own. Memoirs do important cultural work because personal narratives are always implicated in a larger story or history. In this sense, autobiography or memoir can serve as a contact point between “individual and collective” stories, or the shared remembrances that constitute “the bigger picture of cultural memory.”[7] They can act as “a prosthesis or aid to memory” that prompts a reader to revisit her own past.[8]

Each chapter is an exercise in the collaborative potential of memoir. In the spirit of invitation, Miller asks: “What do my memories call up for you?”[9]The answer is, of course, dependent on the reader, clearly ambiguous, and often unexpected. Miller explores themes of female rebellion, generations, authority, nostalgia, aging, and more. Her model of “collective memoir” works to unhinge the idea that identity is fixed. She writes: “Are there models of relation that escape those of hierarchy or aggression between ego and others? Yes. But they require a constant reminder of reciprocal dependency, the porousness and vulnerability of personal boundaries.”[10] Miller poses integral questions about the process of reading another’s story against our own. What are the points when a cultural moment becomes “my story too”?[11] Why is “reconstructing” the past always a limited project? How does the “autobiographical act” reveal the instability of self/other boundaries?[12] For Miller, the unpredictable exchanges that life narratives explicitly invite is the most salient feature of the genre. Her book makes this connective quality tangible.


[1] Miller, Nancy K. But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[2] Ibid., xv.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Ibid., xv.

[7] Ibid., xv.

[8] Ibid., 14.

[9] Ibid., xvi.

[10] Ibid., 125.

[11] Ibid., 55.

[12] Ibid., 125.

Plath in Pop Culture

by Olivia-Beate Franzini

16 Pandas who Understand Sylvia Plath

The Broadway Play- Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath

 The Modern Tattoo Craze-The Bell Jar 

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In Art

Carly Lappas ’13 “The Bell Jar” Photograph and Mixed Media

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Appearance in the Simpsons-High Culture Meets Low Culture








The Movie-Sylvia 


Secondary Reading for The Bell Jar

by Olivia-Beate Franzini

“A Ritual for Being Born Twice”: Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ by Marjorie G. Perloff

Perloff analyzes the The Bell Jar while focusing on Plath’s choices for developing the character of Ester Greenwood. She discusses Esther’s struggle for identity as one that struggles between the “inner self” and the “false-self” as termed by R.D Laing in The Divided Self. Perloff discusses how Plath’s protagonist embodies the struggles we face daily in life, the struggle to become one’s own self rather than what others expect.


Discussion Questions for The Bell Jar

by Olivia-Beate Franzini


  • The Bell Jar has sold over two million copies in the United States and has been titled the Catcher in the Rye of its time, an archetypal novel on personal experience. However, do you agree with Frances McCullough that it may have never achieved such success throughout the world had Plath not committed suicide? Or is it the subject matter alone that gives it its appeal?
  • Throughout our studies in this course we have discussed the topic of truth and the blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction. Sylvia Plath herself regarded the text as an “autobiographical apprenctiwork, or a confession, which she told A. Alverz she needed to write in order to free herself from her past. How much does our fixation on truth shape our reading of the text? Does it matter at all?
  • The Bell Jar is often labeled as a feminist text, what aspects of it make it a feminist text and what universalities does Plath present? Besides being classified as a feminist text, it is also one that is sometimes labeled a text about mental illness. Do you find this label to be accurate? Is the novel really about mental illness as much as it is about the effect of society’s expectation of women?
  • Despite the popularity of The Bell Jar and the way it speaks to human nature and the feeling of femal entrapment, critics have often titled it a “flawed first novel.” Do you think these claims can be justified?
  • Being that the novel parallels quite closely with the concept of scriptotherapy, therapeutic writing to facilitate a resolution to distress from trauma, what did Plath gain by leaving the ending ambiguous and up in the air for Esther? How could the novel’s ending be symbolic for Plath?



Suggested reading to go along with Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

by Nikola Durkovic

Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

by Michel Foucault


Foucault shows the historical and cultural developments that lead to “that other form of madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbors”, challenging the optimism of William Tuke and Phillipe Pinel’s “liberation” of the mad and problematizing the genesis of psychiatry, a “monologue of reason about madness”. Central to this is the notion of confinement as a meaningful exercise. Foucault’s history explains how the mad came first to be confined; how they became identified as confined due to moral and economic factors that determined those who ought to be confined; how they became perceived as dangerous through their confinement, partly by way of atavistic identification with the lepers whose place they had come to occupy; how they were “liberated” by Pinel and Tuke, but in their liberation remained confined, both physically in asylums and in the designation of being mad; and how this confinement subsequently became enacted in the figure of the psychiatrist, whose practice is “a certain moral tactic contemporary with the end of the eighteenth century, preserved in the rites of the asylum life, and overlaid by the myths of positivism.” Science and medicine, notably, come in at the later stages, as practices “elaborated once this division” between the mad and the sane has been made.



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