Life-writing, with pictures.

In October, I took up a visiting scholarship at the Oxford Centre For Life Writing, based at Wolfson College, Oxford University. It’s an unpaid, honorary position, but a huge privilege to be nominated to do this, plus I get access to all their amazing libraries and other resources.

What is life-writing though? Doesn’t it just mean memoir?

Well, no. Here’s the OCLW description:

Life-writing can involve memoir, poetry, song, weather, memory, love, loss, comedy and joy. It can cover every possible form of telling a life-story, from diaries and letters to documentary film and music-performance, from biography and autobiography to anthropology and history.

My research relates to a question I was asked recently: What do you see as the future of comics? Well, I think visual storytelling is an ancient form and my best hope is that it continues to tell human stories, so I’m going to research visual narratives in ancient forms, touching on the Chauver caves and Werner Herzog’s 2011 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Scott McCloud’s claim for pre-Columbian picture manuscripts as a type of comics, and compare with some contemporary visual narratives like the Quaker Tapestry, Miner’s flags etc.

You can use the books below as a springboard for a range of storytelling ideas and structures. They are all a type of life-writing, but you can apply the questions I’ve asked to most types of pictorial writing. It goes without saying that my own work, Becoming Unbecoming, On Sanity and Cree are examples of life-writing graphic novels and I hope you’ve already read them all. If not, you can get On Sanity & Cree from my shop & Becoming Unbecoming direct from the publisher, Myriad.

So, in no particular order, here are some examples of life-writing in comics and other unusual forms to get you thinking and keep you inspired. I’ve asked some questions for you to ponder.

First up, Tenements, Towers & Trash: an unconventional illustrated history of New York City, by Julia Wertz. How do you think this fits with the description of life-writing above? Where is Julia’s story in the mix? She doesn’t appear much in the book, it’s mostly buildings, trucks, etc. Perhaps the ‘life’ part is in the ‘history’? Or perhaps it’s in the process of making the book. In her own words:

Living in my mom’s garage attic in my mid-30’s facilitated a bit of an existential crisis, which was exacerbated by having to work on this book every single day. It was an absolute fucking torture drawing and writing about a city I no longer lived in but desperately missed. My love for NYC, which was strong when I was a resident, seemed to grow even more in its absence…I’ve never stopped daydreaming about the city and scheming of ways to get back to it… I’ll never love another city the way I loved New York.

Julia Wertz 2017
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Julia Wertz

Next, Frida Kahlo’s diary. Original pages, scanned, with her own words in Spanish and translated into English, including love/anger rants at Diego and accounts of her pain in disability alongside the most wonderful sketches. This is perhaps more clearly a piece of life-writing, but Frida probably didn’t intend for it to be published, so it’s private writing, but made by an artist, so it seems natural it should contain images. It’s very like many graphic novels that have been published recently in that respect, but is it a graphic novel? If not, why not?

Frida Khalo

Next, probably the most well-known of the life-writing comics: Art Siegelman’s Maus, a personal history of surviving Auschwitz based on his father’s oral testimony, and his later book Meta Maus, with comics scholar Hilary Chute, in which he discusses the research process of making the original work. Both of these related works are life-writing in different ways. The first is a memoir and biographical history of a period in history that is difficult to grasp. Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer prize for Maus in 1992 but the books were difficult to classify as a genre at first. The author petitioned the New York Times to move it from the fiction to the non-fiction section; given the subject matter and the ever-present danger of Holocaust deniers, he had a point, so eventually the NYT agreed. The Pulitzer committee avoided the issue by calling their award a ‘Special Award In Letters’.

Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman & Hillary Chute

Finally, a work of life-writing that takes the form of spoken word and music, The Radio Ballads, originally made for BBC radio, unfortunately deleted on the BBC website now. Created by Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker, based on oral history recordings of people around the UK, with original music written by Seeger and MacColl around the themes of each episode. One of the UK’s most well-known folk songs about travellers ‘The Moving On Song (Go, Move, Shift)’ emerged from the Radio Ballads.

Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl

You can listen to the Radio Ballad episode on fishing off the coast of East Anglia on YouTube, below, or on Ewan MacColls Bandcamp page, maintained by his family. Thanks to Kerry for drawing my attention to it.

YouTube BBC Radio Ballad ‘Singing The Fishing’

And here are the MacColl brothers on YouTube performing The Moving On Song

So that’s all for now, I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Thanks for reading.

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