Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) is a memoir in verse. “To try to write a straight narrative would have been dishonest,” she explains. “The memory of my childhood is a lyrical one. . . . Look at the line breaks. It’s like, here’s this memory, and now let me take you to the next moment in time. I feel like in poems I’m showing the great simplicity and the utter complication of the moment.” Discussing her memoir Woman Warrior (1976), Maxine Hong Kingston makes a related observation about autobiography and truth: “I felt that to write truly about somebody you have to know what they were dreaming about, and a dream is fiction.” Woodson and Kingston are in good company. For many memoirists, writing an honest account of life means asking difficult questions about truth, memory, and writing. These writers mix or blend the conventions of multiple genres, including poetry, fiction, journalism, diary, and visual art.
In this course, we’ll survey memoirs that experiment with form to tell life stories that reach beyond simple or received truths about identity, culture, history, politics, psychology, emotion, physiology, family, aging, illness, migration, sex, work, and art. We’ll read and watch autobiographical writing by James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard, Gloria Anzadlua, Jacqueline Woodson, Ellen Forney, and GB Tran; we’ll watch standup autobiographical stand-up comedy and YouTubers; and we’ll read theories of autobiography by Philippe Lejeune, Nancy K. Miller, Paul John Eakin, Sidonie Smith, and Julia Watson.
Students will have the opportunity to experiment informally with writing both memoir and literary criticism on our course blog. Students will complete a final project during the second half of the semester. The genre of the project is up to the student. Possibilities include a critical essay, short memoir or biography, podcast, video, ethnography, or musical composition. There are two requirements: The project must address questions about memoir, and it must involve research.