Life Writing

This article on ‘Life Writing’, written by an expert in the field, Dr Rae Luckie PhD of Luckie Consulting Services, should prove invaluable to all those entering the biannual FAW Walter Stone Award [2016 – see Competitions].


Life Writing: More than Just a Memoir


“Life writing is now one of the most dynamic and rapidly developing fields of international scholarship. It includes not just biography and autobiography, but also diaries, journals, letters, and the use of life narrative in various disciplines: history, anthropology, sociology, politics, business and leadership studies, sport, and others… In addition to its high academic profile, life writing generates great interest among the general public: works of biography and autobiography sell in vast numbers”.
– Unit for Studies in Biography and Autobiography, La Trobe University

“Both autobiography and biography, linguistically united by their common roots in the Greek words bios (life) and graphe (writing) are fundamentally hybrid creations of historicity and textuality. How life inflects the text, how the text inflects the life are proper subjects of theoretical speculation, but for most readers, the appeal of life writing is its evocation of a human being, dead or alive, and the mythologizing (or demythologizing) power inherent in a written account of that life”.
– Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom, Revealing Lives

Dr Rae Luckie

Dr Rae Luckie

I was delighted to see the announcement of the Walter Stone award for life writing. A definition of life writing as an all-encompassing term for writing with life as its subject was adopted by the International Auto/Biography Association (Britain, 2002, pp. 2-3) following their biennial conference in Melbourne in 2002. I attended that conference, and it was an extraordinary experience to meet the people who had written the texts I had been studying for so long. The term life writing has also been defined as such by leading life writing scholars including Paul John Eakin (1999, 2004); Tom Couser (2004); and Margaretta Jolly (2001) who edited the acclaimed two-volume Encyclopedia of Life Writing.

The growing importance of the field is indicated with the expansion of La Trobe’s Unit for Studies in Biography and Autobiography which was established by Richard Freadman in 1994. In 2004, the newly established Life Writing research Unit of Curtin University launched the Australian peer-reviewed journal Life Writing which has become a leader in the field of autobiography and biography. The National Centre of Biography began at the Australian National University in 2008.

In their definitive work, Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2001) describe fifty-two genres of autobiographical writing (including memoir), which have been included by theorists under the umbrella term ‘life writing’.

‘Traditional’ autobiographies were in the main written by men of note about their lives in the public sphere. Biographies were said to be ‘factual’ accounts of the (generally public) life of a significant person written by another. Few women operated in the public sphere, instead their lives centred upon the domestic sphere and their relationships with family members. With the exception of the social upheaval of war-time, women were generally dependent on males until the second half of the 20th century. The stories of their lives—if they were written—were more often in the form of letters and/or diaries, forms excluded from the traditional auto/biographical canon.

Since then, writers whose work is included under the umbrella of ‘life writing’ have broken traditional auto/biographical boundaries. Memorable works include Drusilla Modjeska’s ground-breaking Poppy and Patti Miller’s The Last One Who Remembers which were both marketed as ‘Fiction/Biography’ (Modjeska won awards in both categories); Auntie Rita (written by Jackie Huggins and her mother, Rita); Helen Garner’s The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation; Doris Brett’s Eating the Underworld; and Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eye which was described as a work of ‘memory, history, fiction’. However, these hybrid auto/biographical texts are by no means limited to women writers, as exemplified by works such as Brian Castro’s ‘fictional autobiography’ Shanghai Dancing; Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang; Brian Matthews’ ground-breaking biography Louisa; Peter and Richard Wherrett’s Desirelines; and Robert Dessaix’ ‘autobiographical novel’ Night Letters.

Other examples of life writing could include Kay Walsh and Joy Hooton’s two annotated bibliographies Australian Autobiographical Narratives (1993, 1998); and Hooton’s Australian Lives (1998).

Although there is a 400 year tradition of the form of life writing known as the ‘personal essay’ (Lopate, 1994) the ‘autobiographical I’ was generally frowned upon, as personal essays were said to ‘often substitute geniality for rigour and self absorption for penetration’. (Attebery, 1998, p. 186).

Readers of The Best Australian Essays or The Griffith Review will know that the ‘I’ is no longer forbidden, and can be skilfully integrated without becoming self indulgent. Robyn Davidson, editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 wrote that the best essays ‘put oneself and the world to the test’ (Davidson, 2009). Inga Clendinnen’s essay The History Question: Who Owns the Past describes her emotions while reading a ‘relic from the past’ in her father’s handwriting: “My throat still tightens as I read those words. The sound of a lone bugle, the murmur of magpies in a grey dawn, sweep me back into that strange blend of emotions—pride, grief, anger—as if it were yesterday.” (2006, p. 11)

By using the now accepted term ‘life writing’ the Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW Inc. is providing a wonderful opportunity for life writers—whether they wish to write traditional auto/biography or experiment with the new forms. It is indeed a fitting tribute to the memory of Walter Stone.


Attebery, B. (1998). Metafictions: Stories of Reading. Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres, 4(10), 185-192.
Bell, S. G., & Yalom, M. (Eds.). (1990). Revealing Lives, Autobiography, Biography and Gender. Albany: State University of New York.
Brett, D. (2001). Eating the Underworld: a Memoir in Three Voices. Sydney: Vintage.
Britain, I. (2002). Editorial: Life Writing Meanjin: On Biography, 61(1), 2-3.
Castro, B. (2003). Shanghai Dancing. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing Company.
Clendinnen, I. (2000). Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir. Melbourne: Text Publishing.
Clendinnen, I. (2006). The History Question: Who Owns the Past?
Quarterly Essay(23), 1-69.
Couser, G. T. (2004). Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Davidson, R. (2009). The Best Australian Essays 2009. Retrieved from <>
Dessaix, R. (1996). Night Letters. Sydney: Macmillan.
Eakin, P. J. (1999). How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Eakin, P. J. (Ed.). (2004). The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Garner, H. (2004). Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law. Sydney: Picador.
Garner, H. (1995). The First Stone: Some Questions About Sex and Power. Sydney: Picador.
Hooton, J. (Ed.). (1998). Australian Lives: an Oxford Anthology. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Huggins, J., & Huggins, R. (1994). Auntie Rita. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Jolly, M. (Ed.). (2001). Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
Lopate, P. (Ed.). (1994). The Art of the personal essay : an anthology from the classical era to the present. New York: Anchor.
Miller, P. (1997). The Last One Who Remembers. St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin.
Modjeska, D. (1990). Poppy. Ringwood: McPhee Gribble.
Smith, S., & Watson, J. (2001). Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Walsh, K., & Hooton, J. (1993). Australian Autobiographical Narratives: An annotated bibliography (Vol. 1: To 1850). Canberra: ADFA & National Library of Australia.
Walsh, K., & Hooton, J. (1998). Australian Autobiographical Narratives: An annotated bibliography (Vol. 2: To 1850-1900). Canberra: ADFA & National Library of Australia.
Wherrett, P., & Wherrett, R. (1997). Desirelines. Rydalmere: Sceptre.