Saturday, 23 January 2016

On Life-Writing edited by Zachary Leader

This collection of essays edited by Zachary Leader is a lively and multifarious exploration of life-writing and reading, grounded, as his introduction explains, mostly "in individual instances" rather than surveys of "historical, theoretical, or generic fields; generalizations are grounded in particulars." (p2) This approach means the book feels rooted in a way that much academic discourse doesn't, and its earthed approach is, I think, particularly suitable for framing creative practice – in contrast to understanding and responding to its processes and products, where an exploration of airier, more purely theoretical provinces can often provide a more rounded perspective.

Because this blog is primarily about my zoeography project, rather than review the book here, I'm going to think out loud around some of the ideas, quotes and conclusions that I found most useful and stimulating.

William St Clair's essay ‘Romantic Biography: Conveying Personality, Intimacy and Authenticity in an Age of Ink on Paper’ explores the "literary and visual devices" biographers and other writers used in their "attempts to shrink the gap between the reader and the subject, to reduce the role of the middleman, to exclude outsiders from what they wanted to make and keep as a personal and intimate relationship." (pp 69-70)

In particular, he points out how letters, signatures and portraits were reproduced in books to create an illusion of closeness between subject and reader and how sketches – seemingly "spontaneous, immediate, and realistic … dashed off" appear "to offer a direct romantic transfer from the perceived reality to the representation of that reality " (p63)

This approach, St Clair suggests, proved particularly effective with Byron's young female admirers, "who felt that he was writing especially for and to them as individuals, and that they knew him personally" (p65). It works, in other words, particularly well with fans dreaming of an intimate relationship with the object of their affection. As with most illusions, the audience's complicity is key.

As Hermione Lee points out in her essay "’From Memory’: Literary Encounters and Life-Writing", "The reader’s first question of a biographer is always going to be, what was she, or he, like?". Other questions, she writes, will follow, but this is the first and most critical: "‘likeness’ must be there. Whatever form of ‘life-writing’ we are drawn to, we always greedily want moments of intimacy, revelation, immediacy, and inwardness." (p125) This renders a biographer's input tricky to negotiate: Intimacy, immediacy and, to a certain extent, revelation require his or her textual invisibility. Inwardness, however, can't be presented on the page or screen without intermediation. People, as Christine Wilks suggests, are black boxes: "One person can only infer what the other one is thinking and feeling from their outputs, from their behaviour or what they say."

IRL encounters, we have other clues to another's inwardness: body language, tone of voice, scent, for instance. But, in Blake Morrison's words, even in memoir, "Emotion on the page is always manufactured emotion—retrospective, artful, a declaration of the author’s heart but with calculated designs on the reader’s." (p206) Morrison's essay – “The Worst Thing I Ever Did: The Contemporary Confessional Memoir” – provides an elegantly-argued and provocative defence of the form. His assertions that
 "life-writing amounts to … a way of taking possession of your own life, or, where biography rather than memoir is concerned, someone else’s." (p214)
"though confession may play a part, it’s only there to do right by the dead, which means being honest, not hagiographical. True the dead don’t give permission, but death itself is a permission. And what it permits is elegy and homage." (p219)
are both challenging and challengeable, demanding agreement and questioning. The idea that I might be taking possession/ownership of someone else's life – even when that someone has been dead for nigh-on 200 years – isn't a particularly comfortable one, considered within an ethical framework. But it does require confrontation and exploration. How proprietorial do I feel about Hayley? And, even if death does permit elegy and homage, how far do elegy and homage permit honesty rather than hagiography?

These are issues Hayley, as biographer of his friends William Cowper and George Romney, wrestled with during the first decade of the nineteenth century: a time when hagiography was still dominant. His determination to "do right by the dead" through honesty led to epistolary confrontations with Lady Hesketh, who was unhappy with Hayley revealing details of her cousin Cowper's mental health issues and, in at least one instance, his political views.

Given the nature of HayleyWorld, the writing in On Life-Writing that I found particularly involving considers narrative form. One "of course!" moment was provided by J. David Velleman's statement in “The Rights to a Life” that "the story form is in essence an emotional cadence—an arc of emotions aroused, complicated, and resolved" (pp 222-223). This offers another dimension to ways of thinking reader journey, while Galen Strawson, whose essay “The Unstoried Life” is the book's last, unpicks narrative unity and concludes

"Consideration of the sequence—the ‘narrative’, if you like—may be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does the concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view—in Oliver Sacks’ words—that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”’, and that ‘this narrative is us, our identities’." (p301)
This is particularly interesting in that self-knowledge and, I'd add, the other-knowledge, or empathy that life-writing seeks to communicate are, arguably, qualitatively different from other forms of knowledge, which is why they're sometimes described as wisdom. Wisdom is, I'd suggest, a compound of experience, emotion and reflection. It can, therefore only develop out of/be built from bits and pieces, because that's how experiences, emotions and reflection happen. They are moments: bits and pieces of story rather than overarching narrative, in part because to construct a unified narrative, it's always necessary to exclude the pesky bits and pieces that don't fit, or that take the story off at a tangent. Wisdom, conversely, requires the full, complex picture with all its digressions, inconsistencies and marginalia.

Which wasn't remotely where I expected this post to end up when I started writing it…

Next week, I'll probably write about the New Media Writing Prize: I was one of the judges and the 2015 winners were announced this week…

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The reader journey - keeping things moving

I've been a bit quiet for the past couple of months (on here, at least), mostly because there's been quite a lot of life and other work happening (including a weekly blog for Westminster Business School).

But it's now January, and I'm back, with a new take on the HayleyWorld reader journey. In case you want to follow my progress, previous posts on this subject are 1. here, 2. here and 3. here

A productive meeting with development partner Michael Kowalski of Contentment, interviewing text mining expert Dr Stephan Ludwig  and reading James Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us inspired me to
  • redraw the journey algorithm
  • change a couple of the forms I/William Hayley ask readers to complete
  • thinking more deeply about how I frame the content from Hayley's Memoirs and other ego-documents.
Michael flagged two issues.
  1. We were asking readers to choose their second batch of three subject areas (the first form currently gives them a choice of 11, the next one offers a choice of 8), before they'd exhausted the material from their first batch. This felt unintuitive and slightly confusing
  2. There's nothing - aside from a changed chapter heading (they look like this in the current draft)  to indicate when a topic has been exhausted. 

As a result, the reader journey now has…

1. A contextual essay at the end of each topic. These will be in my voice rather than Hayley's, as they'll need to provide context. Their tone and content will need to complement, rather than repeat, the short marginalia commentaries. Thinking as I type, I'm wondering whether they might work even better as short video presentations. Will need to discuss that idea with Michael and my PhD supervisors (Profs Ian Gadd & Kate Pullinger), and, if it's a possible way ahead, create at least one
written and one filmed example over the next month or two, so that we can user-test both formats

This has also made me think about the number of subjects/chapters in the app. As you can see from the form below I've rounded the previous 11 up to 12 by adding sensibility. However, given the volume of work involved in creating essays/videos, I'm leaning towards rounding down to nineThis will involve merging 3 x 2 pairs of subjects, with love and marriage along with children and education being obvious start-points.

The latest iteration. There will be more…

2. A form with several free text fields. Aside from a couple of simple requests for basic info – for a reader's name, for instance – my plan was to avoid this, simply because developing a way of responding effectively to this mode of user input would be too big and complex a job.

Reading The Secret Life of Pronouns provoked a change of mind: we still won't be using readers' free text input to trigger a response from the HayleyWorld app. But we're aiming to use it to measure readers'engagement/involvement in two ways. Firstly, by the extent of their input – more words are likely to suggest higher level of engagement/involvement with the app, fewer, a lower level.

And, secondly, by using a tool – hopefully the one on The Secret Life of Pronouns website – to measure how far (if at all) a reader's use of function words (including pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary words… there's a list on p22 of the book, and a brief explanation on the website homepage) mirrors Hayley's (or mine, when I'm writing as him).

Here's my first draft of this form (nb: in the app itself, there will be either nine or six options for the reader to choose from, as they will already have chosen their first three subjects)…

Um… I think that's more than enough for now. Thanks for reading. Next week I'm planning to review On Life-Writing edited by Zachary Leader.