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Article contents

Life writing.

  • Craig Howes Craig Howes Department of English and Center for Biographical Research, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.1146
  • Published online: 27 October 2020

Since 1990, “life writing” has become a frequently used covering term for the familiar genres of biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, and many other forms of life narrative. Initially adopted as a critical intervention informed by post-structuralist, postmodernist, postcolonial, and especially feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s, the term also refers to the study of life representation beyond the traditional literary and historical focus on verbal texts, encompassing not only other media—film, graphic narratives, online technologies, performance—but also research in other disciplines—psychology, anthropology, ethnic and Indigenous studies, political science, sociology, education, medicine, and any other field that records, observes, or evaluates lives.

While many critics and theorists still place their work within the realms of autobiography or biography, and others find life writing as a discipline either too ideologically driven, or still too confining conceptually, there is no question that life representation, primarily through narrative, is an important consideration for scholars engaged in virtually any field dealing with the nature and actions of human beings, or anything that lives.

  • autobiography
  • autofiction
  • life narrative

As Julie Rak noted in 2018 , Marlene Kadar’s essay “Coming to Terms: Life Writing—from Genre to Critical Practice,” although written in 1992 , still offers a useful account of life writing’s history as a term, and is still a timely reminder to examine constantly the often-buried theoretical assumptions defining and confining it. After noting that because “life writing” was in use before “biography” or “autobiography,” it “has always been the more inclusive term,” Kadar supplies a taxonomy in the form of a progressive history. Until the 1970s, “life writing” referred to “a particular branch of textual criticism” that subjected some biographies and autobiographies, and a scattering of letters and diaries, to the same literary-critical scrutiny commonly focused upon poetry, drama, or fiction. Kadar cites Donald J. Winslow’s Life-Writing as a locus for this understanding. 1 The problem lurking here is what Kadar elsewhere refers to as “the New Critical wolf”: theoretical assumptions that are “androcentric” and privilege notions of “objective truth and narrative regularity.” Clearly wanting to label this as residual, she turns to the then-current “more broadened version” of life writing. Its champions are primarily, though not exclusively, feminist literary critics devoted to “the proliferation, authorization, and recuperation” of autobiographical texts written by “literary,” but also “ordinary,” men and women. While the “ordinary” allows “personal narratives, oral narratives and life testimonies” and even “anthropological life histories” to enter the realm of life writing, this now-dominant understanding is nevertheless problematic, because it still tends to uncritically draw such binary distinctions as fiction/autobiography, literary/non-literary non-fiction, and even male/female. Heavily influenced by postmoderism, Kadar proposes a third, emergent vision of life writing that moves beyond a desire for fixity and canonization—“with laws and law-making”—by embracing a dynamic, constantly questioning methodology: “From Genre to Critical Practice.” 2

This approach gestures toward a focus upon intersectionality in “unofficial” writing—Kadar’s example is Frederick Douglass—and toward an expansive yet politically engaged life-writing practice that can “appreciate the canon, revise it where it sees fit, and forget it where it also sees fit.” 3 The same approach should be adopted toward such terms as “the autobiographical” or “life writing itself.” After describing life writing “as a continuum that spreads unevenly and in combined forms from the so-called least fictive narration to the most fictive,” she offers her own “working definition.” Life-writing texts “are written by an author who does not continuously write about someone else”—note how biography has at best been relegated to the fringes of the realm—and “who also does not pretend to be absent from the [black, brown, or white] text himself/herself.” Neither an archive nor a taxonomy of texts, life writing employs “an imperfect and always evolving hermeneutic,” where “classical, traditional, or postmodern” approaches coexist, rather than always being set against each other. 4

Kadar’s early-1990s assessment and prophecy will serve here as loose organizational principles for describing how the move “from Genre to Critical Practice” in the ensuing years has proved to be an astonishing, though contested, unfolding of life writing as a term encompassing more initiatives by diverse communities in many locations and media that even the far-sighted Marlene Kadar could have anticipated. Even so, her insistence that life-writing critics and theorists must continue to “resist and reverse the literary and political consequences” produced by impulses toward “ʻdepersonalization’ and unrelenting ʻabstraction’” still stands. 5

From Biography to Autobiography to Life Writing

Kadar’s support for life writing as the umbrella term came in the wake of an energetic focus on autobiography as the most critically and theoretically stimulating life-narrative genre. The academic journal Biography had begun appearing in 1978 , but for all its claims to be An Interdisciplinary Quarterly , it was assumed to be largely devoted to traditional biography criticism and theory. In 1980 , James Olney noted the “shift of attention from bios to autos —from the life to the self,” which he credited with “opening things up and turning them in a philosophical, psychological and literary direction.” 6 Biography scholars would have begged to differ. Discussions of psychology, with an emphasis on psychoanalysis, and of the aesthetics of literary biography, with special attention paid to affinities with the novel, had been part of biography’s critical and theoretical environment for a century. 7 Olney however was not just arguing for autobiography’s legitimacy, but for the primacy of autos within literature itself—a key claim of his landmark monograph Metaphors of Self . 8 Olney was a convener as well as a critic and theorist. Ricia Chansky identifies the “International Symposium on Autobiography and Autobiography Studies” Olney held in 1985 as “the moment when contemporary auto/biography studies emerged as a formal discipline within the academy”—not least because it led to the creation of a newsletter that soon became the journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies . Although the slashes in the title—credited to Timothy Dow Adams—suggested that a/b would not privilege “self-life writing over life writing,” the variety and sheer number of critical and theoretical works devoted to autobiography in the ensuing years made it clear that for many, it was the more interesting genre. 9

Institutionalization and professional assertion soon followed. Sidonie Smith recalls “those heady days” of creating archives and bibliographies, but also of “writing against the grain, writing counterhistories, writing beyond conventional plots and tropes.” 10 As Olney had predicted, autobiography became a flash point for critical and theoretical writing in women’s studies—a trend heavily influencing Kadar’s thoughts on life writing, and canonized in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader , whose introduction is still the most detailed account of how women critics and theorists from the 1970s to the late 1990s drew upon the most compelling feminist, post-structuralist, cultural, and political writing in their encounters with autobiographical texts. 11

This interest in autobiography—with or without the slash—produced an entire generation of influential writers. Because of their general eminence, Paul de Man’s and Roland Barthes’s comments on and experiments with autobiography were closely examined, but other theorists made autobiography their central attention. 12 Philippe Lejeune’s profoundly influential essay “The Autobiographical Pact” complemented Olney’s book on metaphors of self, and so did Paul John Eakin’s volumes Fictions of Autobiography and Touching the World as arguments for the genre’s legitimacy within literary studies. 13 A host of important books, collections, and anthologies soon followed, many with a strongly feminist approach. Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography was an important intervention into literary aesthetics, and Smith and Watson’s edited collection De/Colonizing the Subject forged important links between autobiography and feminist and postcolonial theory. 14 Many other feminist critics and theorists in Europe and North America in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s directed their attention as writers and editors to autobiography, among them collection editors Shari Benstock and Bella Brodsky and Celeste Schenk; monograph writers Elizabeth Bruss, Leigh Gilmore, Caroline Heilbrun, Françoise Lionnet, Nancy K. Miller, and Liz Stanley; and essayists Susan Stanford Friedman and Mary G. Mason. Following in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own , other feminist literary and cultural historians sought out forgotten or yet-to-be-discovered women autobiographers—Patricia Meyer Spacks for the 18th century ; Mary Jean Corbett, Regenia Gagnier, Linda H. Peterson, and Valerie Sanders for the long 19th century ; Estelle C. Jelinek from the time of antiquity; and collection editor Domna C. Stanton from the medieval period to the 20th century . 15

Often viewed through the lens of literary and cultural theory, autobiography therefore became the most-discussed life-writing genre in the 1980s, and has largely remained so ever since. But from the time of Kadar’s Essays on Life Writing , the term “life writing” became increasingly employed as the umbrella term for representing the lives of others, or of one’s self. The key intervention here was Margaretta Jolly’s landmark two-volume Encyclopedia of Life Writing . Published in 2001 , the title term encompasses Autobiographical and Biographical Forms , and through her contributors, Jolly accounts in 1,090 large double-column pages not just for the genres that could be considered life writing, but for life-writing practices in a host of world regions and historical periods. She emphasizes her subject’s interdisciplinary nature. Although the “writing of lives is an ancient and ubiquitous practice,” and the term “life writing” can in England be traced back to the late 17th or early 18th century , it has only gained “wide academic acceptance since the 1980s.” While noting that “the study of autobiography is the most-long-standing and sophisticated branch of analysis in the field”—a claim that biography scholars would dispute, at least with regard to duration—Jolly grants Kadar’s wish to expand beyond the literary by including entries grounded in “anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, theology, cultural studies, and even the biological sciences,” and in forms of life narrative “outside of the written form, including testimony, artifacts, reminiscence, personal narrative, visual arts, photography, film, oral history, and so forth.” 16

The Encyclopedia also provides “international and historical perspective through accounts of life writing traditions and trends from around the world, from Classical times to the present,” and covers “popular and everyday genres and contexts—from celebrity and royal biography to working-class autobiography, letter writing, interviews, and gossip”—a continuation of work, epitomized by Smith and Watson’s Getting a Life , that pays close attention to how “ordinary” lives are produced in a variety of public and institutional settings. 17 Like Kadar, Jolly notes the “crucial influence” of “Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, African-American, and Post-Colonial Studies” upon autobiography studies’ emergence in the 1980s, and she also observes that many contributors use the term “auto/biography” to point toward a more capacious sense of the field. But also like Kadar, in an “effort to balance the emphasis on autobiography,” Jolly chooses “life writing” as her preferred term, because it can more easily accommodate “many aspects of this wide-ranging field, not to mention regions of the world, where life-writing scholarship remains in its infancy, or has yet to emerge.” 18 This ambitious and expansive reference work anticipates most of the ensuing developments in life writing.

In the same year appeared the first edition of Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography . Although retaining autobiography as the covering term—describing it as “a particular generic practice” that “became definitive for life writing in the West”—they share Jolly’s commitment to generic, historic, and geographical inclusivity, and take a highly detailed approach to clarifying terminology. 19 Echoing Kadar, they note that autobiography “has been vigorously challenged in the wake of postmodern and postcolonial critiques of the Enlightenment subject”—an entity whose “politics is one of exclusion.” In response, they grant that “life writing” is a more expansive term, because it can refer to “writing that takes a life, one’s own or another’s, as its subject,” whether “biographical, novelistic, historical, or explicitly self-referential.” But, always sensitive to new developments and dimensions, Smith and Watson suggest that “life narrative” is even more capacious, because it refers to “autobiographical [and presumably biographical] acts of any sort.” 20 With the added perspective of nine years, and then eighteen years for their second edition, Smith and Watson update Kadar’s 1992 account of the profound impact that feminist, postmodernist, and postcolonial theory have had upon life writing—although they still direct readers to their own Women, Autobiography, Theory for a more detailed “overview of representative theories and work up to the late 1990s.” 21 Their main point is that the theoretical work Kadar called for has been taking place: “the challenges posed by postmodernism’s deconstruction of any solid ground of selfhood and truth outside of discourse,” when coupled with “postcolonial theory’s troubling of established hierarchies of authority, tradition, and influence,” led life-writing critics and theorists to examine “generic instability, regimes of truth telling, referentiality, relationality, and embodiment,” which not only undermined “the earlier critical period’s understanding of canonical autobiography” but also “expanded the range of life writing and the kinds of stories critics may engage in rethinking the field of life narrative.” 22

An efficient two-page synopsis identifies the specific theoretical stimuli for this critical scrutiny. Lacanian psychoanalysis undercut the notion of the autonomous self, replacing it with a “split subject always constituted in language.” Derridean différance offers the insight that in life writing, as in all writing, “meaning is always in process, continuously put off, or deferred.” With Jean François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida also deconstructs the supposed boundaries between Truth and fiction, actually set by supposed “ʻmaster’” narratives. Louis Althusser’s linking of socioeconomic relations to subjectivity offers life-writing scholars interpolation as a concept for understanding life-narrative construction. Michel Foucault’s claim that discourse is an exercise of power tied to the construction of identity is also formative, and so is Bakhtinian heteroglossia as the counter to the fantasy of the unitary “I.” Feminist theory directs life-writing scholars’ attention to the relationship between the political and the personal, to the “cultural inscription and practices of embodiment,” and to the dangers inherent in universalized notions of “woman.” Frantz Fanon’s work on the colonial gaze foregrounds domination’s and subordination’s roles in the constitution of subjectivity, which postcolonial, ethnic, and feminist theorists all see as crucial for recognizing the minoritizing of subjectivity, and then decolonizing such constructions. Gay and queer studies reveal the performative nature of subjectivity, and undermine binary models of gender and sexuality. Cultural studies’ interest in “popular, public, and everyday forms of textuality, including everyday practices of self-narrating in verbal, visual, and mixed modes,” extends the range of life narratives that can be examined, and neurological studies offer insight into the brain’s material effects on memory, and into trauma’s impact on perceived identity. 23

In “Expanding Autobiography Studies,” the final chapter of their two-part critical history of the field, Smith and Watson list the important critical and theoretical initiatives of previous decades. Performativity, positionality, and relationality are presented as “Useful Theoretical Concepts.” Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and Smith’s own Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body are cited as formative texts for recognizing that the self customarily thought of as “prior to the autobiographical expression or reflection is an effect of autobiographical storytelling.” 24 Paul John Eakin and Nancy K. Miller are credited with expanding the applicability of relationality beyond feminist theory and women’s autobiography and arriving at a virtually universal applicability for life writing. 25 The most important concept for contemporary life writing, however, is arguably positionality, because it helps critics and theorists evaluate how “culturally salient” subject positions, “always multiple and often contradictory,” find ways to tell their stories “at a particular historical moment.” Formed “at the intersections of multiple discursive trajectories,” certain life narratives insist on the significance of subjects who are dealing with “de/colonization, immigration, displacement, and exile.” Such narratives demand the critical use of such terms as “ hybrid, border, diasporic, mestiza, nomadic, migratory, minoritized ”; they also force theorists to consider the natures and purposes of Indigenous life writing. 26

Despite this emphasis on life writing as referential, registering changes in practice still tends to involve identifying and tracking what Smith and Watson call “Emergent Genres of Life Narrative.” 27 Their second edition ( 2010 ) foregrounds trauma narratives, disability life writing, and human rights narratives and testimonio ; life writing appearing from a much wider range of locations, organized under the title “Critical Geographies”; narratives that foreground developments in neuroscience, memory, and genetics; the myriad of life representations arising out of the turbulent realm of “Digitalized Forms and Identities”; the templates or familiar genres deployed for recording “Everyday Lives”; and, more generally, autocritical scholarship, which requires critics or theorists to position themselves in relation to the narratives they choose to record or study and, in some cases, to recognize the necessity of being a part or a member of the group or population whose life stories are at issue.

Smith and Watson end their anatomy and history of autobiography by noting that the many “contesting approaches” to life writing are also adding many formerly “marginal” forms to “the canon of autobiography.” In the 2010 edition, Appendix A offers definitions for “Sixty Genres of Life Narrative,” up from the fifty-two provided in the first edition. But Smith and Watson “conclude” that increases in the number of relevant texts and presenting media will lead to major shifts in critical and theoretical debates, even though at bottom, a life narrative is always “a rhetorical act embedded in the history of specific communities.” 28

Backlash, Boomlash, and Boom Echo

Raymond Williams and Marlene Kadar would both acknowledge that treating ideologies or forms of life writing as residual, dominant, or emergent, and therefore capable of being mapped onto a historical or progressive continuum, can neither assume the disappearance of earlier stages, nor prevent resurgences and unpredictable alliances. 29 Take for example the history of critical debates since the late 20th century about the relationship between biography and life writing. The focus on autobiography as the central concern for critics has often been explicit: Marlene Kadar’s 1992 provisional definition of life writing ruled out authors who “continuously write about someone else.” 30 In response, many biographers and some theorists have insisted on biography’s continuing significance, and even centrality. Everyone involved tends to agree that biography was once dominant, but is now either residual, or treated as such. But in the 21st century highly unlikely allies have been calling for a “Biographical Turn,” which for some means re-evaluating what it means to tell another’s life in different historical and cultural contexts, and for others actually means a “Return” to pre-eminence—emergent and residual, yet united in asserting biography’s value. 31

Insisting that biography’s strongest affinities lie with history, and not literature or cultural studies, Hans Renders has arguably been the most visible defender of biography against the onslaught of life writing, which he considers a “shift” into an “ideology” emerging from “comparative literature and gender and cultural studies.” According to Renders, life-writing critics and theorists present autobiographers, and sometimes themselves, as “victimized by social context” and therefore, in Michael Holroyd’s words, seeking “retrospective justice.” 32 The biographer or biography theorist respects the “scholarly imperative to analyze the world (including the past) as objectively as possible”—not “to correct injustice,” but to “understand it better.” Conversely, those who study life writing seem preoccupied with “battered and raped women,” “Mothering Narratives,” “ʻJewish Women and Comics,’” “homosexuals,” and self-proclaimed victims of “climate change” or “racism, and social exclusion.” 33 The emphasis on gender here can be read as a response to the profound impact of feminist theory on autobiography and life-writing studies, and the gestures to race and class as resistance to the tenor of emergent life-narrative scholarship.

What must also be accounted for is the sustained production of biography by trade and university publishers. Throughout the memoir boom that so many theorists, critics, and reviewers have declared, highly conventional single-volume biographies have appeared regularly, speaking to the continued public interest in what Hans Renders calls “the biographical tradition, based on individuals like Hitler or Einstein, but also less famous persons.” 34 The indisputable success of The Biographer’s Craft newsletter ( 2008 –) and the creation of the Biographers International Organization (BIO; 2010 –), with its hugely popular annual conferences, counter biography’s residual status in much life-writing criticism and theory with its continued prominence in the public sphere. And arguably, most BIO members prefer it that way. Like many poets, playwrights, and novelists, biographers are often wary of critics and theorists of literature, preferring at their conferences to discuss publishing possibilities, or to receive advice on research and writing, rather than engage in theoretical or critical analysis of biography as a genre. 35

But of course, life-writing scholars are also interested in production, with Julie Rak as the most prominent cultural historian and theorist who insists that publication and distribution are salient, and even essential, subjects of study. Although primarily concerned with autobiography, her 2013 book Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market focuses on books “written, published, sold in bookstores and circulated by public libraries for people like my grandmother.” Rak presents non-fiction “as part of a production cycle” of “commodities that are manufactured for a market by an industry,” paying close attention to the mechanics of publication, distribution, classification for purposes of sales, and advertising for books “produced by mainstream presses for large audiences”—a critical interest that she paved the way for by editing a special issue on popular auto/biography for the Canadian Review of American Studies . 36 The affordances and filters that particular models of production impose upon life narratives are technological correlatives to the ideologically informed reception that certain kinds of life writing and testimony encounter when they venture into the world. Most notably, in Tainted Witness , Leigh Gilmore evaluates how women’s life narratives arouse powerful, at times hysterical, and even violent constraints upon what they are allowed to say about life conditions, or about the actions of others—and especially powerful men. 37 Though genres and chosen media may range from published memoirs or testimonio , to congressional hearings, to court trials, to social media venues and campaigns, the dynamics are the same. Women’s life-writing narratives threaten to disrupt or damage a man’s supposed life script by adding to it details of abuse, or cruelty, or criminality. It would be hard to imagine a more vivid example of what Hans Renders objects to in life writing, but the social and political significance of such narratives also explains why they could never easily be relegated to a marginal subgenre of biography. In fact, the power dynamics in Renders’s paradigm between male-centered “objective” biography and female-produced “victim” life writing mirror those in the scenarios that Gilmore evaluates.

The rest of this article maps out the most notable developments in life-narrative scholarship since the late 20th century , drawing principally on the “Annual Bibliography of Works about Life Writing,” an annotated list of books, edited collections and special issues, individual articles, and dissertations that appears in Biography : An Interdisciplinary Quarterly . The sample contains roughly 21,000 entries; the discussion here will concentrate on books, edited collections, and special issues because they represent formidable and sustained studies of some aspect of the field, or point to a community of scholars engaged in similar work. While essentially tracing out Kadar’s three-stage progressive account of life writing, this article will also provide examples of critical and theoretical practice to elaborate on the expansions, revisions, departures, and interventions that the practice of life-writing and life-narrative scholarship has produced. The discussion concludes by identifying a few ideas that might offer new directions or understandings for those interested in how lives are represented.

Biography Studies Sustained—Residual as Dominant and Emergent

For a genre supposedly lapsing into subordinate status or irrelevance, biography continues to attract a great deal of critical and theoretical attention. Though usually retracing that familiar Western trajectory running from Rome through to contemporary trade publications, historical or thematic overviews, often written by well-known biographers, appear regularly. Some are reader-friendly primers, such as Nigel Hamilton’s Brief History , Hermione Lee’s Very Short Introduction , and Andrew Brown’s Brief History of Biography: From Plutarch to Celebs , all of which appeared in the early 21st century . More “weighty” accounts include Catherine N. Parke’s Biography: Writing Lives and Paula R. Backscheider’s Reflections , both published in the 1990s. 38 Before any of these histories, however, came Carl Rollyson’s Biography: An Annotated Bibliography ( 1992 ), which organized and annotated the critical literature in English. Arguably the most prolific writer on biography theory and criticism, Rollyson has published many biographies—political, literary, and cinematic—and several guides and essay collections about theory and practice. 39 Biography: A User’s Guide , for instance, discusses keywords alphabetically; Hans Renders and Nigel Hamilton adopt a similar format for The ABC of Modern Biography . 40 A popular sub-genre comprises books for would-be biographers written by famous practitioners. Extending back to Leon Edel, more recent examples include Michael Holroyd’s Works on Paper , Carl Rollyson’s Confessions of a Serial Biographer , and Nigel Hamilton’s How to Do Biography —a companion volume to his Brief History . 41

Literary lives appear prominently in all of these works, and many texts take them as their subject. John Batchelor’s The Art of Literary Biography and Warwick Gould and Thomas F. Staley’s Writing the Lives of Writers are edited collections arising out of conferences in the 1990s; more recently, Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard have edited Les nouvelles écritures biographiques , and Richard Bradford has overseen a substantial Companion to Literary Biography . 42 Individual monographs include Michael Benton’s Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography , and Rana Tekcan’s Too Far for Comfort . And even though she has reservations about focusing on female writers, Alison Booth’s How to Make It as a Woman is a detailed and insightful study of literary biography in the 19th and 20th centuries . 43

Despite literary biography’s apparently privileged status, historians have also explored biography’s significance to their field. Barbara Caine’s Biography and History was followed by two edited collections from the Netherlands: Hans Renders and Binne de Haan’s Theoretical Discussions of Biography ; and Renders, de Haan, and Jonne Harmsma’s The Biographical Turn . Both volumes argue for biography as a historical genre that does not share life writing’s preoccupations with race, class, and gender. That the distinction is significant is also suggested by the title of Tanya Evans and Robert Reynolds’s “Introduction to this Special Issue on Biography and Life-Writing” for disclosure . 44 German historians have also displayed a strong interest in biography, in edited clusters such as Atiba Pertilla’s and Uwe Spiekermann’s “The Challenge of Biography,” or Sarah Panter’s Mobility and Biography . 45

Monographs and collections have delineated specific periods and locations for study. Thomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity has some affinities with the Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography , edited by Stephanos Efthymiadis; with Sharpe and Zwicker’s edited collection on early modern England; and with Mombert and Rosellini’s edited volume Usages des vies . Juliette Atkinson’s Victorian Biography Reconsidered is an astute and suggestive study of England’s intense preoccupation with various forms of the genre. 46 And while such works tend to confine themselves to Western Europe—Great Britain, France, and Germany/Austria—or the United States, collections have focused on other regions, among them Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries. 47

Despite the longstanding suspicion of considering biography through the lens of contemporary theory, a substantial number of such works have appeared since c. 2005 , many from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History and Theory of Biography in Vienna. Wilhelm Hemecker, its director, has edited or co-edited several volumes; among them is the remarkable Theorie der Biographie , co-edited with Bernhard Fetz, which contains excerpts from famous authors and theorists with special relevance for biography—Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, William Dilthey, Sigfried Kracauer, Michel Foucault, the Vienna psychoanalysts—paired with commentaries by contemporary biography scholars. Fetz also edited Die Biographie—Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie , which appeared in 2009 . 48 More than a decade earlier, a similar overview was provided by Biographical Creation / La création biographique , an English/French volume edited by Marta Dvorak. 49 Monographs taking a sustained theoretical approach to biography are relatively rare. Two of the most notable are Susan Tridgell’s Understanding Our Selves and Caitríona Ní Dhúill’s Metabiography , an impressive overview by a scholar formerly at the Boltzmann Institute. 50

The subtitle of the journal Biography promises interdisciplinary scholarship. Thanks largely to Freud, psychoanalytic and psychological approaches to life narrative have appeared for over a century, with psychobiography emerging as a clearly delineated discipline. Alan C. Elms’s Uncovering Lives led the way, with William Todd Schultz’s Handbook of Psychobiography offering a synthesis of scholarly activity by such researchers as psychologist Dan P. McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self and many other studies of personality. 51 Other social sciences at times have taken their own biographical turn, among them both archaeology and anthropology. 52

Indigenous studies scholarship represents a significant emerging engagement. A special issue of Biography entitled “Indigenous Conversations about Biography” explores the genre’s value and dangers for researchers recovering or creating archives, histories, and life records. In The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen , Noenoe K. Silva refers to her method of establishing critical and publishing genealogies for Hawaiians writing in Hawaiian in the 19th and early 20th centuries as bio-bibliography. Fine arts scholars are also assessing what biography contributes to their disciplines. Melanie Unseld’s Biographie und Musikgeschichte examines the genre’s usefulness for those interested in musical culture and historiography, and a Biography special issue entitled “Verse Biography” should not be immediately conflated with literary biography. Though the lives discussed are in verse, the subjects are not necessarily writers. 53

In their introduction to “Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” Alice Te Punga Somerville and Daniel Heath Justice note that even though the term “life writing” is common in academic circles, and even though the plan for the seminar for contributors held in Honolulu was to “unpack, repack, and throw out terms once we’re at the table,” they chose to stay with biography because it “is well-known in Indigenous circles,” concluding that “there is still life in this old term ʻbiography’ yet.” 54 The same can be said for the publishing world; in fact, “biographies” are regularly appearing for non-human subjects. Noted biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd published London: The Biography in 2000 ; the “concise” version followed in 2012 . In Britain, biographies of the Ordnance Survey and the English Breakfast have also appeared. 55 Resisting relegation, biography can still raise and fulfill expectations of a chronological, substantial, and interesting narrative that deals with real subjects, human or otherwise—a good story, with the added virtue of being true.

Autobiography and Auto/Biography—Mapping Self-Representation

If autobiography studies began in the late 1970s, its institutionalization occurred in the mid- and late 1980s, and its later codification came with the journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and works such as Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography , the years since 1990 have also seen sustained efforts to define and further theorize the genre in ways that expand its range and history. Handbooks such as the two editions of Linda Anderson’s Autobiography and Laura Marcus’s Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction offer brief, engaging entries into the genre’s past and present. Other efforts to map out auto/biography as a generic marker and critical practice include The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader , edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen. Much of the content first appeared in the pages of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies , which they co-edit. Ashley Barnwell and Kate Douglas’s co-edited Research Methodologies for Auto/Biography Studies provides an overview of work being conducted in the field as the 21st century enters its third decade, often with suggestions for future directions. 56

Volumes devoted to theory include Carole Allamand’s book about Philippe Lejeune’s great influence on “ l’autobiographie en théorie ” or Lia Nicole Brozgal’s Against Autobiography . Marlene Kadar’s emphasis on the postmodern is mirrored in edited collections by Ashley et al. and Couser and Fichtelberg, and in Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s monograph Borderlines . 57 Other scholars turned their attention to the field’s historical and geographical reach. 58 In the United States, slave narratives have been a major subject for research. William L. Andrews’s To Tell a Free Story and Slavery and Class in the American South have been major contributions to this field. 59 If we add Rachel McLennan’s American Autobiography , the result is an emphatic rejection of Georges Gusdorf’s highly influential claim that autobiography was an 18th-century product of the Western European Enlightenment. 60

Over the course of his career, Paul John Eakin, one of the early champions of autobiographies as literary texts, has shifted his attention to autobiographies as foundational, even neurological, imperatives in all people. As the titles of How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves and Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative suggest, his close readings of published autobiographies are gestures toward identifying the structures and narratives of consciousness that constitute humans as humans. More philosophical in emphasis, Richard Freadman’s Threads of Life shares Eakin’s conviction that autobiography offers valuable information about human nature. 61 Autobiography has however attracted most critical and theoretical interest in the realm of the political, often with feminism as the starting point. Liz Stanley’s The Auto/Biographical I and Laura Marcus’s Auto/Biographical Discourses were influential British monographs; and Broughton and Anderson’s edited collection, Women’s Lives/Women’s Times , turned the tables by suggesting that autobiography could contribute to feminist theory, as well as the other way around. Many of these monographs and collections were powerfully shaped by work on the distinctiveness of women’s writing, most notably the autobiographical/theoretical texts of Hélène Cixous such as Rootprints , which emerged from her famous writings in the 1970s on l’écriture féminine . Noted memoirists such as Jill Ker Conway, in her When Memory Speaks , also evaluate how differently men and women understand and write about their lives. 62

Other scholars have worked to establish traditions of women’s self-representation, whether Florence S. Boos in Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women ; Laura Beard’s Acts of Narrative Resistance , which focuses on autobiographical writing in the Americas; or Marilyn Booth’s Journal of Women’s History special issue, “Women’s Autobiography in South Asia and the Middle East.” Some of the most visible theoretical works address the challenges of speaking out through autobiography against political or social repression. A 2008 special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly was simply entitled “Witness.” Two of the best-known monographs are Gillian Whitlock’s Soft Weapons , which investigates the strategies Middle Eastern women employ to attract Western audiences in order to inform them about life during a time of forced globalization, emigration, and wars on terror; and Leigh Gilmore’s previously mentioned Tainted Witness , which looks at high-profile witnesses such as Anita Hill and Rigoberta Menchú to analyze the relationship between gender and credibility within patriarchal cultures. 63

Though strongly influenced by feminist theory, other critics and theorists extend their discussions of testimony out to a wide range of locations and chosen media. Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons co-edited “Personal Effects: The Testimonial Uses of Life Writing” as a special issue of Biography . The essays in Tracing the Autobiographical , edited by Marlene Kadar and colleagues, explore the interplay between genre, location, national politics, ethics, and life narrative. Although Leigh Gilmore entitled her 2000 monograph The Limits of Autobiography , subtitled Trauma, Testimony, Theory— and although a 2008 Southern Review special issue explores “The Limits of Testimony”—developments such as the Me Too movement suggest that personal witnessing by the abused or persecuted will continue to attract the attention of autobiography scholars. 64

A similar impulse accounts for the close attention being paid to autobiographical sub-genres. Prominent among these is memoir, which some would argue should become the covering term. G. Thomas Couser’s Memoir: An Introduction offers a concise yet rich overview of the form, with an emphasis on American memoir, while Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History provides a detailed account of the form’s fortunes over time. Both Couser and Yagoda move smoothly between “literary” examples and more commercial texts, acknowledging that popular publications of the 21st century are primarily responsible for many critics and reviewers declaring that we are living during a memoir “boom.” As with autobiography, however, some critics are hesitant to let this form of life writing refer to almost any mode of self-representation. A 2018 edited collection describes its task as Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir . 65

Autobiography scholars have also directed their attention to the less prestigious, and even unpublished sub-genres of written self-representation. Philippe Lejeune’s longstanding interest in personal journals has resulted in articles and books drawing their subjects from over four centuries and a variety of media—from manuscripts to computer screens. On Diary , a collection of English translations on the subject, is similar in its distillation of stimulating thought to On Autobiography , Lejeune’s landmark 1989 collection. The sheer number, variety, and importance of his publications confirm his status as a pre-eminent scholar of self-representation since the 1980s. In French, his work on diary is complemented by such works as Françoise Simonet-Tenant’s Le journal intime . In English, decades before On Diary appeared, Lejeune made an important contribution to Inscribing the Daily , edited by Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff. In that same collection, Helen Buss’s “A Feminist Revision of New Historicism to Give Fuller Readings of Women’s Private Writing” offers another example of how contemporary feminist theory engaged with other theoretical movements, and often did so by drawing upon autobiography as a source for hidden or “sub-literary” women’s texts. 66

Since c. 1990 , the auto- in auto/biography studies has largely set the agenda for theoretical and critical approaches to life writing; indeed, for many scholars, autobiography is all but synonymous with life narrative. But as Marlene Kadar noted in 1992 , the term “life writing” offers possibilities for study that autobiography cannot accommodate, or will even distort, as a survey of what has been pursued under the life banner makes all too clear. 67

Life Writing and Life Narrative—Emergence and Pervasion

In the years since Margaretta Jolly’s Encyclopedia of Life Writing appeared, many substantial works have addressed aspects and practices of life writing as an interdiscipline. Zachary Leader’s On Life-Writing is one of his many publications as a critic, theorist, and editor, and although literary biography is Richard Bradford’s primary interest, in his edited collection Life Writing: Essays on Autobiography, Biography and Literature , the term serves as a container for the more familiar designations. The title of Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader , a compendium of the most influential essays by two of autobiography’s most prolific and prominent critics, theorists, and editors, does something similar, and in fact many prominent a/b theorists have made the shift, at least in their titles, to a “life” designation. Liz Stanley’s 2013 edited collection is called Documents of Life Revisited , and the title of her 2010 guest-edited special issue of Life Writing is “In Dialogue: Life Writing and Narrative Inquiry.” Perhaps most significantly, almost twenty years after his landmark discussion of metaphors of self, James Olney, the acknowledged founder of autobiography studies, published Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing . 68

The term increasingly appeared in publications about its fortunes in academia. When Miriam Fuchs and I edited a volume for the Modern Language Association’s Options for Teaching series, in the interests of full coverage, we entitled it Teaching Life Writing Texts . A decade later, Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas’s a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue on pedagogy, and the resulting Routledge edited collection, were both called “Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives.” For its two clusters on the subject, the European Journal of Life Writing took the same title as Fuchs and me, with the obvious addition “in Europe.” 69

As has been the case with both biography and autobiography, as part of its codification life writing has undergone a great deal of historical and regional analysis. Sometimes the results are interdisciplinary, such as Penny Summerfield’s Histories of the Self , but in the case of the multi-volume Oxford History of Life-Writing (Zachary Leader gen. ed.) the goal is to produce a comprehensive survey. The first two volumes, covering the Middle Ages and the early modern period respectively, appeared in 2018 . Other decidedly British, period-based publications include David Amigoni’s edited collection Life Writing and Victorian Culture , and Andrew Tate’s special issue of Nineteenth Century Contexts , “Victorian Life Writing.” 70 The historical focus extends to France and Germany in the Modern Language Studies special issue “Co-Constructed Selves: Nineteenth-Century Collaborative Life Writing.” Entirely European surveys include Écrire des vies: Espagne, France, Italie, XVIe–XVIIIe siècle, and German Life Writing in the Twentieth Century . 71

Continuing in the tradition of feminist critical interventions through autobiography, life writing has become a covering term for studies of women’s writing over the centuries and around the world. Some publications explicitly link theoretical positions to life writing; for instance, the Prose Studies special issue devoted to “Women’s Life Writing and Imagined Communities,” which puts Benedict Anderson’s brand of political science and cultural history into play. Other works employ life writing to map out genealogies of women authors and intellectuals. The edited collection Writing Medieval Women’s Lives reclaims a number of European subjects, and after writing Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing , Julie Eckerle co-edited Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland with Naomi McAreavey. Reversing the pattern, Amy Culley followed up Women’s Life Writing, 1700–1850 , a collection co-edited with Daniel Cook, with a monograph entitled British Women’s Life Writing, 1760–1840 . 72 Susan Civale’s Romantic Women’s Life Writing covers much of the British nineteenth century , as does “Silence in the Archives: Censorship and Suppression in Women’s Life Writing,” a special issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century . Another co-edited collection, Women’s Life Writing and the Practice of Reading , ranges from slave narratives to Virginia Woolf. Finally, in Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism , Margaretta Jolly argues for the enduring power of written correspondence, whether on paper or as e-mail. 73

Delineations of criticism and theory from specific regions have adopted life writing as an organizing principle. “African American Life Writing” is the title of an a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue; other volumes dealing with North American subjects include Viola Amato’s Shifts in the Representation of Intersex Lives in North American Literature and Popular Culture , and Katherine Adams’s monograph Owning Up . 74 Ongoing work on European life writing has resulted in several survey collections. Life Writing Matters in Europe , paradoxically published in the Winter-Verlag American Studies series, is one of the more expansive volumes, but the region examined can be more specific, as in Simona Mitroiu’s Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe , or the European Journal of Life Writing ’s cluster “Life Writing Trajectories in Post- 1989 Eastern Europe”—despite the fact that “Eastern Europe” is a highly contested term. 75 A life-narrative focus can also govern work on non-European and non-North American regions, whether Africa, Australia, the Pacific, or South East Asia. 76 As for India, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies has featured a cluster entitled “Narratives of Transformation: Religious Conversion and Indian Traditions of Life Writing,” and Biography ’s 2017 special issue, “Caste and Life Narratives,” has been republished in India as an edited collection. An especially ambitious effort at global reach is Locating Life Stories: Beyond East-West Binaries in (Auto)Biographical Studies , which features essays about Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Great Britain, Hawaiʻi, Iraq, Australia, India, and China as part of its effort to interrogate the dominance of Euro-American theoretical paradigms. 77

A number of prominent scholars have devoted books to decolonial, postcolonial, and diasporic life writing. Bart Moore-Gilbert’s Postcolonial Life-Writing presented itself as “the first critical assessment” of such texts in English. Philip Holden’s Autobiography and Decolonization casts a wide net in its analysis of life writing by Asian and African leaders of countries emerging from imperial occupation, and Gillian Whitlock’s Postcolonial Life Narratives surveys 18th- to 21st-century works by Indigenous and settler life writers on at least four continents. Edited collections include the 2013 special issue of Life Writing entitled “Women’s Life Writing and Diaspora,” and the books Ethnic Life Writing and Histories and Transculturing Auto/Biography . 78

Life writing has become a common component across disciplinary fields. “The Work of Life Writing,” an a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue, features articles grounded in family dynamics, working-class autobiography, ethnography, ecological studies, philosophy, medicine, political and social commentary, and institutional investigations. Paul John Eakin’s edited collection The Ethics of Life Writing foregrounds the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, but also explores testimonio , race, disclosure, and life writing as an agent of harm. David Parker’s The Self in Moral Space examines life writing as a site for ethical analysis. Life Writing has published a special issue entitled “Philosophy and Life Writing,” and Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies one called “Life Writing as Empathy.” On a more discursive note, Joan Ramon Resina’s edited collection Inscribed Identities focuses on language as constitutive of the subject. 79

Vulnerability and precarity are central concerns for many life-writing sub-genres. Since the late 20th century , G. Thomas Couser has been the most prominent scholar exploring the relationship between life narrative and disability in his monographs and edited and co-edited collections. 80 Trauma in its various forms has been an important concern for life-writing scholars. Suzette A. Henke’s Shattered Subjects was one of the first publications to address profound physical and psychological upheavals, experienced personally or collectively. Susanna Egan’s Mirror Talk examines how crisis leads to cultural expression in media ranging from film to hybrid literary forms, and from quilting to comics. Miriam Fuchs’s The Text Is Myself explores the different forms life writing can take in response to historical, political, and personal assault. Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas’s co-edited Trauma Texts began as a special issue of Life Writing entitled “Trauma in the Twenty-First Century”; another edited collection in this field is Haunted Narratives: Life Writing in an Age of Trauma . 81 Meg Jensen’s The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical discusses prison poems, testimonio , war memorials, and other sites of commemoration as “complex interrogative negotiations of trauma and its aftermath.” Life writing and medicine has been attracting increasing attention. Mita Banerjee’s Medical Humanities in American Studies is a representative example. 82

Trauma can also be collective and global, and life writing often proves to be a crucial factor in judgment and restitution. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith’s Human Rights and Narrated Lives explores how personal narratives often serve as the chosen response to national violence and deliberate crimes against humanity. Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly’s edited collection We Shall Bear Witness , and Katja Kurz’s monograph Narrating Contested Lives , both of which appeared in 2014 , also discuss life writing in the context of human rights. Testimony against institutional abuse is the subject of Melissa Dearey’s Radicalization , and social movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter foreground life narrative as a strategy for opposing oppression and violence carried out by state agents and those invested in economic, political, or cultural dominance. Brittney Cooper and Treva B. Lindsey’s co-edited special issue of Biography , “M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives,” combines theory and personal testimony in an innovative manner. 83

Are Life Narratives always Life Writing?

Many critical and theoretical works of the 21st century seem to leave the writing behind—a major reason life narrative is increasingly chosen as the covering term. While Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames is one of the most important books on life writing for many reasons, her attention to the power of images on the understanding of the past, extending even to Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus , has been profoundly influential. By calling attention to the frequent disjunctions between text and photographs, Timothy Dow Adams’s Light Writing & Life Writing is also a transitional text of sorts, anticipating the emergence of comics and other visual and verbal hybrids as major sites for examining life representation. 84 “Autographics,” a Biography special issue co-edited by Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, is one of many collections and monographs that explore how life narratives are embodied in comic and other graphic forms. Hillary Chute, a prolific editor, interviewer, archivist, critic, and theorist of comics, has published two monographs that document the intersections of comics, life writing, feminism, and history: Graphic Women and Disaster Drawn . 85 Michael A. Chaney’s Reading Lessons in Seeing , and his edited collection Graphic Subjects , are substantial contributions to theorizing the interplay between life writing and comics. Elisabeth El Refaie’s Autobiographical Comics is another extended study, and Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley’s co-edited collection Canadian Graphic is devoted to a single country’s comics life-writing production. 86

Critical and theoretical work on other hybrid genres includes Anna Poletti’s Intimate Ephemera , Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors , and Hertha D. Sweet Wong’s Picturing Identity , which discusses forms ranging from book art to comics to sketch illustrations to geographic installations. Almost any life-writing analysis must now engage with the pervasiveness of visual representation, which can be recognized as having been an important component for many centuries as well. For instance, the texts examined in Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall’s Witnessing Girlhood , a study of testimonial traditions that draws together gender, youth, and race, range from slave narratives and testimonio to comics and picture books. 87

Responding to the proliferation of critical and theoretical engagements across genres, media, and disciplines, in a special issue of Life Writing , and a subsequent book, co-editors David McCooey and Maria Takolander ask what “the limits of life writing,” if any, might be. Gillian Whitlock and G. Thomas Couser implicitly ask the same question in their co-edited Biography special issue entitled “(Post)Human Lives”; and in another Biography special issue, “Life Writing and Corporate Personhood,” co-editors Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons's examine how analogies to human life narratives pervade institutional and business self-promotion. Grounding lives in natural environments is the organizing principle for Alfred Hornung and Zhao Baisheng’s co-edited collection Ecology and Life Writing . 88 Just as trade publishers are labeling engaging narratives about anything from God to salt as biographies, so the critical concept of life writing is being stretched to contain virtually anything that presents or mimics a human story.

In terms of critical and theoretical attention, however, no medium for life narratives has been more immediately recognized in its emergence, or more closely examined, than what a pair of Biography special issues have identified as “Online Lives” and “Online Lives 2.0.” Anna Poletti and Julie Rak address the same phenomenon in their edited collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online . 89 The prevalence, and even dominance, of life narratives in online environments has caused critics and theorists to recalibrate their work to account for this migration and mediation. This is especially true for studies of young life writers. The title of Emma Maguire’s book Girls, Autobiography, Media: Gender and Self-Mediation in Digital Economies takes for granted that the narratives to be discussed will be online, and Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti’s Life Narratives and Youth Culture ranges from more traditional memoirs, letters, and diaries to social media. 90

Moving beyond the exclusively written has also revivified a longstanding awareness of biography as performance. Popular from film’s earliest days, the biopic has attracted substantial critical and theoretical attention. George Custen’s pathbreaking volume Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History was published in 1992 , and a Biography special issue entitled “The Biopic,” edited by Glenn Man, appeared in 2000 . Originally a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies , William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer’s co-edited Invented Lives, Imagined Communities dwells on the history and the cultural shaping force of film biographies. While providing a historical overview, Dennis Bingham’s massive Whose Lives Are They Anyway? focuses on post-World War II films, with a particular emphasis on biopics with women subjects. Tom Brown and Belén Vidal’s co-edited collection The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture takes on a similar subject. 91 Biopic critics’ interest in actors and impersonation links their work to life-writing studies of performance. Ryan Claycomb’s Lives in Play argues that since the 1970s, life narratives have been central to the construction and performance of feminist theater. A special issue of LiNQ: Connected Writing and Scholarship entitled “Performing Lives” focuses upon the literal and metaphorical aspects of performance resulting from life writing’s migration “into other media including film, television, online, theatre, and the gallery.” Other scholars are studying those figures whose performance of their public identities led to great and enduring notoriety or acclaim. Clara Tuite’s Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity subordinates the events of Byron’s life to a study of the fascination he aroused, and continued to arouse, in the public. Daniel Herwitz discusses celebrity in The Star as Icon , and Katja Lee and Lorraine York tackle a similar subject in their co-edited collection Celebrity Cultures in Canada , though they restrict their stargazing to a single country. 92 Fan studies are an integral part of popular-culture scholarship, employing a vocabulary awash in terms such as idols, icons, influencers, and “reality” stars.

The quotation marks around “reality” point to a critical commonplace about life writing—that as acts of representation, such texts necessarily employ fictional materials and constructs. The veracity claims of life-writing texts, captured in a term like non-fiction, are always under scrutiny, and sometimes considered subordinate to concerns with aesthetics or craft—a belief expressed in the term “creative non-fiction.” Efforts to blur or eliminate the borders between fiction and non-fiction are often motivated by a desire to absorb life narratives back into the domain of literature, and principally prose fiction, where the commitment to art may require writers to remake historical fact or the contents of memory in response to the demands of form and aesthetics. Although Serge Doubrovsky is credited with coining the term “autofiction” in the 1970s to describe his own work, many critical and theoretical monographs treat this process as their principal concern, among them Max Saunders’s Self-Impression , and Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction . Edited collections also address the significance of these generic boundaries. Chief among these is Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf’s three-volume Handbook of Autobiogography/Autofiction . In Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos of Our Times, Erika Hasebe-Ludt, Cynthia M. Chambers, and Carl Leggo suggest that the interplay between personal histories and aesthetics has a profound moral component, while the title Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction suggests where that volume’s editors consider the most interesting of those experiments to occur. A related juxtaposition appears in the title of Jean-Louis Jeannelle and Catherine Viollet’s co-edited volume Genèse et autofiction , and the title of Helena Grice’s Asian American Fiction, History, and Life Writing lays out a continuum of sorts. 93

The greatest champion for biofiction as a sub-discipline is critic and theorist Michael Lackey, who has written, edited, or co-edited numerous books and collections. 94 It is fair to say that those interested in biofiction are primarily concerned with how the historical is drawn into the literary, and that the resulting sub-genre’s appeal is not its historical veracity, but its enlistment of history and biography in the cause of literary aesthetics. One parallel but distinctly different area of interest regards the hoax life narrative. Susanna Egan’s Burdens of Proof evaluates a number of texts produced through literary imposture, and Nancy K. Miller’s “The Entangled Self” is an astute and suggestive discussion of the issue. 95

The discussion has travelled full circle—from a virtual abandonment of the desire to see life writing as literature, or even necessarily verbal, with a corresponding emphasis on the cultural, political, visual, or virtual, to a reassertion of literature, and more specifically prose fiction, as setting the highest and most appropriate standards for writers of historically and biographically informed creative prose. The journey itself, however, suggests just how capacious the term “life writing” has become.

Future Thoughts—Life, Biobits, and the Environment

Marlene Kadar argued in 1992 that life writing had to extend itself beyond genre to critical practice. 96 In the intervening years, the number of genres and sub-genres, the amount of critical and theoretical attention, and the variety of practices undertaken have increased at an accelerating rate. It seems appropriate to close with some observations about how rethinking certain components of life writing as understood, theorized, and practiced might lead to new directions and widened perspectives. Those components are the fundamental ones—“life” and “writing/narrative.” Lauren Berlant offers insights into the first, and Marlene Kadar the second. With Kadar again providing the enabling metaphor, the discussion will finally turn to what should be the next theoretical transition for life writing—from practice to environment.

After being invited to witness “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” the 2010 International Auto/Biography Association conference held in Sussex, United Kingdom, Lauren Berlant was asked her opinion about how the participants had dealt not only with her famous term, but also with life writing, the organization’s reason for being. Berlant confessed she was “worried about the presumed self-evident value of bionarrative”:

I kept asking people to interrogate how the story of having a “life” itself coasts on a normative notion of human biocontinuity: what does it mean to have a life, is it always to add up to something? . . . To my ear, the genre of the “life” is a most destructive conventionalized form of normativity: when norms feel like laws, they constitute a sociology of the rules for belonging and intelligibility whose narrowness threatens people’s capacity to invent ways to attach to the world. 97

Berlant’s comment is very helpful, because it prompts us to look seriously at the “bio” of autobiography and biography, and at the “life” of life writing. She suggests locales where this interrogation is already underway:

Queer, socialist/anti-capitalist, and feminist work have all been about multiplying the ways we know that people have lived and can live, so that it would be possible to take up any number of positions during and in life in order to have “a life.” 98

Such work has expanded the range and value of life writing as a practice; an even stronger commitment to determining what is meant by “a life” can only lead to new possibilities for socially and politically engaged scholarship.

But Berlant is suspicious of “writing” as well, and not because the attention of so much scholarship has been redirected to graphic narratives, or online. Her concern about the “self-evident value of bionarrative” also suggests that replacing “life writing” with “life narrative” as the covering term might still set an uninterrogated limit on what we should be examining. Entertaining the possibility of “a biography of gesture, of interruption,” Berlant asks rhetorically “Shouldn’t life writing be a primary laboratory for theorizing ʻthe event’?” 99 Marlene Kadar argues that such theoretical practice is already happening. In her essay “The Devouring: Traces of Roma in the Holocaust,” she campaigns for including “the fragment and trace as member-genres in the taxonomy of auto/biographical practices” outlined in such theoretical works as her own “(flawed) 1992 definition of life-writing texts.” 100 Drawing upon Blanchot’s sense of the fragment as “an unfinished separation that is always reaching out for further interpretation,” Kadar suggests that when confronted with the near-erasure of all evidence that a life was ever lived, we can register affect even when lacking narrative. Any surviving evidence of a life can potentially express “more than what happened,” and anything that “helps us to understand what the particular event means to the subject, can be read as autobiographical.” Whether a song, a tattoo, an anecdote, or a name on a list, in its evocative yet resisting brevity, the fragment speaks of a life without providing even the outline of a realized narrative—“what it felt like, not exactly what it was like.” 101 Kadar therefore sets forth “the fragment and trace as genres that both contribute to our previous theorizations” of autobiography and life narrative, but “also as necessarily unfinished genres that call out to us to attempt to finish them”—often with important critical and political results. 102 One might add that, in discursive terms, the fragment or trace can be thought of as analogous to the morpheme—they are the smallest units recognizable as evidence of a life. With an embedded reference to virtual and online representation, these fragments and traces might be termed “biobits.”

The biobit would represent the micro limit of life writing theory; drawing upon but extending Kadar once more, one can suggest what the macro might be. In “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the Narrative,” Kadar insists on the need to “theorize a new genre that still goes beyond and yet includes the old word [autobiography], the old gender, and the old style,” but will also “name what is now.” But this new genre must differ markedly from our common understanding, because “like water,” which “assumes the shape of the vessel” containing it, the nature of the contents of this new genre will not be determined or defined by the container. The “essence” of genre “can never really be captured.” 103 To elaborate on this thought, Kadar turns to a novel by Gail Scott. While most of the main character’s life takes place in a bathtub, we know that at some point she will have to leave it—a move that will carry her “Out of the Bathtub and into Narrative.” Life writing, then, is best thought of not as a container, a genre, or a practice, but to the greatest extent possible, as a component of uncontained water: an ocean, an environment in which micro biomass—biobits—coexists with the largest, most familiar, most coherent examples—the biographies and autobiographies, the autoethnographies and the biopics, the online presences and the comics. Though all are in some way engaged in and linked through bio-representation, only some are implicated in writing, or even in narrative.

If viewed in this way, all of life writing’s inherited genres and sub-genres remain useful and productive methods for describing, comparing, and acting. But it must always be remembered that neither genre nor practice is sufficient as a ground or container for theorizing what may still be called life writing or life narrative, but could perhaps be more accurately referred to as signs of life.

1. See Julie Rak, “Marlene Kadar’s Life Writing: Feminist Theory outside the Lines,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 33, no. 3 (2018): 541–549 ; Marlene Kadar, “Coming to Terms: Life Writing—From Genre to Critical Practice,” in Essays on Life Writing , ed. Marlene Kadar (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992 ), 3–16, quotation at 4; and Donald J. Winslow, Life-Writing: A Glossary of Terms in Biography, Autobiography, and Related Forms , Biography Monographs (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1980 ). Winslow’s book first appeared as Donald J. Winslow, “Glossary of Terms in Life Writing,” pts. 1 and 2, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1978): 61–78; and 1, no. 2 (1978): 61–85.

2. For the phrase “the New Critical wolf,” see Marlene Kadar, “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the Narrative,” in Kadar, Essays on Life Writing , 152–161, at 154. For the other quotations, see Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 4–6.

3. Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 9.

4. Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 10.

5. Kadar “Coming to Terms,” 12. Kadar notes that her argument here is informed by pp. 162–165 of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “To Write My Self: The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women,” in Feminist Issues in Literature Scholarship , ed. Shari Benstock (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987 ), 161–180.

6. James Olney, “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical , ed. James Olney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980 ), 3–27.

7. For a sampling of such texts, see Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians , reprinted ed. (London: Penguin, 1990 ; 1st ed. 1918); Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1928 ); Leon Edel, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York: Norton, 1987 ); and Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984 ). For a post-structuralist approach to biography, see William H. Epstein, ed., Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991 ).

8. James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972 ).

9. Ricia Anne Chansky, “General Introduction,” in The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader , eds. Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen (London and New York: Routledge, 2016 ), xx–xxii, quotations at xx and xxi.

10. Sidonie Smith, “Foreword,” in Chansky and Hipchen, The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader , xvii–xix, at xviii.

11. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998 ).

12. See, for example, Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” Modern Language Notes 94, no. 5 (1979) : 919–930; and Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes , trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 ).

13. Philippe Lejeune, “The Autobiographical Pact,” in On Autobiography , by Philippe Lejeune, trans. Katherine Leary, with a foreword by Paul John Eakin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 3–30 (the essay was originally published in French in 1977); Paul John Eakin, Fictions of Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985) ; and Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Ithaca, NY: Princeton University Press, 1992) .

14. Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) ; and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds., De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) .

15. For works by the authors and editors mentioned in this paragraph, see the “Further Reading” section.

16. Margaretta Jolly, ed., Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms , 2 vols. (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001) , quotations at ix and x.

17. Jolly, Encyclopedia , ix, x; and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds., Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) .

18. Jolly, Encyclopedia , ix, x.

19. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives , 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) , 2. The first edition was published in 2001; for convenience this article quotes from the second edition.

20. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 3, 4.

21. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 211, citing Smith and Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory .

22. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 211.

23. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 204–205.

24. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 214. The works they mention are: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) ; Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) ; and Sidonie Smith, Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) .

25. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 216. They cite John Paul Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) ; and Nancy K. Miller, “Representing Others: Gender and the Subjects of Autobiography,” Differences 6, no. 1 (1994) : 1–27.

26. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 215.

27. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 218.

28. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 234. Their Appendix A is at 253–286.

29. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) , pp. 121–126. There isn’t a citation for Kadar—that’s me saying she would agree with Williams on this. The Williams distinction is a commonplace by now.

30. Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 10.

31. I have written at some length about this in relation to Renders and De Haan and the Biographers International Organization, with particular attention paid to Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly , which I co-edit; the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Center for Biographical Research, which I direct; and the International Auto/Biography Association-Listserv, which I manage. See Craig Howes, “What Are We Turning From? Research and Ideology in Biography and Life Writing,” in The Biographical Turn: Lives in History , eds. Hans Renders, Binne de Haan, and Jonne Harmsma (London and New York: Routledge, 2016) , 165–175.

32. Hans Renders, “Biography in Academia and the Critical Frontier in Life Writing,” in Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing , eds. Hans Renders and Binne de Haan (Leiden: Brill, 2013) , 169–176, at 169. Michael Holroyd, “Changing fashions in biography,” The Guardian , 6 November 2009 .

33. Renders, “Biography in Academia,” 172.

34. Renders, “Biography in Academia,” 172.

35. For a more detailed account of this suspicion, see Craig Howes, “Ethics and Literary Biography,” in A Companion to Literary Biography , ed. Richard Bradford (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2018) , 123–142. It should be noted that while they may share an aversion to criticism and theory, if anything, literary artists often have a greater contempt for biographers.

36. Julie Rak, Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) , quotations at 4 and 3; and Julie Rak, ed., “Pop Life,” special issue, Canadian Review of American Studies 38, no. 3 (2008) .

37. Leigh Gilmore, Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017) .

38. Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) ; Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) ; Andrew Brown, A Brief History of Biographies: From Plutarch to Celebs (London: Hesperus, 2011) ; Catherine N. Parke, Biography: Writing Lives; Themes and Genres . Twayne's Studies in Literary Themes and Genres (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) ; and Paula R. Backscheider, Reflections on Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) .

39. Carl Rollyson, Biography: An Annotated Bibliography (Pasadena, CA: Salem, 1992) . Among Rollyson’s many other works are: Carl Rollyson, Reading Biography (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2004) ; Carl Rollyson, A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005) ; and Carl Rollyson, Confessions of a Serial Biographer (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2016) .

40. Carl Rollyson, Biography: A User’s Guide (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008) ; and Nigel Hamilton and Hans Renders, The ABC of Modern Biography (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018) .

41. Edel, Writing Lives ; Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002) ; Rollyson, Confessions ; Nigel Hamilton, How To Do Biography: A Primer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008) ; and Hamilton, Biography .

42. John Batchelor, ed., The Art of Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995) ; Warwick Gould and Thomas F. Staley, eds., Writing the Lives of Writers (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998) ; Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard, eds., Les nouvelles écritures biographiques (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2013) ; and Richard Bradford, ed., A Companion to Literary Biography (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2019) . My essay “Ethics and Literary Biography” appears in Bradford’s collection.

43. Michael Benton, Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) ; Rana Tekcan, Too Far for Comfort: A Study on Biographical Distance (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2015) ; and Alison Booth, How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) . She mentions her reservations at 130.

44. Barbara Caine, Biography and History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) ; Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, eds., Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2013) ; Renders, de Haan, and Harmsma, The Biographical Turn ; and Tanya Evans and Robert Reynolds, “Introduction to this Special Issue on Biography and Life-Writing,” disclosure 21 (2012) : 1–8.

45. Atiba Pertilla and Uwe Spiekermann, eds., “Forum: The Challenge of Biography,” special section, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 55 (2014) ; and Sarah Panter, ed., Mobility and Biography , Jahrbuch für Europäische Geschichte / European History Yearbook 16 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) .

46. Tomas Hägg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) ; Stephanos Efthymiadis, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography , vol. 2, Genres and Contexts (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014) ; Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker, eds., Writing Lives: Biography and Textuality, Identity and Representation in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) ; Sarah Mombert and Michèle Rosellini, eds., Usages des vies: Le biographique hier et aujourd’hui (XVIIe–XXIe siècle) (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2012) ; and Juliette Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century “Hidden” Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) .

47. Examples of such work include: Robin Humphrey, Robert Miller, and Elena Zdravomyslova, eds., Biographical Research in Eastern Europe: Altered Lives and Broken Biographies (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2003) ; Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir et al., eds., Biography, Gender and History: Nordic Perspectives (Turku: K&H, 2017) ; and Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, Toisten elämät: Kirjoituksia elämäkerroista (Avain, 2017) .

48. Wilhelm Hemecker, ed., Die Biographie—Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009) ; Wilhelm Hemecker and Edward Saunders, eds., with Gregor Schima, Biography in Theory: Key Texts with Commentaries (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018) ; Bernhard Fetz and Wilhelm Hemecker, eds., Theorie der Biographie: Grundlagentexte und Kommentar (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011) ; and Bernhard Fetz, ed., Die Biographie—Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009) . All these except the Hemecker and Saunders volume were published by De Gruyter on behalf of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute.

49. Marta Dvorak, ed., Biographical Creation / La création biographique (Rennes: Presses Universitaires Rennes, 1997) .

50. Susan Tridgell, Understanding Our Selves: The Dangerous Art of Biography (New York: Peter Lang, 2004) ; and Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave, 2020) .

51. Alan C. Elms, Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) ; William Todd Schultz, ed., Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) ; and Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) .

52. See, for example, Carolyn L. White, ed., The Materiality of Individuality: Archaeological Studies of Individual Lives (New York: Springer, 2009) ; Ann L. W. Stodder and Ann M. Palkovich, eds., The Bioarchaeology of Individuals (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012) ; Michaela Köttig et al., eds., “Biography and Ethnicity,” special issue, Forum: Qualitative Social Research 10, no. 3 (2009) ; and Sophie Day Carsten and Charles Stafford, eds., “Reason and Passion: The Parallel Worlds of Ethnography and Biography,” special issue, Social Anthropology 26, no. 1 (2018) : 5–14.

53. Alice Te Punga Somerville, Daniel Heath Justice, and Noelani Arista, eds., “Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2016) : 239–247; Noenoe K. Silva, The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017) ; Melanie Unseld, Biographie und Musikgeschichte: Wandlungen biographischer Konzepte in Musikkultur und Musikhistoriographie (Cologne: Böhlau, 2014) ; and Anna Jackson, ed., “The Verse Biography,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 39, no. 1 (Winter 2016) .

54. Alice Te Punga Somerville and Daniel Heath Justice, “Introduction: Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2016) : 239–247, at 243.

55. Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000) ; Peter Ackroyd, London: The Concise Biography (London: Vintage, 2012) ; Rachel Hewitt, Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey (London: Granta, 2011) ; and Kaori O’Connor, The English Breakfast: The Biography of a National Meal, with Recipes , rev. ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) .

56. Linda Anderson, Autobiography , 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2010 ; 1st ed. 2001); Laura Marcus, Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) ; Chansky and Hipchen, The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader ; and Kate Douglas and Ashley Barnwell, eds., Research Methodologies for Auto/Biography Studies (London: Routledge, 2019) .

57. Carole Allamand, Le “Pacte” de Philippe Lejeune; ou, L’autobiographie en théorie (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2018) ; Lia Nicole Brozgal, Against Autobiography: Albert Memmi and the Production of Theory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018) ; Kathleen Ashley, et al., eds., Autobiography and Postmodernism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) ; G. Thomas Couser and Joseph Fichtelberg, eds., True Relations: Essays on Autobiography and the Postmodern (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1998) ; and Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir, Borderlines: Autobiography and Fiction in Postmodern Life Writing (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003) .

58. For examples of such historical and geographical investigations, see Carsten Heinze and Alfred Hornung, eds., Medialisierungsformen des (Auto-) Biografischen (Konstanz: UVK, 2013) ; Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis, and Philippa Kelly, eds., Early Modern Autobiography: Theories, Genres, Practices (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006) ; Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis, and Philippa Kelly, Early Modern English Lives: Autobiography and Self-Representation, 1500–1660 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2007) ; and Arianne Baggerman, Rudolf Dekker, and Michael Mascuch, eds., Controlling Time and Shaping the Self: Developments in Autobiographical Writing since the Sixteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2011) .

59. William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); and William L. Andrews, Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony , 1840–1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) .

60. Rachel McLennan, American Autobiography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) . Georges Gusdorf “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” pp. 28–48.

61. Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories ; Paul John Eakin, Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008) ; and Richard Freadman, Threads of Life: Autobiography and the Will (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) .

62. Liz Stanley, The Auto/Biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992) ; Laura Marcus, Auto/Biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994) ; Trev Broughton and Linda Anderson, eds., Women’s Lives/Women’s Times: New Essays on Auto/Biography (New York: SUNY Press, 1997) ; Hélène Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber, Rootprints: Memory and Life-Writing , trans. Eric Prenowitz (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) ; and Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography (New York: Knopf, 1998) .

63. Florence S. Boos, Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women: The Hard Way Up , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) ; Laura J. Beard, Acts of Narrative Resistance: Women’s Autobiographical Writings in the Americas (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009) ; Marilyn Booth, ed., “Women’s Autobiography in South Asia and the Middle East,” special issue, Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 2 (2013) ; Kathryn Abrams and Irene Kacandes, eds., “Witness,” special issue, Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, nos. 1–2 (2008) : 13–27; Gillian Whitlock, Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) ; and Gilmore, Tainted Witness .

64. Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons, eds., “Personal Effects: The Testimonial Uses of Life Writing,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2004) ; Marlene Kadar et al., eds., Tracing the Autobiographical (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005) ; Leigh Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma, Testimony, Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000) ; and Paul Atkinson and Anna Poletti, eds., “The Limits of Testimony,” special issue, Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture 40, no. 3 (2008) .

65. G. Thomas Couser, Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ; Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2009) ; and Bunty Avieson, Fiona Giles, and Sue Joseph, eds., Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) .

66. Philippe Lejeune, On Diary , trans. Kathy Durnin, ed. Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009) ; Lejeune, On Autobiography ; Françoise Simonet-Tenant, Le journal intime: Genre littéraire et écriture ordinaire (Paris: Téraèdre, 2004) ; and Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff, eds., Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996) .

67. Kadar, “Coming to Terms.”

68. Zachary Leader, ed., On Life-Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) ; Richard Bradford, ed., Life Writing: Essays on Autobiography, Biography and Literature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) ; Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader (Ann Arbor: Maize Books, 2017) ; Liz Stanley, ed., Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013) ; Liz Stanley, ed., “In Dialogue: Life Writing and Narrative Inquiry,” special issue, Life Writing 7, no. 1 (2010) : 1–3; and James Olney, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) .

69. Miriam Fuchs and Craig Howes, eds., Teaching Life Writing Texts , Options for Teaching (New York: Modern Language Association, 2008) ; Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas, eds., “Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32, no. 1 (2016) ; Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas, eds., Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives (London and New York: Routledge, 2018 ); Dennis Kersten and Anne Marie Mreijen, eds., “Teaching Life Writing Texts in Europe,” special section, European Journal of Life Writing 4 (2015) ; and Dennis Kersten, Anne Marie Mreijen, and Yvonne Delhey, eds., “Teaching Life Writing Texts in Europe, Part II,” special section, European Journal of Life Writing 7 (2018) .

70. Penny Summerfield, Histories of the Self: Personal Narratives and Historical Practice (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) ; Karen A. Winstead, The Oxford History of Life-Writing , vol. 1, The Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) ; Alan Stewart, The Oxford History of Life-Writing , vol. 2, Early Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) ; David Amigoni, ed., Life Writing and Victorian Culture (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2006) ; Andrew Tate, ed., “Victorian Life Writing,” special issue, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28, no. 1 (2006) : 1–3; and Lynn M. Linder, ed., “Co-Constructed Selves: Nineteenth-Century Collaborative Life Writing,” special issue, Modern Language Studies 52, no. 2 (2016) : 121–129.

71. Danielle Boillet, Marie-Madeleine Fragonard, and Hélène Tropé, eds., Écrire des vies: Espagne, France, Italie, XVIe–XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012) ; and Birgit Dahlke, Dennis Tate, and Roger Woods, eds., German Life Writing in the Twentieth Century (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010) .

72. Cynthia Huff, ed., “Women’s Life Writing and Imagined Communities,” special issue, Prose Studies 26, nos. 1–2 (2003) ; Charlotte Newman Goldy and Amy Livingstone, eds., Writing Medieval Women’s Lives (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 ); Julie A. Eckerle, Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013) ; Julie A. Eckerle and Naomi McAreavey, eds., Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland , Women and Gender in the Early Modern World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019) ; Daniel Cook and Amy Culley, eds., Women’s Life Writing , 1700–1850: Gender, Genre and Authorship (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) ; and Amy Culley, British Women’s Life Writing , 1760–1840: Friendship, Community, and Collaboration (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) .

73. Susan Civale, Romantic Women’s Life Writing: Reputation and Afterlife (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019) ; Alexis Wolf, “Introduction: Reading Silence in the Long Nineteenth-Century Women’s Life Writing Archive,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 27 (2018) : unpaginated; Valérie Baisnée-Keay et al., eds., Women’s Life Writing and the Practice of Reading: She Reads to Write Herself , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) ; and Margaretta Jolly, In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) .

74. Eric D. Lamore, ed., “African American Life Writing,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 27, no. 1 (2012) ; Viola Amato, Intersex Narratives: Shifts in the Representation of Intersex Lives in North American Literature and Popular Culture (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2016) ; and Katherine Adams, Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women’s Life Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) .

75. Marijke Huisman et al., eds., Life Writing Matters in Europe , American Studies Monograph 217 (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012) ; Simona Mitroiu, ed., Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) ; and Iona Luca and Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, eds., “Life Writing Trajectories in Post-1989 Eastern Europe,” special section, European Journal of Life Writing 2 (2013) : T1–9.

76. Oliver Nyambi, Life-Writing from the Margins in Zimbabwe: Versions and Subversions of Crisis (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) ; David McCooey, Artful Histories: Modern Australian Autobiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) ; Jack Bowers, Strangers at Home: Place, Belonging, and Australian Life Writing (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2016) ; Brij V. Lal and Peter Hempenstall, eds., Pacific Lives, Pacific Places: Bursting Boundaries in Pacific History (Canberra: Journal of Pacific History, 2001) ; Jack Corbett and Brij V. Lal, eds., Political Life Writing in the Pacific: Reflections on Practice (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2015) ; and Roxanna Waterson, ed., Southeast Asian Lives: Personal Narratives and Historical Experience (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007) .

77. Hephzibah Israel and John Zavos, “Narratives of Transformation: Religious Conversion and Indian Traditions of ‘Life Writing,’” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 41, no. 2 (2018) : 352–365; S. Shankar and Charu Gupta, “Caste and Life Narratives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 40, no. 1 (2017) ; and Maureen Perkins, ed., Locating Life Stories: Beyond East-West Binaries in (Auto)Biographical Studies (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012) . My own essay on Martin Amis appears in this last collection.

78. Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Life-Writing: Culture, Politics, and Self-Representation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) ; Philip Holden, Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity, and the Nation-State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) ; Gillian Whitlock, Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) ; Suzanne Scafe and Jenni Ramone, eds., “Women’s Life Writing and Diaspora,” special issue, Life Writing 10, no. 1 (2013) : 1–3; Rocío G. Davis, Jaume Aurell, and Ana Beatriz Delgado, eds., Ethnic Life Writing and Histories: Genres, Performance, and Culture (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2007) ; and Rosalia Baena, ed., Transculturing Auto/Biography: Forms of Life Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 2007) .

79. Clare Brant and Max Saunders, eds., “The Work of Life Writing,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 25, no. 2 (2010) ; Paul John Eakin, ed., The Ethics of Life Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004) ; David Parker, The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007) ; D. L. LeMahieu and Christopher Cowley, eds., “Philosophy and Life Writing,” special issue, Life Writing 15, no. 3 (2018) : 301–303; Rocío G. Davis, ed., “Life Writing as Empathy,” special issue, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 42, no. 2 (2016) ; and Joan Ramon Resina, ed., Inscribed Identities: Life Writing as Self-Realization (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) .

80. G. Thomas Couser, Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) ; G. Thomas Couser, Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003) ; G. Thomas Couser, Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009) ; G. Thomas Couser, ed., “Disability and Life Writing,” special issue, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 3 (2011) ; G. Thomas Couser, ed., Body Language: Narrating Illness and Disability (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) ; and G. Thomas Couser and Susannah Mintz, eds., Disability Experiences: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Other Personal Narratives , 2 vols. (Detroit: St. James Press, 2019) .

81. Suzette A. Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) ; Susanna Egan, Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) ; Miriam Fuchs, The Text is Myself: Women’s Life Writing and Catastrophe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) ; Gilian Whitlock and Kate Douglas, eds., Trauma Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 2015) , first published as “Trauma in the Twenty-First Century,” Life Writing 5, no. 1 (2008); and Gabriele Rippl et al., eds., Haunted Narratives: Life Writing in an Age of Trauma (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013) .

82. Meg Jensen, The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical: Negotiated Truths , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave, 2019) , quotation at 8; and Mita Banerjee, Medical Humanities in American Studies: Life Writing, Narrative Medicine, and the Power of Autobiography , American Studies Series 292 (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018) .

83. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition (London: Palgrave, 2004) ; Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly, eds., We Shall Bear Witness: Life Narratives and Human Rights (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) ; Katja Kurz, Narrating Contested Lives: The Aesthetics of Life Writing in Human Rights Campaigns (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014) ; Melissa Dearey, Radicalization: The Life Writings of Political Prisoners (London and New York: Routledge, 2010) ; and Brittney Cooper and Treva B. Lindsey, eds., “M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 41, no. 4 (2018) : 731–740.

84. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) ; and Timonthy Dow Adams, Light Writing & Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) .

85. Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, eds., “Autographics,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2008) ; Hillary L. Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) ; and Hillary L. Chute, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Cambridge MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016) .

86. Michael A. Chaney, Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2017) ; Michael A. Chaney, ed., Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) ; Elisabeth El Refaie, Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012) ; and Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley, eds., Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016) .

87. Anna Poletti, Intimate Ephemera: Reading Young Lives in Australian Zine Culture (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008) ; Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ; Hertha D. Sweet Wong, Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018) ; and Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall, Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019) .

88. David McCooey and Maria Takolander, eds., “The Limits of Life Writing,” special issue, Life Writing 14, no. 3 (2017) ; David McCooey and Maria Takolander, eds., The Limits of Life Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) ; Gillian Whitlock and G. Thomas Couser, eds., “(Post)Human Lives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (2012) ; Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons, eds., “Life Writing and Corporate Personhood,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 37, no. 1 (2014) ; and Alfred Hornung and Zhao Baisheng, eds., Ecology and Life Writing (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2013) .

89. John Zuern, ed., “Online Lives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2003) ; Laurie McNeill and John Zuern, eds., “Online Lives 2.0,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 38, no. 2 (2015) ; and Anna Poletti and Julie Rak, eds., Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (Madison: University of Wisonsin Press, 2014) .

90. Emma Maguire, Girls, Autobiography, Media: Gender and Self-Mediation in Digital Economies , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave, 2018) ; and Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti, Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) .

91. George F. Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992) ; Glenn Man, ed., “The Biopic,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 23, no. 1 (2000) ; William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer, eds., Invented Lives, Imagined Communities: The Biopic and American National Identity (New York: SUNY Press, 2016) ; Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010) ; and Tom Brown and Belén Vidal, eds., The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture , AFI Film Readers (London and New York: Routledge, 2014) .

92. Ryan Claycomb, Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012) ; Victoria Kuttainen and Lindsay Simpson, eds., “Performing Lives,” special issue, LiNQ: Connected Writing and Scholarship 39, no. 1 (2012) , quotation from the editors’ “Introduction: Performing Lives,” 11–14, at 11; Clara Tuite, Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) ; Daniel Herwitz, The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) ; and Katja Lee and Lorraine York, eds., Celebrity Cultures in Canada (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016) .

93. Max Saunders, Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) ; Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir, Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) ; Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf, Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction , 3 vols. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019) ; Erika Hasebe-Ludt, Cynthia M. Chambers, and Carl Leggo, Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos of Our Times (New York: Peter Lang, 2009) ; Lucia Boldrini and Julia Novak, eds., Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) ; Jean-Louis Jeannelle and Catherine Viollet, eds., Genèse et autofiction (Paris: Academia-Bruylant, 2007) ; and Helena Grice, Asian American Fiction, History, and Life Writing: International Encounters (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) .

94. Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) ; Michael Lackey, Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) ; Michael Lackey, Conversations with Biographical Novelists: Truthful Fictions across the Globe (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) ; Michael Lackey, Biographical Fiction: A Reader (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) ; Michael Lackey, Biofictional Histories, Mutations, and Forms (London and New York: Routledge, 2016) ; and Michael Lackey, ed., “Biofictions,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 31, no. 1 (2016) .

95. Susanna Egan, Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011) ; and Nancy K. Miller, “The Entangled Self: Genre Bondage in the Age of the Memoir,” PMLA 122, no. 2 (2007) : 537–548.

96. Kadar, “Coming to Terms.”

97. Lauren Berlant and Jay Prosser, “Life Writing and Intimate Publics: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2011) : 180–187, at 183.

98. Berlant and Prosser, “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” 182.

99. Berlant and Prosser, “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” 181.

100. Marlen Kadar, “The Devouring: Traces of Roma in the Holocaust; No Tattoo, Sterilized Body, Gypsy Girl,” in Kadar et al., Tracing the Autobiographical , 223–246, at 223–224.

101. Kadar, “The Devouring,” 243. On the fragment as “an unfinished separation” Kadar is citing Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster , trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986) .

102. Kadar, “The Devouring,” 226.

103. Kadar, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?,” quotations at 153.

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How to Write a Life Story Essay

Last Updated: April 14, 2024 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Alicia Cook . Alicia Cook is a Professional Writer based in Newark, New Jersey. With over 12 years of experience, Alicia specializes in poetry and uses her platform to advocate for families affected by addiction and to fight for breaking the stigma against addiction and mental illness. She holds a BA in English and Journalism from Georgian Court University and an MBA from Saint Peter’s University. Alicia is a bestselling poet with Andrews McMeel Publishing and her work has been featured in numerous media outlets including the NY Post, CNN, USA Today, the HuffPost, the LA Times, American Songwriter Magazine, and Bustle. She was named by Teen Vogue as one of the 10 social media poets to know and her poetry mixtape, “Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately” was a finalist in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. There are 11 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 101,516 times.

A life story essay involves telling the story of your life in a short, nonfiction format. It can also be called an autobiographical essay. In this essay, you will tell a factual story about some element of your life, perhaps for a college application or for a school assignment.

Preparing to Write Your Essay

Step 1 Determine the goal of your essay.

  • If you are writing a personal essay for a college application, it should serve to give the admissions committee a sense of who you are, beyond the basics of your application file. Your transcript, your letters of recommendation, and your resume will provide an overview of your work experience, interests, and academic record. Your essay allows you to make your application unique and individual to you, through your personal story. [2] X Research source
  • The essay will also show the admissions committee how well you can write and structure an essay. Your essay should show you can create a meaningful piece of writing that interests your reader, conveys a unique message, and flows well.
  • If you are writing a life story for a specific school assignment, such as in a composition course, ask your teacher about the assignment requirements.

Step 2 Make a timeline of your life.

  • Include important events, such as your birth, your childhood and upbringing, and your adolescence. If family member births, deaths, marriages, and other life moments are important to your story, write those down as well.
  • Focus on experiences that made a big impact on you and remain a strong memory. This may be a time where you learned an important life lesson, such as failing a test or watching someone else struggle and succeed, or where you felt an intense feeling or emotion, such as grief over someone’s death or joy over someone’s triumph.

Alicia Cook

  • Have you faced a challenge in your life that you overcame, such as family struggles, health issues, a learning disability, or demanding academics?
  • Do you have a story to tell about your cultural or ethnic background, or your family traditions?
  • Have you dealt with failure or life obstacles?
  • Do you have a unique passion or hobby?
  • Have you traveled outside of your community, to another country, city, or area? What did you take away from the experience and how will you carry what you learned into a college setting?

Step 4 Go over your resume.

  • Remind yourself of your accomplishments by going through your resume. Think about any awards or experiences you would like spotlight in your essay. For example, explaining the story behind your Honor Roll status in high school, or how you worked hard to receive an internship in a prestigious program.
  • Remember that your resume or C.V. is there to list off your accomplishments and awards, so your life story shouldn't just rehash them. Instead, use them as a jumping-off place to explain the process behind them, or what they reflect (or do not reflect) about you as a person.

Step 5 Read some good examples.

  • The New York Times publishes stellar examples of high school life story essays each year. You can read some of them on the NYT website. [8] X Research source

Writing Your Essay

Step 1 Structure your essay around a key experience or theme.

  • For example, you may look back at your time in foster care as a child or when you scored your first paying job. Consider how you handled these situations and any life lessons you learned from these lessons. Try to connect past experiences to who you are now, or who you aspire to be in the future.
  • Your time in foster care, for example, may have taught you resilience, perseverance and a sense of curiosity around how other families function and live. This could then tie into your application to a Journalism program, as the experience shows you have a persistent nature and a desire to investigate other people’s stories or experiences.

Step 2 Avoid familiar themes.

  • Certain life story essays have become cliche and familiar to admission committees. Avoid sports injuries stories, such as the time you injured your ankle in a game and had to find a way to persevere. You should also avoid using an overseas trip to a poor, foreign country as the basis for your self transformation. This is a familiar theme that many admission committees will consider cliche and not unique or authentic. [11] X Research source
  • Other common, cliche topics to avoid include vacations, "adversity" as an undeveloped theme, or the "journey". [12] X Research source

Step 3 Brainstorm your thesis...

  • Try to phrase your thesis in terms of a lesson learned. For example, “Although growing up in foster care in a troubled neighborhood was challenging and difficult, it taught me that I can be more than my upbringing or my background through hard work, perseverance, and education.”
  • You can also phrase your thesis in terms of lessons you have yet to learn, or seek to learn through the program you are applying for. For example, “Growing up surrounded by my mother’s traditional cooking and cultural habits that have been passed down through the generations of my family, I realized I wanted to discover and honor the traditions of other, ancient cultures with a career in archaeology.”
  • Both of these thesis statements are good because they tell your readers exactly what to expect in clear detail.

Step 4 Start with a hook.

  • An anecdote is a very short story that carries moral or symbolic weight. It can be a poetic or powerful way to start your essay and engage your reader right away. You may want to start directly with a retelling of a key past experience or the moment you realized a life lesson.
  • For example, you could start with a vivid memory, such as this from an essay that got its author into Harvard Business School: "I first considered applying to Berry College while dangling from a fifty-food Georgia pine tree, encouraging a high school classmate, literally, to make a leap of faith." [15] X Research source This opening line gives a vivid mental picture of what the author was doing at a specific, crucial moment in time and starts off the theme of "leaps of faith" that is carried through the rest of the essay.
  • Another great example clearly communicates the author's emotional state from the opening moments: "Through seven-year-old eyes I watched in terror as my mother grimaced in pain." This essay, by a prospective medical school student, goes on to tell about her experience being at her brother's birth and how it shaped her desire to become an OB/GYN. The opening line sets the scene and lets you know immediately what the author was feeling during this important experience. It also resists reader expectations, since it begins with pain but ends in the joy of her brother's birth.
  • Avoid using a quotation. This is an extremely cliche way to begin an essay and could put your reader off immediately. If you simply must use a quotation, avoid generic quotes like “Spread your wings and fly” or “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’”. Choose a quotation that relates directly to your experience or the theme of your essay. This could be a quotation from a poem or piece of writing that speaks to you, moves you, or helped you during a rough time.

Step 5 Let your personality and voice come through.

  • Always use the first person in a personal essay. The essay should be coming from you and should tell the reader directly about your life experiences, with “I” statements.
  • For example, avoid something such as “I had a hard time growing up. I was in a bad situation.” You can expand this to be more distinct, but still carry a similar tone and voice. “When I was growing up in foster care, I had difficulties connecting with my foster parents and with my new neighborhood. At the time, I thought I was in a bad situation I would never be able to be free from.”

Step 6 Use vivid detail.

  • For example, consider this statement: "I am a good debater. I am highly motivated and have been a strong leader all through high school." This gives only the barest detail, and does not allow your reader any personal or unique information that will set you apart from the ten billion other essays she has to sift through.
  • In contrast, consider this one: "My mother says I'm loud. I say you have to speak up to be heard. As president of my high school's debate team for the past three years, I have learned to show courage even when my heart is pounding in my throat. I have learned to consider the views of people different than myself, and even to argue for them when I passionately disagree. I have learned to lead teams in approaching complicated issues. And, most importantly for a formerly shy young girl, I have found my voice." This example shows personality, uses parallel structure for impact, and gives concrete detail about what the author has learned from her life experience as a debater.

Step 7 Use the active voice.

  • An example of a passive sentence is: “The cake was eaten by the dog.” The subject (the dog) is not in the expected subject position (first) and is not "doing" the expected action. This is confusing and can often be unclear.
  • An example of an active sentence is: “The dog ate the cake.” The subject (the dog) is in the subject position (first), and is doing the expected action. This is much more clear for the reader and is a stronger sentence.

Step 8 Apply the Into, Through, and Beyond approach.

  • Lead the reader INTO your story with a powerful beginning, such as an anecdote or a quote.
  • Take the reader THROUGH your story with the context and key parts of your experience.
  • End with the BEYOND message about how the experience has affected who you are now and who you want to be in college and after college.

Editing Your Essay

Step 1 Put your first draft aside for a few days.

  • For example, a sentence like “I struggled during my first year of college, feeling overwhelmed by new experiences and new people” is not very strong because it states the obvious and does not distinguish you are unique or singular. Most people struggle and feel overwhelmed during their first year of college. Adjust sentences like this so they appear unique to you.
  • For example, consider this: “During my first year of college, I struggled with meeting deadlines and assignments. My previous home life was not very structured or strict, so I had to teach myself discipline and the value of deadlines.” This relates your struggle to something personal and explains how you learned from it.

Step 3 Proofread your essay.

  • It can be difficult to proofread your own work, so reach out to a teacher, a mentor, a family member, or a friend and ask them to read over your essay. They can act as first readers and respond to any proofreading errors, as well as the essay as a whole.

Expert Q&A

Alicia Cook

You Might Also Like

Write About Yourself

  • ↑ http://education.seattlepi.com/write-thesis-statement-autobiographical-essay-1686.html
  • ↑ https://study.com/learn/lesson/autobiography-essay-examples-steps.html
  • ↑ https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201101/writing-compelling-life-story-in-500-words-or-less
  • ↑ Alicia Cook. Professional Writer. Expert Interview. 11 December 2020.
  • ↑ https://mycustomessay.com/blog/how-to-write-an-autobiography-essay.html
  • ↑ https://www.ahwatukee.com/community_focus/article_c79b33da-09a5-11e3-95a8-001a4bcf887a.html
  • ↑ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/10/your-money/four-stand-out-college-essays-about-money.html
  • ↑ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY9AdFx0L4s
  • ↑ https://www.medina-esc.org/Downloads/Practical%20Advice%20Writing%20College%20App%20Essay.pdf
  • ↑ http://www.businessinsider.com/successful-harvard-business-school-essays-2012-11?op=1
  • ↑ http://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/passive_sentences.htm

About This Article

Alicia Cook

A life story essay is an essay that tells the story of your life in a short, nonfiction format. Start by coming up with a thesis statement, which will help you structure your essay. For example, your thesis could be about the influence of your family's culture on your life or how you've grown from overcoming challenging circumstances. You can include important life events that link to your thesis, like jobs you’ve worked, friendships that have influenced you, or sports competitions you’ve won. Consider starting your essay with an anecdote that introduces your thesis. For instance, if you're writing about your family's culture, you could start by talking about the first festival you went to and how it inspired you. Finish by writing about how the experiences have affected you and who you want to be in the future. For more tips from our Education co-author, including how to edit your essay effectively, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Follow YES! For Teachers

Eight brilliant student essays on what matters most in life.

Read winning essays from our spring 2019 student writing contest.

young and old.jpg

For the spring 2019 student writing contest, we invited students to read the YES! article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age” by Nancy Hill. Like the author, students interviewed someone significantly older than them about the three things that matter most in life. Students then wrote about what they learned, and about how their interviewees’ answers compare to their own top priorities.

The Winners

From the hundreds of essays written, these eight were chosen as winners. Be sure to read the author’s response to the essay winners and the literary gems that caught our eye. Plus, we share an essay from teacher Charles Sanderson, who also responded to the writing prompt.

Middle School Winner: Rory Leyva

High School Winner:  Praethong Klomsum

University Winner:  Emily Greenbaum

Powerful Voice Winner: Amanda Schwaben

Powerful Voice Winner: Antonia Mills

Powerful Voice Winner:  Isaac Ziemba

Powerful Voice Winner: Lily Hersch

“Tell It Like It Is” Interview Winner: Jonas Buckner

From the Author: Response to Student Winners

Literary Gems

From A Teacher: Charles Sanderson

From the Author: Response to Charles Sanderson

Middle School Winner

Village Home Education Resource Center, Portland, Ore.

essay about life writing

The Lessons Of Mortality 

“As I’ve aged, things that are more personal to me have become somewhat less important. Perhaps I’ve become less self-centered with the awareness of mortality, how short one person’s life is.” This is how my 72-year-old grandma believes her values have changed over the course of her life. Even though I am only 12 years old, I know my life won’t last forever, and someday I, too, will reflect on my past decisions. We were all born to exist and eventually die, so we have evolved to value things in the context of mortality.

One of the ways I feel most alive is when I play roller derby. I started playing for the Rose City Rollers Juniors two years ago, and this year, I made the Rosebud All-Stars travel team. Roller derby is a fast-paced, full-contact sport. The physicality and intense training make me feel in control of and present in my body.

My roller derby team is like a second family to me. Adolescence is complicated. We understand each other in ways no one else can. I love my friends more than I love almost anything else. My family would have been higher on my list a few years ago, but as I’ve aged it has been important to make my own social connections.

Music led me to roller derby.  I started out jam skating at the roller rink. Jam skating is all about feeling the music. It integrates gymnastics, breakdancing, figure skating, and modern dance with R & B and hip hop music. When I was younger, I once lay down in the DJ booth at the roller rink and was lulled to sleep by the drawl of wheels rolling in rhythm and people talking about the things they came there to escape. Sometimes, I go up on the roof of my house at night to listen to music and feel the wind rustle my hair. These unique sensations make me feel safe like nothing else ever has.

My grandma tells me, “Being close with family and friends is the most important thing because I haven’t

essay about life writing

always had that.” When my grandma was two years old, her father died. Her mother became depressed and moved around a lot, which made it hard for my grandma to make friends. Once my grandma went to college, she made lots of friends. She met my grandfather, Joaquin Leyva when she was working as a park ranger and he was a surfer. They bought two acres of land on the edge of a redwood forest and had a son and a daughter. My grandma created a stable family that was missing throughout her early life.

My grandma is motivated to maintain good health so she can be there for her family. I can relate because I have to be fit and strong for my team. Since she lost my grandfather to cancer, she realizes how lucky she is to have a functional body and no life-threatening illnesses. My grandma tries to eat well and exercise, but she still struggles with depression. Over time, she has learned that reaching out to others is essential to her emotional wellbeing.  

Caring for the earth is also a priority for my grandma I’ve been lucky to learn from my grandma. She’s taught me how to hunt for fossils in the desert and find shells on the beach. Although my grandma grew up with no access to the wilderness, she admired the green open areas of urban cemeteries. In college, she studied geology and hiked in the High Sierras. For years, she’s been an advocate for conserving wildlife habitat and open spaces.

Our priorities may seem different, but it all comes down to basic human needs. We all desire a purpose, strive to be happy, and need to be loved. Like Nancy Hill says in the YES! Magazine article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” it can be hard to decipher what is important in life. I believe that the constant search for satisfaction and meaning is the only thing everyone has in common. We all want to know what matters, and we walk around this confusing world trying to find it. The lessons I’ve learned from my grandma about forging connections, caring for my body, and getting out in the world inspire me to live my life my way before it’s gone.

Rory Leyva is a seventh-grader from Portland, Oregon. Rory skates for the Rosebuds All-Stars roller derby team. She loves listening to music and hanging out with her friends.

High School Winner

Praethong Klomsum

  Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica, Calif.

essay about life writing

Time Only Moves Forward

Sandra Hernandez gazed at the tiny house while her mother’s gentle hands caressed her shoulders. It wasn’t much, especially for a family of five. This was 1960, she was 17, and her family had just moved to Culver City.

Flash forward to 2019. Sandra sits in a rocking chair, knitting a blanket for her latest grandchild, in the same living room. Sandra remembers working hard to feed her eight children. She took many different jobs before settling behind the cash register at a Japanese restaurant called Magos. “It was a struggle, and my husband Augustine, was planning to join the military at that time, too.”

In the YES! Magazine article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” author Nancy Hill states that one of the most important things is “…connecting with others in general, but in particular with those who have lived long lives.” Sandra feels similarly. It’s been hard for Sandra to keep in contact with her family, which leaves her downhearted some days. “It’s important to maintain that connection you have with your family, not just next-door neighbors you talk to once a month.”

Despite her age, Sandra is a daring woman. Taking risks is important to her, and she’ll try anything—from skydiving to hiking. Sandra has some regrets from the past, but nowadays, she doesn’t wonder about the “would have, could have, should haves.” She just goes for it with a smile.

Sandra thought harder about her last important thing, the blue and green blanket now finished and covering

essay about life writing

her lap. “I’ve definitely lived a longer life than most, and maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I hope I can see the day my great-grandchildren are born.” She’s laughing, but her eyes look beyond what’s in front of her. Maybe she is reminiscing about the day she held her son for the first time or thinking of her grandchildren becoming parents. I thank her for her time and she waves it off, offering me a styrofoam cup of lemonade before I head for the bus station.

The bus is sparsely filled. A voice in my head reminds me to finish my 10-page history research paper before spring break. I take a window seat and pull out my phone and earbuds. My playlist is already on shuffle, and I push away thoughts of that dreaded paper. Music has been a constant in my life—from singing my lungs out in kindergarten to Barbie’s “I Need To Know,” to jamming out to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” in sixth grade, to BTS’s “Intro: Never Mind” comforting me when I’m at my lowest. Music is my magic shop, a place where I can trade away my fears for calm.

I’ve always been afraid of doing something wrong—not finishing my homework or getting a C when I can do better. When I was 8, I wanted to be like the big kids. As I got older, I realized that I had exchanged my childhood longing for the 48 pack of crayons for bigger problems, balancing grades, a social life, and mental stability—all at once. I’m going to get older whether I like it or not, so there’s no point forcing myself to grow up faster.  I’m learning to live in the moment.

The bus is approaching my apartment, where I know my comfy bed and a home-cooked meal from my mom are waiting. My mom is hard-working, confident, and very stubborn. I admire her strength of character. She always keeps me in line, even through my rebellious phases.

My best friend sends me a text—an update on how broken her laptop is. She is annoying. She says the stupidest things and loves to state the obvious. Despite this, she never fails to make me laugh until my cheeks feel numb. The rest of my friends are like that too—loud, talkative, and always brightening my day. Even friends I stopped talking to have a place in my heart. Recently, I’ve tried to reconnect with some of them. This interview was possible because a close friend from sixth grade offered to introduce me to Sandra, her grandmother.  

I’m decades younger than Sandra, so my view of what’s important isn’t as broad as hers, but we share similar values, with friends and family at the top. I have a feeling that when Sandra was my age, she used to love music, too. Maybe in a few decades, when I’m sitting in my rocking chair, drawing in my sketchbook, I’ll remember this article and think back fondly to the days when life was simple.

Praethong Klomsum is a tenth-grader at Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica, California.  Praethong has a strange affinity for rhyme games and is involved in her school’s dance team. She enjoys drawing and writing, hoping to impact people willing to listen to her thoughts and ideas.

University Winner

Emily Greenbaum

Kent State University, Kent, Ohio 

essay about life writing

The Life-Long War

Every morning we open our eyes, ready for a new day. Some immediately turn to their phones and social media. Others work out or do yoga. For a certain person, a deep breath and the morning sun ground him. He hears the clink-clank of his wife cooking low sodium meat for breakfast—doctor’s orders! He sees that the other side of the bed is already made, the dogs are no longer in the room, and his clothes are set out nicely on the loveseat.

Today, though, this man wakes up to something different: faded cream walls and jello. This person, my hero, is Master Chief Petty Officer Roger James.

I pulled up my chair close to Roger’s vinyl recliner so I could hear him above the noise of the beeping dialysis machine. I noticed Roger would occasionally glance at his wife Susan with sparkly eyes when he would recall memories of the war or their grandkids. He looked at Susan like she walked on water.

Roger James served his country for thirty years. Now, he has enlisted in another type of war. He suffers from a rare blood cancer—the result of the wars he fought in. Roger has good and bad days. He says, “The good outweighs the bad, so I have to be grateful for what I have on those good days.”

When Roger retired, he never thought the effects of the war would reach him. The once shallow wrinkles upon his face become deeper, as he tells me, “It’s just cancer. Others are suffering from far worse. I know I’ll make it.”

Like Nancy Hill did in her article “Three Things that Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” I asked Roger, “What are the three most important things to you?” James answered, “My wife Susan, my grandkids, and church.”

Roger and Susan served together in the Vietnam war. She was a nurse who treated his cuts and scrapes one day. I asked Roger why he chose Susan. He said, “Susan told me to look at her while she cleaned me up. ‘This may sting, but don’t be a baby.’ When I looked into her eyes, I felt like she was looking into my soul, and I didn’t want her to leave. She gave me this sense of home. Every day I wake up, she makes me feel the same way, and I fall in love with her all over again.”

Roger and Susan have two kids and four grandkids, with great-grandchildren on the way. He claims that his grandkids give him the youth that he feels slowly escaping from his body. This adoring grandfather is energized by coaching t-ball and playing evening card games with the grandkids.

The last thing on his list was church. His oldest daughter married a pastor. Together they founded a church. Roger said that the connection between his faith and family is important to him because it gave him a reason to want to live again. I learned from Roger that when you’re across the ocean, you tend to lose sight of why you are fighting. When Roger returned, he didn’t have the will to live. Most days were a struggle, adapting back into a society that lacked empathy for the injuries, pain, and psychological trauma carried by returning soldiers. Church changed that for Roger and gave him a sense of purpose.

When I began this project, my attitude was to just get the assignment done. I never thought I could view Master Chief Petty Officer Roger James as more than a role model, but he definitely changed my mind. It’s as if Roger magically lit a fire inside of me and showed me where one’s true passions should lie. I see our similarities and embrace our differences. We both value family and our own connections to home—his home being church and mine being where I can breathe the easiest.

Master Chief Petty Officer Roger James has shown me how to appreciate what I have around me and that every once in a while, I should step back and stop to smell the roses. As we concluded the interview, amidst squeaky clogs and the stale smell of bleach and bedpans, I looked to Roger, his kind, tired eyes, and weathered skin, with a deeper sense of admiration, knowing that his values still run true, no matter what he faces.

Emily Greenbaum is a senior at Kent State University, graduating with a major in Conflict Management and minor in Geography. Emily hopes to use her major to facilitate better conversations, while she works in the Washington, D.C. area.  

Powerful Voice Winner

Amanda Schwaben

essay about life writing

Wise Words From Winnie the Pooh

As I read through Nancy Hill’s article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” I was comforted by the similar responses given by both children and older adults. The emphasis participants placed on family, social connections, and love was not only heartwarming but hopeful. While the messages in the article filled me with warmth, I felt a twinge of guilt building within me. As a twenty-one-year-old college student weeks from graduation, I honestly don’t think much about the most important things in life. But if I was asked, I would most likely say family, friendship, and love. As much as I hate to admit it, I often find myself obsessing over achieving a successful career and finding a way to “save the world.”

A few weeks ago, I was at my family home watching the new Winnie the Pooh movie Christopher Robin with my mom and younger sister. Well, I wasn’t really watching. I had my laptop in front of me, and I was aggressively typing up an assignment. Halfway through the movie, I realized I left my laptop charger in my car. I walked outside into the brisk March air. Instinctively, I looked up. The sky was perfectly clear, revealing a beautiful array of stars. When my twin sister and I were in high school, we would always take a moment to look up at the sparkling night sky before we came into the house after soccer practice.

I think that was the last time I stood in my driveway and gazed at the stars. I did not get the laptop charger from

essay about life writing

my car; instead, I turned around and went back inside. I shut my laptop and watched the rest of the movie. My twin sister loves Winnie the Pooh. So much so that my parents got her a stuffed animal version of him for Christmas. While I thought he was adorable and a token of my childhood, I did not really understand her obsession. However, it was clear to me after watching the movie. Winnie the Pooh certainly had it figured out. He believed that the simple things in life were the most important: love, friendship, and having fun.

I thought about asking my mom right then what the three most important things were to her, but I decided not to. I just wanted to be in the moment. I didn’t want to be doing homework. It was a beautiful thing to just sit there and be present with my mom and sister.

I did ask her, though, a couple of weeks later. Her response was simple.  All she said was family, health, and happiness. When she told me this, I imagined Winnie the Pooh smiling. I think he would be proud of that answer.

I was not surprised by my mom’s reply. It suited her perfectly. I wonder if we relearn what is most important when we grow older—that the pressure to be successful subsides. Could it be that valuing family, health, and happiness is what ends up saving the world?

Amanda Schwaben is a graduating senior from Kent State University with a major in Applied Conflict Management. Amanda also has minors in Psychology and Interpersonal Communication. She hopes to further her education and focus on how museums not only preserve history but also promote peace.

Antonia Mills

Rachel Carson High School, Brooklyn, N.Y. 

essay about life writing

Decoding The Butterfly

For a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must first digest itself. The caterpillar, overwhelmed by accumulating tissue, splits its skin open to form its protective shell, the chrysalis, and later becomes the pretty butterfly we all know and love. There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies, and just as every species is different, so is the life of every butterfly. No matter how long and hard a caterpillar has strived to become the colorful and vibrant butterfly that we marvel at on a warm spring day, it does not live a long life. A butterfly can live for a year, six months, two weeks, and even as little as twenty-four hours.

I have often wondered if butterflies live long enough to be blissful of blue skies. Do they take time to feast upon the sweet nectar they crave, midst their hustling life of pollinating pretty flowers? Do they ever take a lull in their itineraries, or are they always rushing towards completing their four-stage metamorphosis? Has anyone asked the butterfly, “Who are you?” instead of “What are you”? Or, How did you get here, on my windowsill?  How did you become ‘you’?

Humans are similar to butterflies. As a caterpillar

essay about life writing

Suzanna Ruby/Getty Images

becomes a butterfly, a baby becomes an elder. As a butterfly soars through summer skies, an elder watches summer skies turn into cold winter nights and back toward summer skies yet again.  And as a butterfly flits slowly by the porch light, a passerby makes assumptions about the wrinkled, slow-moving elder, who is sturdier than he appears. These creatures are not seen for who they are—who they were—because people have “better things to do” or they are too busy to ask, “How are you”?

Our world can be a lonely place. Pressured by expectations, haunted by dreams, overpowered by weakness, and drowned out by lofty goals, we tend to forget ourselves—and others. Rather than hang onto the strands of our diminishing sanity, we might benefit from listening to our elders. Many elders have experienced setbacks in their young lives. Overcoming hardship and surviving to old age is wisdom that they carry.  We can learn from them—and can even make their day by taking the time to hear their stories.  

Nancy Hill, who wrote the YES! Magazine article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” was right: “We live among such remarkable people, yet few know their stories.” I know a lot about my grandmother’s life, and it isn’t as serene as my own. My grandmother, Liza, who cooks every day, bakes bread on holidays for our neighbors, brings gifts to her doctor out of the kindness of her heart, and makes conversation with neighbors even though she is isn’t fluent in English—Russian is her first language—has struggled all her life. Her mother, Anna, a single parent, had tuberculosis, and even though she had an inviolable spirit, she was too frail to care for four children. She passed away when my grandmother was sixteen, so my grandmother and her siblings spent most of their childhood in an orphanage. My grandmother got married at nineteen to my grandfather, Pinhas. He was a man who loved her more than he loved himself and was a godsend to every person he met. Liza was—and still is—always quick to do what was best for others, even if that person treated her poorly. My grandmother has lived with physical pain all her life, yet she pushed herself to climb heights that she wasn’t ready for. Against all odds, she has lived to tell her story to people who are willing to listen. And I always am.

I asked my grandmother, “What are three things most important to you?” Her answer was one that I already expected: One, for everyone to live long healthy lives. Two, for you to graduate from college. Three, for you to always remember that I love you.

What may be basic to you means the world to my grandmother. She just wants what she never had the chance to experience: a healthy life, an education, and the chance to express love to the people she values. The three things that matter most to her may be so simple and ordinary to outsiders, but to her, it is so much more. And who could take that away?

Antonia Mills was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and attends Rachel Carson High School.  Antonia enjoys creative activities, including writing, painting, reading, and baking. She hopes to pursue culinary arts professionally in the future. One of her favorite quotes is, “When you start seeing your worth, you’ll find it harder to stay around people who don’t.” -Emily S.P.  

  Powerful Voice Winner

   Isaac Ziemba

Odyssey Multiage Program, Bainbridge Island, Wash. 

essay about life writing

This Former State Trooper Has His Priorities Straight: Family, Climate Change, and Integrity

I have a personal connection to people who served in the military and first responders. My uncle is a first responder on the island I live on, and my dad retired from the Navy. That was what made a man named Glen Tyrell, a state trooper for 25 years, 2 months and 9 days, my first choice to interview about what three things matter in life. In the YES! Magazine article “The Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” I learned that old and young people have a great deal in common. I know that’s true because Glen and I care about a lot of the same things.

For Glen, family is at the top of his list of important things. “My wife was, and is, always there for me. My daughters mean the world to me, too, but Penny is my partner,” Glen said. I can understand why Glen’s wife is so important to him. She’s family. Family will always be there for you.

Glen loves his family, and so do I with all my heart. My dad especially means the world to me. He is my top supporter and tells me that if I need help, just “say the word.” When we are fishing or crabbing, sometimes I

essay about life writing

think, what if these times were erased from my memory? I wouldn’t be able to describe the horrible feeling that would rush through my mind, and I’m sure that Glen would feel the same about his wife.

My uncle once told me that the world is always going to change over time. It’s what the world has turned out to be that worries me. Both Glen and I are extremely concerned about climate change and the effect that rising temperatures have on animals and their habitats. We’re driving them to extinction. Some people might say, “So what? Animals don’t pay taxes or do any of the things we do.” What we are doing to them is like the Black Death times 100.

Glen is also frustrated by how much plastic we use and where it ends up. He would be shocked that an explorer recently dived to the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean—seven miles!— and discovered a plastic bag and candy wrappers. Glen told me that, unfortunately, his generation did the damage and my generation is here to fix it. We need to take better care of Earth because if we don’t, we, as a species, will have failed.

Both Glen and I care deeply for our families and the earth, but for our third important value, I chose education and Glen chose integrity. My education is super important to me because without it, I would be a blank slate. I wouldn’t know how to figure out problems. I wouldn’t be able to tell right from wrong. I wouldn’t understand the Bill of Rights. I would be stuck. Everyone should be able to go to school, no matter where they’re from or who they are.  It makes me angry and sad to think that some people, especially girls, get shot because they are trying to go to school. I understand how lucky I am.

Integrity is sacred to Glen—I could tell by the serious tone of Glen’s voice when he told me that integrity was the code he lived by as a former state trooper. He knew that he had the power to change a person’s life, and he was committed to not abusing that power.  When Glen put someone under arrest—and my uncle says the same—his judgment and integrity were paramount. “Either you’re right or you’re wrong.” You can’t judge a person by what you think, you can only judge a person from what you know.”

I learned many things about Glen and what’s important in life, but there is one thing that stands out—something Glen always does and does well. Glen helps people. He did it as a state trooper, and he does it in our school, where he works on construction projects. Glen told me that he believes that our most powerful tools are writing and listening to others. I think those tools are important, too, but I also believe there are other tools to help solve many of our problems and create a better future: to be compassionate, to create caring relationships, and to help others. Just like Glen Tyrell does each and every day.

Isaac Ziemba is in seventh grade at the Odyssey Multiage Program on a small island called Bainbridge near Seattle, Washington. Isaac’s favorite subject in school is history because he has always been interested in how the past affects the future. In his spare time, you can find Isaac hunting for crab with his Dad, looking for artifacts around his house with his metal detector, and having fun with his younger cousin, Conner.     

Lily Hersch

 The Crest Academy, Salida, Colo.

essay about life writing

The Phone Call

Dear Grandpa,

In my short span of life—12 years so far—you’ve taught me a lot of important life lessons that I’ll always have with me. Some of the values I talk about in this writing I’ve learned from you.

Dedicated to my Gramps.

In the YES! Magazine article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age,” author and photographer Nancy Hill asked people to name the three things that mattered most to them. After reading the essay prompt for the article, I immediately knew who I wanted to interview: my grandpa Gil.      

My grandpa was born on January 25, 1942. He lived in a minuscule tenement in The Bronx with his mother,

essay about life writing

father, and brother. His father wasn’t around much, and, when he was, he was reticent and would snap occasionally, revealing his constrained mental pain. My grandpa says this happened because my great grandfather did not have a father figure in his life. His mother was a classy, sharp lady who was the head secretary at a local police district station. My grandpa and his brother Larry did not care for each other. Gramps said he was very close to his mother, and Larry wasn’t. Perhaps Larry was envious for what he didn’t have.

Decades after little to no communication with his brother, my grandpa decided to spontaneously visit him in Florida, where he resided with his wife. Larry was taken aback at the sudden reappearance of his brother and told him to leave. Since then, the two brothers have not been in contact. My grandpa doesn’t even know if Larry is alive.         

My grandpa is now a retired lawyer, married to my wonderful grandma, and living in a pretty house with an ugly dog named BoBo.

So, what’s important to you, Gramps?

He paused a second, then replied, “Family, kindness, and empathy.”

“Family, because it’s my family. It’s important to stay connected with your family. My brother, father, and I never connected in the way I wished, and sometimes I contemplated what could’ve happened.  But you can’t change the past. So, that’s why family’s important to me.”

Family will always be on my “Top Three Most Important Things” list, too. I can’t imagine not having my older brother, Zeke, or my grandma in my life. I wonder how other kids feel about their families? How do kids trapped and separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border feel?  What about orphans? Too many questions, too few answers.

“Kindness, because growing up and not seeing a lot of kindness made me realize how important it is to have that in the world. Kindness makes the world go round.”

What is kindness? Helping my brother, Eli, who has Down syndrome, get ready in the morning? Telling people what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear? Maybe, for now, I’ll put wisdom, not kindness, on my list.

“Empathy, because of all the killings and shootings [in this country.] We also need to care for people—people who are not living in as good circumstances as I have. Donald Trump and other people I’ve met have no empathy. Empathy is very important.”

Empathy is something I’ve felt my whole life. It’ll always be important to me like it is important to my grandpa. My grandpa shows his empathy when he works with disabled children. Once he took a disabled child to a Christina Aguilera concert because that child was too young to go by himself. The moments I feel the most empathy are when Eli gets those looks from people. Seeing Eli wonder why people stare at him like he’s a freak makes me sad, and annoyed that they have the audacity to stare.

After this 2 minute and 36-second phone call, my grandpa has helped me define what’s most important to me at this time in my life: family, wisdom, and empathy. Although these things are important now, I realize they can change and most likely will.

When I’m an old woman, I envision myself scrambling through a stack of storage boxes and finding this paper. Perhaps after reading words from my 12-year-old self, I’ll ask myself “What’s important to me?”

Lily Hersch is a sixth-grader at Crest Academy in Salida, Colorado. Lily is an avid indoorsman, finding joy in competitive spelling, art, and of course, writing. She does not like Swiss cheese.

  “Tell It Like It Is” Interview Winner

Jonas Buckner

KIPP: Gaston College Preparatory, Gaston, N.C.

essay about life writing

Lessons My Nana Taught Me

I walked into the house. In the other room, I heard my cousin screaming at his game. There were a lot of Pioneer Woman dishes everywhere. The room had the television on max volume. The fan in the other room was on. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to learn something powerful.

I was in my Nana’s house, and when I walked in, she said, “Hey Monkey Butt.”

I said, “Hey Nana.”

Before the interview, I was talking to her about what I was gonna interview her on. Also, I had asked her why I might have wanted to interview her, and she responded with, “Because you love me, and I love you too.”

Now, it was time to start the interview. The first

essay about life writing

question I asked was the main and most important question ever: “What three things matter most to you and you only?”

She thought of it very thoughtfully and responded with, “My grandchildren, my children, and my health.”

Then, I said, “OK, can you please tell me more about your health?”

She responded with, “My health is bad right now. I have heart problems, blood sugar, and that’s about it.” When she said it, she looked at me and smiled because she loved me and was happy I chose her to interview.

I replied with, “K um, why is it important to you?”

She smiled and said, “Why is it…Why is my health important? Well, because I want to live a long time and see my grandchildren grow up.”

I was scared when she said that, but she still smiled. I was so happy, and then I said, “Has your health always been important to you.”

She responded with “Nah.”

Then, I asked, “Do you happen to have a story to help me understand your reasoning?”

She said, “No, not really.”

Now we were getting into the next set of questions. I said, “Remember how you said that your grandchildren matter to you? Can you please tell me why they matter to you?”

Then, she responded with, “So I can spend time with them, play with them, and everything.”

Next, I asked the same question I did before: “Have you always loved your grandchildren?” 

She responded with, “Yes, they have always been important to me.”

Then, the next two questions I asked she had no response to at all. She was very happy until I asked, “Why do your children matter most to you?”

She had a frown on and responded, “My daughter Tammy died a long time ago.”

Then, at this point, the other questions were answered the same as the other ones. When I left to go home I was thinking about how her answers were similar to mine. She said health, and I care about my health a lot, and I didn’t say, but I wanted to. She also didn’t have answers for the last two questions on each thing, and I was like that too.

The lesson I learned was that no matter what, always keep pushing because even though my aunt or my Nana’s daughter died, she kept on pushing and loving everyone. I also learned that everything should matter to us. Once again, I chose to interview my Nana because she matters to me, and I know when she was younger she had a lot of things happen to her, so I wanted to know what she would say. The point I’m trying to make is that be grateful for what you have and what you have done in life.

Jonas Buckner is a sixth-grader at KIPP: Gaston College Preparatory in Gaston, North Carolina. Jonas’ favorite activities are drawing, writing, math, piano, and playing AltSpace VR. He found his passion for writing in fourth grade when he wrote a quick autobiography. Jonas hopes to become a horror writer someday.

From The Author: Responses to Student Winners

Dear Emily, Isaac, Antonia, Rory, Praethong, Amanda, Lily, and Jonas,

Your thought-provoking essays sent my head spinning. The more I read, the more impressed I was with the depth of thought, beauty of expression, and originality. It left me wondering just how to capture all of my reactions in a single letter. After multiple false starts, I’ve landed on this: I will stick to the theme of three most important things.

The three things I found most inspirational about your essays:

You listened.

You connected.

We live in troubled times. Tensions mount between countries, cultures, genders, religious beliefs, and generations. If we fail to find a way to understand each other, to see similarities between us, the future will be fraught with increased hostility.

You all took critical steps toward connecting with someone who might not value the same things you do by asking a person who is generations older than you what matters to them. Then, you listened to their answers. You saw connections between what is important to them and what is important to you. Many of you noted similarities, others wondered if your own list of the three most important things would change as you go through life. You all saw the validity of the responses you received and looked for reasons why your interviewees have come to value what they have.

It is through these things—asking, listening, and connecting—that we can begin to bridge the differences in experiences and beliefs that are currently dividing us.

Individual observations

Each one of you made observations that all of us, regardless of age or experience, would do well to keep in mind. I chose one quote from each person and trust those reading your essays will discover more valuable insights.

“Our priorities may seem different, but they come back to basic human needs. We all desire a purpose, strive to be happy, and work to make a positive impact.” 

“You can’t judge a person by what you think , you can only judge a person by what you know .”

Emily (referencing your interviewee, who is battling cancer):

“Master Chief Petty Officer James has shown me how to appreciate what I have around me.”

Lily (quoting your grandfather):

“Kindness makes the world go round.”

“Everything should matter to us.”

Praethong (quoting your interviewee, Sandra, on the importance of family):

“It’s important to always maintain that connection you have with each other, your family, not just next-door neighbors you talk to once a month.”

“I wonder if maybe we relearn what is most important when we grow older. That the pressure to be successful subsides and that valuing family, health, and happiness is what ends up saving the world.”

“Listen to what others have to say. Listen to the people who have already experienced hardship. You will learn from them and you can even make their day by giving them a chance to voice their thoughts.”

I end this letter to you with the hope that you never stop asking others what is most important to them and that you to continue to take time to reflect on what matters most to you…and why. May you never stop asking, listening, and connecting with others, especially those who may seem to be unlike you. Keep writing, and keep sharing your thoughts and observations with others, for your ideas are awe-inspiring.

I also want to thank the more than 1,000 students who submitted essays. Together, by sharing what’s important to us with others, especially those who may believe or act differently, we can fill the world with joy, peace, beauty, and love.

We received many outstanding essays for the Winter 2019 Student Writing Competition. Though not every participant can win the contest, we’d like to share some excerpts that caught our eye:

Whether it is a painting on a milky canvas with watercolors or pasting photos onto a scrapbook with her granddaughters, it is always a piece of artwork to her. She values the things in life that keep her in the moment, while still exploring things she may not have initially thought would bring her joy.

—Ondine Grant-Krasno, Immaculate Heart Middle School, Los Angeles, Calif.

“Ganas”… It means “desire” in Spanish. My ganas is fueled by my family’s belief in me. I cannot and will not fail them. 

—Adan Rios, Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore.

I hope when I grow up I can have the love for my kids like my grandma has for her kids. She makes being a mother even more of a beautiful thing than it already is.

—Ashley Shaw, Columbus City Prep School for Girls, Grove City, Ohio

You become a collage of little pieces of your friends and family. They also encourage you to be the best you can be. They lift you up onto the seat of your bike, they give you the first push, and they don’t hesitate to remind you that everything will be alright when you fall off and scrape your knee.

— Cecilia Stanton, Bellafonte Area Middle School, Bellafonte, Pa.

Without good friends, I wouldn’t know what I would do to endure the brutal machine of public education.

—Kenneth Jenkins, Garrison Middle School, Walla Walla, Wash.

My dog, as ridiculous as it may seem, is a beautiful example of what we all should aspire to be. We should live in the moment, not stress, and make it our goal to lift someone’s spirits, even just a little.

—Kate Garland, Immaculate Heart Middle School, Los Angeles, Calif. 

I strongly hope that every child can spare more time to accompany their elderly parents when they are struggling, and moving forward, and give them more care and patience. so as to truly achieve the goal of “you accompany me to grow up, and I will accompany you to grow old.”

—Taiyi Li, Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore.

I have three cats, and they are my brothers and sisters. We share a special bond that I think would not be possible if they were human. Since they do not speak English, we have to find other ways to connect, and I think that those other ways can be more powerful than language.

—Maya Dombroskie, Delta Program Middle School, Boulsburg, Pa.

We are made to love and be loved. To have joy and be relational. As a member of the loneliest generation in possibly all of history, I feel keenly aware of the need for relationships and authentic connection. That is why I decided to talk to my grandmother.

—Luke Steinkamp, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

After interviewing my grandma and writing my paper, I realized that as we grow older, the things that are important to us don’t change, what changes is why those things are important to us.

—Emily Giffer, Our Lady Star of the Sea, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.

The media works to marginalize elders, often isolating them and their stories, and the wealth of knowledge that comes with their additional years of lived experiences. It also undermines the depth of children’s curiosity and capacity to learn and understand. When the worlds of elders and children collide, a classroom opens.

—Cristina Reitano, City College of San Francisco, San Francisco, Calif.

My values, although similar to my dad, only looked the same in the sense that a shadow is similar to the object it was cast on.

—Timofey Lisenskiy, Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica, Calif.

I can release my anger through writing without having to take it out on someone. I can escape and be a different person; it feels good not to be myself for a while. I can make up my own characters, so I can be someone different every day, and I think that’s pretty cool.

—Jasua Carillo, Wellness, Business, and Sports School, Woodburn, Ore. 

Notice how all the important things in his life are people: the people who he loves and who love him back. This is because “people are more important than things like money or possessions, and families are treasures,” says grandpa Pat. And I couldn’t agree more.

—Brody Hartley, Garrison Middle School, Walla Walla, Wash.  

Curiosity for other people’s stories could be what is needed to save the world.

—Noah Smith, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Peace to me is a calm lake without a ripple in sight. It’s a starry night with a gentle breeze that pillows upon your face. It’s the absence of arguments, fighting, or war. It’s when egos stop working against each other and finally begin working with each other. Peace is free from fear, anxiety, and depression. To me, peace is an important ingredient in the recipe of life.

—JP Bogan, Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore.

From A Teacher

Charles Sanderson

Wellness, Business and Sports School, Woodburn, Ore. 

essay about life writing

The Birthday Gift

I’ve known Jodelle for years, watching her grow from a quiet and timid twelve-year-old to a young woman who just returned from India, where she played Kabaddi, a kind of rugby meets Red Rover.

One of my core beliefs as an educator is to show up for the things that matter to kids, so I go to their games, watch their plays, and eat the strawberry jam they make for the county fair. On this occasion, I met Jodelle at a robotics competition to watch her little sister Abby compete. Think Nerd Paradise: more hats made from traffic cones than Golden State Warrior ball caps, more unicorn capes than Nike swooshes, more fanny packs with Legos than clutches with eyeliner.

We started chatting as the crowd chanted and waved six-foot flags for teams like Mystic Biscuits, Shrek, and everyone’s nemesis The Mean Machine. Apparently, when it’s time for lunch at a robotics competition, they don’t mess around. The once-packed gym was left to Jodelle and me, and we kept talking and talking. I eventually asked her about the three things that matter to her most.

She told me about her mom, her sister, and her addiction—to horses. I’ve read enough of her writing to know that horses were her drug of choice and her mom and sister were her support network.

I learned about her desire to become a teacher and how hours at the barn with her horse, Heart, recharge her when she’s exhausted. At one point, our rambling conversation turned to a topic I’ve known far too well—her father.

Later that evening, I received an email from Jodelle, and she had a lot to say. One line really struck me: “In so many movies, I have seen a dad wanting to protect his daughter from the world, but I’ve only understood the scene cognitively. Yesterday, I felt it.”

Long ago, I decided that I would never be a dad. I had seen movies with fathers and daughters, and for me, those movies might as well have been Star Wars, ET, or Alien—worlds filled with creatures I’d never know. However, over the years, I’ve attended Jodelle’s parent-teacher conferences, gone to her graduation, and driven hours to watch her ride Heart at horse shows. Simply, I showed up. I listened. I supported.

Jodelle shared a series of dad poems, as well. I had read the first two poems in their original form when Jodelle was my student. The revised versions revealed new graphic details of her past. The third poem, however, was something entirely different.

She called the poems my early birthday present. When I read the lines “You are my father figure/Who I look up to/Without being looked down on,” I froze for an instant and had to reread the lines. After fifty years of consciously deciding not to be a dad, I was seen as one—and it felt incredible. Jodelle’s poem and recognition were two of the best presents I’ve ever received.

I  know that I was the language arts teacher that Jodelle needed at the time, but her poem revealed things I never knew I taught her: “My father figure/ Who taught me/ That listening is for observing the world/ That listening is for learning/Not obeying/Writing is for connecting/Healing with others.”

Teaching is often a thankless job, one that frequently brings more stress and anxiety than joy and hope. Stress erodes my patience. Anxiety curtails my ability to enter each interaction with every student with the grace they deserve. However, my time with Jodelle reminds me of the importance of leaning in and listening.

In the article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age” by Nancy Hill, she illuminates how we “live among such remarkable people, yet few know their stories.” For the last twenty years, I’ve had the privilege to work with countless of these “remarkable people,” and I’ve done my best to listen, and, in so doing, I hope my students will realize what I’ve known for a long time; their voices matter and deserve to be heard, but the voices of their tias and abuelitos and babushkas are equally important. When we take the time to listen, I believe we do more than affirm the humanity of others; we affirm our own as well.

Charles Sanderson has grounded his nineteen-year teaching career in a philosophy he describes as “Mirror, Window, Bridge.” Charles seeks to ensure all students see themselves, see others, and begin to learn the skills to build bridges of empathy, affinity, and understanding between communities and cultures that may seem vastly different. He proudly teaches at the Wellness, Business and Sports School in Woodburn, Oregon, a school and community that brings him joy and hope on a daily basis.

From   The Author: Response to Charles Sanderson

Dear Charles Sanderson,

Thank you for submitting an essay of your own in addition to encouraging your students to participate in YES! Magazine’s essay contest.

Your essay focused not on what is important to you, but rather on what is important to one of your students. You took what mattered to her to heart, acting upon it by going beyond the school day and creating a connection that has helped fill a huge gap in her life. Your efforts will affect her far beyond her years in school. It is clear that your involvement with this student is far from the only time you have gone beyond the classroom, and while you are not seeking personal acknowledgment, I cannot help but applaud you.

In an ideal world, every teacher, every adult, would show the same interest in our children and adolescents that you do. By taking the time to listen to what is important to our youth, we can help them grow into compassionate, caring adults, capable of making our world a better place.

Your concerted efforts to guide our youth to success not only as students but also as human beings is commendable. May others be inspired by your insights, concerns, and actions. You define excellence in teaching.

Get Stories of Solutions to Share with Your Classroom

Teachers save 50% on YES! Magazine.

Essays About Life-changing Experiences: 5 Examples

Discover our guide for writing essays about life-changing experiences that combine three different elements: narrative, description, and self-reflection. 

Each of us has gone through life-changing experiences that shaped us into the individuals we are today. Because of how powerful they are, these events make for fascinating topics in writing. This subject doesn’t only let us tell our life stories, and it also pushes us to evaluate our behavior and reflect on why an incident happened.

Attract your readers by creating an excellent introduction and choosing a unique or exciting encounter. Paint a picture of the events that describe your experience vividly and finish with a strong conclusion.

5 Essay Examples

1. long essay on experience that changed my life by prasanna, 2. life-changing events: personal experience by anonymous on studycorgi.com, 3. my example of a life-changing experience by anonymous on gradesfixer.com, 4. life-changing experience: death essay by writer annie, 5. a life-changing experience during the holiday season by anonymous on studymoose.com, 1. life-changing experience: defined, 2. the experience that changed my life, 3. life-changing events and how they impact lives, 4. everyday events that change a person’s life, 5. the person who change my life, 6. books or movies that changed my life, 7. a life-changing quote.

“Experiences can be good and sometimes terrible that results in a positive or negative impact on one’s life. Life is full of many unexpected challenges and unknown turning points that will come along any time. People must learn and grow from every experience that they go through in life rather than losing yourself.”

In this essay, Prasanna discusses her father’s death as her most challenging life-changing experience. She was cheerful, immature, and carefree when her father was still alive. However, when her father left, she became the decision-maker of their family because her mother was unable to.

Prasanna mentions that she lost not only a father but also a friend, motivator, and mentor. That sad and unexpected experience turned her into an introverted, mature, and responsible head of the family. Ultimately, she thanks her father for making her a better person, and because of the devastating incident, she realizes who she can trust and how she should handle the real world. You might also be interested in these essays about choice .

“In life, certain experiences present challenges that change the way people relate to themselves and their families. Certain life events mark life-changing moments that alter lives either positively or negatively. It matters how people handle their relationships at such critical moments.”

This essay contains two life events that helped the author become a better person. These events taught them to trust and appreciate people, be responsible, and value family. The first event is when their best friend passes away, leading to stress, loss of appetite, and depression. The second circumstance happened when the author postponed their studies because they were afraid to grow up and be accountable for their decisions and actions.

The writer’s family showed them love, support, and understanding through these events. These events changed their behavior, attitude, and perspective on life and guided them to strengthen family relationships.

For help picking your next essay topic, check out our 20 engaging essay topics about family .

“I thought it was awkward because he looked and acted very professional. In that moment I thought to myself, ‘this person is going to have a great impact in my life!’. I was very curious to meet him and get a chance to show him my personality.”

This essay proves that you should always believe in yourself and not be afraid to try something new. The author recalls when they had many problems and met an extraordinary person who changed their life. 

When they were in sixth grade, the writer had life issues that caused them to be anxious about any future endeavor. The author then says they don’t usually open up to teachers because they fear their reactions. Then they met Mr. Salazar, a mentor who respects and values them, and the writer considers him their best friend.

“When the funeral was over and he was laid to rest, I had a feeling I can’t even describe. It was almost an empty feeling. I knew I had lost someone that could never be replaced.”

Annie never thought that she’d go through a life-changing experience until the sudden death of her father. Her thoughts and feelings are all over the place, and she has many unanswered questions. She says that although she will never wish for anyone to experience the same. However, her father’s passing improved her life in some ways.

Her mother remarried and introduced a new father figure, who was very kind to her. Living with her stepdad allowed her to explore and do things she thought she couldn’t. Annie still mourns the loss of her birth father, but she is also grateful to have a stepdad she can lean on. She gradually accepts that she can’t bring her birth father back.

“This story as a whole has really changed me and made me an even better person in life, I’m so thankful that this happened to me because now I have a greater appreciation for the little things in life.”

The essay shows how a simple interaction on a cold day in December can completely change a person’s view on life. It starts with the writer being asked a small favor of an older man with Alzheimer’s disease to help him find his car. This experience teaches the writer to be more observant and appreciative of the things they have. The author was inspired to spend more time with loved ones, especially their grandfather, who also has Alzheimer’s disease, as they learned never to take anything for granted.

7 Prompts for Essays About Life-changing Experiences

Everyone has their definition of a life-changing experience. But in general, it is an event or series of events profoundly altering a person’s thinking, feelings, and behavior. Use this prompt to explain your understanding of the topic and discuss how a simple action, decision, or encounter can change someone’s life. You might also be interested in these essays about yourself .

Essays about life-changing experiences: The Experience That Changed My Life

For this prompt, choose a specific memory that made you re-evaluate your views, values, and morals. Then, discuss the impact of this event on your life. For example, you can discuss losing a loved one, moving to another country, or starting a new school. Your conclusion must contain the main lessons you learned from the experience and how it can help the readers.

Various positive and negative life-changing experiences happen anytime and anywhere. Sometimes, you don’t notice them until they substantially disturb your everyday life. 

To begin your essay, interview people and ask about a momentous event that happened to them and how it influenced their way of living. Then, pick the most potent life-changing experience shared. Talk about what you’d do if you were in the same situation.

Some life-changing events include common things such as marriage, parenthood, divorce, job loss, and death. Research and discuss the most common experiences that transform a person’s life. Include real-life situations and any personal encounters for an intriguing essay.

It’s normal to meet other people, but connecting with someone who will significantly impact your life is a blessing. Use this prompt to discuss that particular person, such as a parent, close friend, or romantic partner. Share who they are and how you met them, and discuss what they did or said that made a big difference in your life. 

Movies like “The Truman Show” help change your viewpoint in life. They open our minds and provide ideas for dealing with our struggles. Share how you reached an epiphany by reading a book or watching a movie. Include if it’s because of a particular dialogue, character action, or scenes you can relate to.

Essays about life-changing experiences: A Life-changing Quote

While others use inspirational quotes for comfort and to avoid negative thinking, some find a quote that gives them the courage to make drastic changes to better their lives. For this prompt, search for well-known personalities who discovered a quote that motivated them to turn their life around.  Essay Tip: When editing for grammar, we also recommend spending time and effort to improve the readability score of your essay before publishing or submitting it.

essay about life writing

Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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essay about life writing

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book: Essays on Life Writing

Essays on Life Writing

From genre to critical practice.

  • Edited by: Marlene Kadar
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Please login or register with De Gruyter to order this product.

  • Language: English
  • Publisher: University of Toronto Press
  • Copyright year: 1992
  • Audience: College/higher education;Professional and scholarly;
  • Main content: 234
  • Keywords: DISCOUNT-C
  • Published: May 15, 1992
  • ISBN: 9781442674615

Essay on Life for Students and Children

500+ words essay on life.

First of all, Life refers to an aspect of existence. This aspect processes acts, evaluates, and evolves through growth. Life is what distinguishes humans from inorganic matter. Some individuals certainly enjoy free will in Life. Others like slaves and prisoners don’t have that privilege. However, Life isn’t just about living independently in society. It is certainly much more than that. Hence, quality of Life carries huge importance. Above all, the ultimate purpose should be to live a meaningful life. A meaningful life is one which allows us to connect with our deeper self.

essay on life

Why is Life Important?

One important aspect of Life is that it keeps going forward. This means nothing is permanent. Hence, there should be a reason to stay in dejection. A happy occasion will come to pass, just like a sad one. Above all, one must be optimistic no matter how bad things get. This is because nothing will stay forever. Every situation, occasion, and event shall pass. This is certainly a beauty of Life.

Many people become very sad because of failures . However, these people certainly fail to see the bright side. The bright side is that there is a reason for every failure. Therefore, every failure teaches us a valuable lesson. This means every failure builds experience. This experience is what improves the skills and efficiency of humans.

Probably a huge number of individuals complain that Life is a pain. Many people believe that the word pain is a synonym for Life. However, it is pain that makes us stronger. Pain is certainly an excellent way of increasing mental resilience. Above all, pain enriches the mind.

The uncertainty of death is what makes life so precious. No one knows the hour of one’s death. This probably is the most important reason to live life to the fullest. Staying in depression or being a workaholic is an utter wastage of Life. One must certainly enjoy the beautiful blessings of Life before death overtakes.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

How to Improve Quality of Life?

Most noteworthy, optimism is the ultimate way of enriching life. Optimism increases job performance, self-confidence, creativity, and skills. An optimistic person certainly can overcome huge hurdles.

Meditation is another useful way of improving Life quality. Meditation probably allows a person to dwell upon his past. This way one can avoid past mistakes. It also gives peace of mind to an individual. Furthermore, meditation reduces stress and tension.

Pursuing a hobby is a perfect way to bring meaning to life. Without a passion or interest, an individual’s life would probably be dull. Following a hobby certainly brings new energy to life. It provides new hope to live and experience Life.

In conclusion, Life is not something that one should take for granted. It’s certainly a shame to see individuals waste away their lives. We should be very thankful for experiencing our lives. Above all, everyone should try to make their life more meaningful.

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Read these 12 moving essays about life during coronavirus

Artists, novelists, critics, and essayists are writing the first draft of history.

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essay about life writing

The world is grappling with an invisible, deadly enemy, trying to understand how to live with the threat posed by a virus . For some writers, the only way forward is to put pen to paper, trying to conceptualize and document what it feels like to continue living as countries are under lockdown and regular life seems to have ground to a halt.

So as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched around the world, it’s sparked a crop of diary entries and essays that describe how life has changed. Novelists, critics, artists, and journalists have put words to the feelings many are experiencing. The result is a first draft of how we’ll someday remember this time, filled with uncertainty and pain and fear as well as small moments of hope and humanity.

At the New York Review of Books, Ali Bhutto writes that in Karachi, Pakistan, the government-imposed curfew due to the virus is “eerily reminiscent of past military clampdowns”:

Beneath the quiet calm lies a sense that society has been unhinged and that the usual rules no longer apply. Small groups of pedestrians look on from the shadows, like an audience watching a spectacle slowly unfolding. People pause on street corners and in the shade of trees, under the watchful gaze of the paramilitary forces and the police.

His essay concludes with the sobering note that “in the minds of many, Covid-19 is just another life-threatening hazard in a city that stumbles from one crisis to another.”

Writing from Chattanooga, novelist Jamie Quatro documents the mixed ways her neighbors have been responding to the threat, and the frustration of conflicting direction, or no direction at all, from local, state, and federal leaders:

Whiplash, trying to keep up with who’s ordering what. We’re already experiencing enough chaos without this back-and-forth. Why didn’t the federal government issue a nationwide shelter-in-place at the get-go, the way other countries did? What happens when one state’s shelter-in-place ends, while others continue? Do states still under quarantine close their borders? We are still one nation, not fifty individual countries. Right?

Award-winning photojournalist Alessio Mamo, quarantined with his partner Marta in Sicily after she tested positive for the virus, accompanies his photographs in the Guardian of their confinement with a reflection on being confined :

The doctors asked me to take a second test, but again I tested negative. Perhaps I’m immune? The days dragged on in my apartment, in black and white, like my photos. Sometimes we tried to smile, imagining that I was asymptomatic, because I was the virus. Our smiles seemed to bring good news. My mother left hospital, but I won’t be able to see her for weeks. Marta started breathing well again, and so did I. I would have liked to photograph my country in the midst of this emergency, the battles that the doctors wage on the frontline, the hospitals pushed to their limits, Italy on its knees fighting an invisible enemy. That enemy, a day in March, knocked on my door instead.

In the New York Times Magazine, deputy editor Jessica Lustig writes with devastating clarity about her family’s life in Brooklyn while her husband battled the virus, weeks before most people began taking the threat seriously:

At the door of the clinic, we stand looking out at two older women chatting outside the doorway, oblivious. Do I wave them away? Call out that they should get far away, go home, wash their hands, stay inside? Instead we just stand there, awkwardly, until they move on. Only then do we step outside to begin the long three-block walk home. I point out the early magnolia, the forsythia. T says he is cold. The untrimmed hairs on his neck, under his beard, are white. The few people walking past us on the sidewalk don’t know that we are visitors from the future. A vision, a premonition, a walking visitation. This will be them: Either T, in the mask, or — if they’re lucky — me, tending to him.

Essayist Leslie Jamison writes in the New York Review of Books about being shut away alone in her New York City apartment with her 2-year-old daughter since she became sick:

The virus. Its sinewy, intimate name. What does it feel like in my body today? Shivering under blankets. A hot itch behind the eyes. Three sweatshirts in the middle of the day. My daughter trying to pull another blanket over my body with her tiny arms. An ache in the muscles that somehow makes it hard to lie still. This loss of taste has become a kind of sensory quarantine. It’s as if the quarantine keeps inching closer and closer to my insides. First I lost the touch of other bodies; then I lost the air; now I’ve lost the taste of bananas. Nothing about any of these losses is particularly unique. I’ve made a schedule so I won’t go insane with the toddler. Five days ago, I wrote Walk/Adventure! on it, next to a cut-out illustration of a tiger—as if we’d see tigers on our walks. It was good to keep possibility alive.

At Literary Hub, novelist Heidi Pitlor writes about the elastic nature of time during her family’s quarantine in Massachusetts:

During a shutdown, the things that mark our days—commuting to work, sending our kids to school, having a drink with friends—vanish and time takes on a flat, seamless quality. Without some self-imposed structure, it’s easy to feel a little untethered. A friend recently posted on Facebook: “For those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay.” ... Giving shape to time is especially important now, when the future is so shapeless. We do not know whether the virus will continue to rage for weeks or months or, lord help us, on and off for years. We do not know when we will feel safe again. And so many of us, minus those who are gifted at compartmentalization or denial, remain largely captive to fear. We may stay this way if we do not create at least the illusion of movement in our lives, our long days spent with ourselves or partners or families.

Novelist Lauren Groff writes at the New York Review of Books about trying to escape the prison of her fears while sequestered at home in Gainesville, Florida:

Some people have imaginations sparked only by what they can see; I blame this blinkered empiricism for the parks overwhelmed with people, the bars, until a few nights ago, thickly thronged. My imagination is the opposite. I fear everything invisible to me. From the enclosure of my house, I am afraid of the suffering that isn’t present before me, the people running out of money and food or drowning in the fluid in their lungs, the deaths of health-care workers now growing ill while performing their duties. I fear the federal government, which the right wing has so—intentionally—weakened that not only is it insufficient to help its people, it is actively standing in help’s way. I fear we won’t sufficiently punish the right. I fear leaving the house and spreading the disease. I fear what this time of fear is doing to my children, their imaginations, and their souls.

At ArtForum , Berlin-based critic and writer Kristian Vistrup Madsen reflects on martinis, melancholia, and Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s 2018 graphic novel Retreat , in which three young people exile themselves in the woods:

In melancholia, the shape of what is ending, and its temporality, is sprawling and incomprehensible. The ambivalence makes it hard to bear. The world of Retreat is rendered in lush pink and purple watercolors, which dissolve into wild and messy abstractions. In apocalypse, the divisions established in genesis bleed back out. My own Corona-retreat is similarly soft, color-field like, each day a blurred succession of quarantinis, YouTube–yoga, and televized press conferences. As restrictions mount, so does abstraction. For now, I’m still rooting for love to save the world.

At the Paris Review , Matt Levin writes about reading Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves during quarantine:

A retreat, a quarantine, a sickness—they simultaneously distort and clarify, curtail and expand. It is an ideal state in which to read literature with a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, those hermetic books shorn of the handholds of conventional plot or characterization or description. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is perfect for the state of interiority induced by quarantine—a story of three men and three women, meeting after the death of a mutual friend, told entirely in the overlapping internal monologues of the six, interspersed only with sections of pure, achingly beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a day’s procession and recession of light and waves. The novel is, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly spherical object. It is translucent and shimmering and infinitely fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest disturbance. It is not a book that can be read in snatches on the subway—it demands total absorption. Though it revels in a stark emotional nakedness, the book remains aloof, remote in its own deep self-absorption.

In an essay for the Financial Times, novelist Arundhati Roy writes with anger about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anemic response to the threat, but also offers a glimmer of hope for the future:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

From Boston, Nora Caplan-Bricker writes in The Point about the strange contraction of space under quarantine, in which a friend in Beirut is as close as the one around the corner in the same city:

It’s a nice illusion—nice to feel like we’re in it together, even if my real world has shrunk to one person, my husband, who sits with his laptop in the other room. It’s nice in the same way as reading those essays that reframe social distancing as solidarity. “We must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do is also brilliant and full of love,” the poet Anne Boyer wrote on March 10th, the day that Massachusetts declared a state of emergency. If you squint, you could almost make sense of this quarantine as an effort to flatten, along with the curve, the distinctions we make between our bonds with others. Right now, I care for my neighbor in the same way I demonstrate love for my mother: in all instances, I stay away. And in moments this month, I have loved strangers with an intensity that is new to me. On March 14th, the Saturday night after the end of life as we knew it, I went out with my dog and found the street silent: no lines for restaurants, no children on bicycles, no couples strolling with little cups of ice cream. It had taken the combined will of thousands of people to deliver such a sudden and complete emptiness. I felt so grateful, and so bereft.

And on his own website, musician and artist David Byrne writes about rediscovering the value of working for collective good , saying that “what is happening now is an opportunity to learn how to change our behavior”:

In emergencies, citizens can suddenly cooperate and collaborate. Change can happen. We’re going to need to work together as the effects of climate change ramp up. In order for capitalism to survive in any form, we will have to be a little more socialist. Here is an opportunity for us to see things differently — to see that we really are all connected — and adjust our behavior accordingly. Are we willing to do this? Is this moment an opportunity to see how truly interdependent we all are? To live in a world that is different and better than the one we live in now? We might be too far down the road to test every asymptomatic person, but a change in our mindsets, in how we view our neighbors, could lay the groundwork for the collective action we’ll need to deal with other global crises. The time to see how connected we all are is now.

The portrait these writers paint of a world under quarantine is multifaceted. Our worlds have contracted to the confines of our homes, and yet in some ways we’re more connected than ever to one another. We feel fear and boredom, anger and gratitude, frustration and strange peace. Uncertainty drives us to find metaphors and images that will let us wrap our minds around what is happening.

Yet there’s no single “what” that is happening. Everyone is contending with the pandemic and its effects from different places and in different ways. Reading others’ experiences — even the most frightening ones — can help alleviate the loneliness and dread, a little, and remind us that what we’re going through is both unique and shared by all.

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Essay on Life for Students in English: 100 Words, 200 Words, 350 Words

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  • Apr 12, 2024

essay on life

Life is a culmination of moments, a blend of laughter and tears, victory and challenges. From the moment we take our first breath to the day, we draw our last. It is a journey filled with countless experiences, lessons, and emotions. From the tiniest of creatures to the tallest of trees, every living being is a part of this incredible journey. In this blog, we will explore the multifaceted essence of life through three unique essays.

essay about life writing

Also Read : Essay on My Aim in Life

Table of Contents

  • 1 Sample Essay on Life in 100 words
  • 2 Sample Essay on Life in 200 words
  • 3 Sample Essay on Life in 350 words

Sample Essay on Life in 100 words

Life is a collection of stories etched in time, each page filled with lessons that have been learned. The journey of life is a rollercoaster, with peaks of joy and valleys of despair. It teaches us self-reliance, adaptability, and the importance of cherishing every passing second.

As we navigate through unknown paths, we discover the true essence of our being – the passions that fuel us and the relationships that sustain us. Life is a gift, a canvas upon which we paint our purpose. Let us embrace each passing day, for they collectively make the masterpiece that is our life.

Sample Essay on Life in 200 words

Life is a river that flows with an ever-changing current, carrying us through seasons of growth and moments of introspection. It presents us with opportunities to evolve, to change ourselves, and emerge as a new. Life is a precious gift that surrounds us with wonders every day. We wake up to the warmth of the sun, the chirping of birds, and the love of our family. Each moment teaches us something valuable – to be kind, to learn, and to grow. 

As we play, study, and share, we make memories that become the colours of our life’s canvas. Life is about enjoying the little things – a smile, a hug, a blooming flower. The challenges we face are sometimes difficult but are also stepping stones that move and motivate us toward self-discovery. Life’s journey is not about reaching a destination, but about following the purpose and the richness of the path itself.

Also Read: Essay on My Hobby

Sample Essay on Life in 350 words

Life is a journey of discovery, where we encounter moments both big and small that shape our identity. From the joyful laughter of childhood to the trials of adolescence, each phase of life imparts unique lessons.

Each chapter unveils a new facet of our identity, inviting us to delve deeper into the essence of who we are. As we grow, we learn that life isn’t just about happiness; it’s about resilience in the face of difficulties. Challenges, like puzzles, help us develop problem-solving skills and the ability to adapt. Friends and family accompany us on this journey, providing companionship, support, and love.

Life, a masterpiece painted by time, is about making choices, experiences, and opportunities. In the early years, life is a playground of curiosity, where we explore the world with wonder-filled eyes. Learning becomes our companion, and mistakes are stepping stones to growth. 

Adolescence brings a whirlwind of change – physical, emotional, and psychological. It’s a time of self-discovery, as we unfold our passions, talents, and values. Amidst this transformation, friendships blossom, leaving an indelible mark on our hearts. Responsibilities increase, and we navigate through the maze of choices, from careers to relationships. Life becomes full of ambitions , dreams, setbacks, and achievements. Failures and successes become part of our narrative, driving us to strive harder and reach higher. 

In the sunset years, life’s pace may slow, but its essence deepens. Memories become treasures, and experiences turn into life lessons. Family becomes a stronghold of support, and the wisdom garnered over the years becomes a guiding light. Reflection becomes a companion, and gratitude fills our hearts as we look back on the incredible journey we’ve travelled.

In conclusion, life is a journey that encompasses the spectrum of human existence. From the innocence of childhood to the wisdom of old age, every phase contributes to our growth and understanding. Through challenges and triumphs, connections, and solitude, we weave a tale unique to ours. So, let’s embrace life’s twists and turns, for they shape us into the individuals we are meant to be.

Also Read: 100+ Rumi Quotes on Love, Life, Nature & the Universe

Ans. When children and students write a life essay, they have the opportunity to contemplate the wonder and significance of their being.

Ans. The pursuit of happiness is so connected in entirety that it is woven into our life, as we seek fulfillment. It is in the phase of low that we often find the strength to rise, and in the quiet moments of being ourselves, we hear our truest desires. 

Ans. A life story is a valuable personal account of both personal and professional experiences that are shared by the individual.

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AI writing vs human: Short-term gains are deceiving

‘i generated an essay using chatgpt, and it looked good, but my teacher called it out for plagiarism and a lack of fresh ideas.’ – a typical student in 2024..

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At the Crossroads of AI vs Human Writing – Where Are We Heading? 

Chatgpt vs human essays make a big promise but fall short on results, when will ai writing vs human actually be useful in academia.

  • When students face tight deadlines and require quick assistance to generate content efficiently.
  • For intricate subjects where extensive research is necessary, AI tools can help organize and synthesize information swiftly.
  • In multicultural educational environments, AI can aid non-native speakers in articulating ideas effectively in writing.
  • For students with disabilities or learning differences, AI tools can provide alternative means of expression and support.
  • When managing multiple assignments simultaneously, AI can streamline the writing process and alleviate workload pressures.
  • Institutions may employ AI-driven platforms to provide personalized feedback and guidance on writing assignments.
  • AI tools can assist in literature reviews, citation management, and data analysis, facilitating comprehensive research efforts.

Human Writers Are Still in Charge

Essayservice makes up for the shortcomings of ai .

(credit: essayservice_official)

  • Lack of Originality
  • Inaccuracies
  • Plagiarism Risk
  • Limited Depth
  • Dependency Issues
  • Ethical Concerns
  • Absence of Emotion and Creativity

The Verdict

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Supported by

Our 15th Annual Summer Reading Contest

Students are invited to tell us what they’re reading in The Times and why, this year in writing OR via a 90-second video. Contest dates: June 7 to Aug. 16.

essay about life writing

By The Learning Network

The illustrations for this post were originally created by Adolfo Redaño for “ Summer Books 2023 .”

Our Summer Reading Contest is our longest-running challenge — and our simplest.

All you have to do to participate is tell us what you’re reading, watching or listening to in The New York Times and why.

Don’t have a subscription? No problem! We’ll be providing dozens of free links to teen-friendly articles, essays, videos, podcasts and graphics every week from June through August.

And this summer, both to celebrate the contest’s 15th year and to shake things up a bit, we’ll be trying something new: Students can enter as they always have by submitting a short written response — or they can make a video up to 90 seconds long.

Got questions? We have answers. Everything you need is detailed below.

But if you’re a teacher who would like to have your students practice for this now, before the contest begins, note that the only rule around content is that a piece must have been published in 2024. Beyond that, we don’t care if your students pick something on cats , chatbots , the cost of college or the crisis in the Middle East ; Beyoncé , book bans , basketball or banana bread . We just want to hear what they think. To help, we’ve created a special practice forum . Join us!

Have fun, and, as always, post your questions here or write to [email protected].

This announcement is available as a one-page PDF to hang on your class bulletin board.

Here’s what you need to know:

The challenge, rules and guidelines, resources for teachers, students and parents, frequently asked questions, how to submit.

An illustration, resembling a child’s drawing, of a woman in a hammock reading a book beneath two palm trees. Other books are scattered on the sand beneath her.

Choose something in The New York Times that got your attention and tell us why — via a short written or video response.

Here’s how the contest works:

Every Friday for 10 weeks beginning on June 7, we will publish a post asking the same question: “What got your attention in The Times this week?” That’s where you should submit your response any time until the following Friday at 9 a.m. Eastern, when we will close that post and open a new one that asks the same question. On Aug. 9 we’ll post our final question of the summer, open until 9 a.m. on Aug. 16.

You can enter every week, or any week, all summer long, but you may only submit once each week.

You can always find the proper link to the place to submit at the top of this page, updated each week. Once the contest begins, you can also find it on our home page . Please see the How to Submit section below for more details.

You can choose anything you like that was published in the print paper or on nytimes.com in 2024, including articles, Opinion and guest essays , videos , graphics, photos and podcasts . To see the variety of topics winners have responded to over the years, read this column .

Then tell us what Times piece you chose and why it got your attention via a 250-word essay OR a 90-second video. See the full Rules and Guidelines for each type of response below. We have a contest rubric , as well as a guide for students that details four simple ways to make your response stand out.

We’ll choose winners each week, and every Tuesday during the contest, starting June 25, we’ll publish them in a separate post, which you can find here . All written and video entries will be judged together. We will also celebrate the winners on Facebook.

Please read these rules and guidelines carefully before you make your submissions.

Guidelines for written responses

Your written response should tell us what you read, watched or listened to in The Times and why it got your attention. You can find many examples in this column , which spotlights the work of our previous winners.

This guide walks you through some of the key elements of a great reader response, including making a personal connection to the piece, thinking critically about it, referencing specific details or quotes, and writing in your own unique voice.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

Written responses must be no more than 1,500 characters, or about 250 words.

Make sure to i nclude the complete URL or headline of the Times piece you have chosen. For example, “The Joys and Challenges of Caring for Terrance the Octopus” or https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/11/us/tiktok-octopus-pet-oklahoma.html. Yes, this is included in the word count.

Guidelines for video responses

Just as with written responses, video responses should explain what Times piece you chose and why you chose it. The advice in this guide , while originally created with written responses in mind, can apply to video, as well.

We hope you’ll be creative, but that doesn’t mean your video has to be complicated or use special effects; sometimes simple is best. All you need is yourself and the camera on your phone to make a great video response.

Here are the guidelines:

Use a phone to shoot your video vertically (so it looks like the videos you might see on TikTok or Instagram Reels ).

Your video must be 90 seconds or fewer .

Please be sure to say or show the headline of the Times piece you are discussing.

Your video MAY NOT use any images, video clips, music or sound effects, other than those that appear in the Times piece you are discussing or what you create yourself. We cannot publish your video if it uses any copyrighted images or sounds — including TikTok sounds.

Make sure we can see and hear your video clearly. Pay attention to lighting and try to limit background noise as much as possible if it’s not an intentional part of your video.

Please do not include anyone else in your video. For the most part, we recommend filming only yourself, inanimate objects, animals, or your Times piece. You may film crowds of people in public places, but, to protect people’s privacy, try to avoid any close-ups.

A few additional rules

These rules apply to both written and video responses:

You can participate as often as every week, but we allow only ONE submission per person per week.

Any teenager 13 to 19 years old anywhere in the world is invited to join us , as long as you are in middle or high school, or have graduated from high school in 2024 and haven’t started college yet. See below, How to Submit , for more details.

The children and stepchildren of New York Times employees are not eligible to enter this contest. Teenagers who live in the same household as a Times employee are also ineligible.

The work you submit should be fundamentally your own — it should not be plagiarized, created by someone else or generated by artificial intelligence.

Your work must be original for this contest. That means it should not already have been published at the time of submission, whether in your school newspaper, for another contest, or anywhere else.

Keep in mind that the work you send in should be appropriate for a Times audience — that is, something that could be published in a family newspaper (so, please, no curse words).

For this contest, you must work alone , not in pairs or a group.

Entries must be received by the deadline at 9 a.m. Eastern time each Friday to be considered.

We have created many resources to help students practice for and participate in this contest over the years. Although they were written with the goal of helping students create written responses, many of them can work for video, too.

Writing Resources and Lesson Plans: Our full unit on independent reading and writing has lesson plans, writing prompts and mentor texts that can support students in the kind of thinking we’re asking them to do for this contest.

But, to see how easy this contest is, you might start with “ A Simple Exercise for Encouraging Independent Reading .” We invited four teachers across the country to try a short experiment in which they challenged their students to read a Times article on a topic within their comfort zone, and one article on a topic outside it. In this piece, they and their students reflect on the successful results.

We also have a Student Opinion question that challenges any student to do the same.

Student Mentors: “ Writing Rich Reading Responses: Participating in Our Summer Contest ” showcases a series of student-written mentor texts that demonstrate the four key elements that can make a short response — whether in a written or video format — sing.

You can also read all of the winning student entries from 2017 to the present , including reflections from many participants and judges.

And, check out a video version of our “Annotated by the Author” series (embedded above) in which two student winners of our 2020 contest discuss the “writer’s moves” they made.

Webinars: Teachers, to learn more about this contest and how you can teach with it, watch this free on-demand webinar from 2020 . And, to get ideas for supporting your students’ independent reading and writing, watch this on-demand webinar from 2021 .

Our Rubric: This is the rubric our judges will use to judge this contest. We’re looking for written and video responses that include personal connections, critical thinking, references to the source material, and voice and style.

Q. What kinds of responses are you looking for?

A. The subject matter isn’t important; neither is whether you loved or hated it. What we care about is what you have to say about why you picked it.

If you don’t believe us, scroll through the work of previous winners . They have written on weighty topics like abortion , racism , the war in Ukraine , Alzheimer’s disease , climate change and the dangers of vaping , but they have also covered handbags , hummingbirds , the Minions , text messaging , staycations , power naps, junk food , Wordle , Disney shows, running and bagels.

Whatever the subject, you’ll see that the best responses year after year make personal connections to the news and discuss the broader questions and ideas that the topic raises. We have even created a guide that outlines four simple things you can do to make your responses more powerful. We will use this rubric to judge entries.

So whether you were moved by an article , irked by an essay , bowled over by a photo , or inspired by a video , simply find something in The Times that genuinely interests you and tell us why, as honestly and originally as you can.

Q. Since you now offer the option to respond in video, are you looking for something different in that format?

Short answer: No. Longer answer: We’re excited to see what you come up with! We’ve purposely not put a lot of guidelines around what you can create since a) it’s summer, and we want this to be casual and b) we hope you’ll surprise us and show us what’s possible.

Though at the beginning all our contests focused on writing, in recent years we’ve been trying to encourage other forms of composition and expression. We hope you’ll take a risk and submit in video at least once this summer.

Q. Who will be judging my work?

A. The Learning Network staff, a team of New York Times journalists, along with educators from across the country.

Q. What is the “prize”?

A. The prize for winning any of our contests is having your work published on The Learning Network.

Q. When should I check to see if my submission won?

A. Every Tuesday from June 25 until Aug. 27, we will publish the previous week’s winner or winners in a separate article that you can find here . We will also celebrate the winners on Facebook.

Q. How do I participate in this contest if I don’t have a digital subscription to The Times?

A. All Learning Network posts for students, as well as all Times articles linked from them, are accessible without a digital subscription . So if you use any of the articles we have linked to on our site, they will not be blocked.

Each time we pose our question — “What got your attention in The Times this week?” — we will link to dozens of recent, teen-friendly pieces that you can choose from if you don’t have your own subscription.

You can also find copies of The New York Times at most public libraries, and some even allow you to access NYTimes.com with your library card.

And remember: You can use anything published anytime in 2024.

Q. How do I prove to my teacher that I participated?

A. If you are 13 to 19 in the United States and Britain — or 16 to 19 elsewhere in the world — and are submitting your written response by posting a comment, make sure to check the box that asks if you would like to be emailed when your comment is published. If you do so, the system will send you a link to your comment, which you can use to show your teacher, your parents, your friends or anyone else you’d like to impress. (Please note that you will not get an email until the comment has been approved, which may take longer over weekends.)

If you are submitting a video response or an adult is submitting a written response on behalf of an eligible student via the embedded form at the bottom of the post, please take a screenshot if a student needs proof that they are participating in the contest. You will not receive a confirmation email.

Another method? Some teachers ask students to keep a Google Doc of all their submissions, while others instruct students to take screenshots of their responses before they hit “submit.”

Q. How can teachers, librarians and parents use this challenge?

A. Our goals for this contest include some that appear on many educators’ lists. We want to help students become more aware of the world and their place in it; learn how to navigate sophisticated nonfiction; and create for a real audience, beyond the classroom. But more than anything else, we just want students to realize that reading the newspaper can be fun.

Through the years, adults have told us over and over that participating in this contest has made their students both more aware of and more interested in what’s going on in the world. Many see it as a low-stakes way to help teenagers start building a news-reading habit.

And, too, at a time when some educators are alarmed by the ability of chatbots to do students’ work for them, this is a contest that rewards the human touch. As our step-by-step guide to participating shows, what we’re looking for are genuine personal connections to the news, explored with voice, style and personality — something A.I. can’t (yet?) do with anywhere near the verve of the teenagers we hear from.

Another reason? For some teachers, assigning the contest over the summer helps them to quickly get to know their new students when school starts. In our related webinar , Karen Gold, English department chair at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Mass., details how she uses the contest in this way.

But maybe the most compelling reason to assign this contest is what students themselves say about it. In 2017, Emma Weber, a student from London, posted that, thanks to the contest, “I feel grounded in my views and understand what’s going on in the world. It’s amazing what a change 1,500 characters a week make.” In 2020 we invited Emma to help judge the entries, and here is what she had to say after Week 10:

I know firsthand that the Summer Reading Contest has the ability to change the way one engages in the news — I went from passively reading to actively thinking and questioning. The more you reflect on what is going on in the world and what interests you about it, the more you will understand your place within it. I urge all those who enjoyed participating this summer to continue reading, reflecting and writing.

Thank you for making this contest a hit year after year, and please spread the word that it’s back for its 15th season.

Any 13- to 19-year-old anywhere in the world is invited to join us, if you are in middle or high school, or if you graduated from high school and haven’t yet started college.

Every Friday starting on June 7, we’ll post a fresh version of this question: “What got your attention in The Times this week?” We will link to each week’s version at the top of this post. Here is an example from last summer. How you respond to this question will depend on your age and whether you are choosing to respond via writing or video, but all responses will be judged together.

For written responses:

Students ages 13 to 19 in the United States and Britain — and ages 16 to 19 elsewhere in the world — can submit by posting a comment on the post itself. See the GIF below to see how to do that.

essay about life writing

If you are a teacher, parent or guardian of a student or child who is ages 13 to 15 anywhere in the world besides the United States and Britain, then you should submit an entry on the student’s behalf using the form embedded at the bottom of each week’s post.

For video responses:

All students should use the form at the bottom of each week’s post to submit video responses. Students ages 13 to 19 in the United States and Britain — and ages 16 to 19 elsewhere in the world — can submit their own entries. Students ages 13 to 15 anywhere else in the world must have a parent, teacher or guardian submit on their behalf.

QNS: Queens News and Community

Jamaica teen takes top prize in NYPD essay-writing contest


Tina Perumal, 18, bested 300 teens vying for an award in the Police Athletic League-NYPD annual essay competition. She snagged the prestigious NYPD Commander Award, one of a handful of NYPD awards for essay writing.  The contest was open to all New York City students in grades 9-12.

Perumal was honored on Tuesday during the Police Commissioner for a Day Ceremony. Her essay was noteworthy since it was based on the concept of her being appointed police commissioner, where she used the high-ranking position to bring together a task force to combat child neglect.

Perumal said the essay was inspired by a close friend who went through a traumatic childhood experience, which prompted her to focus on the topic. “My essay was basically helping to bring back child safety and bring attention to the child safety that doesn’t really get looked at or recognized,” she said. 

Perumal, a senior at Martin Van Buren High School , plans to attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the fall. She grew up watching shows such as “Law and Order” and other crime series, and now plans to be a police officer. “That’s where my mind and my heart has always been set on,” she said. “I just also want to help everybody around me and just protect everyone.”

When she is not spending time writing award-winning essays, Perumal works as an administrative intern at Life Camp’s Creative Arts Lab . She has been working with the organization since 2022 and oversees middle and elementary school students in the program. Perumal said her time working at Life Camp has inspired her to expand her own world view.

“They provide a lot of opportunities for you to get yourself out there. To be something you never saw yourself becoming or changing yourself that you never saw yourself changing to be,” she said. Currently, Perumal is working with staff on raising funds for a trip to Six Flags so they can celebrate the work they have done at the Creative Arts Lab over the past two years.

Life Camp’s mission is to provide youth and families in Southeast Queens impacted by gun violence with tools to stay in school and out of the criminal justice system. The organization offers programs to affected youngsters and their families as part of the initiative.

The Creative Arts Lab is a program sponsored by Life Camp targeting youth aged 12-24. The lab offers educational programs focused on arts education including DJing, composition and recording, theater, dance, painting and an array of other artistic mediums.

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In Taylor Swift's 'Tortured Poets,' the torture is in the songwriting

'the tortured poets department' further complicates my feelings surrounding the pop star, and proves that taylor swift could benefit greatly from a more communal, creative approach..

When Taylor Swift announced her new album, “ The Tortured Poets Department, ” earlier this year at the Grammys , I was equal parts curious and unaffected. Even as a lifelong fan, I wasn’t fond of her previous effort, “Midnights,” cause I found most of it overwhelmingly uninspired – despite it winning Album of the Year. 

Nevertheless, Swift’s command over the zeitgeist makes her inescapable, and as a fan of most of her work, I’m bound to engage with her offerings regardless. The quality and acclaim of her previous works made me cling to the futile hope that “Midnights” was just a fluke. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has those days. 

That hope died, though, as soon as I saw the album credits.

To my dismay, Swift keeps her usual creative ensemble on “The Tortured Poets Department”: Jack Antonoff, every indie-pop girl’s go-to producer, and Aaron Dessner, of The National fame, who previously worked with her on her “Folklore” and “Evermore,” and “Midnights (3 a.m. Edition).” She also brings on Post Malone and longtime friend Florence Welch as new collaborators. 

Swift is known for writing songs based on her own life experiences. This artistic choice has made her synonymous with a certain brand of relatability and bestowed her with scrutiny and acclaim alike. Her fans in particular, “Swifties” for the uninitiated, use this to justify that sometimes unwarranted acclaim and discredit artists who choose a more collaborative approach to creating. “The Tortured Poets Department” further complicates my feelings surrounding the pop star and proves that Swift could benefit greatly from a more communal, creative approach. 

Beyoncé reclaims country music: Beyoncé pushes the confines of genre with 'Cowboy Carter.' Country will be better for it.

Taylor Swift has already won. Swifties don't need to banish criticism.

It’s not all bad, though. Moments of her past brilliance find a way to break through the crest every now and again, especially on “The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology,” the second installment of what appears to be a double album, which she released at 2 a.m. on Friday .

“The Black Dog” builds into a heart ache roar as she laments why memories of her don’t mar a lover’s mind while he visits the places they used to share. On “The Albatross,” she makes clever allusions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), referring to herself as both the saboteur and savior of her past relationships. 

As a singer-songwriter, Swift is often perceived as a “singular” artist with her personhood at the center. Much of her discography is akin to intimate diary entries. The fact that she is so singular, often credited as the sole writer on many of her tracks, and her life is so large allows fans to decode her songs like scripture and attach them to moments in her life and relationships.

Conservatives are 'Down Bad': Taylor Swift is an American icon, regardless of what you think

The beauty of her older music is that listeners can take her tales of sneaking out late to tap on a lover’s window, her journey out of the woods or the regret that takes her back to a fateful December night and apply them to happenings in their own lives. It’s why I admire “Folklore” and “Evermore” so deeply. The way she blurred the lines between fact and fiction, making it hard to determine when she was chronicling her own life or one she’s concocted, offered universality in its specificity. Now, it seems that her celebrity has eclipsed her.

“The Tortured Poets Department” will undoubtedly be the best-selling album of 2024 and will be nominated, and possibly win, the big awards at next year’s Grammys. The record has been universally praised by publications like Rolling Stone. Her previous album broke almost every record imaginable and won every award. She embarked on one of the most lucrative tours of all time.

By most metrics, she’s the biggest pop star in the world , possibly of all time. Taylor Swift has won.

But so much of the discourse surrounding Swift exists in extremes. Anything less than unabashed praise is shunned. And some of her most ruthless dissenters obviously do so in bad faith. Engaging with any art without nuance is a fruitless endeavor. 

She keeps her ink and quill tightly to her chest, but this individualist and self-centered way of creating has led to an uninteresting product, unless you are obsessed with the innards of her personal life. I doubt she’ll ever run out of stories to tell. Life always gives us new inspiration. The trick lies in whether she’ll find interesting ways to tell them. 

Nevertheless, I still love Taylor Swift. I went to see the Eras Tour in New York with my best friend. I have countless memories of a younger me belting “Mine” and “Our Song” out of car windows down I-95. I remember the first time I heard “Cruel Summer” in my friend’s bright red Honda Fit and knowing I’d be obsessed with that song forever.

I spent so much of quarantine shattered and painstakingly introspective from the beautiful prose on “Folklore” and “Evermore.” My heart broke with hers on “All Too Well,” first in 2012 and again in 2022. Swift has soundtracked the lives of so many, chronicling the beauty of falling in love and the hurt thereafter. My only wish now is that she’d see beyond herself and relinquish her powerful pen to someone new – someone who could reignite the fire in her.

Kofi Mframa is a music and culture writer and opinion intern at the Louisville Courier Journal. 


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