“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” Diary, 17 February 1922
Some notable figures: Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald, Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather.
I came to realize that what can be called “life-writing” is probably the most enjoyable types of reading for me. As Hermione Lee mentions in her interview，“Life-writing, a term used by Woolf in ‘Sketch of the Past,’ is made up of different kinds of ‘true’ narratives—biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, travel writing. ”
Now I certain that I’m always fascinated by the life-writing(s) that I’ve come across, maybe even more than the fictions and essays that define one as a writer. But I’m reluctant to admit that I’m drawn even more toward these life-writings than their “real work” — I had the notion deep in my mind that these types of writing are all secondary and less in value compared with the real achievements of the writers—their “true” masterpieces, the novels and stories and so on.
I think the reason why this idea has been so entrenched in my mind is that I was never taught to look at these materials in English classes, as if, as Lee says in the interview, that these writers don’t have lives, and they weren’t important enough to be worthy of examining as their words.
But episodes in my life lately have help me to realize that life in itself is no less important than writing (of course!). To live a good life is as hard as produce a good pieces of writing, if not more challenging. Should writing, than, subject to the demands of life, or it is possible that the text has the final say?
I find this predicament hard to live with yet fascinating. Such dilemma is, as one can imagine, most manifest in the “life-writing” of a writer. Must one be sacrificed to achieve the success of the other?
It is said that while life contributes to writing, writing doesn’t always if never contributes to life (health, relationships, finance, etc.). I recognize this message, but don’t necessarily want to change what I’d do to give up writing all together. There must some way in which life and writing cohabit perfectly. In the ideal situation, the existence of one supports, rather than jeopardizing the other. This hope drives me to read as much as life-writing as possible — they’ll contain the clues for the answer that I’ve been looking for.
Often, and I consider this phenomenon a quite strange one, that readers don’t expect writers (or artist, actors, etc.) to have a good life. They imagine creative persons die abruptly or suffer form poverty or persecution, etc. Think of the stand-up comedian, who is only allowed to joke about the unfortunate situations of his life. Perhaps as Aristotle says in the Poetics, we expect figures in comedy to be lower than / similar to us, while tragic heroes better than us. So maybe the reader would often like to see the creative person as a tragedy, and to fulfill such demand the biographers and historians might be incentivized to make what is life a legend. The reader is upset to see a writer who enjoys a good life. Therefore, he must “died a good death” — the biographers then must not choose to write about someone “who just declined“.
But decline we must as it is the condition of life. At the current moment I try to put as much care into life as writing, although secretly I’ve always preferred the latter.