Separated by a common language: the (differing) discourses of life writing in theory and practice

Jensen, Meg (2009) Separated by a common language: the (differing) discourses of life writing in theory and practice. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 24(2), pp. 299-314. ISSN (print) 0898-9575


My paper draws on my experience as writer, academic, and director of the Centre for Life Narratives at Kingston University (CLN). Taking examples from CLN's successful reading and research seminars, I will argue that the act of bringing together academics and practioners to debate notions of truth-telling, ethical dilemma, representations of the self and the like is not only challenging and frustrating, it is an act of translation in which something is gained as well as lost. Virginia Woolf (and many writers before and since) saw both an intellectual and a linguistic difference between the self as articulated through the academy and the autobiographical self as told through the life story. In her most autobiographical novel, To The Lighthouse, for example, the father figure, Mr Ramsay, invites his student Charles Tansley to stay with his family on St Ives. Soon after arriving, Tansley confides the tale of his difficult childhood to Mrs. Ramsay. Later, as student and teacher talk, Mrs Ramsay overhears them, and, Woolf tells us, she "did not catch the meaning, only the words, here and there...dissertation...fellowship...readership...lectureship.... She could not follow the ugly academic jargon...but said to herself that she saw now why [Tansley] came out, instantly, with all that about his father and mother and brothers and sisters, and she would see to it that they didn't laugh at him anymore" (22). Woolf envisioned this difference in discourse to be gendered and political, inscribed by historically static boundaries. In our own century, the divide may be differently drawn, but as "Biography", "Autobiography," and "Life Writing" become more widely accepted as areas of academic research, the linguistic distance between practitioner and researcher remains. By considering CLN's example in light of Woolf's academic/autobiographic split, I will ask - when writer and theorist share a classroom or an office, or indeed a funded research project - how can they talk to each other productively?

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