Jack Ross, ed.: Where Will Massey Take You? (2005)
So what is Life Writing, anyway? Over the five years since the course was pioneered at Massey’s Albany campus, we’ve had a lot of time to consider that question. “Biography and Autobiography,” is the first (and most straightforward) reply: writing based on your own, or someone else’s, life experience.
That, however, is where the complications begin.
As well as formal biographies, there are oral history recordings, genealogical databases, printed interviews, academic case studies, filmed documentaries, and an ever-growing profusion of internet sites covering every aspect of people’s lives.
As well as standard life-and-times autobiographies, there are memoirs, video diaries, blogs, travelogues, letters, diaries – as well as autobiographical fiction and poetry.
I’ve tried to put in samples of as many as possible of the genres our students have experimented with to date, but you’ll just have to take my word for it that this barely scrapes the surface of what we’ve encountered so far. These are, in fact, simply the ones that didn’t get away:
There are two interviews, by Catherine Alexander and Nathan Calvert, each exploring the life of an outsider within New Zealand society with (I think you’ll agree) exemplary sympathy and insight.
As well as individual poems by Kali Bell, Jenna Crowley, Justine Giles and Claire Talbot, there’s a poetic memoir by Phillipa Reeve, and an essay by Katie Ranby linking her own poetic vocation with that of her Great-Grandmother, born in 1872.
There are pieces of intense, concentrated autobiographical fiction by Erica Marsden and Claire Talbot.
There are memoirs of friends and close relatives by Rachel Bresnahan, Anaise Irvine and Emma Zhang; also a multi-faceted oral history of the reclusive Dr Leslie Whetter (one of whose claims to fame was being described as “quite unfit for a Antarctic expedition” by Douglas Mawson) compiled by Kelly Schischka.
Then there are the pieces of (more-or-less) straight autobiography. It’s hard to imagine anything more diverse than Kali Bell’s, Rachel Bresnahan’s, Jenna Crowley’s, Erin Gallagher’s and Anna Leclercq’s various takes on this category.
I suppose there’s not much point in providing a roll-call of all the other pieces I would have liked to include: Angela Liles’ analysis of the many faces of nicotine addiction; Anna Kemp’s minute, Balzacian account of a day in the life of an illegal squat in Amsterdam; Diana Hennin’s tales of the haunted Gothic mansion she grew up in … some of them aren’t here for a very simple reason – they cut too close to the bone to be made public just yet. Other people’s feelings have to be respected, too, when it comes to digging up the past.
Too many, though (I suspect) aren’t here because their authors thought they weren’t good enough to be exposed to the world. I regret that very much. Each of us has stories to tell – stories which may not interest everyone, but which will be of great interest to someone. Stories, what is more – this I firmly believe – which may give that reader the courage to re-examine, or reshape, his or her own life.
It’s been a very pleasant task putting this anthology together. If I had just one hope for it, it would be that it would inspire you to write down (or otherwise record) some of your own memories. As Shakespeare puts it in King Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”
Where Will Massey Take You?
If you want to get where you’re going
L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine
The lighter side of life
I used to worry every time I backed
into a parking-space
that I’d misjudged it
now I breeze right in
stick out like a sore thumb
the huckster’s in the temple
porkers vacuum up
the village square
Where Will Massey Take You? Life Writing 2 (Massey University: School of Social and Cultural Studies, 2005): iv-v.
Where Will Massey Take You? (2005)