I have just attended the 2014 International Autobiography Conference in Stockholm, where I presented a paper on the life storytelling and life writing strategies of 3 of our elder co-researchers in the project, focusing on the interplay between orality and writing and their different conceptions of time and truth, particularly where play challenges conventional chronology in the creation of stories that remain personally true.
One of our co-researchers uses writing as a means to rehearse or anchor his oral accounts as accurately as he can, departing from the written word when he is confident his memory will yield the essential details in their proper order, allowing him to bring in asides and reflections to enrich his account.
The second narrator deliberately plays with her life’s timeline, taking events that are all true for her and mixing their order in the creation of a new tale that allows her to reflect and comment on her experiences in a new way.
The third co-researcher creates children’s stories, following a tradition she started several years ago writing postscripts from a beloved pet bird to entertain an adult sister in long-term care and, by extension, the other sisters caring for her. Her protagonist, a spider, must learn not only to face, but also actively seek out new challenges and figure out his place in the world. Her stories allow her to reflect and comment on life as she has lived it so far with a view to where she would like to go in the future.
Our group was small because there were 5 simultaneous panels, but discussion was lively and I was pleased that my paper, grounded in our project, featured the work of unpublished authors. Autobiography as life writing (inscribing?) needs to work more closely with oral history in order to appreciate the multiplicity of ways extraordinary everyday stories are told. Likewise, oral history might benefit from some of autobiography’s approaches to literature-as-life-history. As a folklorist, being a child of the issue that — as ballad scholar Tristram P. Coffin is famously credited with saying — ” Anthropology got off English” I keep firm hold of the hands of both my reluctant and slightly abashed parents and see no shame in my intellectual lineage. Textual studies and ethnography can enrich each other.
From the conference In particular, I was struck by Andrew Miller’s (Flinders University, Australia) presentation on autoethnography in digital storytelling and wondered if there was scope in a future direction of the project for Intergenerational work between seniors and youth that could create sites of digital life storytelling, where young people could mediate the technology as needed but also listen to and help put together elders’ stories and perhaps even vice versa, if an interface could be devised that was accessible for people with fine motor problems and sight issues. While young and old alike could also be authors in solitude, the project has clearly shown that stories have their greatest power in shared contexts. Perhaps this is one area where the project’s emphasis on scalable interactive books could really shine, in the development of elder-centred tools for storytelling.
Likewise, a paper by Hertha D. Sweet Wong (Berkeley) on the artist books of Julie Chen, beautiful hand-crafted and deliberately non-digitally interactive books that compel the reader to confront narratives about our relationship to the passage of time, got me thinking about whether the technology underpinning the interactive books and whether future iterations could be published combining digital and essentially mechanical interaction (think of the difference between a video or an e book and a fold out pop up book or one with “secrets” that must be physically unlocked in reading). On the face of it, my feeling is yes, since this conference has brought up a question we asked ourselves early in the project: “What about writing as well as audio? What about texts-as-artefacts as well as objects-as-texts?”
Perhaps as with many stories, we will find we end at the beginning, wiser for the journey and ready to go in a new direction.
(Header Image from Wikimedia)