Biography is a house museum. The rapacious biographical fallacy takes license to speculate, invents identity, curates a mythology to mourn. Magnetised between remembering and forgetting, biographical riddles figure sightings of self and other, willing or unwilling companions. Lyrical, mediated, mythologised, departed from real life, biographical fictioning knows subjectivity as diverse, provisional and intersubjective. Coaxed and goaded, we are biochemically deluded. Memory and interpretation bind with fact and reality. Our prefrontal cortex aligns recollection and imagination, neurons fire and calcify to a unified phantasy, a lyricism of the lived and unlived life. ‘I shut my eyes and the world drops dead […] I think I made you up inside my head,’ wrote the plathologised Sylvia Plath.
In Audre Lorde’s 1982 Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, ‘biomythography’ is proposed as a new (auto)biographical form ‘combining elements of history, biography and myth’. Biomythography is not identity, but the meanings of identity. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, published in 1987, presents a cross-genre, multi-lingual work combining poetry, theory and philosophy, similarly based ‘loosely’ on the author’s own life. In The Red Parts, an (auto)biographical story detailing the murder of her aunt, Maggie Nelson writes of falling out of a story, of the story. Forms of transitional phenomena—of alter-ego, persona, pseudonym—are witnessed in the work of Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism project, Jane Gallop’s in-personation, and in the heteronyms of Fernando Pessoa. The lived life as ‘exemplary case’ (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke) can be seen in Gallop’s anecdotal theory and more recent claims for aestheticisation of experience and the autotheoretical. Numerous examples, among them James Baldwin, Robert Glück, Gary Indiana, Peter Handke, Dodie Bellamy, Édouard Louis, Annie Ernaux, Deborah Levy, Eileen Myles and Chris Kraus, demonstrate that the (auto)biographical is not absolute, that it is, by necessity, provisional, unanchored and contingent. As Eileen Myles declares, biographical writing is ‘of course about me’ as much as it is about the ostensible ‘subject’.
In the spring and autumn of 2022, I led two masterclasses which invited participants to consider how biomythography, or biographical fiction-ing and related approaches, allow for generative, radically subjective narratives in response to ‘real’ or ‘factual’ historical and contemporary events in our own lives and the lives of others (both real and imagined). It was proposed that such approaches allow writers to control the extent and manner of self-exposure and negotiate complex ethical considerations through the adoption of the guises, slippages, diversions and decoys characteristic of quasi-biography.
Our first session invited Kate Briggs, Alice Hill-Woods, Paul Mendez, Stephen Sutcliffe, Susannah Thompson, and a group of artists and writers at various stages of their career to consider how biography is narrativised, how historical and/or subjective experience is accounted/accountable, what it means to stage a process, to repeat something, to copy out or appropriate, and, ultimately, examining the threshold between a tale and a life. Focusing on creative approaches to biographical, memoir, and life-writing our first workshop drew on alternative modes of biographical writing including autofiction, mythobiography, New Narrative, fictocriticism and epistolary or diaristic forms of art writing. Our second session looked to genre, form, register, in particular, the materialisation of the lyric. We were joined by artists and writers including Claire-Louise Bennett, Nicky Coutts, Laurence Figgis, Michael Pedersen, and Margaret Salmon. Looking to the forms of attachment, homage and preservation present in the impulse or desire of writing with or about others, we asked how profound knowing might require the affective, creative, and vernacular dimension of the lyric.
This anthology gathers some of the contributions and/or afterwork from the Biographical Fictioning masterclasses and I am grateful to have co-edited this collection with Art Writing students and contributors Alice Hill-Woods and Kate Timney. Both have offered a great deal to the thinking towards biographical reasoning in their own writing, associated projects, and the masterclasses presented in 2022.
This is not a biography*: An Anthology of Biographical Fictioning
Edited by Laura Haynes, Alice Hill-Woods & Kate Timney
Limited edition of 150, published by The Yellow Paper Press 2023, designed by Kate Timney, 84 pages, available to buy at Good Press