Skip to main content

EN382 - Inventing Selves 1:Life Writing

This is a hybrid Creative Writing/ English Literature module. It is a distributional Requirement option for the Theory, World and North American Pathways and an option for the English Pathway and for English and Creative Writing.

Module Convenor: Professor Sarah Moss

Seminars 2017-18:
Tuesday 2-4pm, G.03 (term 1)

A man sits in solitary grandeur high on a mountain. Clouds drift in the valley below him, but up here the sun is warm on his back. He pulls paper and pen from his pack and begins to write, murmuring to himself as the rhythms find their pattern. Yes, he has it now. Words flow and poetry is safe up here, beyond the reach of chatter, of commerce and all the little demands of ordinary life. He gazes intently at the flower at his feet, growing out of the shelter of the rock. Let's have a butterfly as well, one of those pale blue ones, alight briefly on his tweed sleeve. He is a poet. He may be The Poet.

Where does this idea come from? Why must a writer be alone, be in a place of beauty? What about other people who write, perhaps in kitchens or at work, while looking after the children or the sheep or on the way to a meeting?

This module begins to explore the life writing of our own time through its origins in the Romantic era. That man on the mountain is probably from the 1790s, and may well be William Wordsworth, but he's probably not who you think he is. His sister, a different kind of writer, has other ideas, and so, of course, does Mary Wollstonecraft, who likes a mountain as much as the next man but meanwhile has a business trip to make and a book to sell. Olaudah Equiano, meanwhile, very probably was born in West Africa and taken into slavery, though probably not at the age he says he was, and the rest of his autobiography is probably no less true than most of what Wordsworth has to say. They've all been reading Bunyan's account of his night-time conversations with God and Satan during his long imprisonment for fundamentalist extremism, but this is life writing and therefore there's an extent to which everyone's supposed to be telling the truth.

You'll be encouraged to develop your own creative practice in response to the set texts, but if you want to write academic essays instead, you can. Some of the older texts will be paired with essays by contemporary writers who offer models for modern responses to inherited ideas about selfhood and identity. This module is a pre-requisite for Inventing Selves 2, in which we'll turn our attention to modern life writing and read Knausgaard and Hilary Mantel in the light of what we've learnt from the man on the mountain.

Summer reading:

Here is the reading list for 2017-18. (At the time of writing, it is missing Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, preferably in the OUP edition edited by Pamela Woof.) These are all fairly short texts but some will seem strange and challenging; take it slowly, read carefully, don't be afraid of writing that might feel difficult. When you first read the Prelude, try not to be so lulled by rhyme and meter that you stop noticing the sentences, but think about the relationship between sentence structure and line breaks, pause sometimes to untangle the grammar. (Don't worry if this is hard, we'll work on it in the seminar but we'll get more done if you've had a go in advance.)

Please contact me with any questions!