Notes on Life Narrative

Notes on Life Narrative

We cannot call the recorded stories here oral history in its purest form. Oral history is the preservation of original testimony “as told to” and without interpretation. However, even recorded oral history cannot be free of certain influences such as the setting where the testimony was gathered, the technology used to record and agenda of the interviewer or organization gathering the history. Memory itself is unreliable for that matter. Something remembered one way – one day – will be remembered differently another. Besides – according to memoirist, Patricia Hampl, it’s not what we remember but why we remembered it that way.

What we can call the stories here  are “interpreted” or “subjective” personal history. Indeed many of the writers note experiencing the process of recording the interviews  as a “setting free” of their subjects’ stories. In this sense – the way spoken word sets free voice from canonic rules of poetic expression – spoken histories set free personal, family and communal stories from the restrictions of communal and academic expectations.

In the case of the auto topographies where writers based their stories on family artifacts such as photographs – the writers engage in a process of assuming agency over their family stories. Thus they influence, interpret and shape the story according to whatever tools they possess including their skills and experience with language, creative writing craft, and their own desires of how they hope these stories will inform their own lives.

Their stories are auto-ethnographic too, because the writers are colonized subjects of the United States who’s first language is Spanish, yet have appropriated the colonizer’s language – English to write their family history.  They are “colonized subjects undertak[ing] to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizers own terms.” The stories are also auto/biographical, adding to the expanded view of not only what it means to be part of the Puerto Rican community but also what it means to be Puerto Rican.

General Definitions


Writing prompted by the examination of artifacts that carry memory or the essence of the subject such as  ancestral photographs. Craft used to execute the stories can include fiction devices such as scene and dialogue, characterization, monologue, as well as elements of memoir, creative non-fiction, etc.


Oral History

The systematic collection of living peoples’ testimony about their own experiences. Oral historians must verify and analyze findings and place them in an accurate historical context as well as archive the materials properly for future scholars.


Literary Journalism

Journalistic writing that depends on facts and research as well as subjective elements supplied via the use of fictional techniques such as image, symbolism, scene, dialogue, characterization, and so on.



The traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of a people, transmitted orally. Many of the stories share folkloric connections to Puerto Rican culture.


Life Writing

A general term for diverse kinds of writing that takes life as its subject such as biographical, novelistic or historical. A variety of non-fiction modes of writing that claim to engage the shaping of someone’s life.


Life Narrative

A narrower term for writing that includes a writer’s autobiographical act such as memory, experience, identity, embodiment and agency. The writing of one’s own life.



A mode that historically situates the subject in a social environment as either observer or participant.


Multimodal Memoir

Writing of memoir using text, image, technology and performance.


What is Life Narrative?

A non-canonic set of ever shifting self-referential practices that engages the past in order to reflect on identity in the present. (Smith &Watson)

Fifty-Two Genres of Life Narrative

1. Apology – a form of self-presentation as self-defense against the allegations or attacks of others. E.g. Plato’s, “Apology”, or Wollstonecraft’s, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

2. Autobiographics – “Those changing elements of the contradictory discourses and practices of truth and identity” as found in women’s personal narratives.

3. Auto/biography (a/b) – a personal narrative inserted with biography or a personal narrative within a biography. E.g. Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers.”

4. Autobiography in the 2nd person – the narrated “I” is referred to as “you.”

5. Autobiography in the 3rd person – the narrated “I” is referred to as “he” or “she.”

6. Autoethnography – “Colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizers own terms.” E.g. Writing autobiography in the language and literary forms of the dominant culture.

7. Autofiction – fiction in the first person.

8. Autography – characterizes both the instability of the “I” and the category “woman” in feminist narratives.

9. Autogynography – female “gendered writing.”

10. Autopathography – personal narratives about illness or disability.

11. Autothanatography – autobiographic texts that confront illness and impending death.

12. Autotopography – writing prompted by the examination of artifacts that carry memory or the essence of the subject such as photographs.

13. Bildungsroman – novel of development and self formation of a young man.

14. Biomythogrpahy – biography of the mythic self eg. “Zami, A New Spelling of My Name,” “The Cancer Journals” – Audre Lourde

15. Captivity Narrative – Any narrative told by someone who is or has been held captive.

16. Case Study – a life narrative that is gathered into a dossier in order to make a diagnosis or identification of a disease or disorder.

17. Chronicle – a form used in classical, medieval, renaissance, and modern times involving a first hand account of the history of one’s time and often incorporating earlier histories.

18. Collaborative Life Narrative – production of an autobiographical text by more than one person such as a writer and editor– i.e. “as told to” or ghostwritten…

19. Confession – an oral or written addressed to an interlocutor who listens, judges and has the power to absolve.

20. Conversion Narrative – a radical transformation – before and after road to enlightenment.

21. Diary – records the daliness of living using accounts and observations.

22. Ecobiography – interweave the story of a protagonist with the story of fortunes, conditions, ecology and geography.

23. Ethnic Life Narrative – negotiates ethnic identities around multiple pasts. I.e. the multi-ethnic history of Puerto Rico.

24. Ethnocriticism – narratives by indigenous cultures that fuse anthropology, history, and critical theory.

25. Genealogy – a method of charting family history, genealogy, etc authenticating identity or “pedigree.” Objective documentation rather than subjective family stories and history.

26. Heterobiography – “as told to” life narratives in the third person.

27. Journal – A chronicle of public record. Less intimate than a diary.

28. Journaling – practice of regular free-life writing.

29. Letters – a mode of directed and dated correspondence with a specific addressee.

30. Life writing – see above

31. Life narrative—see above

32. Meditation – a prominent form of self-reflexive writing during the Protestant Reformation.

33. Memoir – a mode that historically situates the subject in a social environment as either observer or participant.

34. Oral History – a mediated form of persona narrative. The writer is absent but controls the narrative.

35. Otobiogrpahy – the biographical within philosophy.

36. Oughtabiography – a discourse of regret and remorse.

37. Periautography —

38. Personal Essay – a refelction or exploration of the self interacting with a particular subject.

39. Poetic Autobiography – lyrics that announce themselves as autobiographic.

40. Prison narratives – a mode of captivity narrative written during incarceration.

41. Relational autobiography – women’s narratives that assert a “sense of shared identity with other women.”

42. Scriptotherapy—writing as a mode of self-healing.

43. Self-help narrative – everyday public narrative that related to addiction or dependency.

44. Self-portrait – an artist’s painted, photographed, sculpted, etc. self.

45. Serial autobiography – autobiographical work published in several volumes.

46. Slave narrative – a mode written by fugitive or freed slaves.

47. Spiritual life narrative – a journey of emerging consciousness.

48. Survivor narrative—survivors of trauma, abuse, or genocide.

49. Testimonio – testifying or bearing witness legally or religiously.

50. Trauma narrative – A mode of writing the unspeakable.

51. Travel narrative – typically chronicle or reconstruct the narrator’s experience of displacement, encounter, travail and his or her observations of the unknown, the foreign and uncanny.

52. Witnessing – being present to observe or to give testimony to something.


Adapted from a “Toolkit” provided in Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith/Julia Watson