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Writing on the self

Publié par Clifford Armion le 14/11/2014
Critics and academics tend to draw a line between autobiography and fiction. However, it is sometimes difficult to make such a clear distinction between what is made up and what is not. Here are some short texts written by authors who reflect on their use of the first person.

Hugo Hamilton on memory and fiction


Hugo Hamilton is a famous Irish writer. He published a memoir entitled The Speckled People (2003) which is based on his childhood experiences as the son of an Irish nationalist and a German woman.

"Writers are by nature scavengers, collectors, archaeologists, members of the forensic team picking over the scene of a crime (...) We write in order to find out where we are and what our story is. It is clear to me as a writer that nothing is made up. There is no such thing really as fiction, only events that have already happened in one way or another happening again in more and more fantastic ways through the imagination. What we do when we write is trying to keep up with our memory. So perhaps that is what Irish writing is all about, an exorbitant imagination. We are describing what is happening not only in Ireland but also elsewhere around the world as a way of looking in the window at ourselves, at home."

Key questions

  1. Does Hugo Hamilton believe in fiction?
  2. What is the part of imagination in writing?
  3. How can writing help you understand your own culture?


A conversation with Siri Hustvedt


Siri Husvedt is an American novelist and essay writer. In her book entitled Living, Thinking, Looking, she outlines the relations between memory, fiction and imagination.

"It is a strange thing to say but what I am arguing is that the faculty of memory and the faculty of imagination are in fact not so different. I do not mean that writers are dredging up the details of their own lives, that’s something very different. That happens: many writers use aspects of their autobiography or parts of their family life in novels. What I mean is quite different. How does a writer know when a story is right or wrong? Theoretically fiction has absolutely no boundaries. You can do anything you want. So the boundaries have to be somewhere else because I do have a very good idea when my story is right or wrong, when a character has to die, whether I like it or not. I think this is because the story is resonating at some profound emotional level. It is not about literal facts or actual events that took place in the past. What happens is that we’re not just guided by all the rational possibilities in the future, we’re also guided by emotional associations to past experiences."

Key questions

  1. Can imagination be completely dissociated from memory according to Siri Hustvedt?
  2. Does Siri Hustvedt believe in pure fiction?
  3. In what way can a writer use his past experiences to make sure his fiction will sound right?


A conversation with Patrick McGuinness


Patrick McGuinness is a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford. His first novel, The Last Hundred Days, deals with the end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. It is partly autobiographical as the author spent some time in Bucharest in the late 1980's.

"I had a strange job teaching English to diplomats, mostly French people in fact because there was a Lycée français in Bucharest and I taught some of the teachers English. That’s why I ended up in Bucharest at that time. The book is partly autobiographical. It’s not what the French call autofiction but it is a book that uses quite a lot of my own experiences and sadly not the exciting ones. All the exciting experiences to do with high politics or sexual intrigue I had to use my imagination for. All the bits about being bored I took from le vif as you would say..."

Key questions

  1. Use the internet to find out about autofiction. In what way does it differ from fiction?
  2. What kind of life experiences did Patrick McGuinness use to write his novel? Which elements did he make up?
  3. According to you, why did the author choose to rely both on fiction and autobiographical elements to write his novel? What is the advantage of such a composition?


Pour citer cette ressource :

"Writing on the self", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2014. Consulté le 21/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/se-former/workbook/first-person-narratives-lele/writing-on-the-self