module specification

SJ6000A - Life Writing to Fiction Part 1 (2017/18)

Module specification Module approved to run in 2017/18
Module title Life Writing to Fiction Part 1
Module level Honours (06)
Credit rating for module 15
School The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design (The Cass)
Total study hours 150
45 hours Scheduled learning & teaching activities
105 hours Guided independent study
Assessment components
Type Weighting Qualifying mark Description
Oral Examination 40%   A presentation in class (five minutes approx.) on a contemporary memoir
Coursework 60%   A memoir or biographical piece of 2000 words, accompanied by 1000 word commentary
Running in 2017/18 No instances running in the year

Module summary

This module explores diverse approaches to life writing, both historical and contemporary, and develops student awareness of their own personal and literary histories. Students will reflect on the differences between autobiography, memoir and biography, and analyse contemporary published examples of each.  The module will teach how to identify themes and specific time periods from students’ own lives and develop the literary skills to portray these in non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and other genres.  Students will be expected to explore and auto/biographical contexts such as physical environment, gender, ethnicity, local and family history, ethics, and the broader social milieu; and discuss how theories of the self have contributed to the importance of life writing in contemporary literature.

Module aims

This module aims to:

  • Consider a range of published autobiography, biography and memoir
  • Examine key stylistic aspects of contemporary life writing
  • Explore important themes, contexts and ethics through your own life writing
  • Evaluate and adapt life writing to poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction.


Students will be introduced to traditional and contemporary examples of biography and autobiography, and the more contemporary popularity of the memoir genre, through lectures, discussions and guided reading. Students will start writing their own memoir through specific exercises and discussion of the roles of voice, memory and imagination. Subgenres of life writing such as the misery memoir (Andrew Ashworth, Frank McCourt) will be questioned and the module will explore how life writing informs yet differs from creative nonfiction, prose fiction and poetry (looking at texts by Alice Sebold, Dave Eggars  and others) . In addition, students will be expected to discuss and develop their own ethical code, and debate examples of published memoir and fiction, such as James Frey and Julie Myerson, which challenge readers’ expectations.  While the module discusses the literary quality of contemporary life writing, students will also learn about practical skills, such as ghost writing, blogging and also developing students’ C.V., all of which have a clear employability aspects.

Learning and teaching

This module will be taught in a programme of weekly sessions over 15 weeks comprising of lectures, seminars, screenings and blended learning.  Contact time will include weekly blocks in which students will discuss designated reading, and read and give feedback on weekly writing exercises, under the guidance of a tutor. Students will be expected to write during and between sessions and to share their work in large groups, small groups and online in a tutor moderated forum. Each session will introduce new skills and themes for students to incorporate into their own writing projects. We will make use of guest speakers with a specialism in life writing, and also make field trips to venues such as the Women’s Library, The National Portrait Gallery, and the Museum of Childhood. Field trips will develop specific employability and interpersonal skills based on pro-active research-based tasks. Class work will develop employability skills including presentations, writing to professional standards, showing market and readership awareness, and generating an individual ethical code.  The Personal Development Portfolio will be enriched by all of these strategies, and also by reflecting on the connection between the critical and creative practice of life writing. The module will have a weblearn site comprising PDFs of designated reading, class notes, recommended reading and links, and a tutor moderated online forum where students are expected to post short writing extracts and offer informed feedback on the work of others.  Students will also be encouraged to keep a blog related to life-writing.

Learning outcomes

On completing this module students will be able to

  1. Identify key stylistic and thematic elements of contemporary autobiography, memoir and biography
  2. Analyse examples of contemporary life writing in terms of theme, style, readership, ethics and literary quality
  3. Produce a short edited memoir or other example of life writing
  4. Produce an extract of creative nonfiction, drama, prose fiction or poetic sequence drawing directly on prior life-writing.

Assessment strategy

  • Formative assessment will comprise weekly written exercises both creative and critical, workshop pieces of longer length, writing and research projects on field trips, oral and online contributions to seminars and workshops.
  • Summative assessment will comprise: oral and written presentation and analyses of published life writing; life writing, adaptations of life writing to other written genres, and reflective writing on the development of style, voice, theme, genre, and ethics.
    A presentation  in class (five minutes approx.) on a contemporary memoir selected by the student, identifying style, theme, voice and readership, accompanied by 1000 words of notes or 10-slide ppt file.
    A memoir or biographical piece of 2000 words, accompanied by 1000 word commentary identifying your stylistic and thematic choices and editing decisions.


Practical Guides to Life Writing

Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir, Eighth Mountain Press, 2002
Sally Cline, Carole Angier, eds.,The Arvon Book of Life Writing: Writing Biography, Autobiography and Memoir, Methuen, 2010.
Sarah Haslam, Derek Neale, Life Writing, Routledge, 2008

Supplementary Critical Reading

Paul Eakin (ed), The Ethics of Life Writing, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004
Paul Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999
Thomas Larson, The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, Swallow Press, 2007

Indicative Texts

Ashworth, Andrea, Once in a House on Fire, Picador, 1998
Eggers, Dave A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Picador 2001
Frey, James, A Million Little Pieces, John Murray 2004
Kay, Jackie, The Adoption Papers, Bloodaxe 2000; Life Mask, Bloodaxe, 2005
Keenan, Brian, An Evil Cradling, Hutchinson, 1992
Soyinka, Wole, Ake/Isara, Methuen 2000