Narratives of Self & Society: Writing Life Stories for Change with Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens

Last month, the Transformative Language Arts Network launched their second self-paced class offering, Narratives of Self & Society: Writing Life Stories for Change created by Liz Burke-Cravens. Here in this interview, Liz shares what inspired her to create this class, the transformative potential of writing life stories, and what you can expect from the course.   

What inspired you to teach this class?

My own experiences with autobiographical writing have been inspiring my own writing and my teaching for quite some time. When I was in the eighth grade, my English teacher – whom I absolutely adored – required students to write an autobiography. As I put the narrative together, writing the words in my vulnerable young voice, I felt something inside of me shift. Although I did not have the language to describe what had changed, I simply knew that I saw myself differently than I had before. There was something about the act of putting my feelings and thoughts into words, writing them down on paper, and telling the story of my own life experiences that has fascinated me ever since.As an undergraduate at UMass Amherst, I wrote my first autoethnography – although I did not call it that at the time; I called it a political autobiography. This autoethnography was a collection of poems I titled, “My Body Speaks” in which I gave voice to the stories and emotions living within my body as an act of reclamation and empowerment.

Writing that poetic autoethnography forever changed how I perceived myself and how I walked through the world.

How is writing life stories – drawing from practices of autoethnography specifically – a transformative experience? What makes the this medium different from other forms of expression?

These experiences inspired my doctoral research which explored autoethnography as a personally and socially transformative mode of inquiry and expression of life stories. I was also particularly interested in learning about the unique value of autoethnography as a platform for underrepresented voices.

The findings of my study corroborated my own transformative experience writing autoethnography. My findings also expanded my understanding of it as well. Through writing an autoethnography, participants in my study experienced:

  • Personal growth, which reflected their experiences of personal development that included increased self-awareness, self-acceptance, confidence building, different worldview, and educational process;
  • An emotional process, which reflected their experiences of a variety of emotional realities and processes including painful or difficult emotions, joyful or fun emotions, feelings of liberation, therapeutic or healing experiences, and feelings of vulnerability;
  • Social connectedness, which reflected their responses related to experiences of the self in relation to others that included social responsibility, increased sense of belonging or connection, and
  • Transpersonal experiences which reflected their descriptions of qualities beyond their control and contributed to his or her sense of wholeness and spiritual growth.

Overall, autoethnography facilitated personal growth, greater self-awareness, greater awareness of contexts and systems in which one participates, and provided a meaningful creative experience.

Who/What are some of your favorite life-story writers?

This is always a tough question. The first writers that come to mind are Joan Nestle whose work A Restricted Country was a life changer for me as a young activist. Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman: The Story of Two Lives was also pivotal for me, and anything and everything written by Dorothy Allison – Two or Three Things I Know for Sure and Bastard Out of Carolina, in particular, have been my favorites.

As far as poets who write about their lives, I think of Marie Howe, Toi Derricotte, Sharon Olds, Ada Limon, and Claudia Rankine come to mind.  

What should students in this class expect?

Although this is a self-paced class, my intention was to be your guide, helping you navigate the content and the writing students will do. They will have the opportunity to do quite a bit of self-reflective writing, investigating the stories of their life experiences from a variety of different vantage points, exploring memories, learning from others on their journey, and describing places that are or have been meaningful to them.

I will also guide you through a 10-step process for creating powerful and evocative life stories for the purpose of personal and social transformation. They will learn about what that means in general as well as what it means for them in particular. They will also have the option to engage in a number of creative prompts intended to help generate more writing and to keep their creative self inspired.

Each unit consists of a brief podcast lecture by me, a few articles and book chapters for you to read, related video and audio content, writing project development instructions, and creative prompts.

Is there anything else about this class you would like to share?

One really important point I want to share is that there is no one “right” way to do autoethnography. In fact, we encounter this type of life-story writing all the time; we just don’t call it autoethnography. But drawing on certain aspects of more formal autoethnographic processes and considerations can greatly enrich our life stories, making them powerful narratives for change.

My hope is that folks will approach this course, the resources, lectures, and writing and creative prompts with a sense of curiosity and playfulness. Have fun with this and enjoy!

For more information and to sign up for class, visit https://www.tlanetwork.org/event-3173329 .

About Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens

Dr. Liz Burke-Cravens is a poet, interdisciplinary educator, and writing coach. She is the founder of A Brave Space, a learning community that seeks to create positive social change and personal transformation through writing. Her work has appeared in Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, Volume 2, The Irish Herald, Soulstice: A Feminist Anthology Volume II, and Sandy River Review. Liz enjoys traveling, cycling, photography, and all things foodie. She has a deep love for language and a passion for teaching. Originally from Portland, Maine, she now lives in Oakland, California with her wife, Amber, and their two dogs, Schmoopie and Mr. Bits. You can learn more about her work, courses, and inspirations at http://www.abravespace.org.

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