Emily O. Wittman’s The New Midlife Self-Writing and Ongoing Optimism

Photo by Ornela Vorpsi

The end of spring semester always brings with it a fleeting sense of conclusion. Another set of grades and the rush of students up and out of Tuscaloosa. Graduating seniors leave their final exams with a mixed sense of triumph, assuredness, and relief. Their graduation the next societal marker of progress they’ve met. Another checkmark or rung on whichever ubiquitous and linear metaphor we use to describe living. However, in The New Midlife Self-Writing, Dr. Emily O. Wittman documents and argues for an autobiographical shift away from the simple narrative arc by examining the work of several midlife self-writers. Discussing and dissecting Rachel Cusk’s, Aftermath, Roxane Gay’s, Hunger, Sarah Manguso’s, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and Maggie Nelson’s, The Argonauts, Dr. Wittman depicts authors charting cyclical courses of living whose focuses no longer lie on careerist endpoints, but in continued growth and instruction. A churning that, while at moments brutal, is the regenerative and honest progression of these writers’ lives.

As a way of introduction, can you discuss the parameters of your project: how have you defined midlife and self-writing? What drew you to these particular self-writers as a focus for your scholarship?

Self-writing, as I discuss in the book, is a term that captures all forms of writing that touch on the self. For the past three years, I’ve been a part of a small group of women all over the country who read and write nonfiction and work together over Zoom, looking at work by Saidiya Hartman, Melissa Febros, Cathy Park Hong, and Claudia Rankine, among many others. This in addition to my personal reading, was the natural path to this group of authors ands texts although, for my purposes, I narrowed the book to women writing in their forties who are going through changes and alterations to their lives. The book is dedicated to my dissertation advisor, Dr. Maria DiBattista, who always said that the forties are the best time of a woman’s life. The book tests her thesis, and, I think, comes out optimistic. On the other hand, recently she changed the best years of a woman’s life to her sixties, so I’ll have something new to write about in twenty years and a lot to look forward to.

The “autobiographical pact” is something your book takes aim at. Can you speak a little to your definition of that pact, and why you were questioning it or attuned to finding the questioning of it in these writers?

The “autobiographical pact,” Philippe Lejeune’s celebrated term, has to do with a fixed self-identity over time. The titles of memoirs and autobiographies themselves—for instance, the life of important person X—imply a very linear formula that unites the writer’s name on the title page, the narrator, and the title of book. Pace Lejeune, the works I look at have a less firm sense of identity over time and avoid the conversion aspect of autobiography that has dominated the last two thousand years. We can take, for example, Augustine, whose confessions can be written precisely because of his conversion, a conversion that allows him to look back at his earlier years with a sense of finality, and a sense that he is past them and can write about them because of that.

I see the women under study troubling this pact and the traditional conversion narrative of conventional self-writing. They are witnessing and experiencing both physical changes to their bodies and circumstantial changes to their lives; both affect their identities. They are also uninterested in, or wary of, claiming that same authoritative space that was previously expected of autobiographical writers, by not titling their work as confessions or autobiographies.

Beyond this, the culture at large tends to reinforce the idea that a woman’s life is over when she’s forty. So, for these women to speak of midlife at all, they are already breaking certain norms or “pacts” about who can speak, when they can speak, what they can speak about and to whom. By remaining optimistic about the present and the future, by charting continual growth and the expansion of self, they are radical.

Your work points to these authors avoiding triumphalism. What do you see in this replacement or refiguring of intention or focus?

Generally, a person’s growth into adulthood is associated with the transition to adulthood—again, think of the traditional autobiography, but also consider the Bildungsroman. The idea of Bildung at midlife doesn’t really exist in the classic autobiographical paradigm. In that tradition, you are supposed to be a finished product directing the reader from your post-maturation vantage point, often from a place of financial and/or career triumph.

We can see how these ideas of triumph can be one-dimensional. Augustine’s conversion narrative has an afterlife in the trendy addiction narrative, as these books are written post-addiction, and narrate from that perspective. Most of these narratives have clear demarcations—before, after; denial, acceptance; wrong, right—for a reader to follow. In this way, historical paradigms have privileged achievement, either general or specific, as an endpoint to be reached.

These women, by contrast, are navigating series of breaks, traumas, and depredations that demonstrate that their midlife is not static. They respond to these changes positively, even when the changes might be perceived as losses. I see such reorientation toward contemporaneous challenges as optimistic. They situate midlife as a space of future possibility for new beginning, redirection, and growth, a place of Bildung, however much narrower the horizons than those of early adulthood.

You argue that the books you discuss are works of “wisdom literature” that make use of “pedagogical style.” How do you define these terms, and why did you want to make these distinctions clear? What do you see in these works’ desire to instruct?

My undergraduate degree is in philosophy, and, as a part of that curriculum, I read only one book by a woman in my entire undergraduate major (in addition, in my year, I was one of three or four non-male majors out of around sixty total students). These are reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD. in comparative literature as opposed to philosophy, although I never gave up doing philosophical work. I believe that women are, and have long been, doing philosophy, but the classification systems that we have, tend to exclude that work as philosophy. In that sense, in this book, I test the boundaries of philosophical enquiry to claim that these writers are, among other things, doing philosophical work, work that might be acknowledged as such over time. Perhaps their work will be reclassified someday.

I build philosophical frameworks for the works that I look at in the book. One instance of this is my use of Virginia Woolf’s categories for time, as expressed in her fiction, but perhaps most saliently in her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past.” She’s not widely thought of as a philosopher, but I think that she is as profound a phenomenologist as those in the current philosophical canon with her analysis of perception and her notion of “moments of being.”

In terms of “pedagogical style,” there are specific aspects that I detail in the book, including frequent use of rhetorical tropes and a lack of unnecessary density. One of the things that interests me most is the ways in which writing, since the advent of the MFA program, has been informed by the classroom and the workshop. The way these women write is more accessible, more welcoming to a broader audience, especially in terms of the theories they discuss. But this in no way diminishes their literary and philosophical import. Indeed, it augments it.

Your discussion and critique of triumph in this book, seems, at least to me, to point toward replacing or rethinking the narrative line or arc (with hard beginning and endpoints). Do you see that in these works? What do you think replaces that paradigm?

Yes. I think that these writers all point to the midlife as a place to start over. This makes the process of living, to borrow from Sarah Manguso’s title, an ongoing one. It might also be a shared one. Many of the experiences these women discuss–for instance, Maggie Nelson discussing the ways pregnancy changes her body–cannot be considered experiences to which they have an exclusive right. So, the idea of clear endpoints or individual triumph appears somewhat obsolete.

How do you see your work setting the table for the dialogue you call for between the academic self-writers and self-writing academics? Where do you hope that dialogue might lead?

To one extent or another, these women, all of them associated at some point with the workshop, are doing that work. In addition the workshop-based writing courses that I have enrolled in myself, I had, for over a decade, a wonderful arrangement with my (now emeritus) creative writing colleague Michael Martone, whereby we would each visit each other’s classes every semester. I have also served on countless MFA theses. As MFA students often take the literature and critical theory courses offered by the literature program, I have witnessed so much creative interface between MFA students and literature MAs and PhDs. So many of them are interested in the relationship between traditional scholarship and non-scholarly writing. It is a shared interest, which I think is exciting for everyone. This discussion is happening organically and I address it in my teaching as well as in my book. Last fall, I taught one of the most significant courses for me in my career. It was a graduate course called “Pedagogical Style,” and joined six MA and PhD literature students with six MFA students to discuss the books I deal with in my monograph but also four others. The conversations and final projects for that class confirmed that this is a positive way to go forward.

You mentioned a couple of additional self-writers, Kate Zambreno and Jenn Shapland, in your coda who you were following in terms of “pedagogical style.” Are there any other self-writers currently intriguing you or any further developments in the genre of contemporary self-writing that you have your critical eye focused on?

Cathy Park Hong’s, Minor Feelings, and Claudia Rankine’s, Just Us, are two recent books that occupy this space, even if they don’t quite fit into the specific parameters I was considering in this book in terms of age, and, in the case of Hong, being published after I finished my book. Claudia Rankine has been doing this cross-genre work for a while, as have many others. Indeed, Rankine’s Just Us (2020), makes use of evidence for her concerns by means of face à face notes.

It appears that you have a book that is forthcoming and another book that is under contract, each on your other scholarly focuses, travel writing and translation. What are you excited about for these works, and what else is on the horizon for you?

Yes, the new book, Interwar Itineraries: Authenticity in Anglophone and French Travel Writing, just came out. The title gives a good sense of my mission in the book. I am excited about the book because it is a book with bilingual origins that draws on resources that I first developed as a PhD student. I’m very excited about publishing inclusively (stringently peer reviewed and published in both print and open access). I love the idea that my work can be read by anyone in the world and not just by those with access to a research library.

The only silver lining of the pandemic was that I had more time to write. Stuck in my house for that long, socializing only with my husband, I had the opportunity to devote myself to writing in a recalibrated way. Relatedly, I’ve had the chance to stretch the boundaries of my writing and teaching. I like versatility in scholarship and I’m lucky to be in a department that welcomes a comparative approach. I never thought I’d write about the present; now I’d like to do it again!

Currently, the main thing that I am working on is a book on translation and modernism, Translation and Modernism: The Art of Co-Creation, that is under contract with Routledge in their translation series. I’m also finishing an essay that is part of a Festschrift for my doctoral advisor, whom I mentioned above. My essay will be part of a collection of essays on literary friendships. I’m excited about both projects!



–Brett Shaw