Creative Matters

Literary (Creative Nonfiction) Docu-Memoir: A Different Way of Writing a Life


  • Jo (Joan-Annette) Parnell University of Newcastle Australia



Literary docu-memoir, new form, first-person writing, writing lives, personal histories, affective states.


Pioneered by the British writer Tony Parker, literary docu-memoir is a rare form that involves the creative nonfiction writer interviewing and audio-taping ordinary people for their unusual life experience as the resource material for a literary production. In everyday conversation, people use a language of their own making to make sense of their experiences for themselves and the person they are talking to. The literary docu-memoir brings out a deeper level of meaning in the speech and the reflections of ordinary people as elicited by the docu-memoirist.

In this paper I offer a working definition, and discuss how I evolved the form adapted from that of Parker to fit my own work on care leavers. There are urgent ethical issues in relation to making public distressing episodes from the subjects' lives, and for the writer in relation to readers. In a fictionalised documentary, how does the writer make clear where the boundary lies between fiction and fact, and verbatim and edited testimony? There are also literary questions: How much should the researcher appear in the narrative? How to use the powerful raw material, and recreate the subject’s experience, in a way that readers can access the essence of that experience? 

This article was submitted to the EJLW on 14 August 2014 and published on 29 October 2014. 

Author Biography

Jo (Joan-Annette) Parnell, University of Newcastle Australia

Jo Parnell holds a PhD in English and Writing, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is a Conjoint Fellow to the School of Humanities and Social Science, and also a part-time reviewer on the editorial board of the journal Auto/Fiction, and a volunteer research assistant to the Rare Book Collection, Cultural Collections Auchmuty Library, University of Newcastle, Australia. Professor Hugh Craig, formerly her principal supervisor, is her mentor. Jo Parnell is an essayist, memoirist, literary docu-memoirist, and has published nationally, and internationally. Currently, apart from submitting journal articles and speaking at conferences on her subject, she is seeking a publisher for her work of literary docu-memoir, titled See Saw Margery Daw (which she wrote as a part of her doctoral dissertation), and for her memoir, The Carpet Child. As well, at present, she is writing a work of creative non-fiction with the working title of Journal of a Young Man at Sea, and is in the process of drafting a text book on how to write literary docu-memoir.







Creative Matters