Intensely personal essays explore autobiography as a means of creative self-examination.
Foster (All the Lost Girls, 2000) organizes these pieces, most of which have previously been published in various anthologies and literary magazines, into three sections: “Inside the Girls’ Room,” “Inside the Writing Room,” and “Inside My Skin.” Or so the table of contents indicates. The actual arrangement bears little resemblance to the proposed structure, which seems to have been an attempt to form a cohesive whole out of essays written at different times in the author’s life. No matter. Their unity of theme persists regardless of their placement here. The author looks closely at what it means to be a southerner, to be white, to be middle-class, and to be a woman in the various roles that that implies. She examines how her life has been shaped by her genteel upbringing in a small southern town where girls were expected to be charming. Ambition, she admits, “swam through my bloodstream like a virus,” and she puzzled over how to pursue it without relinquishing feminine charm. After college and a failed marriage, she returned to her parents’ home in Alabama in her 20s, conflicted and confused. Fleeing the South, where she didn’t fit in, Foster moved to Los Angeles, attempted for a while to write fiction, and then moved to Iowa, where she discovered that writing autobiography was her métier, a way to tell her own story and probe her own identity. One of her most effective pieces, “Skin,” tells of trying to teach memoir writing to a class of 20 people in a storefront library in Tuskegee, a small town in Alabama’s Black Belt. Foster, who arrived believing that autobiographical writing would somehow magically bring people closer to themselves as well as to each other, feels anxious, awkward, and terribly conscious of her whiteness. By the second day the class has shrunk to six, and the writing lesson becomes a lesson in racism.
Perceptive, thoughtful—and thought-provoking—with abundant moments of insight.