Born in 1941 in Oakland, California, where Gertrude Stein had grown up fifty years earlier, Lyn Hejinian is a poet, essaysist, translator, and publisher who currently lives and teaches in Berkeley, California.
Hejinian's work explores how personal identity may be constructed by and through language. Her experimental autobiography My Life, first published in 1980, is the purest example of this poetic project, and established her as one of the foremost members of the Language school of poetry.
My Life is composed of titled prose paragraphs, each built of disjunctive sentences that avoid coherence. The text is allusive and often ambiguous. Many of the sentences appear as windows into a life, while others act as brief aphorisms on the making of the book itself. Phrases recur and weave together as motifs throughout, making new meanings through repetition. However, Hejinian keeps overall coherence at arm's length: she acknowledges that when writing any history it is "impossible to get close to the original, or to know 'what really happened.'" As the book begins:
"A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left, was purple—though moments are no longer so colored. Somewhere, in the background, rooms share a patern of small roses. Pretty is as pretty does. In certain families, the meaning of necessity is at one with the sentiment of pre-necessity. The better things were gathered in a pen. The windows were narrowed by white gauze curtains which were never loosened. Here I refer to irrelevance, that rigidity which never intrudes. Hence, repetitions, free from all ambition."
Another significant feature of the work is how it has changed over time. When originally published in 1980, My Life consisted of 37 prose sections, each consisting of 37 sentences; 37 was Hejinian's age at the time of its writing. Seven years later, a revised edition appeared, expanding the text to 45 sections of 45 sentences, in accordance with the author's age yet again. Hejinian has continued to update the book over time, allowing it to grow with her, and has released a further volume entitled My Life in the Nineties (Shark, 2003). In her essay "The Rejection of Closure," published in The Language of Inquiry (UC Press, 2000) Hejinian explains the reasons for making such an "open text":
"The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The 'open text' often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification."
My Life represents a breakthrough in several respects. It questions the nature of autobiography and challenges the idea of memoir, reevaluating what it means to call a piece of writing a "life." It defines identity by fragmentation, which characterizes the postmodern bent of Hejinian's fellow Language poets. It is also a hallmark of feminist experimental writing, establishing a new and distinct voice. But the book's greatest strength may be its openness to interpretation. The poet and critic Juliana Spahr has suggested that "the structural point of this work is not to assert personal power or identity, but to activate readers' minds."