Just beneath My Skin: Autobiography and Self-Discovery

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Writing about oneself, says Patricia Foster, "engages in truth but depends on the imagination, on the life just beneath the skin, a life that's impressionistic and fragile." These eleven closely linked personal essays are at once an absorbing chronicle of a life fully undertaken and a model for anyone who has contemplated self-investigation through autobiographical writing.

The book's three sections each convey a stage of Foster's journey--still ongoing--toward new levels of insight and maturity. "Inside the Girls' Room" takes us back to Foster's life in the rural South from the 1950s through the early 1970s. Here she reveals the mixed messages and stereotypes of southern womanhood by which she was raised-and from which she fled. With adulthood, Foster moves to "Inside the Writing Room," a place dotted with discoveries about autobiography as a path to creative expression and inner coherence. Finally, at the place in her life Foster calls "Inside My Skin," autobiography helps her to explore and to claim her cultural identity. Returning to her native South, she holds a writing workshop for a group composed mostly of middle-aged black women, visits a beloved maid from her childhood, and returns to old haunts as a witness to her concerns about race and class.

This gathering of lyrical essays explores the intelligent, intuitive heart of a woman struggling to claim both her identity and her place in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this collection of autobiographical essays, writing professor Foster (Univ. of Iowa) reveals her growth as both a writer and a human being, describing her journey from repression and confusion to self-awareness. She sees writing as a form of healing and self-knowing, alternating between stories from her life and stories about her development as a writer. While her ideals are admirable and her writing strong, Foster does travel familiar ground: Fifties childhood, Southern heritage, white girl and black maid, the search for identity, and seeing one's mother more clearly. Her stories often fail to move from the personal to the universal, focusing solely on the past. In the end, these idealized memories of childhood, home, and community don't quite reveal how this young girl became the woman she is today. Recommended only for academic libraries supporting writing programs and large public libraries.-Nancy Almand, Weld Lib. Dist., Greeley, CO Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 metier, 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 somehowmagically 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.
From the Publisher

"This is a beautifully written collection of essays that explores central issues of female identity. With unflinching honesty, Foster takes on the large and emotionally charged topics of class, race, and gender. She makes a strong case for the autobiography—why it is more important than ever in our contemporary world."--Mary Swander, author of The Desert Pilgrim

"Like all good writers, Patricia Foster knows that the best stories are those we carry around inside us. Her art is to hold moments of everyday experience—as daughter, woman, lover, wife; as child at home and as adult returning to childhood territory—up to the light and see what insights can be gleaned from them."--Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost

"What is remarkable about this collection of fine essays is how often the intense I of autobiography evokes a readerly and me. Foster goes in search of her identity, and plumbs what it is to be southern, to be white, to be a woman, and to be a self."--Janet Burroway, author of Embalming Mom: Essays in Life

"A valuable and honest look at one woman’s confrontation with herself in the context of culture, place, and history. It is likewise a treatise, one powerfully demonstrated within the pages of all five memoirs—on the ways that writing about one’s own life can lead to recovery of the past through memory and imagination, as well as to an enlightened understanding of one’s present and the ways it was shaped by that past."--Georgia Review

"Intensely personal essays explore autobiography as a means of creative self-examination. . . . Perceptive, thoughtful—and thought-provoking—with abundant moments of insight"--Kirkus Reviews

"Intelligent, self-deprecating, warm, and lively, Just beneath My Skin is engaging and thought-provoking."--Pam Kingsbury, Southern Scribe

"Although writers can feel alone and alienated, Foster seems to have found a place of redemption, where she is at home living beyond the ordinary, which, in turn, infuses her writing with its notable lyricism. Though a lifetime in the making, her story is told with the grace and ease of a ‘yesterday’ discovery."--Booklist

"Filled with moving and humorous anecdotes, as well as with serious considerations of autobiography's aims and methods, Foster's collection is bound together by beautiful prose and unflinching honesty. Clearly, she herself adheres to the advice that she dispenses to her students: 'Writing requires risk.' And it is this sort of truthful scrutiny that extends her collection beyond its apparent subject matter: 'the life of a southern girl who ran away from the South but who, deep in her bones, feels the pull of that history, that story.'"--Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820326887
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 190

Meet the Author

Patricia Foster is an associate professor in the MFA Program in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. She is the author of All the Lost Girls; editor of Minding the Body and Sister to Sister; and coeditor of The Healing Circle. She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, a Dean's Scholar Award, and a Florida Arts Council Award. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Just beneath My Skin 1
Inside the Girls' Room
A Second Look 12
Outside the Hive 36
A Letter to Southern Girls about Beauty 53
Goody-Goody Girls 61
Inside the Writing Room
My Savage Mind 76
When the House Began to Tremble 86
A Place at the Table 98
The Intelligent Heart 108
Inside My Skin
Skin 116
The Last Essay on Southern Identity 133
The New Royalists 150
What Planet Are You From? 165
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