AFTER THE years total up, or an accomplishment or event separates one life from all the others, some people turn to autobiography.

Marita Golden faced the empty tablets at 29, with "Migrations of the Heart."

"I stumbled into writing it," she says. "The thought of writing an autobiography at the time scared me to death. 'I am only 29 years old--can I do this?' I asked."

But Golden had something to say.

"I wanted to meditate on what it meant to grow in the '60s, what it meant to go to Africa the first time, what it meant to be a modern black American woman living in that milieu. I had to bring order to the chaos of memory."

This Washington day the sun is shining, and inside a cafeteria Golden is sprinkling a sunny charm and confidence. All her scars are in the book, not in the petite, heart-shaped face, the long hands gesturing across the table or the blue print dress. Her book is going into a second printing and is a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection.

"I did not intend to write a confessional and I don't think it is a confessional. What I wanted to do was write a book that would take my life and shape it into an artifact that could inform and possibly inspire. There's a big difference between doing that and just spilling your guts," she says.

Dramatized in Golden's different voices--sometimes she is totally detached from the story and other times she soars with vigorous poetic passages--"Migrations" tells the story of a girl watching her parents' warring jealousies and affections; of a high school junior thrust into political and emotional upheaval, and eventual maturity by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; of a student going to American University in 1968 at the height of the black consciousness movement; and of a bride leaving home to live in her husband's country of Nigeria.

In the last few years, black women writers have received a technicolor burst of attention. Toni Morrison garnered a National Book Critics Circle Award for "Song of Solomon" and a Newsweek cover for "Tar Baby." More recently, Alice Walker won an American Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for "The Color Purple," and Gloria Naylor received an American Book Award citation for her first book, "Women of Brewster Street." Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange have been successes in a variety of literary media.

These writers are candid about homosexual and heterosexual sex, equally frank about the sexual warfare between men and women; they use freely the traditions of black fable and language, and spiritual and physical journeys as motifs to illustrate change in their characters. Golden avoids one of the most criticized trends by drawing her male characters as neither gods or demons. Her father, a cab driver, is a large, complex character, a walking encyclopedia of black history and an unabashed womanizer.

"Since the turn of the century, black women writers have written about themselves as heroines, set in their families and their communities. The home is the metaphor for society," says Claudia Tate, a professor at Howard University and the editor of a new collection, "Black Women Writers at Work." "In all the autobiographies, the women are always questing outward. But in the novels the heroines are almost always stationary."

Some black male writers feel they have been victimized by the publishers' rush to promote the generally more personal, less polemic works of black women. Tate and Golden feel the women writers have a larger, less threatening reach. "The black women writers tend not to label the white as the antagonist, or cloak that in symbolism, and they have a balance of good and bad whites," says Tate.

Originally, Golden intended to earn her living as a journalist. She interned at the Baltimore Sun, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. Now she is finishing a novel, and plans to spend next year in Africa, reporting on the media and women.

It wasn't until a few years ago when a literary agent, looking at her unfinished novel, was impressed with her descriptions of Africa that "Migrations" took shape.

At first the story was difficult to write.

"I had a lot of pain to get over, naturally associated with my husband, separation and divorce. I was writing and writing but it wasn't meaningful," says Golden, who by that time was teaching in Boston, where she and her son, now 5, have lived for the last four years.

"Then I went to see a therapist, dumped all my anger on her, and went home and started writing. The longer I stayed with it, the less it hurt me. I found that by putting it on paper the demons weren't nearly as terrifying as they were in my mind. The distance helped. The longer I wrote, the less it was my story, the more it was just the story of this woman."

As one of the first young black writers to describe a contemporary urban African experience, Golden ends up saying:

"Most Africans I have talked to have said I was fair, that I was perceptive, and some have said I wasn't hard enough on Nigeria. The experience of living in Africa is ambivalent. There I was doing well in my career. I had opportunities over there that never would have come so soon here in the States, despite the fact that Nigeria is rigorously chauvinistic. But my marriage was closing in around me, restricting me. I can't think of anything else more ambiguous than that, more confusing.

"My thing is I don't feel I owe Nigeria a public relations job. I didn't try to do one on myself either."

Now that her meditation is written, she is ready to pursue another journey.

"This idea that there is a destination, that you get to that and that's it, is fraudulent--that's why I ended the book saying I have wondered and I will wonder still."