What Is Spiritual Memoir?
Back when I was first learning to write memoir, my mentor, Larry Sutin, said offhandedly, “You really ought to read some spiritual memoir since you’re writing in that genre.” Spiritual memoir? I’d never heard of it, and now, apparently, I was writing one. So I devoured the books he handed me – Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Margery Kempe, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen…all unbroken, wild rides through the Christian faith. Later I would widen my reading to include Sufi memoirs, Jewish, Buddhist, New Age, and memoirs by authors who would surely rebuke me for calling them “spiritual.” All these books pulsed with passion for meaning, truth, and mystery. I discovered within them themes, structures, and patterns of writing that mirrored my own. While each author’s experience of the spiritual was unique, the way these experiences emerged in writing was strikingly similar. Spiritual memoir writing has special pitfalls and pleasures. It is a form unto its own.
Philip Zaleski, who edits the annual Best Spiritual Writing series, defines spiritual writing as “poetry or prose that deals with the bedrock of human existence – why we are here, where we are going and how we can comport ourselves with dignity along the way.”
Spiritual memoir, then, is a genre in which one’s life is written with particular attention paid to the mysteries of that life. It uses the material of the past and present to ask, What is the source of my existence? What makes me tick? What gives me breath, or hope, or inspiration? Invariably, spiritual memoir places one’s life in relationship to something greater, whether that something be God or oneness or the earth or death. Unlike literary memoir, the purpose of writing spiritual memoir is only secondarily to create a well-crafted work. Spiritual memoirists write because we know that writing brings us nearer to an ineffable essence.
Three Qualities of Spiritual Memoir
Three qualities make spiritual memoir unique. First, the writer of spiritual memoir works to uncover, probe, and honor what is sacred within his or her own life story. In this sense, the heart of spiritual memoir is intensely private-an intimate conversation between oneself and a great mystery. In more traditional spiritual memoirs, this evidences itself when the author periodically veers from the story to sing praises or address the sacred in prayer. “How hidden you are,” Augustine wails, “you who dwell on high in silence, you the sole great God!” St. Teresa of Avila felt God waiting for her story, and addressed him from the outset: “I pray Him with all my heart for the grace to write this account… The Lord, too, I know, has long desired that it should be written, but I have never been bold enough to begin. May it be to His glory and praise.” We see a similar impulse in contemporary memoir, when authors raise ruthless questions, grapple with awe and suffering, and persistently attempt to describe the indescribable. However it manifests itself, in spiritual memoir the author’s engagement with mystery is always at the fore.
Reaching into Mystery
Every spiritual memoir reaches into mystery, attempting to place a human life in a broader, sacred context. Our task as writers is to not shy from the unknown, but to interact with it-to stretch our hand forward into the abyss. This is the second distinguishing attribute of spiritual memoir: The writing itself becomes a means for spiritual growth. Often the writer stumbles on this strange occurrence mid-draft, suddenly discovering that writing can be an avenue for prayer, or a means of wrestling with angels, or a form of contemplation. Regardless, writing furthers our relationship with mystery, and this becomes a primary motivation.
Many writers say that they write to discover what they think. The wiring of our brains is such that only the written word can bring clarity. Those who write spiritual memoir write to find out what we believe, or, more fundamentally, what we know to be sacred and true. The rough draft of one’s spiritual story lays the experience out in a manageable fashion.
Consequent drafts, as we hone details, smooth transitions, and work to create an artistic whole out of our stories, unify our experiences and makes them tangible. Writing, and especially revision, enables us to delve into our stories’ layers of symbolism, dissonance, and purpose. By writing down our spirit’s story, we get a better grasp on the entirety of it. Awareness that the soul’s journey is bound to the writing journey shines clearly through all spiritual memoir.
“I am by no means devout or holy, but life’s experiences—its joys and tragedies, hatreds and forgivings — have finally led me to a basic assuredness about my theology. I didn’t arrive at this assuredness, mind you, because I am a theologian. My training in theology provided me with the language to talk about what I’ve discovered, but finding this solid place is something anyone can do. All it takes is a willingness to look at your life honestly—what you’ve done, or not; how you’ve loved, or not; what tragedies you’ve lived through, or not; what joys you have discovered, or not—and then ask yourself what truths about life have surfaced for you over time. What lessons have you learned? What truths that once captivated you do you now see as lies? What glimpses of the divine have you occasionally caught? –Serene Jones, Call it Grace
Surprise for the Writer
When writers are open to learning and growing through the writing process, that sense of discovery infuses itself into our words. Personal growth isn’t a selfish reason for writing; it’s essential for making effective stories. Robert Frost puts it this way: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The reader latches onto our experience of vulnerability and risk, following our growth like a lead-rope.
Which brings me to the third defining characteristic of spiritual memoir: The writer works to tell his or her story in such a way that the experience of the sacred is made available to the reader. This last piece is the literary challenge. It’s one thing to voice your story, and another to address an audience so others can receive the story’s gifts. When you take time to craft your writing, revising it, finding the thematic threads, developing scenes, smoothing over transitions and uncovering its inherent unity, you invite your readers into your world and help them experience what you’ve experienced. A well-crafted work welcomes readers in, takes their hats and coats, and gives a thorough tour of the house. The readers then feel enough at ease to dwell in the story for a while, and perhaps be changed by it.
Most people setting out to write their memoirs don’t have literary aspirations. Yet learning the craft of writing can enrich your insight into the past and your relationship with mystery. The process of shaping and deepening a draft helps satisfy that fundamental longing for connection. I also believe the rigors of learning to write well-not just getting our stories down, but giving them a pleasing form-prod us to extend our insights, enlarge our thinking, and widen the scope of our world. If we craft our stories for an audience whether or not an audience will ever read them, we discover the many gifts of revision. We discover how the self is revised along with our writing.
Live the Questions
What makes a good memoir is the search, not the resolution. It’s no coincidence that Rainer Maria Rilke gave similar advice to a young poet who was erring “in words when they are meant to mean most delicate and almost inexpressible things”:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (Letters to a Young Poet)
If we are able to reside within our questions; if we allow our memories to speak their mysteries, then the great Mystery breathes life into our story.