Not long ago a cartoon appeared in The New Yorker depicting a radiologist and a rather worried-looking patient gazing at a picture of the man’s insides in which a medium-sized rectangular object is clearly visible. The doctor says, “Well, Smythe, you do have another novel in you.” Substitute “memoir” for “novel” and the current preoccupation with autobiography, memoir, and life-writing is neatly summarized.
Traditionally, the memoir was the province of the “great man” who embodied the achievements of his age and helped steer the course of historic events, who now, with some leisure on his hands and in need of cash, has agreed to write about it. The chief purpose of the memoir was to provide an insider’s perspective on external events such as wars, treaties, and scientific explorations. Among our memoirist Presidents, Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs epitomizes the category, though we could add to the list many other leaders from Julius Caesar to George W. Bush.
Many of today’s memoirs, however, are cut from different cloth. A recent New York Times article characterized our generation as “the Age of Memoir,” pointing not to the “greats,” but to the average and ordinary people among us who are determined to share their stories. Thus we have memoirs written about depression, drug addiction, obesity, abuse, migraines, grief, and that perennial favorite, boarding school. Duke University professor Henry Petroski wrote an excellent memoir of his days as a paper boy. And these are only the published stories. Life-writing clubs and seminars continue to incubate thousands of unpublished stories written for family members and private circulation.
I began teaching courses on religious memoir when I wrote one myself, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery . It too belongs to the category of the “average,” in this case, the story of a young and inexperienced pastor who is assigned to an ordinary country church. A memoir offers a thick sampling of a life, written from a single period or thematic perspective, for example, a memoir about grief; an autobiography purports to give an account of a whole life “so far.” Augustine wrote Confessions when he was 43 and Thomas Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain at the ripe old age of 33.
In a “religious” or “spiritual” personal narrative, God may not be a character in the story, as in the book of Job, but the decisions and actions of the narrator are shaped by an awareness of God’s presence in the warp and woof of a life. Unlike most secular reporting, spiritual life-writing recognizes the claims of religious faith to be essential and not incidental to life in its truest sense. It is unwilling to create a “world” from which God is absent. The plot turns on a conversion, a spiritual insight, or a faithful encounter, occurring most often in the ebb and flow of an ordinary life. As Karl Barth said, “God is so unassuming in the world.” One thinks of the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, whose painstaking evocation of small-town clerical life reads more like a memoir than a novel. It is even written in the form of a letter, one of the genres key to memoir and life-writing.
A spiritual memoir may not issue a direct appeal to the reader, but by virtue of its content and narrative shape, it implicitly invites the reader to identify with the story or its characters. It makes a “narrative offer” to the reader, as if to say, This path is available to you, too . There may be no better example of this than Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness in which she characterizes the art of writing a spiritual autobiography as an act of “giving yourself away.”
Today’s resurgence of autobiography and memoir can be boiled down to the availability and goodness of experience. The novelist Martin Amis writes in his own memoir, Experience, “Nothing, for now, can compete with experience—so unanswerably authentic, and so liberally and democratically dispensed.” One thinks of the proliferation of blogs and websites and other online cafeterias of experience that feed our desire to share our own lives or to enter into the lives of others. Life-writing has fully emerged toward the end of the ages of Romanticism, political individualism, and psychoanalysis, periods when the “I” ruled. It dominates today because we have the technology to make it all available.
On the other hand, contemporary memoirs may be viewed as a push-back against that same technology and the Centralization of Nearly Everything. I wrote