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 Life-writing clubs and seminars continue to incubate thousands of unpublished stories written for family members and private circulation.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 about life in a small church because I wanted to preserve the texture of that experience in a culture in which the small congregation, like the neighborhood hardware store, is having a hard time staying in business. And words are disappearing too: 90 percent of text messages draw on a vocabulary of fewer than 400 words; Shakespeare used 24,000.
Christians have deep and abiding reasons for telling the stories of their lives. We understand our lives to be inextricably bound up with another’s life. The sacrament that brings us into the church, baptism, is plot-driven. It encapsulates the death and resurrection of Jesus and the believer’s new life in him. The fact that the Christian plot turns on a death reminds us that, no matter how successful feel-good religion and the prosperity gospel may be, we follow the rhythm and curve of a different and more challenging narrative. Christian narrative does not indulge in the self-puffery of the ego trip because, as the Apostle reminds us, the Christian has a radically different view of the ego. “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
The characters and plots of both ancient and modern autobiographies emerge from the fountain of the Word: Abraham’s journey, Hagar in the wilderness, Jacob and Esau, the temptations of Christ, the Prodigal Son, Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas. These and many others are not hard to find in the stories we tell about ourselves.
It might come as a surprise to contemporary theorists that the autobiography was invented by a Christian for Christian purposes. We are not sure why Augustine chose to write his autobiography, but Confessions stands as a monument and an inspiration to the life of faith. Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and a millennium later the bishop of a middling North African city named Hippo did just that. In a searching account of his interior life he examines his motives for converting to Christianity. When he writes, “Before you Lord, I lie exposed, exactly as I am,” he reminds us of the ancient psalmist or, more likely, the first Modern Man. Unlike most autobiographies, Augustine addresses his exposed life to God in the liturgical language of confession and praise. By opening his story with the words, “God, you are great,” he deftly deconstructs the values and pretensions of the heroic ideal in Roman society. Thanks to Augustine, it is possible to conceive a life not as a showcase for achievement but as an act of worship.
Today’s spiritual memoirists have shifted away from narratives of public events to probing and more private accounts of the narrator’s spiritual development. The circumstances that restricted the memoir to the “great man” of the 19th century have been shattered by a new breed of writer whose subject matter is the discovery of the self through faith. In this too, Augustine remains an overarching (and controversial) influence. In the past two decades, women writers, now freed from the old model, have come to dominate the field: Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Patricia Hampl, Nora Gallagher, Lauren Winner, Sara Miles, Barbara Brown Taylor, and the pastoral writer, Heidi Neumark, whose Breathing Space is assigned reading for incoming students to Duke Divinity School.
The encouraging thing about this burst of spiritual memoirs is not that there are so many of them, but that they are increasingly focused on the corporate life of the people of God. Among the new group of writers the life of faith means life in community, either in the church or in devoted tension with it. Despite its intensely personal quality, the Christian memoir avoids the self-indulgence of the Me Era by grounding writer and reader alike in the community of our common story.
The Divinity School includes Confessions and other memoirs and autobiographies in several areas of the curriculum because literary nonfiction evokes another, valuable kind of learning: not a rule but a fleshly instance of a rule. Not a definition of grace to be memorized, but the experience of grace as perceived through the window of another person’s life. Who is to say which comes first: the Rule or the Life? We read the stories of others and temporarily cross over to meet them. There we encounter another person’s experience of faith in a world very different from our own. Then we cross back into our own time and place of ministry, newly enriched by a deeper spiritual understanding and better prepared for our own life of faith.