Four Excuses Not to Write Spiritual Memoir, and One Invitation
- “I’m not interested in spiritual stuff. I just want to write stories.”
A friend—a thoughtful, church-going friend—said this to me in passing the other day. Since she couldn’t hear my internal temper-tantrum, I’ll give it here: What in tarnation is more spiritual than stories?! Every story, from a child’s imaginative play to an adult’s crafted composition to an elder’s reminiscing, contains both the muddy mundane and the spark of mystery. When we humans want to understand our world, we make stories. It’s how we compose and are composed by meaning—Sharon Daloz Parks’ definition of faith. Dabble in stories, friends, and you work with the most intimate orientation of your heart.
- All writing’s spiritual.
My point exactly. So what are you going to do about it?
Sunday morning golfers like to joke that they pray on the putting green. Some feel the sun sinking into their exposed necks, they appreciate the grace of their golfing companion’s swing, they come alive with the hearty competition. Others just golf.
Nothing’s wrong with just golfing. It’s fun. But intention can change our experience, and intention is what distinguishes spiritual memoir within the broader genre of memoir. Three qualities make spiritual memoir unique: First, the writer uncovers, probes, and honors what is sacred in his or her life story. Second, the writing process itself is a means of spiritual growth. And third, the end product makes the experience of the sacred available to the reader. In other words, the writer’s curiosity about and participation in the great, pulsing mysteries of our universe take center stage. They are the work’s subject, the manner in which it is created, and its relationship with an audience.
So, yes, all writing is spiritual. You can choose to explore the spirit’s life in your memories, in the writing process, and in the reader’s experience…if you want.
- No one can describe the indescribable!
Oh, tell me about it. Any writer’s job is impossible, but the spiritual writer’s is doubly so. The dictionary defines “spiritual” as “not tangible or material,” and we all know that disembodied, ungrounded writing is, well, bad.
Yet we try regardless. “What matters most in our lives is unsayable,” Mark Doty said. “We’ve got to attempt to make meaning out of death. Of course it’s impossible, but if we don’t, we despair.” Trying matters. It matters to us, because words that fail to do justice to, say, the miracle of your son’s birth or the crazy transformation wrought by your bout with cancer, nonetheless illuminate these experiences. The attempt and the failure change us. Written with care and craft, such stories can change an audience, too.
While no author and no religious tradition has successfully put into words the exquisite mystery of our existence, we’ve still got some darn good literary attempts and some enduring, guiding sacred texts. We humans, all of us, are capable of almost naming the unnamable. When we almost do, it’s thrilling.
And valuable. Who among us doesn’t need reminding about what really matters?
- My life? Nothing sacred there.
Use the word “sacred” and people reflexively distance themselves. Holiness is Other; it’s alien to our sweaty, busy, mistake-prone, fleshy selves. I won’t delve into the centuries of dualistic Christian thinking that have caused western cultures to separate the earth from the heavens and our bodies from our spirits. Suffice it to say we’re steeped in a philosophy that’s worth calling into question.
What if you want write about learning to ride a bike, or the first time you were betrayed by an adult, or the loss of a dear friendship? Most of us don’t consider such ordinary experiences holy. Yet we remember these events because they have emotional significance, and even the smallest emotional impact affects the life of the soul. Your fundamental being, your life-force, your essence, participates in humdrum moments just as your body and mind do. Your soul has its own version of the story.
Some lucky people get mountain-top, knock-your-socks-off spiritual experiences. But even these folks come down from the mountain to muck around in the daily grind. “After the ecstasy, the laundry,” writes Jack Kornfield. Part of the delight of writing spiritual memoir is discovering that even laundry can play a role in the soul’s journey. It can in the moment of washing, or it can as we reflect back on the chore within the context of a bigger story. “To write about one’s life is to live it twice,” writes Patricia Hampl, “and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form.”
Stories work magic. They shed light on mystery we didn’t know was there.
- The Invitation
Try it. Try writing about the laundry, your morning golf round, a memory of an adult’s betrayal, or any moment that sticks to your bones. Write it in all its bodily detail. Then imagine this story as a window onto unspoken meaning, hidden vitality, and the unpredictable unity that pulses within creation. What do you see? Remember that even the smallest inspirations bring the spirit in—they give a breath of life to your work and our world.
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is a writing instructor and spiritual director living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is the author of Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir, Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir, and On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness. She is a recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board artists’ fellowship, the Loft Career Initiative Grant, and is a Minnesota Book Awards finalist. Her websites are www.spiritualmemoir.com and www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com. She will be teaching two classes this spring—"The Reflective Voice in Creative Nonfiction" (in-person) on 2/9 and "Spiritual Memoir: Where a Life Meets Mystery" (online) starting 2/18.