In the series on Spiritual Autobiography and Memoir: Part II
Often I am asked two fundamental questions about the genre on which I am focusing this series: literary nonfiction about one’s life.
1. What is the difference between ‘regular’ autobiography and ‘spiritual’”?
The first, I would explain, simply tells a life story, or tries to render events in a truthful fashion as reflective of a season or impactful event in someone’s life. A spiritual memoir, however, takes for its very premise that our life story has archetypal resonance and meaning. It is what we better refer to as the “soul’s story,” and while it is a private enfolding in personal meaning, it also has a universal connection and profound spiritual consequences.
Unspiritual memoir is not interested in illuminating a faith, seeking God, or discovering truth, per se. Spiritual memoir, by contrast, seeks for something beyond the mere retelling of events or the shock value of relaying notorious tidbits. It asks all the philosophical questions of our being, the why’s, how’s and what’s, with the assumption that these questions matter, and what we learn from them enriches our souls and may be of help to others.
Another way to see it, is that one may tell of one’s own life as a series of events in which you try to make meaning but this is not guaranteed nor deemed necessary (a purely secular or “unspiritual” memoir). Or, one may tell of one’s own life as impacted, shaped, responding to and affirming meaning that was already there, and is found taking place, in symbolic as well as significant ways, through the retrospective as well as creative elements of telling a life’s story (a “spiritual” memoir).
The next question naturally arises, then:
2. “Is there a difference between autobiography and memoir”?
The terms memoir and autobiography are often used interchangeably, but historically there have been differences which we can still see at play.
As a lover of words, I always like to begin with etymology, a very good place to start.
The word “memoir” comes from the Latin memoria which means “memory” or “reminiscence.” It grew through the Anglo-French “memorie” in the mid-1500’s meaning “a note, memorandum, something written to be kept in mind,” to the first English usage of “memoir” in the 1670s meaning a person’s written account of his life.
The word “autobiography” comes from “auto” Greek for “oneself”, or referring to oneself, followed by “bio”, or “life,” and then “graph” as we still understand it today, to “plot,” draw out. Hence, “autobiography” is the plotting or drawing out one’s own life.
How do these slight differences in terms play out?
Four Ways these two Genres can be considered distinct in light of one another:
- Someone else can write your memoir, but only you can write your autobiography.
- Autobiography addresses someone’s entire life, whereas memoir refers to a portion of a life.
- Autobiography focuses entirely on the self, whereas memoir can include or turn its focus to other people for a sustained amount of time.
- Autobiographies are more linear, they tend to be chronological, whereas memoirs have a more creative feel (incorporating flashbacks, others’ imagined responses or circumstances, the attempt at retelling dreams, trauma or other “hazy” events from an interior perspective, etc.).
As writing guru Nan Phifer puts it, “Because memoirs do not need to be written chronologically, they don’t plod.” Quentin Crisp’s from The Naked Civil Servant states: “An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last installment missing.”
Memoir lends itself to more interpretation then, both for the author and for the reader. And it could be argued, then, that “spiritual autobiography” blurs more into memoir realm than “regular” autobiography. Regardless, these two subgenres of literary non-fiction complicate notions of “truth.” As J. Rasoir puts it on the awkward matter of truth: “Memoirists span the universe on this one. Some make a real effort to be accurate, while others would say that the truth, such as it is, is created in the writing – that how they tell their stories offers a kind of truth in itself, whether or not this coincides with such facts as can be discovered.”
Personally, the best definition I have hitherto found of memoir, or spiritual autobiography for that matter as well, is Lindsey O’Connor’s phrase for the work she loves doing, and which I appropriate here more specifically in terms of life-story-telling. She calls it “Truth; beginning, middle, and end.”
(I will consider Lindsey’s magnificent memoir in this series here shortly, but for now I will let a smidgen of her wisdom whet our appetites for more …)
Spiritual Autobiography: Roots
The roots of spiritual autobiography harken back to St. Paul of the Gospels, and particularly his story of his conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. His story offers the archetypal framework that would become amplified by Augustine, and eventually known as the “Augustan formula” for spiritual autobiography remaining so influential today. Traditionally, St. Augustine with his famed 5th century Confessions has been considered the first author of memoir/autobiography. By extension, the first modern autobiography is considered to be Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1770). Rousseau’s evocation of Augustine’s title is no coincidence: Rousseau offers the secular humanist version of a spiritual life, complete with doubts and shortcomings, temptations and transgressions.
Puritan Spiritual Autobiography
Puritan spiritual autobiography (such as John Bunyan’s writing) had a heavy influence on the English novel in its early years. We see this in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) – which are first-person fictitious “memoirs.” Such insightful authors when it came to human character as Richardson, Sterne and Fielding, all followed suit. One of my favourite spiritual memoirs as translated into fiction is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a seminal work for so many reasons, not least of all as a portrayal of a spiritual memoir from a woman’s point of view.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote that “In reading a spiritual autobiography like Tolstoy’s our own is widened and enlarged. We learn from each other what to hold on to and what to let go … Our spirits develop in strange and unexpected ways, and it helps to know that we are not alone on the journey.”
Amy Mandelker and Elizabeth Powers edit a large collection of excerpt from spiritual autobiographies called Pilgrim Souls: A Collection of Spiritual Autobiographies (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999). In their introduction, Mandelker and Powers identify that autobiography “- the story of the formation of a self – is one of the most enduring genres of Western literature. Historically, writers view the self as a soul; for them the story of their life is a spiritual autobiography” (15). They also helpfully note that “Unlike sister genres – travelogues, family memoirs – spiritual autobiographies focus on events and experiences that shape the inner person in relationship to God. The authors of spiritual autobiographies concentrate on examining their interior experiences in order to discover coherence, structure, and meaning in the shape of an individual life.” (15)
Spiritual Memoir: Roots
Onward from St. Paul, spiritual memoir owns a rich and fascinating history, from the medieval and renaissance periods, through the reformation and enlightenment, well into the present day (even with a very current resurgence, I would add). Perhaps the ancient oracle command to “know thyself” remains evergreen, ever important, for as Mandelker and Powers claim about the genre as it grew over time, “The very process of writing about oneself is called into question” (17). Interestingly, they add: “This uncertainty about knowing oneself or others pervades modern and postmodern thought and literature. Contemporary spiritual autobiographies have a secular starting point and are no longer based in a conventionally religious worldview. Curiously, this brings these words closer to their antecedents in antiquity, such as those by Saint Augustine and others who sought God while living in a pagan world” (18).
We quest on this side of the glass, where things can only be known darkly.
So then, why write a spiritual autobiography?
As Nan Phifer answers, “Writing memoirs is a way to sort out, discover, understand, apologize, appreciate, and celebrate.”
With the Bible, Dorothy Sayers claims that God “wrote his own autobiography.”
QUESTION: How do we respond to such a story but with our own?