Spiritual Autobiography and Memoir: Nuances, History and Influence

By Carolyn Weber —  December 4, 2013

The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt 1657 - early spiritual autobiography

The Apostle Paul – Rembrandt 1657

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?

Carolyn Weber

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12 responses to Spiritual Autobiography and Memoir: Nuances, History and Influence

  1. Thank you, Caro, for this thought–provoking examination! I bookmarked it so I could come back and reread, study, and absorb it further.

  2. I’m confused by this: “Someone else can write your memoir, but only you can write your autobiography.”

    Yes, only I can write my autobiography but based on your “memoir comes from memory,” how can someone else write my memoir? They can write my biography but they haven’t lived the spiritual ups and downs of my life nor can they understand why I believe God took me hither and yon.

    Otherwise, I loved this post. Had not thought of Robinson Crusoe nor Moll Flanders as spiritual autobiographies at all, but I read them long ago before I even knew of the genre.

    I think spiritual memoir is much richer than autobiography because you have the advantage of “looking for God’s will in the rearview mirror,” and thus can overlay and deepen your memories because you know how they came out in the end. That gives the writer far more latitude in expressing emotions while being able to write more creatively–your reference to flashbacks, for example.

    As I commented last time, writing my spiritual memoir–which as not been published–was a gloriously rich spiritual experience for me and all the people with whom I shared it. I sent chapters to the people who influenced me and played a part in my spiritual development–and those chapters were an encouragement for them.

    I encourage all believers to put fingers to keyboard and see where God takes them in his wonderful gift to us: memory.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Thanks Michelle! You share such beautiful insights. The process I found, too, to rewarding in and of itself. As for your question about memoir, you raise a good point about the seeming conflict given personal memory. But there is a tradition of authors penning and publishing another’s memoirs, whether they heavily edit or flesh out (or even ghost write) another’s personal thoughts/letters/journals, or whether they write about that person’s life from their own vantage point. The nuance is slight but does differ from biography. For instance, it often happens posthumously, and usually among family members, such as in Mary Shelley’s memoir of her late poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. They have shared similar memories and experiences, so the living author may try to retell the other’s life with more personal insight and yet also with attention paid to painting that person’s character publicly and for posterity. Or, someone’s memoir or reflections may also incorporate large amounts of another’s life, such as when the philosopher William Godwin penned his memoirs of his late proto-feminist wife Mary Wollstonecraft. He came under criticism since he revealed her prior suicide attempts and love life. His work is not a formal “biography” of his wife, but it cannot be an autobiography by her, either. I hope that helps?

      • ps. you also raise an important distinction between spiritual and nonspiritual memoir. As you mention, the former would be much more nuanced and therefore less likely someone else’s voice could intervene.

  3. I finished Surprised by Oxford last night. What a wonderful read!!! I think that I need to go back and re-read, this time slower and taking greater note of the details of your journey. I must say that I came away feeling like an inadequate. My spiritual life has had such starts and stalls that it rejuvenated by spirit seeing how you found your way, AND…thank you so much for reminding me how much I love John Donne’s work. I pulled out an old Norton Anthology and will be buried in it while I await the arrival of Holy is the Day.

    • Thank you Cheryl! I love John Donne’s work too – the Norton anthology is well worth digging out and enjoying again. And we are all inadequate, each and every one. By grace go we, and especially me! :) But thank you for your kind words. You are a blessing!

  4. Wow. All this for the price of . . . free?! Thank you, Caro!!

    I’m just curious about your first point under the four distinctions between memoir and autobiography. You said that anyone could write your memoir, but only you could write your autobiography. I’ve always thought of that the other way around. Could you explain your thoughts on that a little further? Thanks!

    • Thanks Shelly! In regards to your question, I hope you find my reply above to Michelle helpful. Again, I’ve found the slight distinction between auto and memory helpful – it raises that slippery issue of truth, subjectivity and storytelling, but as auto is “self’ no one else can step into that, whereas there is wiggle room with memory, and a wider canvas at times with memoir. There can obviously be writing help with both, but I’ve found the memoir to be in general more subjective (think, too, of fictionalized accounts if this helps: Jane Eyre is subtitled an autobiography, and we clearly get this sense in Jane’s voice and point of view; James Hogg’s contemporaneous The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner climbs more into various points of view and the problem of subjectivity.

  5. elizabeth adams December 5, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    This is wonderfully enriching.
    I received this as a student from a beloved professor…thank you dear one!

  6. I need to come to Christ. Will you pray for me/share my request that I will be willing and able to look to Him? Thank you.

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