Scott Russell Sanders and Spiritual Memoir

The September, 2008, issue of The Writer’s Chronicle carried an interview with Scott Russell Sanders by Tom Montgomery Fate which makes a rewarding read. It’s full of nuggets worth pondering. As I begin to tackle the long-form memoir, Sanders is one of my teachers through his work. Here are some of the questions he answers: Is it possible to tell an artful story out of an ordinary life? What about a life without notoriety, of very minor celebrity, an old-fashioned life? Scott Russell Sanders is the poet of the ordinary; he transforms the quotidian into art.

There is a bias toward conflict in all literature; yet, at least some writers believe that the end of literature is peace (Seamus Heaney) or wisdom (Robert Frost). I have always been drawn to this type of writer, perhaps because my own life story seeks these goals.

Sanders himself explains why the audience is small for stories about ordinary goodness: “Trouble is more interesting than harmony. It’s paradoxical: we wish to lead happy lives but wish to read about miserable ones. We hope for peace and read about strife.” In his book A Private History of Awe, Sanders tells how he searched for works of fiction that focused on sustained marriages over a lifetime but could not find enough artistic works to merit a college course.

Sanders calls A Private History of Awe a “spiritual memoir” because it contains his search for answers to the perennial questions about the meaning of existence. It took him a long time to admit that his primary quest as a writer is spiritual, because, as he explains in his author’s note online, “For years I shied away from writing about religious experience, in part because of the hostility that many literary readers show toward all references to spirituality, in part because these matters have always seemed to me better left private. Yet the questions I’ve kept returning to in my adult life are essentially religious ones, and I found myself unwilling to abandon this terrain to the televangelists and fundamentalists.”

Sanders may not be following the dominant contemporary literary fashions, but he is following the oldest of all traditions of autobiography, which most historians of the genre trace back to St. Augustine’s Confessions. He also follows in the steps of Thoreau, Emerson, Annie Dillard, and Kathleen Norris.

Do you have favorite spiritual memoirs? Is trouble always more interesting than harmony? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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14 Responses to Scott Russell Sanders and Spiritual Memoir

  1. Mary Pfeiffer says:

    An interesting quest: “works of fiction that focused on sustained marriages over a lifetime.” Shirley, perhaps that’s your next “100” list. I’m so paranoid about what I call my Leave it to Beaver life that I introduce my blog with “my life may be too functional for fame.” I firmly believe an ordinary life can entertain BUT the writing requires a voice that keeps the reader turning pages until he falls in love with the character. (sigh!)

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Ah, Mary, so true. But it can be done! Beaver was interesting to the audience of the early ’60’s for a reason. He was both a good boy and a bad boy even though “bad” in those days seems very mild today. Even happy lives contain drama and conflict. It’s a matter of scale and skill in depiction, I think.

    As for that list of 100 happy marriage memoirs, I can only think of a few, but they are very powerful. I’d put The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion right up there at the top. I wonder if she could have written about her marriage with such appreciation if she were not writing as a widow?? Does our culture suspect happy marriage in life and allow the depiction only after it is no longer available to the living? Wow, what does that say about us?

  3. Jessie Bennett says:

    My current favorite spiritual memoir is actually Tom Montgomery Fate’s new book, Cabin Fever. I just made a video for the book, and posted in on the Beacon Press YouTube page.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Welcome to 100memoirs.com, Jessie. Love the video. It’s very enticing. I like that it raises a question it doesn’t answer. Do you make writer/book videos often? Tell us a little more of the inside story of what it takes to make a good book video. You may have seen my post about Marion Roach Smith’s videos for her book The Memoir Project. And I include videos of marketing coach Marla Miller here as well. Video fits memoir, partly because you can use artifacts from a life and voice-over to entice the viewer. What did you learn by doing the video above?

      • Thanks, Shirley! I have been making book videos for Beacon Press for a few years now, but have only recently moved beyond a pretty basic Q&A format. I’m particularly proud of this one! It came out of a visit to Walden Pond with Tom Montgomery Fate and his editor, Alexis Rizzuto. I recorded the audio on the site of Thoreau’s cabin. We originally thought that we’d put together a little interview video of Tom on the site, have him talk about how he was inspired by Thoreau, etc. It ended up going in a different direction once I started editing.

        First, some technical specs: I edited this in Final Cut Pro, the new version. I’ve done most of my editing in iMovie, so learning the latest version was pretty easy. Mac users who are thinking of making videos: fool around with iMovie for a while to see what it can do. It is a great training ground and has enough features to keep you busy for a while. My original “training” came in the form of putting together montages of my kids. Do something low stakes to get yourself going and see if it’s something you like.

        The internal mic on camcorders is usually terrible. I picked up a Rode Videomic and got pretty good sound quality. If I had tried to do this shoot without it, I doubt I would have walked away with anything usable, especially given the outdoor setting.

        I used photo and video I shot with my Nikon D5100. This is not a cheap camera, but it has both DSLR and Hi-Def video capability and an external mic port (see above). It is a nice pro-sumer camera. My other favorite video camera, on the lower end of the price spectrum, is the Kodak Zi8 (although I think they’ve rolled out new versions now). It actually has an external mic port, and cost me about $100. I’m not sure if the new versions have this feature.

        I think that with actual book trailers, using the words of the book itself, along with some compelling images, can make for a very strong trailer. I’m glad you like the fact that I ended with that question! I did that with the thought that it would intrigue viewers. I think that it’s important to a) keep it short and b) end on a strong note. If you don’t do the first thing, the second might not matter!

  4. Well, Mary Karr’s Lit, of course. My most recent favorite. I read Awe some time ago. I guess I can’t think of too many spiritual memoirs, though recently I read and enjoyed Tim Elhaj’s Dope Fiend in galleys, and it involves a twelve-step program and compelling reliance on a higher power. One of my favorite memoirs, Name All the Animals, is actually about the writer’s loss of faith.

    Scott is right, there’s a hostility, or perceived hostility, to going beyond even a vague New Age spirituality and talking about religion or God, especially.

  5. shirleyhs says:

    We share an admiration for Lit. I heard Mary talk about how rebellious she was being to the lit establishment when she consciously chose to describe her conversion, not only to Christianity, but to its main branch! She knew some people would hate her decision and hate even more that she wrote about it.

    Interestingly, however, I just reviewed I Am Hutterite, which is definitely a spiritual memoir. But because the group is so outside the mainstream, this kind of discussion of religion has an anthropological curiousity justification. And it is a religion that does not proselytize. I expect Mennonites might be exempted in the same way. What do you think?

    Aren’t we funny creatures? The most anti-religious among us have a kind of theology that says some religious narratives are off limits, washed up, worn out, and oppressive. Others are quaint, exotic, and therefore okay as long as they stay in their boxes and we can peer in from the outside as thought at the zoo.

    An anecdote I love. E. F. Schumaker was once asked why he called his chapter on economics in Small is Beautiful “Buddhist Economics.” He said, presumably with a smile, “If I had called it Christian Economics no one would have read it.”

  6. Hmm, interesting thread here re spiritual memoir. I sort of encountered this mindset (spiritual isn’t literary or some such thing) when I published Where the Heart Resides: Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie. A reviewer who clearly hadn’t read to book and failed to appreciate the message almost took the book personally it seemed! Very strange reaction indeed. My focus was to capture the wisdom of place and people at the turn of the century and this idea was lost on those who need to focus on conflict, controversy, negativity. Of course Eckhart Tolle would explain this dynamic like this — the mind is all about polarities and only our spiritual essence, our higher self, can go beyond perceived differences to value life at the level of peace and being. So as long as our world culture is dominated by dysfunctional and habitual “mind patterns” … people will want to read books that reflect that reality. An enlightened society may someday go beyond mainstream preferences, but we are not there yet. Thus, we must simply write what is “true” for us, realizing that most readers will look to books that somehow validate (and support) their level of consciousness. Fewer readers seek books to expand their horizons or challenge their thinking. I, for one, enjoy spiritual memoirs, because spirituality is about life and not so much about “life drama.” A world of difference. Thanks, Shirley, as always. –Daisy Hickman

  7. shirleyhs says:

    So, you don’t agree with Scott Russell Sanders that “trouble is more interesting than harmony”? He seems to include himself among the people who prefer to read about trouble, yet he dares to write about harmony.

    I appreciate your analysis of our collective level of consciousness, Daisy. Do you think we are headed toward or away from the next level? Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

    • I don’t think “trouble” is inherently more interesting … it all depends on what the reader brings to the material per background, expectations, level of consciousness. On a collective level (in terms of which direction) … not a clue! Not many obvious reasons to be encouraged, but one never knows what is happening under the surface of things. As they say, God moves in mysterious ways. If we each do our part to promote spiritual healing and evolution, I suspect it can help. Hope you are enjoying your new venue! What a grand memoir in the making perhaps! 🙂

  8. Tianyu L. says:

    I am a huge fan of S.R. Sanders. I am so glad he decided to not stay away from spiritual subjects any longer but I have to say I struggle(d) with some of his earlier concerns as well. Spiritual subjects tend to get bad reps.

    What is inspiring though is to read about C. S Lewis and other literary giants. Now I am glad I can add him to the list too.

    Great piece, thanks for sharing this info.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Tianyu, welcome to 100memoirs.com where interest in spiritual memoir is always high. I love meeting new people in the comments section, so I’m off to read more about you. Come back again.

  9. Wow. This is a fascinating conversation. This all reminds me of a panel I put together for the Univ. of Iowa’s Nonfiction Now conference (2007) titled “What is it? In Search of the Spiritual Memoir,” or something like that. We had a good crowd for our session and a great discussion. Participants had all written recent spiritual memoirs and they included Scott Cairns, Joe Mackall, S.L. Wisenberg, Diane Glancy, and myself. In my time I tried to metaphorically explore the relationship between religion and spirituality, as I think this helps in figuring out what makes a memoir “spiritual.” This talk evolved into an essay (chapter) called “A Box of Wind,” which relies on the metaphor of a box kite in the wind. Forgive my presumptions here, but I’ll paste in a bit of that metaphor in the hopes it is of interest:

    “This image of the box kite—of a rigid frame that can hold and ride the wind precisely because it is open––gets me thinking about the “box” of religion, and the spirit that carries it. The Latin root of the word religion means “to bind together again,” while the root of spirit means “wind or breath.”

    “Perhaps because I’m reading Thoreau, and know of his love of etymology, I’m curious about these words. Can the “spirit” of meaning that writers both evoke and live in, also be a part of a “religion”—a story or experience that “binds us together again”? Or is the “religious” a kind of binding of a writer’s intellect and imagination? Spirit is natural, of nature. Religion is not. It is human made. Like the kite, it too is a fragile structure lifted into a journey by a force over which it has no control, yet which it can respond to and describe. So I’m left wondering: At a time when “spirituality” seems increasingly romanticized and vague, and “religion” seems dangerously closed and rigid, is it naive to believe that they could take flight together, to imagine that they are bound to be freed?”

  10. shirleyhs says:

    Tom, I wrote a comment yesterday which appears to have been lost in cyperspace. So sorry about that–especially since I wrote about how much I enjoy the box kite image for the difference between religion and spirituality. I also like that you seem interested in taking both seriously, something rare in intellectual/artistic circles these days.

    Thanks so much for adding your voice to the conversation. I love having authors show up here at 100memoirs.com..

    Having visited Walden, like so many pilgrims before and after me, I can feel the place in my bones when you describe it–and when I saw Jesse’s video above.

    Cabin Fever is a book I know I will love. Right now I don’t have time to do much beside my day job of taking care of my grandson spiritual memoir territory so well ahead of me.

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