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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