The story itself has the final say

Because memoir by its very nature, is only a small window into the author’s life, one of the delights of writing memoir is discovering the best frame for that window. I remember an afterschool art class in which we were given a view finder (a black cardboard mat of about six square inches with a one-inch square hole cut in the center). We walked into the woods holding our view finders in front of our faces, looking for a view. Eventually I found a mossy root that entered and exited that small window in a way that intrigued me, and I sat down with a sketchbook to draw it. Memoir is similar. A small scope is all that’s necessary. Some memoirists choose to write only about their depression, or their travels, or their cultural identity. Spiritual memoirists choose their sacred journeys. You can select a significant portion of your life, or a few years, or a single day. Regardless of the frame, some material comes into focus and other material-the majority of the woods, in fact-is left out of the picture. And that’s okay. Despite my drawing’s small scope, it conveyed the lush and creeping wooded environment. Whatever cross-section of life you choose to portray reveals the essence of the whole. 

The peculiar and thrilling thing about framing is how much control it gives you, and also how little. As an author you decide what appears inside the frame and what does not. If you’re most interested in exploring how your family’s religious traditions affected your childhood spirit, you don’t have to disclose your recent divorce or ninth-grade sports injury. Scott Russell Sanders’ short memoir “Amor and James” explores his childhood obsession with the BIble, which was fed by a difficult family life. Sanders wants the reader to know why he read voraciously without having to explain the family’s problems. And so he draw a line:

Reading Amos was like listening through the closed door of my bedroom to my parents quarreling. The words were muffled, but the fierce feelings came through.

Why my parents fought is another story, and a long one, featuring too much booze and too little money. For this story, I can only say that their shouts and weeping drove me to scour the Bible at age twelve in search of healing secrets.

Indeed Sanders was written elsewhere about his father’s alcoholism. Here he exposes the edges of his frame, what he is and isn’t allowing the reader to see. Sanders lets us know only as much as is necessary to understand his relationship with the Bible, the subject at hand.

Although you control what is visible in your memoir and what remains hidden, ultimately the content is not your decision. The story itself has the final say and often dictates directions you would rather not go. You may want to write about your relief at finding a church home, but in order for that story to make sense you must include the decade of disconnection and searching that preceded it. Or you may want to honor your grandmother by describing how she knit mittens for all the kids at the neighborhood center, but you are reminded of finding mittens with horrible, misshapen thumbs in her basket after she died. You may find that your real story isn’t simple or happy. Although memoir allows many creative choices regarding what you write and how you write it, the story always holds you accountable. 

Spiritual memoir demands the truth. The story of a spiritual life has a will of its own, and you write in its service. 

from “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Skinner House