by Richard A. Kauffman
Judging by my reading habits, the memoir is my favorite form of literature. I’ve read scores over the last 15 years.
A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders is my favorite. I first encountered Sanders via his collections of essays. I was drawn to his sense of place and rootedness, his nature mysticism and Quaker sensibilities and his incredible powers of observation and description. His memoir is a love story of sorts, an account of his relationship with his wife. But Ruth doesn’t enter the stage until about halfway through. The book tells a larger story about the interconnectedness of generations.
In the first paragraph, Sanders recounts his father taking him out to the porch when he was four to watch a thunderstorm. He did the same for his own daughter 20 years later—and for his granddaughter 30 years after that, wondering whether she felt what he had felt those 50 years earlier:
. . .the tingle of a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.After Sanders spoke at this year’s Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, one person marched to the book table, picked up this book and read this first paragraph. Then she put the book down and reverentially uttered, “Wow.”
Much ink has been spilled over the current popularity of memoirs. It’s too easy to write them off as expressions of American self-infatuation. Many memoirs are self-absorbed, and some expose more about the authors and their loved ones than we need to know. But writing a memoir is not simply an exercise in narcissism. If it was, who would read them?
We humans are aware of our mortality, and we want to know what life is all about. Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once observed that "one of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one." As we get older we think of all the roads taken and not taken and we ponder: why this particular life? Would a different life have more or less purpose?
The best memoirs lead us into these mysteries. Memoirs of redemption give us hope; memoirs of heroic acts inspire us to greater heights. We no doubt read the memoirs of disgraced people to enjoy the schadenfreude. But perhaps we read memoirs mainly because we only get to live one life, and by reading about others we vicariously live 1,000.
Writing memoirs is like planting a marker to one’s own life, an extended epitaph for one’s own gravestone. Memoirs implore us to take notice, to remember the storyteller. Memoirs can also be a legacy to future generations.
When I was a pastor it was a profoundly rewarding experience to walk alongside people who knew they were dying, weren’t in denial and wanted to reflect on the mysteries of life and death. I encouraged these folks to write or record stories about their lives, if they were still physically able. I suggested that the result would be a legacy to pass along to their children. But I really wanted them to do this for themselves, to think back on and derive some meaning from their distinct journeys. I even put together a list of questions to help jog their memories.
William Zinsser, the great practitioner and teacher of writing, has some helpful advice to those who want to write their memoirs: just write stories from your past as they come to you. After awhile, a theme will emerge that ties them together.
I don’t know whether I will ever write my own memoir, but I am taking Zinsser’s advice: I write stories from my past in a journal as something sparks their recall. No theme has emerged. But I know this already: my own human follies and foibles pale in relation to the incredible grace and faithfulness of God.