Writing the Sacred Journey
Memoir’s Small Frame
Memoir revolves in an orbit of its own choosing, and therefore is often unified by theme or a period of time. The material of memoir is always the author’s life, and the narrator—the “I” voice, the lens through which we know the story—is always the author. Unlike autobiography, which begins at the beginning and attempts as thorough an account of one’s life as possible, memoir begins where it wishes and concludes when its subject feels complete. Memoir is more elastic, more unpredictable and more crafted than autobiography. Because memoir does not strive for a complete accounting of one’s life, it depends on other elements, most typically themes, to give it form.
Because memoir, by its very nature, is only a small window onto the author’s life, one of the delights of writing it is discovering the best frame for that window. I remember a drawing exercise in an after-school art class where we were given a “view-finder”—a black cardboard mat, about six-by-six inches, with a one-inch square cut from the center.
The class walked into the woods holding these miniature frames 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. When writing memoir, there’s no need to depict the entire woods. 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. We can select a period of life, or a few years, or a single day. Regardless of the frame, certain material comes into focus and other material—the majority of the woods, in fact—gets left out of the picture. And that’s okay. Despite my drawing’s small scope, it still conveyed the rich, creeping environment of the woods. Whatever cross-section of our life we choose to portray will reveal the essence of the whole.
The peculiar and thrilling thing about framing memoir is how much control we have, and also how little. As authors, we get to decide what appears inside the frame—the stories we tell—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. In Scott Russell Sanders’ short memoir, “Amos and James,” he explores his childhood obsession with the Bible, which was spurred by a difficult family life. Sanders wants the reader to know why he read so voraciously without having to explain the family’s problems. And so he draws 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. (The Force of Spirit, 23)
Indeed, Sanders has 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. He lets us know only as much as is necessary to understand his relationship with the Bible—the subject at hand.
As authors we control what is visible in our memoir and what remains hidden outside the frame. And yet ultimately the content is not our decision. The story itself has the final say, and often dictates directions we’d rather not go. I may want to write about my relief at finding a church home, but in order for that story to make sense I must include the decade of disconnection and searching that preceded it. Or I may want to honor my grandmother by describing how she knit mittens for all the kids at the neighborhood center, but this reminds me of finding mittens with horrible, misshapen thumbs in her basket after she died. I find that my real story isn’t simple or happy; I must look at the decline of her faculties along with their terrific gift. So while memoir allows many creative choices regarding what we write and how we write it, the story always holds us accountable. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew