One spring I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was privileged to hear Jane Yolen speak. Yolen, the author of over a hundred children’s books, identified herself as a Jewish Quaker. She spoke on the hazards of addressing spiritual questions in books for children, explaining that children’s book buyers are primarily public schools and libraries, which tend to shy away from spiritually inclined literature. Nonreligious publishers are often unwilling to take on material that might prove controversial. Yet as Yolen pointed out, children ask spiritual questions: Where did Rover go when he died? Why do some people attend church and not others? Who is God? Yolen argued that we do wrong by our children when we censor stories that might aid them in their seeking.
After Yolen’s lecture a member of the audience asked, “To whom do you think children’s authors should be accountable for the moral quality of their books?” The questioner was concerned that indoctrinating content might wind up in her children’s hands. Yolen responded fiercely, “Every writer has three responsibilities: first to the story, second to yourself, and finally to your audience.”
I often think about Yolen’s three commandments. Although they apply to all creative writing, they hold particularly true for spiritual memoir. Thinking first about the audience rather than about the story or about yourself is a frequent but misguided habit among beginning writers. At some point (about draft three or four), it’s important to be accountable to your audience. You want your story to be welcoming, accessible, gripping, and transformative. Considering your reader’s response helps you construct a story that accomplishes these things.
But through the early stages of writing, your primary audience is yourself. Write to satisfy you. If you think first about your readers (about what you have to teach them, whether or not they’ll buy the book, or if they will like or condemn your message), you begin to mold your writing to your expectation of readers’ reactions. You do a disservice to yourself when you avoid risky topics or skirt deep levels of honesty.
What intrigues me about Jane Yolen’s priorities—and why I believe them to be particularly relevant to spiritual memoir—is her placement of the story first. What does it mean to be responsible to the story? For writers of spiritual memoir, story is not something born of the imagination or of history; it is the very stuff of our lives. It is the aching and questing of our souls. Although seemingly mundane, ordinary experiences contain within them a vivacity, a sense of wholeness, and a will beyond our own. In other words, our spiritual stories bare the world’s holiness. This ought to be obvious, but religious traditions of all persuasions have a tendency to canonize certain stories and certain people’s lives. In the process of honoring these stories, we forget to honor the revelatory qualities of our own stories. When memoir writers are responsible to the story, they honor that which is vital and true—the spirit—within their experience.