Memoir Notebook is a monthly (sometimes more) column dedicated to longer or more complex works.
By way of our Memoir Notebook, we want you to meander, get caught up, find yourself taken to places you hadn’t intended to go (but are so glad, in the end, that you went). You’ll get thoughts on aesthetics, craft, latest issues, tips and books to read. But it will feel like poetic narrative. And sometimes it will simply be poetic narrative. Today, Wm. Anthony Connolly gathers advice for writers of spiritual memoir.
We must be guided by voices
In any direction, when there is no snow, the horizon where I’m from fills with undulating fields of flaxen wheat, sometimes blond shocks and often dirtied bales squared or rounded and tied with ochre twine; and there too, miles of wild green-white grasses enchanted by a nearly inaudible music, the traces of which only discernible as wind. In these parts, one who has seen the wind need only turn and gesture towards the tossing wheatgrasses’ testimony of what cannot be immediately witnessed.
Out there a system of endurance, an invisible mechanism triggered to ensure another season’s promise. Ambling into the engulfing body of scratchy grasses, the spindly stocks and darkened loam (depending on conditions) rises rich and earthy with each inhalation as some kind of ancient memory. Eroded furrows funnel the searcher unknowingly through the fulgent, and at times fusty labyrinth, until one can duck down and take to holding tiny wax plated leaves in their insignificant fingers, and marvel at how these tiny shields, tactile like corrugated cardboard, hold their moisture. When its drier, when there’s drought, the simple wonder of how these leaves curl in on themselves, upward, to form a narrow tube to lessen its exposure to what it lacks. And knowing, but not understanding, how its stomata, like raised hands in exaltation, secure succor and survive.
A fecund endurance silently wired by mystical rhizomes reaching out beneath the weathered ground brings one to a mesmerizing halt. Being amongst this splendor and envisioning the endless seasons passing, is to understand the slow accretion of that force through a green fuse the poets are wont to pitch rhapsodically, and how this same force, quietly, incessantly, over and through the majesty of our own making sings in our blood — no less a shock at how utterly sublime our dance is to music nearly indiscernible save our entranced swaying.
So it goes: my spiritual memoir alights in the fields of my youth among other locales, stumbling upon grace in environs inexplicably beautiful with its haunting presence and enduring might, which surges through me and blushes on my cheeks, even now, decades removed.
Heed the voices
The memoirist seeking to write of a spiritual memory and therefore the past is best to be guided by voices responding to the litany of questions and probings the present will allow. Heed the voices. Transcribe them. The writer doesn’t compose a spiritual memoir, as much as discovers one.
One of the best voices to listen for is your former self as a child, says memoirist and teacher Dan Wakefield, author of Returning: A Spiritual Journey:
Compose stories out of your own experience such as your first childhood experience; I ask people to first of all think of their favorite house you grew up in, and then think of the favorite room in that house — the room you have the best associations with. Sketch out a floorplan of the room, and put in everything you can remember. Try to remember when you were in the room what was your favorite song or favorite TV show; who was your best friend at the time. After doing the sketch — share it with another person.
He said in a telephone interview, “Then, write for twenty minutes whatever comes to mind after drawing the room and talking about it with another person. Wonderful stories come out of this. When we know there’s a time limit the writing is often amazing. It’s childlike and freeing. It evokes a lot of memories.”
Listen to the voices of ritual
Listen to the voices of ritual, the ones that glimmer somehow from your time as a green mendicant. Find the words to those ceremonies and use them to frame the experience. Once framed, ask yourself what you remember, and how you felt. Employ the present tense and render vivid images to show the emotion you sensed about this particular rite or ceremony as a child.
Listen to music. Either choose music that once produced some kind of revery in you or music that today places you in a meditative satori. Scriabin or Scritti Polittii. Nina Simone or Simon and Garfunkel. A Tribe Called Quest. Write to this music, but don’t mention the music. Use the force to drive your voice now.
Listen to your soul
Listen to your soul. It tells you inside what has touched you. Think over the places and situations, or the objects and things that have always perplexed you for their enduring power over and within you. Wheat fields, Cat’s Eye marbles, cigar boxes and chewed up pencils. Random buttons. Times alone. Times alone in a crowd. The calloused hand that caressed your cheek. Blue myositis to infinity. Precipices and insurmountable ascents. Anything felt. Spend time handling them with your hands, or conversely, with your mind. Turn them over and over and write and write what you see and feel, and come to know.
Listen to art. Seek out art that speaks to you about the the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as Dylan Thomas famously said. Paintings, sculpture, poetry, film all can help unlock and inspire. Stare at Chagall, touch Gaudier-Brzeska, memorize Plath or immerse yourself in Godard.
Wakefield say, “You need something to set memory off. Write whatever comes to your mind about your life; inevitably what comes out is the form of a story.”
Give voice to your findings
And then give voice to your findings with others. “The important part of the evoking is to go through the process with others. To read your work out loud to others is very important, ” Wakefield stresses. The spiritual memoir is a solitary discernment of stirrings, a gathering of voices, but is communally recounted.
Heed the voices, for they are the memoirist’s own rising from the soul. I found a voice whispering amongst blond shock in the fields of my youth.
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