Richard Kauffman is book editor for The Christian Century magazine and a personal friend. He created a blog post recently about memoir and has granted me permission to copy and past it here.  If you like, you can also visit the site Theolog itself and check out the other blogging done there on subjects of religion and culture.

I attended the same lecture Richard refers to below (Scott Russell Sanders) while at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing this year. I love seeing memoir through other people’s eyes and think Richard makes excellent points not duplicated elsewhere in my reading about memoir.


Memoirs and the mystery of life

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.

I’ve asked Richard to provide the questions he described above. If you want to see them also, let him know in the comments section!

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Shirley Showalter


  1. Tom DeWolf on May 15, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    This is simply wonderful, Shirley. Thanks so much for sharing it. I've posted it on my Facebook page as well. How inspiring for writers (and wannabe writers) of memoirs.

  2. Kathleen Friesen on May 15, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    A thought provoking post. Thank you for including it here and pointing us to “theolog”. And, yes, I would be very interested in the list of questions!

  3. Carolyn on May 16, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Yes! to the essay, and yes, I am interested in the questions. How is a memoir different than an autobiography? Is it simply a recognition that what and how we remember is filtered through the lens of our experiences and perceptions?

  4. Karin on May 17, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    I would love to see a list of those questions, and to compare them with questions that biographers ask their subjects. When we reflect on our years at the very end of our lives, what are the nuggets that are worth extracting, for ourselves, and for others? Are those nuggets the same?

  5. shirleyhs on May 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    We'll have to ask Richard!

  6. shirleyhs on May 20, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I have some previous posts that help answer the definitions questions, Carolyn. You might find these of interest as collected under the category of “books about memoir”:…The short answer to your question is that autobio is more like a bio written by another person–historical account of a life with some quotes and anecdotes and reflections thrown in. Written at the end of (usually) an eminent life. The interest in these books for readers is often, “what choices led to this person being at the right place at the right time or how did she develop wisdom?' In memoir, the focus is often on a shorter period–childhood, “year” doing unexpected or odd things, professional life, etc. Can be written by a young person without eminence–yet. Has to be compelling as a story and is written in the form of scenes rather than in the form of historical account.

  7. shirleyhs on May 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Richard is trying to find these in old computers. We wish him luck, right?

  8. shirleyhs on May 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing the love, Tom.

  9. Kathleen Friesen on May 20, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Most definitely! This is a concrete example of my concerns about losing information and artifacts due to digital obsolescence.

  10. Johanna on May 28, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    You touch on something that has always fascinated me I have had the privilege of being with many people as they have died. I have always listened closely and wondered; how will they encapsulate their lives in their final moments; what distils out of and remains after a lifetime of experiences? And now, as I stand close to death, it is my turn to write my own last words. My husband snickers, “Last words! 122.000 last words?!” Well, I am a woman–what can I say?! My memoir, Graffiti On My Soul, has just been published. Lyrical, funny, raw, mystical it tells how God writes His Eternal Love Story in the grit of our lives. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles said, “The living testimony of believers rather than philosophical arguments are what is needed today. In former days we focused on 'how we get to God'. Today it is more important to understand 'how God comes to us'”. And this is my story–through the brambles of adolescence, through eight years as a nun, and finally through a time of utter horror, I have found in an underground river, through all events and circumstances, the constant presence of God. For more information check:

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