Scott Russell Sanders and Spiritual Memoir

The September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle carries an interview with Scott Russell Sanders by Tom Montgomery Fate which excited me because it asks one of my own questions: is it possible to tell an artful story out of an ordinary life? Scott Russell Sanders is one of the few who do this difficult task beautifully in our time; he transforms the quotidian into art.

There is a bias toward conflict in all literature; yet, at least some writers believe that the end of literature is peace (Seamus Heaney) or wisdom (Robert Frost). I have always been drawn to this type of writer, perhaps because my own life story seeks these goals.

Sanders himself explains why the audience is small for stories about ordinary goodness: “Trouble is more interesting than harmony. It’s paradoxical: we wish to lead happy lives but with to read about miserable ones. We hope for peace and read about strife.” In his recent book A Private History of Awe, Sanders tells how he searched for works of fiction that focused on sustained marriages over a lifetime but could not find enough artistic works to merit a college course.

Sanders calls A Private History of Awe a “spiritual memoir” because it contains his search for answers to the perennial questions about the meaning of existence. It took him a long time to admit that his primary quest as a writer is spiritual, because, as he explains in his author’s note online, “For years I shied away from writing about religious experience, in part because of the hostility that many literary readers show toward all references to spirituality, in part because these matters have always seemed to me better left private. Yet the questions I’ve kept returning to in my adult life are essentially religious ones, and I found myself unwilling to abandon this terrain to the televangelists and fundamentalists.”

Sanders may not be following the dominant contemporary literary fashions, but he is following the oldest of all traditions of autobiography, which most historians of trace back to St. Augustine’s Confessions. He also follows in the steps of Thoreau, Emerson, Annie Dillard, and Kathleen Norris. One of my hopes in this blog is to shine a light on the work of spiritual memoir writers. Spiritual memoir will not be the only category explored here, but it will definitely have a place of honor.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Chelsea on August 18, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    It’s not a memoir, but another model of writing about a spiritual life that is positive without being saccharine is Gilead. I’m sure you’ve read it! Then again, there is some spice in that story with the old man and his much younger wife.

  2. shirleyhs on August 19, 2008 at 6:57 am

    I have read Gilead, and, as you surmised, I loved it.

  3. Peggy Q. on August 21, 2008 at 10:33 am

    Shirley, you inspired me to look up a new word “quotidian” and I found the following: According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the most venerable of all dictionaries), the word was first used around 1340. It comes to us from the Latin quotidianus, meaning “daily”, and this in turn from the Latin quotus (however many occur, every) + dies (day). The word therefore literally means “every day,” though today we use it to mean “daily” or “occurring on a daily basis.” It can also connote something rather mundane that occurs regularly; e.g., “Most of Elvie's blog entries were nothing more than trivial ramblings on her quotidian existence.”The word is used in medicine to refer to an illness that has regularly recurring symptoms (a quotidian fever).Also of interest: The French word for “daily” is quotidien (also a daily newspaper).

  4. shirleyhs on August 21, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Peggy,How great to find this comment when I returned to my desk. I love the fact that the OED uses blog entries to define the word! Or was that you? 🙂

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