When people ask me about my dream job, I always wince a little before I tell them that I want to write spiritual memoirs. A lot of times their reaction is initially positive, actually, because they think I want to write books about other people’s stories.
But then I tell them I want to write stories from my own perspective about faith and family, and I wish that I could disappear from the conversation as I wait for that confused look to come across their face.
“You mean you just want to write about yourself and your life and this is your dream? This is what you’re aspiring to do?”
They don’t actually say that. This is what I imagine they are thinking, and I cringe and wonder just how arrogant and self-absorbed I am.
But let me just say one thing (OK, many things). I have studied the craft of memoir for a long time. This isn’t something I just started casually thinking about recently. I have my reasons for wanting to write from my perspective about things that have happened to me and pieces of wisdom that people I love have passed on to me.
I’ve been reading memoirs and autobiographies as a hobby since high school. I went to journalism school, where students usually do their master’s projects about Twitter, or major historic journalistic happenings like the investigation of Watergate and “All the President’s Men,” or how women aged 18 – 34 respond to depictions of women in magazines like Cosmopolitan.
My master’s project was about spiritual memoirs. I don’t know that there ever was a master’s project about that subject before in the journalism school or if there ever will be one again. Why? Because it’s not exactly a journalistic topic. But I really wanted to focus on that, because it’s my passion.
During, before and after my work on that project, I have read and continue to read memoirs, memoirs, memoirs. Often about faith. Almost always about family, because family is everywhere inside us – we cannot escape the influence of family.
When I read these memoirs, I don’t generally think that the authors are arrogant, or annoying, or wasting their time. The books that I love the most are the really honest and analytical ones, and if they are both of these things crafted with amazing writing, that is the jackpot.
My reaction to all these books is: I’m so glad someone put into words things that I have thought before, things that I have struggled with, rejoiced over in my own life. My other reaction is in a manner similar to that of how we feel when we stop and reflect on how grateful we are that a musical group we love decided to perform music. I think: I’m so glad this person, who is clearly an incredibly talented and gifted writer, decided to write. I don’t get hung up on the fact that these people are writing about their own lives instead of others. I think there is a time and place for each type of storytelling.
I am a writing freak. I get so drunk on the written word. I love it, love it, love it. I get totally geeked out on this stuff. I drive down the freeway and think about how I am yet to read Buechner, Nouwen, L’Engle, Augustine, and how I want to read them all right now. I look forward to author appearances the way many of my peers get excited for concerts. I get giddy over books. I fall in love with them. It is a romance all its own, one that crooks my neck uncomfortably on a pillow as I lie in terrible posture at midnight, fighting fatigue to read just 20 more pages.
Over time, since I started this here blog, I’ve been told – not a million times, but enough – by people that something I said made them happy, touched them, and that they were glad I said something.
Even writing that statement makes me feel arrogant. But let me just tell you that is why I write. When I have read the writing of Anne Lamott, Donald Miller, Jay Bakker, Phil Vischer (yes, the Veggie Tales guy), Lauren Winner, etc. etc. etc., I have thought so many times: YES. There is tremendous, incredible comfort which makes me able to move forward in life when I read on a page the words of someone else who has been somewhere I have been. I write not for the “fame” of writing, but because when I read something and it touches me I know how powerful that is, so who am I not to do the same for others if I am getting clear feedback and requests to do so?
When I took my introductory reporting class in journalism school, I was prone to say ridiculous and obnoxious things during lecture in our classroom full of probably 200+ people. In more private moments, during some of the countless occasions when us tired, crotchety master’s students got together for drinks, some of my friends would mention to me that they enjoyed listening to my comments in class.
I felt ridiculous (and then again, not so ridiculous) making the comments, but apparently I was saying things that other people wanted to say but were too afraid to raise their hands and actually say themselves.
Believe it or not, I was a shy kid. At least that’s the way I remember it. But around the third grade mark, I got sarcastic, and from there on I have always been obnoxious. I talk. I’m loud. I’m not shy, and I will be that person in a group to finally say, “All right, everyone, we are going to Taco Bell for lunch and that is it! No more discussing our options, let’s go.” I have opinions and I share them. Sometimes people find this funny, probably sometimes they want me to shuuuuut uuuup.
Let me just say I wish I could shut myself up sometimes. I don’t understand sometimes why I have this impulse to just make something known outside of myself, why I must tell those around me what I am thinking and feeling, why I am so verbal.
But when it comes to writing, this is the only thing I have ever felt called to do. It is the only thing that I have received continuous, specific words of encouragement about. And yes, I want to shut myself up on the page, too, sometimes. I worry a fair amount about how words can hurt others and make people who don’t agree with me hard and thus not willing to listen again. I really believe that God is more than my words will ever say, and I absolutely do not want to step on His toes or get in the way of the things He is doing for us by opening my big mouth and saying something that will lead His sheep astray.
Anne Lamott, in her book about writing called “Bird by Bird,” says something about how writers are simply just really observant people. I think she says something in addition about how it’s our job to share those observations, but it’s been a long time since I read that book and I don’t have my copy here with me to reference and check, so don’t quote me on that. But I remember the thing about being observant.
I am a neurotic person. I observe. I think all the time. I cannot stop. I feel burdened by it a lot. Sometimes I am OK with it because I am grateful that I was selected to be a creative person. Whatever the reason this incessant thinking is here inside me, it’s here. Two things I can say about it: 1) When I write down my observations, they are not only in my head anymore but also on paper, and this offers tremendous catharsis and relief to my nonstop and sometimes tortured brain. 2) Sometimes people respond to this, positively.
So I write.
I get up in my unemployment and instead of heading straight to the job listings, I head to Microsoft Word. I put the date at the top of the page, I save the file, I sit, I head to the Internet to dink around, and then eventually I get to gettin’. I write something. You know why? Because so many of these trusted writers who I am so grateful for say that you’ve got to write every day. Make it a habit. Do it at the same time every day, to create a mental environment that recognizes when it’s writing time. Do it to practice, to use the muscle, to keep limber. Do it because if all you ever do is talk about it you’ll never actually do it. Do it because this is our job, and in this particular line of work no one is going to make us do it but ourselves.
Writing is a lonely profession. It provides temporary freedom from neuroticism, but it also breeds it. Anne Lamott says to call your writer friends when you feel like sh*t about yourself and your writing, because someone eventually will answer the phone, and they will understand. I practice this in general, not just when I’m freaking out about writing. I’ve been known to dial 10 numbers or more in a row, just to get the human on the other end of the line who can get me out of myself for just a sweet second. The ones who I can cry to and who can make me laugh are on speed dial. (Theoretical speed dial – as if I know how to activate speed dial on my phone. I still haven’t figured out where the speaker phone feature is.)
I hope that my writing is something of that voice on the other end of the phone line for some people.
I will still feel arrogant on occasion, like a fool, hating so much that look on the faces of people who don’t comprehend how I can be so bold to say that I want to write books about my own observations, instead of interviewing some really interesting person and writing his story instead. My hope is that either some really gifted writer out there will write the story of that really interesting person, or that he will write it himself. Because when someone speaks from her own perspective, it is honest. It is not hindered by the thoughts of someone else, and it speaks to people. And I love that. That type of writing specifically has served me as a reader, and a writer. If I thought these memoirists were all arrogant pricks, I would have stopped scouring that section at the library a long time ago. But there are a lot of people who know how to tell the world about something they really understand, something that for better or worse they just get, and personally, I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
Do I still feel weird, arrogant, as a writer? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I feel like a fool. An arrogant prick who thinks maybe I should just write in a cave and not ever provide my stuff to an audience, because all this talking about me makes me uncomfortable to think about and broadcast. But that defeats the purpose, I think. And every once in a while that audience says, “Please keep going. Keep writing.”
I really try to write around themes* – faith, family, mental health. It’s not so much that I’m writing about me. I am simply the narrator, speaking to things that affect us all but that some of us are afraid to talk about. I have needed writers to say before, “I feel crazy, I feel like a jerk, I am so f*ing lost in this life,” and they have said it, and I have heaped kisses of gratitude upon them from afar. I am simply carrying the torch to keep saying those things so that people won’t get so utterly lost in their anxiety, their depression, their irrational fears, their doubt of their faith that they have had for so long and so desperately don’t want to lose.
“We read to know we are not alone,” said C.S. Lewis.
I might be going against the norm, in a pretty hardcore fashion most of the time. Very few people walk around this place saying, “I want to write spiritual memoirs.” But as far as I can tell, I have a calling and I am following it. I have been made somewhat obnoxious. Sometimes obnoxious people are simply obnoxious, and other times they are asked to speak up. And 2,118 words later, I have accomplished my task for the day, to write. The Word document is no longer blank, no longer contains only a date.
*By the way, in case you’re wondering, one of the major differentiations between a memoir and an autobiography is that a memoir tends to be focused on a major theme or a snapshot in time. Autobiographies tend to be chronological, birth-to-present stories. I picked up a bit of this trivia during my master’s studies…
(A small) P.S. This is my 1,000th Daily Bailey post. If you’ve been here since the beginning, thank you. If you just got here, thank you for stopping by. And welcome. Xo, Bailey