#16: Memoir as Feminist Testimony 2016
The Counsel of Experience, July 22, 2017
Five memoirists—Amy Julia Becker, Jessica Mesman Griffith, Katherine Willis Pershey, Alison Hodgson, and Rachel Marie Stone—consider the particular challenges of a genre associated with women writers and thus often taken less seriously. The panelists describe navigating the dangers of sugarcoating, oversharing, didacticism, and creating tidy resolutions. Against a long tradition of disbelieving or dismissing women’s voices, these writers declare memoir a feminist act of testimony, a challenge to create works that honor our unfinished stories and point to the movement of God. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and blogger/author Sarah Bessey.
- Amy Julia Becker,
- A Good and Perfect Gift
- Small Talk: Learning from my Children about what Matters Most
- Jessica Mesman Griffith, Love
- Katherine Willis Pershey
- Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family
- Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity
- Alison Hodgson, The Pug List
- Allan Jacobs, Looking Before and After
- Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host.
This is the place where you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we celebrate the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features a wide-ranging conversation about memoir as a form of feminist testimony. This panel from the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing features Amy Julia Becker, Jessica Mesman Griffith, Katherine Willis Pershey, Alison Hodgson, and Rachel Marie Stone, talking about writing with honesty and candor, the subversive power of humor, and so much more. To help me introduce the session, I called up Sarah Bessey, popular blogger and author of the books Out of Sorts and Jesus Feminist. Not only was she a featured speaker at the 2016 Festival, during this panel she was in the audience taking notes.
Lisa: [00:01:12] Well thanks so much, Sarah, for joining us here today. Where did we catch you?
Sarah Bessey: Well actually right now I am down in my little writing office in Abbotsford, British Columbia. I use the term office very lightly, it's actually our guest room.
Lisa: [laughs] Nice
Sarah: I just happen to have a corner of it. [laughs] I like to use the word office because I've worked almost exclusively at public libraries when I do most of my writing—
Sarah: —and so I feel very excited to have a space where I have a door. [laughs]
Lisa: Doors are fantastic, that's true.
Sarah: Yeah it is. It is, it is. [laughs]
Lisa: Nice. Well we're going to listen today to this really great panel that happened at the 2016 Festival that featured five really wonderful authors: Amy Julia Becker, Jessica Mesman Griffith, Alison Hodgson, and Katherine Willis Pershey, talking about memoir as feminist testimony and that was moderated by Rachel Marie Stone. And one of the things that struck me about this was, we seem to be in an age of memoir, in some sense, that there seems to be this thirst for personal narratives, but also a kind of deep seated suspicion of those narratives. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that, about the way, but why memoir itself is so popular.
Sarah: I think that at the core, I think the reason why people are interested in memoir is because we've always been interested in story. I mean, I think that that storytelling, that telling our stories, that understanding each other's stories, is really a profoundly human thing. You know, we're not existing within a vacuum. You know, I remember hearing once that almost all theology has its roots in autobiography.
Lisa: Mmm, right.
Sarah: And certainly true in my case, and so oftentimes when I am writing theologically I am grounding that in life because this is the reason oftentimes why we come to the conclusions we have come to, or why we have landed on what we think or know or believe or hope about God. Oftentimes those things are rooted in our place and in our time and in our context. And so I think that people are starting to realize that. I think it's also what connects us. It makes us feel less alone. It gets us outside of our own bubble, as well.
One thing that I committed to this past year in particular was reading stories outside my usual, my usual, you know, genre or life or even context, and in particular I've made an effort to read more indigenous women writers and it has just changed so much about how I see history and how I see, you know, the stories that I have been given, you know, as a white Canadian, [laughs] you know [laughs] It open our eyes. It opens our hearts. It opens us up to one another and then to God and I think that's a really deeply powerful, transformative sort of thing.
You know, on the flip side, as you were saying, there's that push-back, or that, even some sense of smearing, like it's not as [deep breath] you know, highbrow, perhaps, as, you know, other, other forms of writing or whatever else. [silence] I mean, one of the things in this session that Katherine Willis Pershey said that I think I wrote down in my, I was in the session, or I was present at it and taking notes. I think I was tweeting. [laughs] But then one of the things that Katherine Willis Pershey said in that session that really stood out to me was she said that testimony was often the first or only time that women were allowed to speak in the church and that disbelieving women is—the act of disbelieving a woman is one of the favorite pastimes of the patriarchy—
Lisa: Oh, gosh. [laughs] Right.
Sarah: [laughs] [joking] I mean, aside from the fact that like flames erupted on stage at the moment, I mean it was just, you know, so, so lit. [laughs] But there's this sense of—
Lisa: [00:05:09] I'm gonna quote you on that. [laughs]
Sarah: Right? There was this sense of people wanting to discredit it or wanting to say well that's not true or that's emotional or this and that but, you know, one of the things that, that we see, I mean, and Chimamanda Ngozi [Adichie] writes, talks about this in her Ted Talk where she said, you know, we face this danger of the single story. And I also [inaudible] trying to say their story is the only truth.
Sarah: But oftentimes stories will push us outside of what we are comfortable with or our way of understanding the world.
Sarah: And I think that that's one of the things that memoir does so incredibly beautifully and so incredibly well. And sometimes it pushes up against our prejudices, it pushes up against our presuppositions, it pushes up against, you know, the things we thought we had quite nicely settled into neat and tidy boxes and categories. And that's a really powerful thing but it's also disruptive to people.
Lisa: Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today about this panel and also for being at the Festival in 2016.
Sarah: Oh, I loved it. I loved it. It was such a life-giving space and I really appreciated the invitation and the time I got to spend there. It meant alot to me.
Lisa: Alright, bye Sarah.
Sarah: [laughs] Alright, bye.
Lisa: [00:06:34] And now, Memoir as Feminist Testimony at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. A note to our listeners: Due to technical difficulties, the audio is a bit rough for the first several minutes of this recording.
Rachel Marie Stone: [applause] Welcome. My name is Rachel Marie Stone and we are gathered here to talk about the art and craft of memoir. Each of our panelists—Amy Julia, Alison, Jessica, and Katherine—have published and will publish memoirs. Some of you may have joined us because you have also written memoirs or because you hope to. Some of you may be here because you, like us, simply love the genre.
In 1998, the writing teacher and writer in his own right, William Zinsser, declared ours the age of the memoir. A number of critics have credited the critical and popular success of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes in 1999 with helping jumpstart what we've seen as an upsurge in memoir's popularity, different trade journals have noted that non-fiction, personal nonfiction is consistently selling well, and consistently so. So there's the temptation to think that memoir is something new, but a quick glance just into the history of personal narrative more generally reminds us that first person writing is probably as old as humankind itself.
Still, I think it's fair to say that there is a certain thirst and hunger for memoir these days and perhaps equally and oppositely, there's a certain suspicion of what the meaning of the popularity of memoir—what it means that memoir means to so much to us. Particularly, I think, when it's women who are writing it. Self absorbed. Solipsistic. Self-indulgent. These are just some of the terms that are used to deride the memoir, writes the personal essayist Leslie Jamison, whose empathy exams got a lot of attention in the last year.
Jamison writes, "Who wants to hear another thirty-year-old going on and on about her damage?" [audience laughter] When Lauren Winner's memoir Still came out some years back, I heard more than a few snide remarks about thirty-something women writing multiple memoirs. True or not, there seems to be a perception that memoir is a peculiarly feminine phenomenon. And therefore, perhaps, not to be taken too seriously.
[00:09:51] We live in a world where studies bear out the strange truth that doctors and nurses, men and women, take women's pain, that is, literal, physical pain less seriously than men's pain. We live in a world where more than two-thirds of sexual assaults are not reported. Why? Maybe because sometimes, the pain of not having your story believed is less than the pain of keeping your suffering to yourself. This is nothing new.
A woman's testimony meant nothing in the days when women were last at the cross, and first at the empty tomb to greet the one who, as Dorothy Sayers wrote, quote, "took their questions and arguments seriously, never mapped out their spear for them, and took them as he found them.” This too is nothing new. But memoir as feminist testimony is as relevant for people of faith as ever, particularly when, I think, and I think my panelists agree, particularly when memoir can run the very real risk of being self-indulgent, of reflecting self-absorption, and in I think particularly Christian circles, of having to fit a certain mold and move toward a certain, and dare I say tidy, end.
So with that, let's turn to the panel and why don't each of you introduce yourselves and tell us about the memoirs you have written, or are writing, and then we'll go from there.
Amy Julia Becker: I'm Amy Julia Becker, and I've written a couple of books. One is called The Good and Perfect Gift, which is a spiritual memoir about our experience of having a daughter with Down's Syndrome and what it took to receive her as a gift, the transformation it took within me, and essentially talking about a culture of perfection and how her birth calls me to re-examine that and my role in it. And then I had a parenting memoir that came out about a year and a half ago called Small Talk: Learning from My Children about what Matters Most.
Jessica Mesman Griffith: I'm Jessica Mesman Griffith. I wrote a memoir called Love and Salt about accompanying my best friend through her conversion to Catholicism and the subsequent death of her child. And I'm working on another memoir right now about my childhood in Siena. I'm also running a group blog called “Sick Pilgrim” that's for Christians who are struggling with spiritual darkness.
Katherine Willis Pershey: I'm Katherine Willis Pershey and in 2012 I published my first book through Chalice Press: Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family and it was about the first few years of my ministry and the birth of my daughter and the relevance that all had in my life at the time. And then my forthcoming book is Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity and it is about, as you might expect, about marriage and there's certainly an element, a significant amount of memoir in both books, but they're also sort of memoir in conversation with Biblical commentary and cultural critique engagement reflection. So it's kind of a hybrid memoir.
Alison Hodgson: Hi, I'm Alison Hodgson and I have a newborn book. It just came out last week and it's called The Pug List and the subtitle is A Ridiculous Dog Family Who Lost Everything and How They All Found their Way Home and in a nutshell it's about how adopting this troublesome little pug helped my family heal after an arsonist set our house on fire. And on the one hand it sounds really light but when someone sets your house on fire, it's not fun, and I like to think it's subversively wise.
Rachel Marie: So, AJ, you were going to tackle some questions for us on sugarcoating and oversharing. All right, so the first question I'd love to hear your response to is—okay so you told us you've written a memoir about your daughter Penny who was born with Down's Syndrome and it's a wonderful book about learning to rethink perfection and to receive Penny with her extra chromosome and all as a good and perfect gift.
And yet, in releasing that into the world, to mostly very positive reception, you have been accused by some readers of not telling enough of the hard parts haven't you? And I wonder if you could tell us about that, and tell us, if you'd like, tell us about the book you're working on now and how you're facing down the challenges of running the risk of making it sound better than it is.
Amy Julia: [00:15:18] Yeah, so with the book about Penny, and about our family, I had, the movement about that book is this experience of coming to receive her as she is and not placing expectations that she be who I thought she needed to be. But really just receiving her as a gift from God and trusting that whatever that means, even if it does not in any way conform to what our culture would say is valuable and successful to receive her as such. What happens in the book and has happened in our life is that in letting go of expectations, we were able to receive her and to recognize her incredible giftedness.
And I was criticized, because I think for some readers that felt like a swing from you're going to take her as she is and then you're going to brag about her. And yet, I think for other readers it was a demonstration of the freedom that can come because there is I think a human truth to all of us that there is a brokenness in us and there the image of God in us and there is a giftedness in all of us. And so, I felt like it was really important to name, again, I need to let go of all of these expectations and not place them on my daughter, but I also need to expect God to be at work in her, expect her true self to be real and vibrant and shine forth.
So, that was some of that criticism and I think there's also criticism I've faced along the lines of writing about our daughter that I'm not telling the hard parts about having a child with Down's Syndrome and those come from within the Down's Syndrome community and they also come from outside the Down's Syndrome community in terms of people who think, have written a lot about prenatal testing and abortion and who think that it is false to tell such a good story about having a child with Down's Syndrome and that's not every person's story. And I have taken some of that to heart in trying to demonstrate that there is a spectrum of experiences for parents with children with disabilities, and yet also not to shy away from our very real experience which is that we had a kid, and we love her and we think she's great and I tell stories about her.
Within that, though, I do have a rule of whenever I am writing about someone else, I think I have, it is my first and foremost responsibility to honor them and not just to tell a good story at their expense. And that's true for my children as well as for friends or anyone else in my life. And so I will not write a story about Penny or anyone else that I would not tell in their presence. And if I'm not sure about that I will ask permission, even including my kids. And granted, she's ten, so may or may not agree with herself ten years from now about whether I should be allowed to tell some stories but that is how I try to think about it.
I'm working on a new book right now, a proposal right now that's a memoir about privilege, and about having lived a very privileged life in a variety of ways. And what's tempting in that story when it comes to the hard parts is to resolve it in a tidy way. I want there to be a narrative arc that lands in a very satisfying place and I don't have that and I don't think I will have that and I think that's actually some of the strength of the book is to say we as a nation are not in a place where we have resolved this.
And in fact I hope, I think, we're opening up some questions and some dialogue that perhaps might one day be the be the—I don't think will ever be a tidy resolution but to at least some degree of healing and resolution. But yes, certainly my temptation in that project and then thinking about those things is to put a bow on it and there's not a bow to put on it and so that's going to be one of the temptations for me and writing that is letting that stay hard
And then the last thing I'll say about sugarcoating—and I think this is true of anyone, probably of anyone in general, but certainly of anyone who is in a marginalized position, so that might be related to disability or to race or to ethnicity. But there's a danger of demonizing or glorifying people who are on the margins. And I think essentially in both cases that is to dehumanize whenever we demonize or glorify because it's not holding on to the wholeness of our humanity as what I said earlier, both broken and gifted. And so, that's something that I really try to do, is not just to write a story about me, or my family or my daughter or my friends, but actually to demonstrate through this story the common humanity that we share. And so I think that's where you need to have a touchstone of anecdotes or of stories but then you can build from that and from those particulars into a more general, hopeful but honest human experience.
Rachel Marie: [00:20:25] Right and you said that to you, it's very meaningful, of course, when parents of children with Down's Syndrome say to you, "Your book meant so much to me" and in a way, you feel, I don't want to say proudest, but that it's extremely meaningful to you when you find out A Good and Perfect Gift has had resonance with people who maybe don't have the experience of disability in their immediate family.
But, so, your writing is obviously very personal. You're writing about prenatal testing, you're writing about your children, your family, your childhood. And I do think of you as my—I should say that all of here on the panel know each other fairly well as writers and as people. And Amy Julia is my representative New Englander friend and who, I think, has a keen sense of what constitutes oversharing. So, Amy Julia, as our representative New Englander, when does memoir feel false or... When does it ring false or when does it feel faux confessional, if I may say it that way, to you?
Amy Julia: So, a couple of thoughts on that: One is, there is a temptation to resolve things, but there's also a temptation to tell a story before it has been resolved. And I actually think that's when I often feel like things are faux confessional. I had an eating disorder in high school and I look back on how often I wanted to be on a panel to talk about eating disorders and it because I was still working it out and it's like, okay that was probably not helpful, to me or to anyone else. Whereas now, that that has been... I have some distance from it and I can see what was resolved in that, what wasn't, then I think I actually have something to say. So I do think that that's one thing that happens in memoir where we are in our culture—we have such an immediate culture right now, so you're tempted to write about something as soon as it happens.
So I do think that stories like this often need time in order to get that this is not just me, you know, journaling in front of an audience, but actually having done some work spiritually and kind of intellectually to think something through, and then to see how does this individual story actually connect. And not to say that we're writing for the whole world, but how does it connect to a broader story in the context of our culture. I mean, A Good and Perfect Gift is a good example of that, of having a culture of perfection that I was so embedded in, and having this particular child come into my life and upend that but my hope is always that it would help other people who are in that place where I was to actually consider those same themes, that the particular questions that I'm asking are linked to a broader question.
And again, I think that helps get away from that falseness and faux confession that can happen. And then the last thing I would say is just that...well, actually sorry, two more things—one is I think that the craft of writing is important in that, and making sure that there is a depth to the writing so that you're actually defending the choices to you make, whether it's like defending every adverb you use [laughs] or whether it's defending the particular stories that you're including because it can be self-indulgent.
There are stories that I just love about our family that are totally irrelevant to anyone in this room. And it's the same as when somebody comes over to your house and you wanna show them like every photo from your trip to Alaska, as opposed to being like here's the one that captures the whole trip. And it's like yeah, your best friend might have to sit through every single photo, or like every story about your awesome child, but like your readers do not need to sit through every photo or every story.
And then the final thing I'll say which I think is similar to that is that I think there's a difference between writing something that's inspiring and writing something that's transformative and I would hope to be careful about writing things that are inspiring because I think they can be false and fall flat and not be translatable into someone else's life and I'd rather write things that are talking about transformation, both personally and kind of as a window of hope for others.
Rachel Marie: [00:24:49] Thank you so much. So we're going to continue the conversation with Jessica, Jessica Mesman Griffith. Jessica, you have written, and we've talked about, the fact that Christian memoirs, we're sorry to say, Christian memoirs often disappoint you. Why is that? What is that you find missing from a lot of Christian memoirs—and we are Christian memoirists. [laughs]
Jessica: I am a Christian memoirist.
Rachel Marie: We are among friends. It's a critique from within. But what's missing from a lot of Christian memoirs and is there a better way?
Jessica: [00:25:25] Like you said, I think Christian memoirs tend toward the tidy narrative, and I feel it too. I feel the pressure to tell a certain story that follows a predictable Christian path of sin, redemption, resurrection, reform. And I'm more interested in what happens when your story doesn't reflect that experience.
Is there a space in Christian memoir for the untidy story? For the writer who doesn't learn her lesson? For the writer who makes the wrong choice and who doesn't reform and doesn't resurrect? But she still loves Jesus, and she's still trying to understand her relationship with him. I wanna read the stories we might be afraid to tell in church.
Memoir for me is a, I kind of say it's a way to test theory against experience, a way to test theology against life. It's like theoretical physics, where I'm seeking patterns and scribbling equations in my attempt at discovering a theory that will explain everything. And as a Christian, that search for the meaning of everything should always lead me back to one person. And that might imply that being a career spiritual memoirist would be really boring cause you always know where it’s going, but there are countless ways to get there and to get lost on the way. So I have absolutely no problem at all with authors writing multiple memoirs. The story isn't over, and that's just a reflection of reality.
I'll come back to this in a second, but I want to talk more about this theory of everything. How do we describe a theory of everything that's actually a person, Jesus? Somehow when I'm, especially when I'm suffering, and I'm like a total cliche, tortured artist, who writes more when I'm suffering, theology does not really serve me. I'm a theology geek, you know I read theology, but it doesn't serve in those moments of affliction. At some point I have to test those theories against experience and tell stories about the person who I'm in relationship with, what it's like to be in that relationship. To find him, to lose him, to love him, to misunderstand him, and to hate him.
So, as far as women's memoir goes, I think it's only natural that my favorite memoirs have been written by women. I don't really see memoir as a pink genre, more fitted to us than to men. And most of us acknowledge that it was a man, St. Augustine, who came up with the whole idea anyway, with the Confessions. And I've loved some memoirs written by men, but I've noticed something about male memoir. And I'm going to make tons of sweeping generalizations here so just ignore me.
It tends to focus on the life of one man in the world. They tend towards the truly narrowly introspective. And this can be really fascinating in the hands of an artist, like Nabokov, or a visionary like Thomas Merton. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a six-volume Prussian memoir that is so internally focused that he spends an entire page describing his reaction to watching a tea bag change the color of the water in his mug. [audience laughter] He even includes [sound of enjoyment] "Mmmmmm" as he waits for it to steep. And I loved him for it. I love this defiant commitment to navel-gazing, [audience laughter] to just go for it.
But as women, and as women writers, I noticed that we tend to interpret ourselves in terms of relationship. And this is one of the reasons why I love Elena Ferrante. And she wrote novels, she wrote the series of books called The Neapolitan Novels, but they were autobiographical. They could've been labeled memoirs. But in those books she tells the story of the world. She really does. It's epic. And her world, it's Naples. And it's all through the story of a relationship, her relationship with her best friend. But even Nadia Bolz-Weber's book, Accidental Saints, is another example of this for me. For her that's the story of her life, distinguished by finding God in all the wrong people. So it's about relationship. Another favorite memoirist, Mary Karr. You read Mary Karr and you get her story, but you get her story refracted by the stories of her mother, her sister, her daddy. You know her family as well as you know Mary, and you know Mary through her family.
[00:30:20] So another gross overgeneralization, men see themselves, or at least, they think they do, right. We see ourselves reflected in others. So when it comes to fleshing out the meaning of our lives, that theory of everything that can only be a person, Jesus, and our relationship with Him, which is so often lived through our relationships with each other, however awful and disruptive. I think we might have an edge. Sorry.
So when memoirs disappoint me, it's usually because they've skipped that complexity, they've skipped the complex, refracted stories and hurried to a definitive answer to a question that maybe I wasn't even asking. The answers to our questions and the very questions that we ask are influenced by our specific milieu to that complex interweaving of family and circumstance and history set in motion long before we came along. We can only live the contours of one life, ours. And I've heard that referred to as the problem of contingency by theologians. Teresa of Avila said, "We're only privy to one heart, and that's our own."
Rachel Marie: [quietly] That's beautiful. Thank you. [louder] I think you already alluded to this, maybe a little bit, that, you know, a lot of memoirs are offering answers to questions, I like this line, offering answers to questions that maybe we weren't even asking. And yet I think, I know for myself, and I think for you, that we feel like we, all of us, we learn a lot, and gain a lot, and are helped by memoir, and yet there are so many of us who would never put our nose in this self-help section, or, you know, the like, but live on and from and through a memoir as self-help in a lot of ways. So, I'm wondering Jess, what thoughts you might have on in what way is memoir didactic or not and should it be explicitly didactic or is it that just a deadly sin and a no-go zone in a memoir?
Jessica: Well I think I love self-help. I read self-help and I read memoir, but I go to them for different reasons. I think what I memoir does really well is it can offer counsel and it can walk alongside the reader instead of getting in front of the reader. Alison and I were talking about this in conversation the other day.
Alison: [inaudible] ...not stealing my lines. [inaudible]
Jessica: I'm not, I'm not stealing your line. I will not. But in reference to my book, Love and Salt, which is a collection of letters, written back and forth between my friend and I, and you get to see that companionship and council on the page but I think, between the two of us, but I think the reader also participates in it. And we are not preaching, we're not offering advice, but you're getting counsel from that relationship you form with us.
So, that's how I see memoir; it's not that it's never didactic, it's not that it never works that way, but it offers counsel and not through definitive answers but through experience. Because its intelligence is always going to be limited by the open frame of an ongoing story, one that's going to continue and unfold after you close the book. This isn't a novel, the world doesn't end when you close the cover.
And that's what makes us different from fiction writers. For me, what makes a memoir really exciting is that we don't know the end, really. We can't know the end. We can't kill our characters off, you know, even if we really want to. [audience laughter] [joking] I mean I guess you could, that would be a good memoir! [audience laughter] But we have to stay within the boundaries of our lives and experience and relationships and we have to make meaning from the stuff we've been given. And that meaning is going to change, and it's gonna change as we write, if we're honest, you know.
Memoir is woven into and from the fabric of our real lives. So, you know, no, my memoir might not have any answers for you. And your memoir might not have any answers for me, but that doesn't mean your testimony won't speak to me. That doesn't mean you won't have words of confirmation or conviction or accompaniment or wisdom to offer me from telling me your story.
[00:35:09] One more thing I wanted to say—this goes back to what I started with—is the writer Alan Jacobs has a really great book about memoir. It's called Looking Before and After and it's about memoir as Christian testimony that was really helpful to me when I was thinking about publishing this book of letters because, you know, what could possibly be more navel gazing then to, you know, at the time we were late twenties women, writing each other letters back and forth about our souls. I mean, we weren't famous, who would ever want to read this?
But we read this book by Alan Jacobs and it really inspired us because he's really encouraging us to tell our stories without shame for the benefit of the community. He says that of people of faith the stories of our lives will necessarily tell the story of our path to God. And writing memoirs, I wanna say, it's not inherently feminine, but it is inherently spiritual. And what I love about Jacobs is that he doesn't restrict conversion to a single moment of revelation so again, another great comfort to career memoirists out there, like you're just going to keep having those conversions, conversion is life-long. You're always going to have a story to tell.
But he says, actually, it's one of the greatest dangers for any Christian, not just a writer, to assume that at any point in your life, your journey is over, and that you know the answers. Because it's only too likely that you've answered wrong, or that the answer was right then, for a time, but it's wrong now, or that you asked the wrong questions. So Jacobs says we're always running the risk of the twin dangers of presumption and despair and we make our way through those dangers by practicing the virtue of hope by learning and relearning that our stories are not finished, that we're still on our way.
So that, to me, is a real nobility of memoir in the writing of it and in the reading of memoirs. When we tell the stories of our particular ways to God, we tend the virtue of hope in each other. "We must," Jacobs says, this is my last quote, I promise, "learn to think of our lives as stories that move along recognizable paths, paths followed by our predecessors and our contemporaries so that we will be better able to see changes in our roads as continuations, rather than detours or dead ends."
So by sharing our own stories, we show each other the infinite and wildly various forms Christian life can take. It's not always tidy. We make a gift of our lives—our sorrows, our failures, our bad choices, our strengths—to each other. And we make a relationship with Jesus less abstract. We move it from theory to experience.
Rachel Marie: That's beautiful. I think you've articulated so beautifully what it is, maybe, that draws us to memoir. It's spiritual companionship in a lot of ways, so I thank you for that. And we're going to talk more about this question of testimony and bearing witness and what that means.
So with that, we are turning to Katherine, our representative clergywoman on the panel. And Katherine, you have done some investigation into the root meanings of the word testimony and it turns out that the etymologies speak to the gendered nature of testimony and of bearing witness, so could you speak a little bit about gender and memoir? How is memoir, or how can memoir be a feminist act?
Katherine: Sure. Well I have been interested in testimony for some time now, ever since I attended a preaching conference for young clergywomen led by Anna Carter Florence. She is a preaching professor and the author of Preaching as Testimony, and that might not sound germane to the conversation, but I assure you, it is. She defines testimony in the classical sense: we tell what we have seen and heard and we confess what we believe about it.
So she also provides the etymology for the word, which I find hilarious. Testimony, the word "witness" from which it comes, is derived from the Latin "testis," a witness who testifies or swears on his virility, literally his testes, [audience laughter] as proof of honesty. The older Latin—[audience laughter] I know right? The older Latin, was later absorbed into the Greek word for martyr, who swears on his or her life. So eventually these words come to mean remembering and telling the truth.
And so she writes in the most literal and corporeal sense: testimony is passionate truth-telling. So if I'm reading this right, I think that what Anna Carter Florence is all saying is that we are all ballsy women. [cheer from unidentified panelist] [applause] I don't know if you are allowed to say "balls" at The Festival of Faith & Writing, but I just did. [audience laughter]
Unidentified Panelist: Amen, sister! [audience laughter] Preach!
Katherine: [00:40:15] But more seriously, there is obviously great resonance here. As a feminist theologian, Florence is interested in testimony because it's the primary and sometimes the only way that women's voices and stories have been heard throughout church history. So "testimony," she writes, "testimony was and still is a practice of the church open to all believers as a means of deepening faith in themselves and others through the passionate witness of life and expression. And testimony," she writes, "seems to be most alive among marginalized communities." So this is to say that for all the centuries that women were not authorized to preach, they were preaching anyway, it was just called testimony.
Now, I know we're here to talk about memoir, not preaching, but they're genres that have some overlap in my work, and I think that some of what can be said about one can be applied to the other. So testimony in the form of memoir is one avenue in which women's voices are heard and just as testimony has been afforded less respect historically than the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit, memoir, in many circles, has less gravitas than works of theology.
And I haven't conducted any formal research on this, but I have noted anecdotally that men's voices still do tend to be more prevalent in theology and women's voices more common in memoir and spiritual life, then, you know, soft genres in the sphere of Christian writing. And there are no doubt excellent memoirs by men. I think a lot of people do think of it as a pink collar genre. So, the question of why women are so drawn to reading and writing memoir, I think the memoirist doesn't need to be given permission by the church to tell what she has seen or experienced and she doesn't need permission from the church to tell what she believes about it. She is fully authorized to tell her story because it's that: it's her story, she owns it.
And now, the tricky thing about testimony is that there is no guarantee that those who hear it or read it will believe it. This is why those who are bearing testimony historically have had to swear on Bible or, apparently, balls. [unidentified panelist laughter] [audience laughter] So women who bear testimony take a risk that their stories will not be believed, and this is nothing new. Disbelieving women is a favorite pastime of the patriarchy. But the memoirist testifies anyway. The memoirist tells the truth passionately, and I hope that Christian [stutters] memoirist—oh, you can't say that word three times [audience laughter] [enunciated] meMOIRist. I hope that she also points to the truth of the gospel passionately as she contemplates her life in context of faith and discipleship.
Rachel Marie: Thank you so much. So I was wondering if you could maybe tell us, and this is, we're kind of touching back on some of these themes: vulnerability and faux vulnerability, but I'd love it if you could tell us about your upcoming memoir, which is coming this summer? Is that correct?
Rachel Marie: September. Okay. Which has some tricky bits, that are leaving you feeling vulnerable. And I think, maybe you agree or disagree, but I think in some ways we are in cultural moment that really applauds people for being vulnerable and raw and you know, just telling it all and here are the messy bedrooms of my children and I don't care. [audience laughter] Right? So... [laughs]
Katherine: Except they're never really that messy.
Rachel Marie: [laughs] Right? But then...
Katherine: Just saying.
Rachel Marie: And then the internet says, "Go you for being so brave and raw!" [audience laughter] So I think, and then we've had conversations about this, it's almost like the praise of vulnerability, which I think is a really good thing in the orthodox Brene Brown sense. I think there is also such a thing as faux vulnerability. Okay, so, there's this phenomenon. Why do you feel like it's important to tell your story, Katherine, tricky bits and all? And what are some of the maybe faux vulnerability pitfalls you've had to kinda avoid?
Katherine: Yes, well the stories I include in Very Married are there for a reason, and I set out to tell them in a way that is honest and forthcoming, but also discrete. And discretion, I think is a dying art these days, especially with the valorization of vulnerability in writing. Brene Brown, you beat me to it, I mean how are we not going to talk about Brene Brown if we're talking about vulnerability, quote "Vulnerability is bankrupt on his own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviors that are so commonplace in today's culture." So even Brene knows that vulnerability can be problematic.
Rachel Marie: That's unorthodox Brene. Unorthodox Brene—
Katherine: Unorthodox Brene, yes.
Rachel Marie: —is cool.
Katherine: [00:45:21] So I do share some tricky bits that make me feel extraordinarily vulnerable and I experienced first hand that people really do respond to vaguely scandalous confessions in writing. The Christian Century essay that then went on to net me a book contract was about having experienced a crush on a friend, and it went viral in a way that nothing I have ever written before has. But I hope that the power of that piece was not actually in the confessed temptation but that I walked away from it, and at a safe distance confessed my belief in the glory of covenant and the sacredness of vows. So frankly I think what people found more surprising is that, not that I had the crush, but that I immediately told my husband.
So I guess for me the question about any given tricky bit is this: Is it redemptive? If testimony is sharing what we have witnessed and telling what we believe about it, does the content of my story ultimately direct the reader not to me but to the movement of God in my life? So I do sacrifice a portion of my pride and privacy in hopes that my testimony can participate in the work of the Holy Spirit and encourage others to practice fidelity, to honor covenants, to be people of integrity.
So I think in some places when Jessica speaks of that, sometimes when you feel like a memoir is getting too moralistic, and I, too, cringe at that. And yet I also think there are ways to do that, to use memoir in some positive and transformative—I get maybe what Amy Julia said about transformative. We like the transformative moral, not necessarily just to be inspired.
So one more thing, I have witnessed and participated, sometimes, in that vulnerability script, which as Rachel Marie said, sometimes the internet or anybody, they celebrate and applaud when the writer does something vulnerable and then it's the writer's job, then, in this script to sort of swoon about how desperately vulnerable they feel. And instead of martyrs, we have this weird, literary martyrdom complex.
So memoirists, especially female writers, often project a certain sheepishness, whether it's, you know, authentic sheepishness or sort of following the script. And I feel very grateful that I think I got some of that out of my system last year when the first essay was published. There are certainly other chapters of Very Married that also feel very vulnerable to me, but I no longer have the energy to play by that script, to be self-deprecating as a means of sort of apologizing for taking up ink and taking up space. The fact of the matter is right now I feel really freaking brave. I feel like I've written a damn fine book that is good because I've written with honesty and integrity and a profound sense of purpose.
So I am experiencing this unprecedented confidence. If anybody who knows me knows that I can, like, do self-loathing really, really well. But this feels very sacred. Now I've never been part of a charismatic tradition, so this is speaking a spiritual language that is not native to me. But in some of those traditions where testimony is practiced, there is the understanding that one can receive an anointing of the Holy Spirit, sort of sense of the Holy Spirit nodding at what is being shared. And I feel like I am receiving an anointing of the Holy Spirit. So, that's my—and to make that claim, thank you, it makes me feel vulnerable all over again. I mean as a mainline Christian that's very unorthodox to claim that I have received an anointing of the Holy Spirit, but also as a woman because, I mean, it's ballsy. [audience laughter]
Rachel Marie: Thank you. Thank you so much. I think a common thread that I'm hearing is that, you know, in some ways—or an observation from listening to the three of you so far—is that in some ways memoir done well is the opposite of naval gazing, and it's a craft practiced, it's bearing witness, in a way that serves others So, yeah, it's really kind of the—done well it's kind of the opposite of narcissism.
Jessica: I think what you said about your story pointing to the movement of God in your life, not necessarily about exposing all of you, but tracing the movement of God, I love that. And it's what I feel like God moves in every life, God moves in the fallen and the sinner and the unrepentant. It's all—so, that's why memoirs from all over the map are so beautiful. So I just love that and I wanted to comment on it.
Rachel Marie: [00:50:24] So Alison. Alison, your memoir, The Pug List, just came out. And Oliver is so cute, just have to say. So anyone who has read it so far, and I hope there are some, and anyone who knows your writing or you knows that you're just frankly hilarious. Yet your book is also about [nervously] a horrible...tragedy [nervous laughter] and I'm laughing as I say tragedy ‘cause I'm uncomfortable [audience laughter] [in a high-pitched voice] “Oh, it was tragic.” [audience laughter]
Tell us, Alison, about the role that humor plays in your writing. I was just saying to someone that it is in the handbook of—my mom's Jewish—it's in the handbook, how to survive as a hated minority, how to make tragic jokes about tragedies, so I feel a real love for what you're doing. And I want you to tell us about the redemptive, subversive motivation of getting us to laugh in the face of really tough stuff.
Alison: Well, Bob Newhart, who I love—
Rachel Marie: Me, too.
Alison:—he says, "If you're able to take the stage and make people laugh then you must oblige." And that’s why he still—he's in his eighties—and he's still traveling and performing because he feels it's a high calling. And historically Christians have devalued humor as not serious in a very serious business and I disagree. And I'll get back to historically because now it's the age of the comedian, like everybody's a joker, you know, whether or not they're funny. But—to my regret—but, what was I saying? I think humor is so important because if you wanna go in the deep waters, and that's where I wanna go. And when you go deep, it's hard to breathe and things get dark and strange and humor is a way of—it pulls you up and it pulls you out and you can exhale, just relax and have relief of tension. And so it serves a really healthy rhythm in a story, but also to be funny it means you're looking at the reality of the situation and you're seeing the absurdities in all of life, but especially in difficult situations.
And so, to be funny, you have to be ruthlessly honest and I think that's a very serious business. And it's just fun! Everybody feels better when they laugh. And who wants to read about somebody setting my house on fire and rage and post-traumatic stress? I mean, although we all get to enter into that story about how you survive and endure when God doesn't feel close, and that is really the question of my memoir is, where is God in our suffering? And humor helped me endure, and I think it helps the reader endure my story as well. [audience laughter] So yes, I think it’s—if you can do it—and it's okay if you can't. Don't force it. And I don't mean to be exclusive, but you know if you're funny or not, and if you're not, don't try it at home guys! Hahahahaha! [audience laughter]
Rachel Marie: I'm just gonna throw a question out there, would you be willing to maybe share a little bit of funny tragedy, right now?
Alison: Funny tragedy?
Rachel Marie: Well no, I meant just give us an example of what you were talking about. Like how do you bring the levity—
Alison: Okay, alright, so—
Rachel Marie: How do you bring the levity?
Alison: [00:54:23]—the morning of our fire, I've just, the alarms go off, I've just come to terms with my house is on fire because I finally saw the flames, I'm running across the road. I'm on the edge of our property because the power lines, as soon as we get out of the house the power lines are on fire because fire moves quickly, and if you add accelerant, which the arsonist did, it moves incredibly fast. And so I'm literally in fight or flight with my family, we're on the edge of the road and we wanna pass and lights come up over the hill in front of our house and I think, I look at my husband because we have to stop! And if you've ever actually, I mean, we weren't fleeing for our lives, but your brain thinks it is. If you've ever actually been flight, you don't wanna put a brake on it. But you can't get hit by a car after you've escaped your burning house. [audience laughter] You just, you can’t.
[00:55:18] So, we stop, and I look at my husband, like, are you freaking kidding me and then because the car comes to a stop, and then this young man staggers out. And I'm not thinking arsonist, but, you know, there he is. And he's taking pictures and my husband and I look at each other and it's like unbelievable! And now I know the arsonist. We make eye contact, and he says to me, "Is this your house?" And I say, [screaming noises] and then we keep running. And later I joke about it, before I put together, [joking] “Hey guy, what was that guy doing back at the house taking pictures?” [panelist laughter] You know we joke about, I tell the story about this clueless guy, this clueless kid, and we're like, “No, no it's the neighbor's house and we're getting the kids up to watch,” [audience laughter] you know. There was something else. And then the final one, ironically, was, “No, we just set it on fire and we're fleeing the scene, you know, get out of the way.” So that's an example. [audience laughter]
Rachel Marie: Thank you, thank you. Was it a struggle for you to decide what to share and what to leave out? Or, do you want to speak to that?
Alison: Yes, I do. I have a story to tell. I think anything you put in a memoir, it has—well, any book—it has to serve the story. And I think what's so challenging about memoir is [in a low, serious voice] everything is so important to us. And so, it is hard to know what, like, these details—‘cause I've told the story in different ways and I've done the moth and that's some things that are very important to me that are very important to me and it doesn't matter, you know, and so it's like you can just leave things out and it doesn't matter. So in the book you just have to figure out what serves the story. Like what am I trying to say here, so, this is so important to me and it doesn't matter.
So I have an example that years and years ago I was in Japan and I had made friends with this missionary. She was in her sixties. And she lived in Japan for forty years, and she was this just really funny, wry, sort of personality. And this family had come and [exaggerated] served her and her husband and their mission. And I, she didn't say much about them, but I got the feeling this family, who had come as a family, and they were quite wealthy and they [exaggerated] served her and that was really big to them. And she was a little bit like yeah we love 'em, they came, they helped, you know.
Well, the reason they came up was there was a Christmas card, and this was back in the olden days, when if you sent a picture it was one picture and it was on photo paper, and then it had like ringing bells or if you were a Christian, you know, the nativity scene, maybe the wise men. And that was fancy. And this was a tryptic. And there were at least a dozen pictures and I'm just kinda taking it in. And I'm not going to say anything, which is rare, but I didn't. And I looked at her, I looked at it, and I looked at her and looked at me and she just kind of shrugged her shoulders and then she said, "They don't understand. Nobody really cares." [audience laughter]
And it was one of those teachable moments where honestly I do think it was the Holy Spirit, through this woman, you know, “They don't understand. No one really cares.” And I thought of anyone who ought to care, it's this person who genuinely loves them and is a Christian missionary in her sixties [audience laughter] and she's just like, whatever, you know. And that was a teachable moment for me.
And I think we've all read memoirs that are little more than braggy Christmas cards and Christmas letters. And it's like really, guy, you had to give me dozen pictures? Like one freaking picture was enough. So, there's that. That's been in the back of my head for the last twenty years, is am I writing a braggy Christmas letter? Is that all this is? And then I think that what can serve that, what Jessica referred to earlier, is what I talk about is the position of the memoirist. The best books, fiction or non, is where you open the page and the writer picks you up. And it's like they just take off, and they're flying through this story, and you're on their back, and you're peeking over, and you see it all, but they're carrying you. And then at the end, you know, it's this you know, whatever the story is, you know I can't tell you what the flight is, but they carry you through it. And then at the end, they land and they set you down. And you know you've read a book like that, where it's like you got taken away and you forgot everything except that story and you forgot the narrator themselves because you were so into the story. And it's so satisfying. Well, that's the best sort of writing, especially in a memoir. And it is hard because it is your life and you are showing yourselves and there's that fine line between the vulnerability and then looking too good or telling the story well.
[01:00:48] And I do feel like if the position is, your life is the material, but you're traveling with the reader, you're traveling beside them, where you're flying them on your back or you're walking beside them and you're looking at.
And so another story I'd like to tell briefly is when I was a young woman, I went to Alaska, and there was a young man, and I had a crush on him, and he was super crushing on me, and we were in front of the ocean and it's Alaska, you know? It's a—has anyone been to Alaska? Like, picture the most beautiful place, majestic, amazing just wondrous beauty, big sky, amazing. So we stop by the ocean, we take a little day trip and we stop by the ocean and I'm picking up a rock and I just had this moment where I just became so aware. And this young man who was crushing on me looked at me, and I'm picking up a rock and I just really had a sense of just how beautiful I was. [audience laughter] And it was like, and only later, I didn't realize it at the moment, because I could just feel him just adoring me and also, I mean, it's like Alaska was made for me [audience laughter] you know, like I was the jewel in its setting and Alaska was just the backdrop for me. [audience laughter] And I think we've also all read memoirs that are little more than pretty girls preening. [audience laughter] And it's not, you know, look at my life—
Rachel Marie: Did you say pretty girls preening?
Alison: Pretty girls preening. [audience laughter] You don't want to do that. And, and I think we've all read books where it's, it's not, like there are moments in my book, rare, but they exist where I rise to the occasion. Now I had three kids, we were all home in bed. It leaves a mark. We were traumatized and there were rare moments where I rise to the occasion and you could read that book and get the sense that I'm a good mother and [audience laughter] but, you know, and it wasn't about me. I'm trying to serve the story ‘cause I have to tell you something.
And the fact that I'm being a good mother in that moment—it's not about me, it's about the story. That was my aim. And it wasn't me, you know, [joking in a low, quiet voice] being a loving mother. [pause] [audience laughter] [joking in a low, quiet voice] “A good wife. [pause] [audience laughter] [joking in a a low, quiet voice] A devoted friend. [pause] [audience laughter] A Godly woman.” You know? [joking] Look at me, being beautiful. Look at me, being brave, vulnerable, raw. You know, just check your writing! Just be like, am I, where am I focusing, because, it's weird because you're focusing on your own life. And occasionally, you do look good! Occasionally, you're beautiful and brave, you know, but it's just, it this story serving the bigger story. And just watch your tone and watch your position.
Rachel Marie:I wanna thank all four of you for giving us just a wonderful and, I think, nuanced and varied and also amazingly coherent and resonant, I think, idea of the complexity of the memoir and the meaning of the memoir. Thank you.
Unidentified panel member: Thank you all for being here. [applause] Hearing us.
Lisa: [01:03:34] Many thanks to Amy Julia Becker, Jessica Mesman Griffith, Katherine Willis Pershey, Alison Hodgson, and Rachel Marie Stone. You can find links to their work in the description of this episode or Rewrite Radio. Thanks also to Sarah Bessey. You can learn more about Sarah's work, and read her blog, at sarahbessey.com. Catch her tweeting, from the Festival and elsewhere, @sarahbessey.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing, on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes John Brown, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Jose, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Deb Reedstra, Amanda Smart, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel. We'll be back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.