Firoozeh Dumas. 2003. Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. New York: Random House.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
As a graduate student at Michigan State University, I quickly learned several things about Iranian women. They distinguished themselves as the most intelligent and fashionable women on campus. What’s more, they generally could cook and managed money well. When I found one from Ahwaz willing to laugh at my jokes, I knew that I had found the woman of my dreams.
In her memoir, Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas gives us an inside picture of the life of an Iranian immigrant. Dumas writes:
“To him [her father, Kazem], America was a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person. It was a kind and orderly nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops. It was the promised land. For me, it was where I could buy more outfits for Barbie.” (3-4).
Dumas can’t help herself, every sentence in her book includes a twist! In the cited paragraph, she juxtaposes her father’s expression of the American dream (a classic Horatio Alger rages-to-riches story) with a child’s rendering of the dream—a place where a Barbie outfits can be easily and cheaply acquired. Dumas is not your typical FOB (fresh off the boat) Iranian because she clearly knows what an Horatio Alger story is—her twists reveal a highly sophisticated humor palette.
As someone who has vicariously enjoyed the Iranian-American experience, this book had me repeatedly laughing out loud. Dumas writes of her future husband:
“François was of normal weight—although he did outweigh me, which fulfilled one of my two requirements for dating a guy. The other requirement was a total lack of interest in watching sports on television.” (143)
At one point, I met both conditions and on weekends I have repeatedly heard my wife, Maryam, muttering a little breath prayer—“Thank you, Lord, that Stephen does not watch football.”
When it comes to sports, Dumas writes about a new Olympic category:
“If worrying were an Olympic sport, my parent’s faces would have graced the Wheaties box a long time ago.” (155)
I don’t know how many trips to the doctor’s office that implies, but in our house my mother-in-law could easily have qualified for a volume discount.
Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America is a delightful read chronicling her experience growing up in Southern California having immigrated with her family from Iran at the age of seven. While a lighthearted memoir, its inviting picture of Iranian culture comes at a time of continuing political dramas between the U.S. and Iran over issues far removed from daily life, a point quietly underscored in a blurb written by former President Jimmy Carter. Anyone interested in the Iran-American experience will find this memoir fascinating.
 “A humorous and introspective chronicle of a life filled with love—of family, country, and heritage.” Jimmy Carter. The Carter endorsement is particularly poignant because his presidency was forever changed by the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 and a failed hostage rescue attempt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_hostage_crisis).
C.S. Lewis. 1955. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harcourt Book.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Memoirs often challenge reviewers because they are not easily summarized. An analytical book often argues a single idea by breaking it down into supporting ideas while a synthesis builds up related ideas to form a conclusion. While a good memoir is more the latter, oftentimes the path through life can be serendipitous in its living and can read more like a mystery in its telling. Thus, even a deep read may not reveal the structure in the author’s mind, leaving the reviewer in a pickle as to what pieces to highlight.
In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis writes: “The book aims at telling the story of my conversion and is not a general autobiography, still less ‘Confessions’ like those of Saint Augustine or Rouseau.” (vvii) This description pegs Lewis’ work as a memoir which differs from an autobiography primarily in having a theme (“my conversion”). The conversion of C.S. Lewis to the Christian faith interests many because Lewis ranks among the most persuasive of Christian apologists of the twentieth century owing to his skill as a fiction writer and vast knowledge of modern and classical languages, and philosophy. While others might resort to penning a memoir out of vanity or desire for reflection, Lewis writes at the urging of his readers (vii).
The Question of Joy
When I purchased Lewis’ book back in 2013 during seminary, I was attracted by the title, Surprise by Joy, and paid no attention at all to the subtitle: The Shape of My Early Life. I hoped for a study of joy, perhaps as a biblical theme, but did not initially identify the book as a memoir. When I began reading in earnest this fall having just completed a memoir of my own, Lewis’ memoir posed an immediate interest. Lewis does not study joy extensively perhaps because his early life displayed so little of it.
Influence of Lewis’ Parents
Lewis begins his journey of faith describing his parents:
“I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast, the son of solicitor and of a clergyman’s daughter…The two families from which I spring were as different in temperament as in origin. My father’s people were true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical, easily moved both to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much of the talent for happiness. The Hamiltons were a cooler race. Their minds were critical and ironic and they had a talent for happiness in a high degree—went straight for it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in a train.” (3)
One might expect a memoir to start with one’s birthday, not a season of birth—winter, especially in the first sentence. For a man of letters such as Lewis, this is unlikely to have been an accidental turn of phrase. If you think that I am reading too much into this one word, Lewis describes the Lewis family as having “not much talent for happiness”, while his mother’s family posed a “talent for happiness.” Again, this is unlikely to have been an accidental turn of phrase. This is true especially because we soon learn that Lewis’ mother died while he was yet quite young and just before he announces this fact to us he takes great pains to define joy (18).
Lewis’ Experience of Joy
Before defining joy, Lewis takes pains to outline his imaginary life as a child and cites a number of books that aided this interior life. He is especially attracted to “dressed animals” and “knights in armor” that live presumably in “Animal-Land” (13). After discussing three such books, he cautions readers not interested will find nothing further of interest in his memoir because books such as these are his joy (17). He then writes:
“I call it [a desire more desirable than any other satisfaction] Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” (18)
Lewis accordingly finds joy in reading and in his interior life, perhaps, because he experienced such deep grief on the loss of his mother (18-19) and found joy nowhere else in his exterior life. He concludes: “with my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.” (21)
With the death of his mother, Lewis’ father became his chief influence and his father sent both Lewis and his brother off to boarding school, which Lewis describes as a concentration camp. Much of his memoir, with the exception of about fifteen pages devoted to his experience as a young British officer in World War One (WWI), focuses on his experiences in a variety of schools. While fascinating to read, in the context of the story of Lewis’ coming to faith, his education functions as a lengthy prelude to his conversion experience—there I was; here I am.
Returning to Faith
After WWI Lewis returned to school at Oxford and began to reassess his worldview as a college atheist. In conversations with a friend, he notes have been persuaded to give up his:
“chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (207)
In my own experience, this “chronological snobbery” forms a cornerstone of atheism in our own time because it is hard to accept the divine inspiration the Bible when anything written before the Internet (Millennials) or before the 1960s sexual revolution (Boomers) is considered obsolete. Lewis clearly anticipated this larger problem having named and confronted it already in the 1940s.
Hounds of Heaven
Lewis writes using different metaphors about God’s pursuit of his soul. For example, he writes:
“But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seem to me a transcendental Interferer…’This is my business and mine only.’” (172)
“And so the great Angler played His fish and I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.” (211)
But for Lewis the metaphor that he highlights most obviously is that of a divine Chess master in two separate chapter titles: check and checkmate (165, 212). What metaphor would appeal to a scholar and intellectual? Lewis writes of returning to faith in 1929, when he was 31 years old (228).
And what does Lewis make of joy? Once having rediscovered his faith, he lost interest and described it merely as a signpost which, having provided direction, posed little further utility (238)
C.S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, is a gem that describes his early childhood, falling away from and return to Christian faith. This is a book of special interest to Lewis fans and those interested in Christian memoir.
Marion Roach Smith. 2011. The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Hiemstra’s rule: once a project is complete, the best cites appear. Sometimes this rule follows from slow snail-mail delivery; other times it follows from inefficient networking; may be new eyes of expertise reveal a diamond in the rough. It is frustrating to find a resource that could have reduced the number of prior drafts by a factor of two. Such is my experience with Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project.
Smith offers three basic guidelines for writing a memoir:
Writing memoir is about telling the truth.
Every page must one single story forward.
Just because something happens, doesn’t make it interesting (14-24).
While I have described memoir as an autobiography with a theme, Smith is addressing writers who publish for people that they do not personally know. This marketing imperative burdens every paragraph in the memoir to move the theme forward as in a novel. This is unlike an autobiography that could be written more like nonfiction. The pacing and intensity are different.
Telling the Truth
The nature of truth, accordingly to Smith, starts with writing what you know (14). Actually writing what you know is Smith’s mantra and part of the title of a prior edition of this book. She cites Emily Dickinson’s poem 1129: “Tell All the Truth but tell it slant.” For Smith, slant means writing in your own, consistent voice; your take on the world (15).
In a postmodern context, telling the truth can be a challenge because philosophically postmoderns have trouble with the idea of objectivity—one truth that we can all agree on. This might sound liberating but for the writer in means being careful to describe not only the physical context for your life but also the social and economic context. Your slant will not only define your authentic voice, but also the prospective audience that will be willing to listen to it.
In my memoir, I write to my family in my own voice. Knowing that others will be eavesdropping, however, I have hired a first-class editor and pay careful attention to her advice.
Moving the Story Forward
Smith interprets theme in terms of case studies. She suggests identifying your theme (what’s this story about) and thinking of your story as an illustration of this theme. This change in focus is helpful because your life is no longer the story; it is the illustration, a case study of the theme. This lifts a burden from the author because, as an illustration, exact details are less important than advancing the theme (23).
At a minimum, this attitudinal shift towards theme and away from autobiography simplifies both the creation of a reasonable outline and the editing of the drafts that follow.
Everything that Happens Isn’t Interesting
“thinking of memoir as laying out only a few cards from an entire deck, one at a time, each card moving forward the one story that you choose to tell.” (32)
Obviously, what is interesting in a memoir are the events in your life that are consistent with and advance the theme of your book. As someone with a terrible memory and lacking the gift of gab, this guideline seems unduly burdensome. Smith finds solace in focusing on telling big stories with little details.
Smith offers some fascinating details about how attitudes about dogs have changed in recent years. Back in the day, dogs used to mind the territories of their owners, often posted in the backyard to keep strangers from jumping. Trips to the vet were rare and pet food consisted primarily of leftovers from dinner. No longer. Today, dogs are treated as members of the family with their own healthcare plans, toys, and exclusive treats. Socially, dogs provide a focus of neighborly interaction and, if you are single, a reasonable alternative to online dating.
In this vein, Smith recounts the story of the death of a neighbor’s dog and how that played out for neighborhood sisters (39). The little details of this encounter offer insights more interesting than a description of the big story of lonely people living in isolation. Her slant on the big story is to notice and write down the defining characteristics of this encounter (a woman wearing her husband’s swim trunks) and a trip with a dead dog to the doggie hospital (40). While a dead dog looks to me like garden fertilizer, Smith’s story provides more insight into today’s culture.
Marion Roach Smith
Marion Roach Smith is a graduate of Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York and worked for the New York Times. Her books include: The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair, (Bloomsbury, 2005), Another Name for Madness, (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and others. She has written for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and The Los Angeles Times.
Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project is a fascinating and helpful book of interest to authors who take memoir seriously.
Memoir talk scheduled for Sunday, March 19, 2017, at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia (www.Lewinsville.org) in the Chapel following the 11 a.m. worship service. All are welcome.
A memoir is an autobiography with a theme. A Christian memoir is an autobiography with a focus on God’s role in our own character development, which requires both the passage of time and reflection. The Christian memoir communicates the Christian walk effectively because, like Jesus’ own use of parables, we remember stories better than other forms of communication.
Some philosophers believe that Western Civilization, for example, began with a Christian memoir, Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, which related the prayers of his mother to his confession of sexual sin, and conversion to Christ. Augustine’s biographer, Peter Brown writes:
“The Confessions…is not a book of reminiscences. They are an anxious turning to the past. The note of urgency is unmistakable. Allow me, I beseech You, grant me to wind round and round in my present memory the spirals of my errors…
It is also a poignant book. In it, one constantly senses the tension between the ‘then’ of the young man and the ‘now’ of the bishop.” (Brown 2000, 157)
Do you feel the theological strain here? The New Testament has been described as both the breaking out of the Kingdom of God (already) with the cross and resurrection and yet the unresolved spiritual warfare of the current age (not yet). This tension between the “already” in Christ and the “not yet” of our human sinfulness occurs, not only in the New Testament, but also in our own faith journeys. Christian memoir is therefore painful not only because we must relive our past but also deal with this spiritual tension.
The Spiritual Discipline of Writing
Part of the need for distance arises because pain forms our character more radically than pleasure. With each pain in life, small or large, we are confronted with a decision—do we turn into our pain to throw a pity party or do we turn to God to give it over to Him? In a real sense, our characters are formed by these “Gethsemane moments” as we journey through life (e.g. Matt 26:39).
Questions that might be asked to help expose our Gethsemane moments include:
What were the important milestones in your faith journey? (e. g. Jos 4:1-7)
Who were your most important mentors in the faith? (e.g. Luke 24:25-31)
What faith stories were especially meaningful to you? (e.g. Exod 12:17)
When was God’s presence especially obvious? (e. g. John 8:28; Blackaby 2002)
Writing a memoir helps this process of reflection, which makes it an important spiritual discipline.
If writing is in general a spiritual discipline, writing memoir is especially challenging. In preparing my own memoir, mechanically, I mapped out the different stages of my life into an outline and then looked for key challenges during the stages. This process parallels the Greek distinction between chronos time (the stages) and kairos time (the challenges). Reflecting on these challenges turns up raw, unprocessed emotions, which can hijack the whole effort. Part of the incentive for writing was to lay claim to my past and to work through those emotions. Still, not everyone is so adventurous and willing to spend their spare time reliving their Gethsemane moments.
It is worth pointing out that while my own memoir, Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir, is a call story, a call story is a special type of Christian memoir which focuses on vocation (e.g. Acts 9:4-6). But memoir need not focus on vocation and the vocation need not be pastoral ministry. We are all called to faith (Mark 10:49) and we are all called to different vocations, which may be only for a season. Thus, not all Christian memoirs are call stories.
Recognizing Important Stories
The importance of storytelling has been long recognized among clinical psychiatrists. Child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (1976) saw fairy tales as playing a key role in child development because the stories offered children a template for understanding their own emotional struggles. Another psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, was famous for his ability to reach particularly difficult psychiatric patients through hypnosis; yet, under hypnosis when presumably he had more leverage to offer patients suggestion, he preferred to tell them stories of healing, which allowed him to step around the problem of patient resistance (Rosen 1982).
Savage (1998) writes about using stories to identify emotional content in the context of pastoral visits. Savage cites five classes of stories as particularly helpful to recognize:
Reinvestment stories where our loyalties change dramatically, as in switching careers.
Rehearsal stories where events from the past have current meaning, such as Bible narratives.
“I know someone who” stories which oftentimes mask the true storyteller.
Anniversary stories which occur regularly at a particular calendar time, such as Christmas.
Transition stories which are three part stories, such as a trip to the hospital (why, what happened, and what comes next) (Savage 1998, 95).
Savage makes the point that we cannot help but tell our stories. It is particularly interesting when you catch yourself telling a story, perhaps one that you have told for years, and suddenly realize that that story captures a painful experience that you had either forgotten or suppressed.
Motivation to Write
Identifying the stories that people tell points to the motivational content of their communication and allows the pastor to relate to them on a deeper level. This is why storytelling is important in pastoral ministry and it helps explain why Christian memoir provides especially poignant witness.
Consequently, the current need to write Christian memoirs arises not only from our desire to claim our own history, but also to witness to our children and grandchildren. For many of us, it has been painful in this generation to watch our children fall away from the faith. While historically children would fall away from the church during their single years and return when they have children, this pattern has been broken in the millennial generation (Kinnaman 2011). Still, as Christians we know that the stresses of life invariably lead us back to God, we do not know when that will occur. Consequently, a Christian memoir could serve as a trail of crumbs for our kids to follow their own way home in Christ after our own passing.
Mechanics of Writing
Earlier I made reference to the mechanical process of writing, which for me has been rather lengthy. Even before I started my own memoir, I assisted my father in publishing his, which served to help me understand my own history better (Hiemstra 2016). I started out with a chronological outline of the stages of my life: childhood, youth, young adult, college, graduate school, places worked, and so on (Peace 1998). Then, I looked for important points in my character development and difficult transitions which I then ordered with my outline. I then blogged this outline writing a reflection each week on Friday from January 1, 2016 through February 2017.
The actual writing was finished in November 2016 and I finished my first edit in December. An important task in the first edit was to bring each of my reflections up the standard of writing that evolved over the course of the year. In particular, Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace had an important influence on my writing style mid-year and I needed to go back to earlier reflections and re-write them to incorporate the insights learned.
In the second edit in January 2017, I organized my draft into four parts, still roughly chronical but focused on my faith transitions: coming to faith, consolidation of faith, realization of call, and beginning of seminary. These four parts highlighted the theme of my memoir—the call to ministry—and, in doing so, it became obvious that I left out several important stories, which then had to be written.
Note on Writing Styles
While autobiography tends to focus on reminiscences, Christian memoir focuses on divine encounters, which may be told in the first person or through narratives about the people and events that help stage them. For someone who has been a technical writer for most of his life, I found books on writing fiction most helpful in drawing out the most important events and influences on my life.
Fiction writers are experts in observing character and character change, and they often write with an indirect style, where character is revealed through description or dialogue rather than naming emotions and perspectives. For this reason, I have included a number of references that were helpful in my own writing and thinking.
 Sachs (2012) talks about this point a great length. King (2012) writes some of scariest horror stories and talks about his own life and craft.
 Spiritual tension was a theme in my last book, Life in Tension (Hiemstra 2016b).
 Warren (2016) sees fiction written best as a four-act play. I applied her framework to my own story and realized that I had left out stories from my past that were key to my development but which I simply did not understand the significance of.
 This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).
 This style is popularly known as deep point of view or just point of view (POV). See, for example: (Kress 2005). Authors employing this style include Angelou (2015) and Lee (2014).
(Many of these books are reviewed on T2Pneuma.net)
Angelou, Maya. 2015. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Orig Pub 1969). New York: Ballantine Books. (Review)
Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 398). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguine Books. (Review)
Bettelheim, Bruno. 1976. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf.
Blackaby. Henry and Richard. 2002. Hearing God’s Voice. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016a. My Travel Through Life: Memoir of Family Life and Federal Service. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2016b. Life in Tension: Reflections on the Beatitudes. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
Karr, Mary. 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.
King, Stephen. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.
David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.
Stephen King. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
My primary writing project during the past year has been to write a memoir. Being new to the genre, I started by publishing my father’s memoir, enrolled in an online writing course, read numerous writing books, and reviewed a few good memoirs. Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, touches on each of these activities.
The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:
What Writing Is (103-137).
On Writing (141-249).
On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).
His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.
King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.
Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:
“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, … I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)
But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.
This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language. King explains:
“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)
King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).
Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.
Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).
Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.
 My wife teaches mathematics and chemistry, seldom reading anything outside her field so my Ideal Reader is probably my mom who has trouble explaining her likes and dislikes.
 If it had been me, the improbability might have instigated a new interest in inspirational fiction, rather than memoir, in part, because it is more of a baby step away from other fiction and towards an explanation for why God was not through with me yet.
Mary Karr. 2015. The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Writing a memoir evokes a special brand of fear. No matter how you approach the topic, the fear is that your life story is not worthy of being told and the mere attempt to tell it is to be guilty of exaggeration and pride. No matter how good the writing, the fear is that you do not stand in the company of presidents, kings, and celebrities. Against this fear, one can only aspire to write clearly with distinction and to seek out a good book or two to aid in this vain enterprise.
In her book, The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr points to other motivations, somewhere between the writer “trying to make sense of the past” and “readers thirsty for reality” (xiv). Memoir invites the reader into the private life of the author in a verbal strip-tease, undertaken for catharsis or paid therapy (xxi). Something anyone can aspire to writing memoir, even if the readers may be limited to an immediate circle of friends and family. The primary requirement is having memories that you are willing to analyze against a particular theme and to share with readers. These memories need not be absolute truth, but they need to be spoken with an authentic voice.
Karr emphasizes voice as the authenticator of good memoir, writing: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” (35)
The truth of memoir is not absolute—sworn on a Bible—truth, but rather a more interesting subjective truth—truth told with an authentic voice. It is subjective, in part, because we lie more often to ourselves than we do to other people. Karr validates her own accounts with the people she writes about (5). It is interesting, in part, because an authentic voice embeds the veils that we use to cover our inadequacies. Uncovering the veils and exposing the lies they cover up is painful, as Karr explains: “You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off.” (12) Yet, this catharsis liberates our true selves, a necessary step in healing and in personal growth, as Karr admits: “I often barely believe myself, for I grew up suspicious of my own perceptions” (22).
Part of authentic voice is admitting your motivation in writing. Karr argues: “Unless you confess your own emotional stakes in a project, why should a reader have any?” (97) While this advice might seem to be a terribly female observation to make—why can’t I just lay out my hypothesis, you say?—communications professors often admonish their students that complete communication requires both an idea and an emotion. Authenticity requires complete expression—why is that hypothesis so important that you spent at least a year or more examining it in great detaiI? Chances are good that the emotional stake is already substantial and its substance needs only to be recognized in your writing. A novelist might refer to this stake as an emotional hook to grab the reader.
Karr’s voice shows ironic tension. She is consciously literary—dropping great quotes from famous memoirists and dotting her work with cutesy new ways of expression. The tension arises when you see her photographed wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots more fitting of her Texas upbringing.“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet. Voiced tension is a source of conflict and, as such, is interesting.
Cowboy boots aside, Karr writes prescriptively in 24 chapters, each with its own theme. A particularly important theme in her writing comes in chapter 6: Sacred Carnality. One’s mind naturally runs to carnal, as in carnal knowledge. But, Karr uses carnal to mean sensual in description, as in the five senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling (71). For those of us more comfortable in non-fiction, analytical writing, this carnality is necessarily forced, as she readily admits (75). By utilizing carnal description to move the action, dialog can be used more like a spotlight.
Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is helpful addition to any writer’s library. Karr’s cites from numerous famous memoirists (check out the appendix listing) aptly makes the point that memoir is a wider genre than the usual political and celebrity autobiographies. The creative potential in memoir is also greater than the usual A-B-C chronologies. A favorite film of mine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was, for example, a memoir by William Herr: Dispatches (1977). Karr’s book has already encouraged me to purchase a memoir that she recommended; it has been a great encouragement in my own memoir project; and I have already gifted this book to a friend. Great book; read it.
Angelou, Maya. 2009. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” New York: Ballantine Books.
Herr, William. 1977. “Dispatches.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sue William Silverman. 2009. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Some people date western civilization back to a memoir in the 4th century when a young man struggled with and overcame sexual sin. After converting to Christianity, he played an important role in the monastic movement which encouraged candidates for ministry to practice celibacy. That young man was Saint Augustine and he entitled his memoir simply: Confessions.
Sue William Silverman draws on confessions of her own in her book which begins with a strong topic sentence:
“In Fearless Confession, I invite you to accompany me as I look back at what I learned on my path towards becoming a writer, hoping to assist you with your own journey.” (xiii)
Still, her title—Fearless Confessions—hints that Silverman is not your typical academic author. In fact, she has published three memoirs—
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew,
Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and
Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.
—each of which offer a slice of her life experience, not a complete picture (28), suggesting an important principle in writing memoir—theme. She writes:
“A theme is an abstract concept that represents the underlying meaning, idea, or message of you memoir, whether it’s a full-length book or essay…Revealing a theme is more effective than announcing it.” (24-25)
For your typical biography of a famous person, the hidden theme is typically a how an ordinary person became great—one reason that biographies of ordinary people often lack luster (no hidden theme interesting to the reader). However, even someone living a fairly mundane life shares much in common with potential readers, given that a suitable theme can be identified—in Silverman’s case, that theme is childhood abuse and its consequences.
Having theme, plot develops. Silverman observes: “Plot is as important in memoir as it is in fiction. In fiction, plot is invented; in nonfiction, it is discovered.” (35) Plot develops around a theme suggesting which details to include and which to leave out. Silverman divides plot into horizontal plot (external events or action) and vertical plot (emotions, thoughts, and insights) (36-37).
She develops this dichotomy between action and emotions further in her discussion of voice dividing voice into the voice of innocence and the voice of experience. Silverman writes of the voice of innocence: “This voice relates the facts of the story, the surface subject or action.” (51). The voice of experience then is where: “we add a more mature voice or persona that, in effect, explains and deepens the Voice of Innocence with metaphor, spirituality, irony, reflection.” (52) She then launches into a discussion of how our voice in everyday life, is not our literary or metaphorically-enhanced voice (55).
Silverman’s description of metaphor as something to discover is priceless. What is the meaning we attribute to special objects (like a gifted, maroon scarf; 72)? How do we discover the metaphors in our own life? In my own writing, my grandparent’s farm served as a metaphor for the security that I lacked as my family moved around during my father’s graduate school years.
Silverman describes herself a writer, speaker, and faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes in 9 chapters preceded by a preface and followed by 4 lengthy appendices. The chapter titles are:
The Longest Paragraph.
Savory Words: The First Bite of Your Story.
Writing on Key: A Few Notes about Theme.
Plotting Your Life.
Between Innocence and Experience: Finding Your Voices.
Mock Moons and Metaphor: Crafting Memoir into Art.
Writing in Style.
Marketing Your Memoir. and
Confessional and (Finally) Proud of It.
The chapters end with writing exercises and the appendices provide memoir samples.
If you are writer contemplating your own autobiographical book, Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions is a helpful place to start. As memoir is a theme in my own writing this year, Silverman’s insights opened up and charted direction where I previously was floundering. Thank you.
One of the ironies of life is that we are naturally strangers to ourselves. Our desires, motivations, and purposes lie behind a veil that we dare not pull back for fear of what might lie beyond. This fear cloaks our shadow side in mystery. It also limits our potential, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God. Pulling back the veil accordingly offers the hope that we realize our potential, become comfortable in the presence of others, and welcome God more fully into our life. My purpose in composing a Christian memoir is to lift this veil.
Role of Time
We experience life through the experience of time. The Greeks experienced time in two primary dimensions. The first dimension, chronos time (χρόνος), is measured in equal units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and centuries. The second dimension, chairos time (καιρός), is a decision moment or crisis. When we look at our wristwatches or calendar, we experience chronos time. When we crash our car or meet God, we experience chairos time. We normally think and move through chronos time. We normally feel and remember chairos time. This book is organized around chronos time, but the memories that fill it are mostly kairos moments.
I remember my early years in vignettes. These vignettes appear like electronic photographs without a time and date stamp. The stories that I tell about those vignettes are mostly the spin that came later reflecting on them. For this reason, these vignettes are best expressed in poetic form. Here we find kairos moments of a child who has not yet learned the discipline of chronos time. Objective thought, which requires some distance between the object and the thought, is also mostly absent and unlearned. Chairos time is chaotic, messy, embarassing. In a word, it is subjective. If the subject is your dark side, then you expect to find dark things. Honesty in this terriority is aspirational. Poetry helps overcome obvious tensions.
One area where I cannot be entirely straightforward is in revealing personal details about the people around me. I can sign onto the journey of self-revelation. I cannot presume that my family and friends share my objectives in this respect. Their roles in this narrative will either be cloaked or absent. Please understand. This autobiography is not an exposé.
Four Big Questions
In my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, I examined four questions in the context of the traditional teaching of the church:
1. Who is God?
2. Who are we?
3. What do we do about it?
4. How do we know?
The objective in that text was especially to explore the first question: Who is God? My second book, Life in Tension, likewise has that focus. This book focuses on the second question: Who are we? While this book focuses on my history, I am, in part, a stand in for the reader. It is my hope that in telling my own story that I will also help you tell yours.
 Both words appear in the Greek in this verse: “He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7 ESV)
 My thanks to Kreeft (2007) for highlighting these four questions.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014. A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.
Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine’s Press.