I’d never heard of memoir as triologue before I attended the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College a few weeks ago. In a session led by three memoirists, Luci Shaw, noted poet, said she liked to think of memoir as a triologue between the writer, God, and the reader.
Most of the session dealt with the contract between the writer and the reader. Shaw emphasized that the writer must narrow down, excavate, her life for meaning in a way that will invite readers in. Jeanne Murray Walker noted that the writer must model a way for readers to make sense of their own lives. And Leslie Leyland Field said the writer, knowing that readers are on their own journeys too, need to literally open the door for them, either with a quiet tap or heavy knock.
So knowing the responsibility I have as a memoirist to my readers, how do I make sense of Shaw’s statement of memoir as a triologue between myself, God, and the reader? Not having thought of memoir in this way before, I followed one of Shaw’s suggestions for writing memoir. She said, “You write to learn what you know and what you need to learn.” So, over several days, I cheated a little and wrote notes in my mind, rather than on paper, answering this question: Where did the notion of God come from in my life?
This was fun to muse about. My first conception of a God goes back to West Sayville, Long Island, New York, where I lived my early years. I remember at a Sunday School program that I recited the following poem:
I am a little curly head
My daddy is a preacher
I love to go to Sunday School
And listen to my teacher.
I can still see my dad on the pulpit of that church and hear him talking about God. I don’t remember what he said, but, living next door in a big two-story white parsonage, my life revolved around the church and the Christian school my folks started in the back room of the church. So I got the sense that this life and these beliefs were important to them.
As I mused on, the next thing that popped into my mind was standing in a row with my family at the front of the church my dad pastured in Lafayette, Indiana. I had just finished seventh grade and my dad had accepted a call to a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After my dad’s farewell sermon, the congregation was filing past us to shake our hands and say good-bye. We had just sung:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above (No. 433 Psalter Hymnal, 1934)
I can still feel the tears that burst down my cheeks, the warmth of all those hands, and the sense of a community of people that cared about us.
Next, I jumped to a text that surfaced as important when I was a teenager sneaking to movies, when I knew my folks did not approve of movies and started feeling responsible for how my actions may impact on other people. That text is:
Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men (Matt. 5:13 KJV).
I recall thinking about myself as the salt in a salt shaker sprinkling my sins of movie going onto all the people sitting in the theater. And anybody who may have seen me entering the theater. But aside from the guilt it engendered, I knew that I lived in a caring community and my actions affected others.
In my musing exercise, I stopped there as many other examples loosened up in my mind. Out of curiosity, I consulted my copy of The Contemporary Parallel New Testament, a book of eight translations, and thought how much more, as a teen, I would have enjoyed this modern translation of the “salt” text:
Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt seasoning that brings out the God- flavors of this earth. If you lost your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage (Matt. 5:13 The Message).
No way would I have wanted to end up in the dirty, stinky, bent up, aluminum garbage pails we put out on our Salem Street curb on pick-up day.
So, where did this musing get me in relationship to Shaw’s notion of memoir as a triologue between the writer, God, and the reader? I guess I knew already, but it took this exercise to bring to awareness once again that the notion of God has been in my life, and in my being, for as far back as I can remember—from the experience of being a preacher’s kid, often living in parsonages next to my dad’s churches; being exposed to the teachings in church, catechism, Sunday School, and Christian grade schools and high school; living in communities that supported the belief in God; and having made a public confession of my faith as a young adult. Even in the words of my blind and deaf grandma in my Autograph Book in 1954:
Wrapping up, as a writer I think of God as part of my being, so when I’m having a dialogue with my reader, God is sort of sitting on my shoulder and living in my heart while having a conversation with me that will filter through me to my reader. In topics of humor and solemnity and everything in between.
And just as one topic leads to another, I’m reminded of another session I attended at this Festival where the presenter, Miroslav Volf, addressed this question: “How would you have to change your life [if you were a believer] in other faith traditions?” Perhaps you don’t share my faith tradition, but you could ask yourself, “As I writer, who (or what) is that third part of the triologue I’m having with my reader?”
More on Miroslav Volf next time.