Some experiences just inspire people to pick up a pen. Convinced that what they saw, felt or heard was profound and unique, these writers are moved to share. Jury duty is one such experience. Parenthood is another. Religious conversion, or an intense spiritual awakening, is a third. Publishers are increasingly giving those in the last camp a voice, hoping to discover at last the next Anne Lamott or Kathleen Norris—and praying, so to speak, for strong sales. This week three spiritual memoirs top The New York Times nonfiction lists. One is by the wife of a country singer. One is by a divorcée who traveled the world in search of transcendence. One is by a preacher who says he was hit by a truck, saw heaven and came back to life.
As a genre, the spiritual memoir has been around since at least 397, when St. Augustine wrote his “Confessions,” the first real autobiography in Western history. In an astonishingly modern way, Augustine describes his early life and his conversion in terms that are as passionate and self-aware as anything you would read today. What is new, suggests Donna Freitas, who teaches a class in spiritual memoir at Boston University, is that the memoirists are no longer using writing as a way to reach out to God. The new breed are using their belief in God (or lack thereof) to reach out to everyone else.
The growing field is uneven. For example, the new memoir by Mary Gordon, “Circling My Mother,” which has a spiritual element, is great. But “The Water Will Hold You,” about a skeptic who learns to pray, is tepid, and “Leaving Church,” about an Episcopal priest who takes over a country church only to find that her fantasy of running a rural parish is unrealistic, is sweet and readable but not ultimately compelling. The very latest subgenre is the celebrity version: the youngest Baldwin brother, Stephen, comes out with one this month, and earlier this summer Brian Welch (a.k.a. “Head”), the former lead guitarist of the rock group Korn, published “Save Me From Myself: How I Found God, Quit Korn, Kicked Drugs, and Lived to Tell My Story.” In an interview, Welch explained why he was moved to write his memoir. “I would love people to know God; I want people to know what I’ve found. It’s really personal. It’s, like, real. God is not some mean old man in the sky. He’s not far away, he’s near. He’s with us on Earth; he opens your life. I want people to know God like I do.” As with all memoirs, the story is as good as the storyteller.