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Arts & Letters

Spiritual Memoirs: Writing from the Outside In

Writing as Creative and Spiritual Growth

By Nan Phifer

Posted on Jun 3, 2003

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"Living The Labyrinth," photo and text by Mary DeDanan

Queries and Advice for Writing about the Life of the Soul

There are times when we have felt ourselves to be whole and integrated with our surroundings; As we accumulate writings about our inner life, we gain insights into its spiritual dimensions.

I can't remember much about my childhood and early years, so where would I begin writing?

Memoirs are different from autobiographies. Autobiographies usually begin with the writer's birth and continue chronologically up to the age of the writer. They are linear, and unless the writer is skilled they can be plodding to write and plodding to read. Autobiographies present a detailed, factual overview, while memoirs focus on only the hours and minutes that are keen in our lives–the times when we are most alive, when experiences penetrate to the quick.

To write your memoirs, begin with whatever subject you feel most inclined to remember and relate. It doesn't have to be about your early years. You can write in any order about the experiences, people, and places most significant in your life. If you write impulsively in response to whichever subject beckons, each of your chapters will be filled with energy and life. Later, you can spread all your chapters, long and short, on the dining room table and decide whether to sequence them chronologically or by theme.

If you decide to extend your memoirs into an autobiography, you'll find that you have already written its core. You can easily supplement your chapters with statistics and narrative data about external events. This autobiography is sure to be engaging because you began by writing its heart and soul.

I'm not sure my writing skills are strong enough for me to write a book.

Many people share your hesitation, but your uncertainty is unnecessary. People who lack writing expertise can write well and enjoy writing if they follow a process I suggest. On a sheet of paper, name the most significant experiences you've had, the people who have been most important to you, and the places that have influenced your life. From the subjects you named, choose the one about which you feel most inclined to write. It doesn't have to be the most important. Often we can't evaluate the importance of our subjects until we've written about them.

Tell a friend about the subject you've chosen. Simply say you've been thinking about . . . By conversationally talking about your subject, you'll organize your thoughts and find fluency. Later, when you sit down to write, you won't have to wonder how to begin. This oral step is always helpful.

Write a quick, error-filled first draft, paying no attention to correctness. Focus on your thoughts, on the content of your writing, rather than the mechanics of writing. Allow the subject to stray wherever it goes because when our writing takes unexpected turns, it leads to discoveries and becomes exciting. Read your first draft to a supportive, nonjudgmental friend, or even to your pet or houseplant. This aural step allows you to hear what should be changed, added, or rearranged. If you're writing with a group of fellow writers, ask you listeners to refrain from judging you and to guard your confidentiality. Your listeners can be most helpful if they first point out what they like about your writing and then ask about something not told. Such questions often indicate ways to add clarifying information.

Make any revisions you want to make, and then, if you're concerned about the conventions of correctness, ask someone to proofread your draft. Finally, write a legible final draft. You can be confident that this draft is complete and correct because a listener has responded to it and a proofreader has corrected any errors. Not everyone wants to produce a book for other people. Many writers are content with the adventure of self-discovery that comes from writing the first drafts, while other writers want to compose their chapters into books for their descendants and the people they love.

I'm more interested in exploring the meaning of my life than I am in creating a book.

At this time many people are reexamining their lives, and the writing of spiritual memoirs is a powerful means of introspection. I suggest that after the rough draft is written you reflect on it using questions such as the following:

What need, striving, or longing underlay my actions?

Where do I see evidence of qualities in myself such as creativity, intuition, inspiration, intelligence, courage, patience, resolution, resilience, devotion, service, generosity, energy, or other strengths?

What was the source of my strength?

What teachings and people have guided me?

When did I feel empathy?

How have I expressed compassion?

How have I shown, or received, mercy?

What transitions have I made? Was I transformed?

How have I experienced both doubt and faith?

When have I felt grace? Transcendence?

When have I attained serenity, harmony, wholeness?

Most of us are more aware of our shortcomings than we are of our strengths and the influence of spiritual forces in our lives. When we reexamine our lives by asking questions like the ones suggested here, we often gain appreciation of previously unrecognized personal qualities and we notice the significance of external happenings.

Would someone who does not follow a Western religious tradition, or who is not within a religious practice, be comfortable with your approach to writing memoirs?

Because I didn't want to be insensitive to beliefs and feelings of people whose faiths I don't know well, I asked an Islamic imam, a member of a Buddhist priory, and an authority on Hinduism to read the manuscript of my book and make suggestions. They all assured me the book is appropriate for their religious communities.

The writing process I suggest facilitates the exploration and expression of spirituality felt by people who have both religious and secular orientations. Some of the exemplary writings in my book, Memoirs of the Soul, were written by people unaffiliated with established religions. People in my workshops who identified themselves as agnostics and atheists, but who consider themselves to be spiritual, have produced intense, rich accounts of their inner lives.

My method guides writers first in identifying experiences or circumstances when they felt deep emotions. Emotions such as love and grief, fear, resentment, satisfaction, joy, and gratitude are universal. By remembering times when their feelings were strong, writers will recognize the significant experiences, people, and places in their lives. From emotions common to the human condition, we find their expression in the particularities of our individual lives.

In general, I recommend an approach to writing memoirs that I liken to walking a labyrinth. Begin with the outer, easily-approached subjects and gradually circle inward to the realm of the spiritual. Medieval labyrinths were thought of as paths leading us to our own spiritual centers. In a similar way, your writing can lead you from your outer life into your spiritual core, but unlike the walkers of labyrinths, you'll not return the way you entered. When you've written into the heart of your memoirs, you will have arrived at your destination.

People who walk through physical labyrinths report surprise at the twists, turns, and resulting feelings of disorientation that frequently produce insights and discoveries. Upon reaching the center, many walkers experience a soothing sensation of wholeness and balance. As your writing moves from your outer to your inner life, youíll gain self-understanding, make discoveries, and may even attain a sense of balance and wholeness. The writing of spiritual memoirs is frequently a spiritual experience in itself.

Defining the Terms of Writing Spiritual Memoirs

What do you mean by spiritual memoirs?

I use the word spiritual to refer to that part of ourselves that longs to find meaning, to see the vital elements in our inner lives, and to transcend our incompleteness. Such desire encompasses, but is not limited to, experiences traditionally thought of as religious. The word spiritual comes from the Latin word, spiritus, meaning breath, breath of God; it is the root of the words respiration and inspiration. Spiritual memoirs are about the experiences that cause us to breathe faster or deeper, or to catch, or hold, our breath. These are often the times when we inhale with emotions such as awe, terror, reverence, wonder, or compassion.

At such times we respond spontaneously. We may cry, laugh, speak, or act impulsively, and these responses reveal our souls. Spiritual memoirs are also about our creativity. They describe the moments when we experience intellectual insights or artistic expression. Our accounts of these experiences reveal seen and unseen, definitive facets of ourselves.

If we do not write about our dreams, goals and desires, that part of us will disappear when we die. Facts and statistics about our lives can be researched after we are gone, but unless we have told about our aspirations and our yearnings, this important aspect of ourselves will not be known.

I titled my book Memoirs of the Soul to distinguish it from memoirs of the ego. My approach enables writers to explore and recount the great experiences of love, suffering, euphoria, inner peace, harmony with the universe, and the times when we transcend beyond our self-enclosed smallness. To write about these experiences is a way of exploring our inner lives, and in the very process of writing our memoirs we often discover spiritual dimensions of which we had not been aware.

How are memoirs different from journals?

Memoirs are selective. They focus on the most significant experiences in our lives. They're organized into chapters sequenced to tell a story, while journals tend to be a log or record of daily growth, musings, and insights. Memoirs, because of their structure, feel whole rather than fragmentary. The authors of memoirs often want to edit and revise the first draft and may have it proofread. They select photographs and other documents to insert, and they construct a book. Memoirs are usually more polished than journals and can become an art form, a type of literature. They're suitable for publication, and they make extraordinary gifts.

My life isn't outstanding, so wouldn't I feel presumptuous writing about it?

Deeply moving, meaningful memoirs have been written by people who are not famous or important in a public way. The writing of spiritual memoirs has nothing to do with celebrity status or worldly achievements. Memoirs are about our ideals and intentions, the longings and laughter that have filled our hearts, the love we have felt, the compassion we have received and given, the moments when we have received grace.

Copyright 2003 by Nan Phifer

Author and teacher Nan Phifer

Nan Phifer is Associate Director of the Oregon Writing Project at the University of Oregon in Eugene. In 1998 she created a workshop, Writing Spiritual Memoirs, sponsored jointly by Lane Literary Guild, the Pastoral Care Department of Peace Health Medical Group, and the Oregon Writing Project at the University of Oregon. Her book, Memoirs of the Soul: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography, Writer's Digest Books, was piloted by workshop participants. At this time Nan teaches workshops of various lengths for writers' groups, teachers' organizations, library programs, religious organizations, and clubs.

Nan's web page can be found at
She can be reached at

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