“You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
I first read St. Augustine’s Confessions in the summer of 2003, around the time I had my wisdom teeth removed. I remember nothing of the text, save that I found it dense. I remember that my mouth was sore.
Two years earlier I was taking an “Autobiographical Writing” course in my MFA program. For the first time I was writing about my own life. What did I write about? A family vacation to “Out West” to South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. My first college roommate. My love for the piano. My dad. The park where as a teenager I practiced basketball for hours in one session. My friends from high school. (At the time, I felt the weakest writer of the 15, and I likely was.)
But this Sunday morning during my writing time at my local Starbucks, I started reexamining those pieces. There were some good moments scattered throughout, some ideas worth revisiting, worth exploring and expanding. I started thinking about the role of autobiography: to tell the story of a life, to reshape a life from memories, to attempt to make sense of a life.
“Human friendship is also a nest of love and gentleness because of the unity it brings about between many souls.”
This semester I am a part of classics reading group with two of my colleagues and half-a-dozen students, some English majors, some not. We’re making our way through the Confessions. Every other Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. we gather to talk about what St. Augustine wrote about his own life. We’re discussing arguably the first autobiography in Western Civilization, noting the ways he constructs himself, recounts important moments, allows us to eavesdrop on his prayers as he addresses God.
The conversation is refreshing and meaningful; we’re discussing important ideas, working our way through them, and inevitably we are no doubt thinking of our own stories, our own confessions, whether or not we’ve written them.
“The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved.”
In his essay “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction,” Bret Lott writes, “The self as inquisitor of self is integral to an examination of one’s life; it calls for a kind of ruthlessness about seeing oneself in relation to others: Why did I do that? What was I thinking? Who was I trying to kid? What did I hope to achieve?” In the middle of the next paragraph he declares, “There is no room for grandstanding of oneself.” Of course, not every writer follows this principle, but I am mindful of it, as wells as I am mindful of my obligation to love God and to love people.
There’s one of the fundamental tensions in writing creative nonfiction, in writing about your own life: you need to exercise humility, not portraying yourself as better than you were, not portraying others as worse than they were. Note the past “tense.” As memoirist Addie Zierman writes, “It feels complicated to freeze a person–to capture people in a memory and then leave them exposed that way in writing for all time.” Yes, the people in my nonfiction are both characters and real people, and so the question becomes, how do I “freeze” people–myself included–in ways that honor their (and my) dignity as image-bearers of God?
“May I dedicate to your service my power to speak and write and read…”