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Memoirs of the Soul

Memoirs of the Soul: A Writing Guide
by Nan Merrick Phifer 
Eugene, OR: Ingot Press, 2010
263 pages
Reviewed by Marcia Wakeland

As I opened this book and began to read through the intriguing questions and clearly designed process of writing a memoir, I wanted to begin writing right away.

In this guide, the experienced author and teacher draws you into the process and leads the reader-writer gently deeper through each chapter. But I wondered, “How is writing a memoir connected to the art of spiritual direction?” Some of my spiritual directees use journal writing to deepen their journeys, but isn’t a memoir more factual and external?

In her opening statement, Phifer says, “The material you are about to write will not only produce a lasting written account, but in the very process of writing, you are likely to discover previously unrecognized dimensions of spirituality in your life” (21). From the onset, she intends to take the reader-writer from the recording of events to the recording of how the soul remembered the events and how the spirit of God was present in that remembering. I continued to read Memoirs of the Soul with an eye to how similar that intent is to the spiritual direction question, “Where is God in that?”

The book has a beautiful layout with plenty of white space, graphics, bulleted questions, quotations, and poetry. In addition, samples of workshop participants’ writing are included in every section to show the reader-writer how the questions can come to life. This edition is quite similar to the original, which was published in 2002 under the name Memoirs of the Soul: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography. The author dropped the term autobiography from this new edition, as she says, “Autobiographies present broad overviews, 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” (23). She goes on to say that memoirs differ from journals in that they are more selective and are organized to tell a story. Memoirs of the Soul is written not only for the individual writer but also has tips for writers’ groups and for leading a workshop on writing memoirs.

Having used journaling extensively in my own spiritual formation, in one-on-one spiritual direction, and in directing retreats, I was challenged and excited to think about taking that kind of writing into a memoir-writing process, using this book as guide. While it would be best to follow the careful process of this book as it moves forward chapter by chapter, I think questions and prompts from individual chapters could be catalysts for journeying deeper with spiritual directees or those in spiritual formation. For example, in chapter 17 on “Confronting Crisis,” the author asks, “Sometimes when a crisis strikes we feel betrayed—by a friend, a family member, or God. Tell about any feelings of betrayal you experienced” (150).

I look forward to experimenting with the memoir as a deeper use of writing in the spiritual journey.

Marcia Wakeland is a Lutheran pastor, spiritual director, and director of the Listening Post, an outreach for compassionate listening in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

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