You can only discover why a story matters by telling or writing it. Even then the story’s reason for emerging remains a mystery. Perhaps you have seen the evidence that a story can have a will of its own. You begin with the intention of writing about your meditation teacher’s soothing voice and end up describing your grandmother’s bedtime songs and what a terrible loss you felt when your family moved far away from her. Your job as memoirist is to listen to what your stories tell you. It’s only through revision and contemplation that you learn that your grandmother is at the center of the story, and that she taught you to trust the quiet moment before sleep. We think we know our stories, but in fact, they have a tremendous capacity to surprise and teach us. Work long enough with a memory and it will exert its silent, irascible will.
When I consider the value that Western culture places on material things; when I encounter advertising’s perpetual message that we need to change ourselves to be acceptable, happy, or loved; and when I notice how difficult it is to squeeze a walk into my day or to quiet my mind’s perpetual chatter, I see that the spiritual life itself has become marginalized, even oppressed. So many demands run roughshod over the soul’s needs that we often forget those needs exist. The activities that most nourish the spirit (play, affection, generosity, contemplation, quiet, beauty, creativity, truth-telling, time in nature) are least valued in a consumer society. Spending a morning with a pen and notepad, traversing the landscape of memory and searching for the sacred, is a profoundly countercultural activity. No wonder the impulse to probe the spiritual life with language presses against so many people’s hearts. That neglected dimension of self is rebelling—insisting that its story come into the light.
Writing, then, becomes a way of attending to life’s submerged currents.