A few years back, my brother and I decided to start a business in which we would coach people on how to write marketable manuscripts. (Shortly thereafter, our life trajectories spun into odd orbits, and our project was abandoned in a reed basket at the side of a river somewhere.) I was to deal with my usual demons: travel, music, the outdoors. I was also to help people write their spiritual memoirs. Thus I composed the following post, which originally appeared on our webpage...
In the autumn of 2007, I found myself in Bristol, VT, a town of a mere 4000 people, yet blessed with two organic supermarkets and a vegan microbrew pub. I was there to complete my training in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. After the pre-sunrise yoga classes, we’d spend the afternoons mining our psyches with the intense practices that Phoenix Rising is known for. After these very long and challenging days, I'd try to unwind with a book. For most of the week I read Elizabeth Gilbert's, "Eat, Pray, Love," recommended to me by my aunt Beth, who had incidentally been Gilbert's English teacher. Initially expecting a piece of 'chick-lit,' I found myself quickly taken with the book, and I realize in hindsight that the memoir became part of that week's spiritual practice.
Spiritual memoir is a bizarre animal. It is the revealing of a single person's soul, one grounded very much in that writer's own personal history and unique psychological makeup. Yet these memoirs somehow connect with the equally personal experiences of thousands of readers. (In the case of "Eat, Pray, Love," 7 million readers.) This connection cuts across every possible demographic line, through gender, age, and culture. My own connection with Gilbert's book was admittedly informed by my being immersed in the deep seeking that was happening at the time of reading. Again, a very personal experience. Which got me interested in the question of what particular element, or more specifically, which particular scene resonated most with readers. In preparation for writing this piece, I referred to both the Internet and the opinion of friends in order to find that part of the book that had the greatest impact on them. And I found that nearly everyone had a different answer.
For some, it was a literary revisit to place that had informed their life in some way. (Not difficult, considering the exotic locales.) For others, it was the identification (or non-identification) with a person who had reassembled a shattered life. And for others still, it was simply a nodding acquaintance with the transcendence that can accompany a good meal or a dynamic round of sex. Yet each person could not only recite a favorite scene of their own, but could do so on demand.
This project was beginning to remind me of the old Buddhist tale where three blind men come upon an elephant, and in touching a different part of the animal's body, comes to his own individual opinion of what he’s found: a pillar (leg), a tree branch (trunk), or a wall (belly). So what was the common denominator, (the elephant, if you will), between all of those who fell in love with this book? What was the quality that most attracted them to the story?
The answer can be found in the various reviews of the book and in interviews with the author. Review after review mention Gilbert’s honesty about herself, her frankness. When one is truly in touch with the flaws that make up their own humanity, coupled with a willingness to share them in a humorous fashion, others around them can't help but be attracted. This attraction is further enhanced by Gilbert’s likability, obvious from her skill at crafting prose that at times feels more like a private conversation with a close friend. In every page of “Eat, Pray, Love,” we are shown a woman’s vulnerability and humility, yet it is tempered by self-depreciating wit.
In writing a spiritual memoir, one mustn’t be afraid to engage oneself in this type of honest dialogue. The best approach is to write without any sense of the reader. One is working strictly with one's own basic material, the probing of which is a sacred journey in itself. And to share what is uncovered requires great courage.
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Thailand"
On the nighttable: Alfred Bohner, "Two on a Pilgrimage"