At a work meeting this week, our committee was discussing a niggling little matter that will need to be decided soon. As we talked amicably, I recalled many years earlier having to fight with administrators over just the same matter—I shouldn’t be specific here—and it occurred to me: if I had to tell the story of my career, could I divide up the chapters according to the various fights I’ve had to fight?
Fight is too strong a word. Thankfully, I’m not talking about yelling or fisticuffs or law suits. Maybe a better word in my case is struggle. There are always struggles within institutions, always people on various sides of any matter, tiny or momentous, making their case over and over, trying to use whatever institutional capital they have (I’ve never had much) to influence outcomes in ways they perceive as best. You win some, you lose some. On to the next thing.
Well, it was an intriguing thought, to chapter my career as a series of struggles. But that led me to ponder the many possible ways that we divide up our lives in our recollections. I’m teaching a new course this semester on the literary memoir, and my students and I are beginning to notice that writers have different strategies for dividing up their stories. Even if you start at the beginning (“I am born.”) and then work your way chronologically through your life, you still have to figure out what to leave out, what stories to tell, what story arc to create, and how to help the reader navigate through it all. Could you organize by time blocks—childhood, teenage, young adult, etc.? Or by key events—the birthday incident, the divorce? Or by theme—city life, farm life, travel?
I realized that my default mode is to divide my memories by place, where I lived. There was my childhood home, then college dorms and apartments, first married apartment, then New Jersey, Iowa, Grand Rapids, London then California, then Grand Rapids again. Now that I’ve had a long chapter in Grand Rapids, I would divide that further into the two houses we’ve lived in here. For me, I guess, everything else gets tucked into the various drawers of place.
When I asked husband Ron how he divides up his life, he talked about “Camelot moments”—a few times in his life and career when everything was just so wonderful. These were ephemeral moments, maybe lasting a few years each, and they punctuate his life, as it were, giving it contour and shape. We could call this an experiential chaptering strategy, maybe.
One of Ron’s students, when asked about her divide-up-your-life strategy, said she thought about her life as a series of defining friendships. First this friend, then she moved away. Then that friend, then she moved away. We could call this a people-based strategy.
What are some other ways to chapter up our lives? Of course a lot depends on what has happened to you. If you are a new American, like many people at my church, you might tell your story with a place-based strategy that would go like this: home, war/displacement, refugee camp, new country.
If work is especially important to you, you might use a career-oriented strategy. If you’re a pastor, you could divide your life into churches you’ve served. Maybe some people would divide their lives by the companies they worked for, or the different bosses they worked under, or the types of work they did. Imagine long-serving staffpeople at the White House: I bet they can’t help but divide their work lives by presidential administrations. The stories they have to tell! (And NDAs to prevent them from telling? How does that work?)
Speaking of NDAs, I wonder about the new memoir from Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, called Spare. I haven’t read it, and I do not plan to buy it, and I can’t tell from Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature how the thing is divided up—but I’m curious. I can only imagine that the early sections amount to “before Diana died” and “after Diana died.” Anyone out there have a copy, and care to write a review for this blog?
More traditional, proverbial ways to divide up one’s life might be focused on one’s role in society, and thus reveal class- and gender-inflections. For instance, the archetypal female life divisions include girl, maiden, bride, mother, and crone. Apparently, I’m in the crone stage, so let’s claim that label with pride, shall we? For traditional male life-stages, we might look to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where the melancholy Jaques delivers the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech. This amounts to a folksy set piece, running through a series of male roles—infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old man, and “oblivion.” Though the speech commonly gets excerpted as some sort of profound Shakespearean wisdom, it’s actually a cynical little speech, and I would argue that the play roundly undercuts it.
Many literary memoirs, of course, gain their energy from good story-telling, so they tend toward less structural and more interior considerations. They focus on incidents that seemed small in the moment but gathered significance over time and became emblematic or wound up serving as turning points. My students and I read some excerpts from Serene Jones’s recent memoir Call It Grace this week (it’s good—would recommend!). Jones opens with two little stories—one of her grandmother hugging a water jug on a hot day and the other of her own teenage self at a campfire learning the lesser-known, sharp-edged verses of “This Land is Your Land.” Jones, now the president of Union Theological Seminary, explains how these two stories encapsulate the mature understandings she eventually gained of God’s grace on the one hand and the societal lies we tell on the other.
Best-selling memoirs tend to tell big, dramatic stories—getting sober, the messy divorce, the cancer diagnosis, the series of lovers, living through war, recovering from abuse, the woes of being famous. For most of us, the challenge is to perceive the contours of our ordinary lives lived on smaller, more private stages. How do we make sense of our common human griefs, our ordinary loves, our mundane struggles, our minor triumphs? How do we trace the patterns, shapes, and chapters of our lives? It’s not easy. That’s why most of us don’t write memoirs.
I appreciated how Serene Jones layers her life stories atop a generous, cushiony bed of theology—I might even say she rivals Augustine on that point. She opens Call It Grace by insisting that “everyone has dramatic stories to tell” and, moreover, memoir is necessarily theological story-telling, whether or not you believe in God. Then she offers this lovely theological basis for the significance of telling our stories: “God created each of us as particular people with our own histories and identities, and these very particular, individual lives are the lives that God loves.”
God holds our lives, every detail of them, and even more, crafts their meaning. That, to me, is the comforting promise of Col. 3:3, that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God.” We might puzzle to remember what happened last month, but God attends to every detail. Not only attends to the details, but treasures them. How God chapters our lives, I don’t know—maybe chaptering is something only finite, temporal creatures need to do. Maybe God simply beholds all the struggle at once in the mystery of divine wisdom.