We're super excited to welcome memoirist and scholar Sarah Sentilles to the Taos Conference this summer: she'll be teaching a Weeklong Workshop this year on Spiritual Memoir.
Sarah's dear friend Emily Rapp first told us about Sarah's work--and once we read her lovely (not to mention very funny) memoir Breaking Up With God, we knew we had to have her on board!
We asked Sarah some questions about her and writing, so you can get to know her and her work a bit better!
You can find out more about Sarah's class at this link.
“Spiritual memoir” seems like a big and amorphous category. How do you personally define the genre?
A: For me, writing and religion share common ground. I understand both practices as imaginative activities, as human beings responding to and making meaning out of the world as we experience it. My mentor, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, called theology a work of art that is to be lived in, and I think spiritual memoirs can be defined similarly. Spiritual memoirs reveal the human struggle to create meaning and connection, to know our place in the world, and to discover what might be required of us while we’re here.
What do you think are the biggest challenges of writing a spiritual memoir?
Avoiding being cheesy or preachy or saccharine. Staying in the questions and not moving too quickly into answers. I was a judge for a “spiritual essay” contest last month, and the authors of many of the essays I read moved toward difficult questions, but then they moved quickly away from them, retreating into doctrine or pat answers or clichés like “things happen for a reason” or “God works in ways we don’t understand.” The best essays were written by authors willing to stay in a place of unknowing, in a place of mystery and possibility. I am much more interested in authors who are willing to admit the world doesn’t work like they thought it worked or their faith doesn’t fit like they thought it fit. Good spiritual writing requires courage, a willingness to walk into the fire instead of around it.
What brought you to your interests in spirituality and writing?
I was almost ordained as an Episcopal priest and now I call myself agnostic. I wrote Breaking Up with God to try to figure out what happened to my faith. I’ve studied religion for more than a decade. Even though I walked away from institutional religion, the language and stories and metaphors of my faith are still with me. I understand theology as a constructive activity—human beings making up stories about God. I am fascinated by how those stories work in the world, about what they make possible or impossible, about how they affect the earth and other living beings.
What were some of the books you looked to as inspiration in writing your spiritual memoir, Breaking Up with God?
I read as much as I could while I was writing. One of my friends who is a poet told me that to write well you have to read for twice as many hours a day as you write. I read and re-read Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story.” Some of my favorite memoirs during that time were Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay and Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb. I read more fiction than nonfiction. I read Nicole Kraus’s The History of Love three or four times, and I fell in love with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and Paul Harding’s Tinkers, though I’m a little afraid to mention that book because I know people either love it or hate it. I also read a lot of theology. I went back to my favorites—Gordon Kaufman, James Cone, Mary Daly. Their words are mind blowing.