Memoir and Transcendence: Knowing the Self

During this course, students explore memoir with a focus on the theme of transcendence—transcendental moments, spiritual quest, stories about overcoming obstacles and transformation, explorations of the uncharted territories of consciousness. Memoirs can take various forms: childhood experience, graphic (cartoon or illustrated) memoir, travelogue, exploration of other cultures, eyewitness account, mosaic, etc. Students read examples by an international selection of memoirists such as Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau, Greg Mortenson, Ann Patchett, Helen Nearing, Azar Nafisi, Mark Spragg, Yang Erche Namu, and Etty Hillesum. Textbooks are Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser. Students also create their own portfolios of transcendental memoir using techniques from fiction and poetry to create story or mosaic, exploring objective and subjective life experience in depth. Ultimately, students learn to stand back and experience their transcendental life stories and their own spiritual quest “twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” as Anais Nin put it. In this way, students have an opportunity to witness and yet more deeply know their own Self on every level. (4 credits) Prerequisite: WTG 192 or consent of instructor.


The Secret Garden, illustration by Michael Halbert

“The Self must be known and brought to the conscious Level.” –Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” –Jack Kerouac

“Why [write]? Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity—the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests—has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.” –Alan Shapiro

“Time passes, and what it passes through is people—though people believe that they are passing through time, and even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time. It’s a delusion, but it’s where memoirs come from, or at least the very best ones. They tell how destiny presses on desire and how desire pushes back, sometimes heroically, always poignantly, but never quite victoriously. Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how and alongside whom, one used his paddle.” —Walter Kern


André Kertész, “Window on the Quai Voltaire,” Paris, 1928

“In a memoir, I think, the contract implies a certain degree of truth. I think you have to be as true to your memory and your experience as you possibly can.” —David Leavitt

“A child’s attitude is an artist’s attitude.” –Willa Cather

“He who believes that the past cannot be changed has not yet written his memoirs.” –Torvald Gahlin

“There ain’t nothing that breaks up homes, country and nations like somebody publishing their memoirs.” –Will Rogers

“I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.” –Gloria Swanson

“I have always distrusted memoir. I tend to write my memoirs through my fiction. It’s easier to get to the truth by not claiming that you are speaking it.” –Armistead Maupin

“Memoirs are a well-known form of fiction.” –Frank Harris

“Memoirs are the backstairs of history.” –George Meredith