"How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey," Thomas Merton asked, "if you take the road to another man's city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading someone else's life?"
In his finest book, New Seeds of Contemplation, the source of these arresting questions, Merton the monk is very much, as always, Merton the writer and the individual finding his own existential path to God, even though he lived within the confines of an ancient monastic tradition.
What do his questions say to writers? That no matter how much we owe to others, how much we read and absorb, we must to our own selves be true, following our own individual path. Style, as I discover each time I try to teach it, is a unique reflection of each writer. It emerges out of the material of life deeply lived. It is a matter of the heart as well as the head. Like our lives, it is not about imitating others but making our own choices.
One contemporary poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, has found a singular voice, even though anyone reading her amazing 2009 book, Lit--an account of her progress from "blackbelt sinner" to Catholic convert--can see her indebtedness to those who have gone before her.
In a style that is smart, funny, profane, and intense, Karr describes leaving home (with its violence, abuse, alcoholism, drugs) and her mother to find a new home. Her memoir is about overcoming a life of terror and gradually discovering a community of prayer--and she does it her way. The past becomes vividly present and alive, even though the reader can tell that something positive will come out of the gritty horror of her narrative.
Karr has discovered her own path from the harrowing darkness of alcoholism and rage to a realization that "nothing we truly love is ever lost." To feel (not just think) such a truth after much pain is, I think, a key spiritual insight. That she has found prayer as a source of power does not meant that the demons of the past are forgotten.
They are very much alive in this memoir, which manages to take street talk to a lyrical level. Much of this book is not for the squeamish, but its unique style reflects Karr's journey, the hard choices she has made not only as a writer but as a woman of intelligence and strength who has moved beyond living someone else's life. It is good to know that, in her new life as a professor of English and acclaimed author, she is far from the end of her journey, which is very much her own.