I am in the midst of a memoir at the moment, Larry Woiwode’s, A Step from Death (2009). This follows on the heels of two others: Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron (2011) and Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos (2011).
Woiwode and Hijuelos are top-shelf writers. You can tell from the opening paragraphs that we’re not about to get another story of childhood angst or the inner wanderings of an interesting person. We will, because of the strength of language and emotion these writers have, find an opening into lives that are transformed and transforming.
Hijuelos brings us along on his Cuban-American journey in the Latino life of the 50s and 60s. He helps us see the story behind his prize-winning stories as the first true Latino-American literary star. He drags us into the uncertainties of an uncertain young man finding his way. His words wrap us in the smokey living rooms in Harlem and the man who was his father.
Woiwode provides a slower pace. His is a Midwesterner’s tempo. His is the story of a life on the land, seemingly always a step away from death but just as truly still, a step into life and grace. He, too, wraps us in amazing language, in his case of fields and blizzards and fathers. His father and his children’s father. Woiwode, like Hijuelos, takes us inside the writer’s craft and bares the methods they each use in bringing their lives into reality. The truth of fiction becomes clear in these non-fiction stories.
Just as amazing is Cron’s memoir. This is a “religious-”based memoir, though I hate to put it in a way that may keep readers away from it. His is a spiritual journey of faith — Cron is an ordained Episcopal priest. We walk a road of being called, even when that calling is unknown or at least unclear. We are wrapped in language that opens us to God while in the haze of the Northeastern childhood and adulthood wrapped in alcohol and drugs. Cron, too, discovers more about “fathers” and in so doing comes to know himself.
Hijuelos and Woiwode are authors of great literary stature and their memoirs exude the confidence of the writer who know his language and story. The wrestling is on each page for us to be wrapped into and enraptured by. Cron is taking us through a different door, through the Sacristy into a Sanctuary.
All three have deep spritual roots, expressed in much different language. All three struggle with some of the same ghosts of addiction and abandonment, death and creativity. All three masterfully pull us into our own memories of both our childhoods and maturity. They challenge us to discover the not-so-secret commonalities of our lives in the depths of their own unique experiences. After all it is in sharing such stories that we find our own callings.