Skip to main content

Matthew Wickman is a literary scholar and professor of English at BYU. He specializes in Enlightenment and Scottish literary and intellectual history, as well as postsecular theory and criticism, and has published over forty articles and book chapters, two monographs, and a memoir.

Interviewed by Jennifer Chriss

Inscape Journal: Were there any books that inspired you to write your memoir?

Matthew Wickman: 20th-century Welsh poet R. S. Thomas talks about forgetting most of the books that he read. I, too, would say my experience with other books has been largely one of forgetting, at least as they pertain to writing my memoir. A necessary forgetting, I’d call it. There are classic spiritual memoirs by people like Thomas Merton, for example, but when it came down to actually writing my own, I tried to forget a lot of those sources as paradigms for how I should write and think instead about how best to respond to the spiritual questions that I was trying to articulate. The literary texts I discussed in the chapters had a natural way of helping me mediate some of these questions and create some kind of rhythm or shape. The writing process was more organic in that respect than it was emulative.

IJ: Going off of that, what do you want your readers to take from this memoir?

MW: Couple things, hopefully. For readers who are accustomed to or familiar with spiritual struggle or the blessings of spiritual life, I want them to feel like they have good company in my book. For Latter-day Saints who want a richer spiritual life, I hope the book helps them acquire a larger vocabulary of spiritual experience. For members of the Church who are happy in the fold, I hope they see their faith affirmed in ways they appreciate. For those who are not Latter-day Saints, I hope they get a fuller sense of Latter-day Saint spiritual life through times of struggle as well as times when they feel closeness to God.

IJ: Has this memoir brought you different kinds of readers?

MW: Yes, not all of whom relate to all the experiences in it. I have had people read it who are not believers in God and who tell me that they found parts of it resonating with them. Other people who belong to Christian faiths other than ours who have also told me that my book has resonated with them. Some have said they read it meditatively, as part of their own spiritual practice. And most have been Latter-day Saints who have been generous in how they responded and say that it rings true for them and who appreciate the language the book gives to certain complexities of spiritual life.

IJ: Do you think your book can help those that have had spiritual experiences? 

MW: Perhaps to appreciate how widespread such experiences are. Spiritual experiences connect us to God but also to other people. And this is true not just within a particular faith community or tradition but across different communities.

IJ: What was your journey in writing this book?

MW: When I first had the inspiration to teach the class that led to this book, I was freaked out by the thought of writing about it: the subject seemed vulnerable, threateningly so. But one of my colleagues told me she could imagine me writing (and not only teaching) on the subject, and that inspired me at least to consider it. I began writing about this topic in a scholarly way—analytically and in the third person. (Scholarship is wonderful, but it allows you to hide behind others’ words and big ideas.) But then I thought I should really take some of the things we’d been studying in class and capture them in book form. I had a student who was working with me on this project, a research assistant, and she convinced me that I would need to write much more personally if I wanted to say anything of substance to her generation. So, I realized I needed to open myself more—be more vulnerable, more personal—in what I was writing. And, as it turns out, this has been the most meaningful experience I have ever had in writing, by far. 

IJ: Did you have a plan for the book, or did you just write as the journey went on?

MW: I began working on it and came back to it multiple times; the shape of it kept evolving. Many of the things came to me as a surprise as I was writing, like some stories from my journal or even those that had eluded my journal because they had been so subtle.

IJ: Would you say there is a different process of writing between creative and spiritual work?

MW: I would say that these things feed each other; I am a believer that when a creative person seeks inspiration, they inherently open themselves up to things that are spiritual, whether or not they recognize that spiritual impetus as religious. By the same token, anybody that is really seeking a richer spiritual life opens themself to a God who is a creative being and who made us as creative beings. So, for me, the creative process and the process of spiritual growth are linked in profound ways.

IJ: What advice would you give to writers hoping to access the creative parts of themselves?

MW: One recommendation would be to have interesting conversations as you are writing. These can be conversations about what you’re reading, or with other writers, or even with yourself. Ultimately, for me, it can also be conversations with God—seeking to know, for example how to think through something differently or more expansively or to know how to judge what is working, what needs more attention, and what is missing. Those conversations, especially the prayerful ones, often generate responses you might not anticipate, so between the planning you do as a writer and the things you haven’t anticipated, there is a chemistry for the creation of something carefully crafted and also authentic—even genuinely new.

IJ: What would you say to someone who wants to read or write—to anyone in the world of literature? What would you say to people on that journey?

MW: Literature can open us to things—things we lack, things we’ve neglected, or things we’ve never imagined. Literature opens windows to how others think and imagine their worlds, whether in our own culture or from very different times and places. It can help us empathize more deeply, or find answers to problems by opening our imaginations to new ways to conceive of the things around us. It can provide us with a deeper sense of community. Literature, to me, is a way to supplement, enrich, and enliven our human experience.