In Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography, in their chapter about autobiographical acts, I see them frame autobiography by looking at the who, what, where, when, how and why of their creation. The who is the person to which the story is addressed, the what is the medium they choose to write in, the where is what Smith & Watson call “sites of storytelling” (Smith and Watson 69), the when is the “moment in history, a sociopolitical space” in which the story comes from and then is written in(69), and the how is the “producer of the story” (71) or the production of the autobiographical “I”. What I find most interesting about this chapter though is the why of autobiographical creation, as I see what they call the “coachers, coaxers and coercers” (64) as a huge influences for the content that ends up inside an autobiography, as well as how that content is framed and written. In other words, I think that why someone decides to write an autobiography ends up controlling all the other inputs in one way or another. In Smith and Watson, they define the why as “any person or institution or set of cultural imperatives that solicits or provokes people to tell their stories” (64), which I think is an interesting tact to take when looking at Thomas Shepard’s spiritual autobiography. It is obvious right from the beginning of his narrative that he was provoked to tell his story for reasons of religious affirmation. This desire to defend his religion of course shaped his story and compelled him to write it in a certain way.
For instance, Shepard, in his autobiography, tells of how he had a drinking problem in college. This seems to be a rather un-Puritan habit, but a most human and relatable one, especially for a college student. In a way that seems at first to be appealing to a sense of normal young adulthood and behavior, Shepard writes “…I drank so much one day that I was dead drunk, and that upon a Saturday night, and so was carried from the place that I had drink at…and knew not where I was until I was awakened late on that Sabbath and sick with my beastly carriage” (Shepard 43). The sense that Shepard is making himself relatable though is quickly overcome by the reason, the why, of his autobiography. This black-out drinking instance only in fact serves in the narrative as a lead-in to Shepard’s spiritual redemption and renewal. In “shame and confusion” (43) Shepard leaves where he was passed out drunk and goes into a field “where the Lord, who might justly have cut me off in the midst of my sin, did meet me with much sadness of heart and troubled my soul for this and other my sins which then I had cause and leisure to think of” (43). In other words, getting drunk allowed him to find God in a field, so after all, while his drinking was still a sin, it was sin with a Godly purpose. It seems that the why, the religious reasons, for Shepard’s autobiography, definitely shape how the story progresses, and what the story contains. I sincerely doubt that this instance of drunkenness was the first time he had been so incredibly drunk but he writes it that was as if to imply that he only God that drunk once because it was some part of a larger plan for him to find God in a field and be saved. Perhaps I am too skeptical but Smith and Watson’s argument for how “coachers, coaxers and coercers” (Smith and Watson 64) can change how and what people write leads me to believe that Shepard’s story is just a little too perfectly arranged in the favor of God’s great plan.