Shirley Showalter, ubuntu & memoir

Sunrise at Melbourne Beach, Florida, January 2012

Become an observer of your own creative process. It will help you uncover where you “sing” and where your voice falls flat. When you lose track of time and are not thinking about yourself at all but rather about your purpose, your love for this world, your sheer amazement—that’s when you sing. The rest is just preparation. You might have to let it go and start over.—How to Write a Memoir by Shirley Hershey Showalter

My best writing teachers over the years haven’t been famous writers or even the most published in a particular cohort. The worst I ever had was the author of a celebrated memoir—she was vile, in part because she didn’t seem to respect her pupils, violating Emerson’s dictum that that’s the secret of education, and in part because she seemed actively to resent them.

Good teachers are generous, within reason, and they remember what it’s like to be afraid and confused along with being eager and hopeful. They know how beginners can struggle to push their stories through layers of craft that they haven’t yet mastered. Try teaching someone to use a computer who has never even booted up one and you’ll see how slowly and carefully you must go. A skill beyond that is seeing what each student needs instead of nuking everyone alike. In the end, depend on it—and let it be said—good teachers are good people, whereas someone who’s just a good writer might be dreadful in the flesh (a word of warning to MFA students out there).

So it’s thrilling to see that Shirley Hershey Showalter, a woman of warmth and good humor, has just published a free guide to memoir. Shirley grew up on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania and became an English professor and then the fourteenth president and first woman leader of Goshen College, in northern Indiana. Now retired, Shirley and her husband are serving as nannies to their grandson Owen in Brooklyn, New York.

And Shirley is smack in the middle of writing her memoir, Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Childhood. While her own lessons are fresh she’s making available, as a free pdf download from her web site, the booklet How to Write a Memoir: Seven Practices for Creating a Memoir that Sings. Shirley lists and explores seven key steps:

• Create a daily ritual asking for help, discipline, and guidance

• Read—eventually at least 100 memoirs

• Know why you want to write

• Write about the process as you draft your manuscript

• Create a timetable, starting with the end in mind

• Keep a notebook with you for capturing thoughts

• Optional: build your platform as a writer

I know her advice is wise because I stumbled painfully into each stage. The first step took me a couple of years to formalize—and didn’t really come together until I had read and reviewed Mary Karr’s great memoir Lit, which details the spiritual practices that have enabled her to write and which have, too, saved her life. (There’s a great Paris Review interview with Karr in which she explains her prayer life and spiritual practices in some detail.)

Along with emailing you How to Write a Memoir, Shirley will send weekly emails that feature writing prompts. In this new phase of her writing-teaching life, she has also revamped her blog, 100Memoirs, launched in 2009, and her inaugural post, “Ubuntu: A Philosophy of Memoir Writing,” explains her generosity. “Ubuntu” should be required reading for every memoirist—make that every writer—no, every American. To learn about the South African concept, a win-win philosophy of the individual blossoming within community, watch the short video embedded in Shirley’s post of Archbishop Desmond Tutu explaining it. Ubuntu is a powerful ethical concept, but like the Dalai Lama, Tutu mostly just laughs. The medium is the message.

As Shirley says:

The words that inspire me most from this video seem at first blush to be antithetical to the idea of writing memoir: “There is no such thing as a solitary individual.” But when you add the rest of the Archbishop’s words, you see why memoir writing is much more than a single writer with a pen in her hand. It is a radical act: “I want you to be all you can be so that I can be all that I can be. I need you to be you so that I can be me.”


Next: An interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter.


Filed under electronic publishing, memoir, MFA, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education, working method

9 responses to “Shirley Showalter, ubuntu & memoir

  1. Beth Sears

    Your post is timely as I recently stumbled across Showalter’s site but may have missed her helpful PDF. I was interested to hear you’ve covered Step 1 of Showalter’s practices and I’m pretty confident you’ve read widely in the memoir genre. I’m wondering about step 3. Would you be willing to share why you write? I found myself stumbling on that one.

    • Thanks, Beth. It seems like I flail around a lot on number three, but did and do have an answer for why I wrote my memoir. I wanted people to understand what it was like to achieve a lifelong dream, epitomized in the form of a magically beautiful farm we were lucky to buy at auction, and then to get hurt and to lose that farm. I wanted to share that loss so that people would understand it in all its dimensions, including the fact that it was and is okay.

      But that dodges the larger question. I am not sure I can put that succinctly yet, but I know that when I write out of humble desire to seek and speak the truth and to share, it feels right. When I slip into ego, the desire for mere attention, then I have gone astray.

    • Incidentally, George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” is here:

      • Beth Sears

        Thanks Richard. I’m writing my memoir about living in Australia for similar reasons. I want to share that it is ok to move off the fast or expected track and to do something different with one’s life.

        Re. the larger question. I’ve been surprised at how my much my writing has made me reflect on how my upbringing has shaped who I am today. Interesting and difficult stuff to unpack, that’s for sure, but rewarding when I get glimmers of understanding…

        Will definitely read Orwell’s essay. I’m sure he expresses himself a little more clearly!

  2. I like these lines by Orwell:

    “. . . I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in —at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own— but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some
    immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early
    influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”

  3. Thanks so much for the Orwell essay, Richard. You have gathered so many wonderful literary resources and your ease in sharing them shows your generous heart. Beth, you will find your purpose as you write. It may not show up immediately. But when you start “singing,” you’ll know it. And you may be able to deduce your best reason by looking back to see what has moved you most both in life and in writing.

    I love the quote about not getting stuck in childhood but not losing it either. Willa Cather: “Art is cremated youth.” Talk about economy of language. That one has stuck with me for more than 40 years.

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  5. Pingback: Richard Gilbert’s Blog: A Memoir Treasure Trove @ Shirley Hershey Showalter

  6. I met Shirley at the Santa Barbara writers conference in 2008, so we’ve followed one another since then. We both started blogging at the same time, and I’m happy to say, we’ve continued. I feel Shirley’s support for all writers of memoirs, and I look forward to reading her memoir. My family moved to Belize from California and lived on a tropical island for one year. I met a community of Mennonites who form 9% of the population in Belize, so this also connected me to Shirley.