Finding her memoir’s ‘topic sentence’

I want to prepare for the hour of my death by living one good day at a time. And I want to help others to do the same.

—Shirley Hershey Showalter’s mission statement

Shirley Showalter

Shirley Showalter is an essayist, blogger, speaker, consultant, retired college president, granny nanny, and memoirist-in-progress, currently writing Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Childhood. She agreed to answer some questions after my last post about her philosophy, which is epitomized by her new, free e-book, How to Write a Memoir: Seven Practices for Creating a Memoir that Sings. Her mission statement above is taken from the e-book.

Q: I just love your memoir’s title, Rosy Cheeks. I haven’t met you in person but imagine your cheeks are, or were, rosy! What is the significance of your title? It may be literally true but also feels metaphorically powerful.

First let me emphasize that Rosy Cheeks is a working title. It could change! I thought of it because one of my favorite high school teachers coined that nickname for me. Yes, I had, and still have, rosy cheeks. I suppose I might have been influenced a little by Tina Fey’s title Bossy Pants, also. I haven’t read the book yet, but it too sounds like a nickname.

Some biblical and literary roots fascinate me. The story of David was one that both the Goshen College presidential search committee and I independently found meaningful before I was called to the presidency: David, the ruddy-cheeked shepherd boy was plucked out of the fields by Samuel, who was guided by God to pass over his stronger, older, brothers.

Another connection. I did a master’s thesis on John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the “schoolhouse poets,” in the days when many children memorized “Barefoot Boy” with his “cheeks of tan.”

Finally, I’m named for Shirley Temple. As a baby I was the rosy-cheeked Shirley doll my mother wanted but could not have in her youth.

These are some biographical connections of the working title, However, I’ll only choose it in the end if it works metaphorically on every level intended. The publisher will help choose also. In the meantime, I would love to know what metaphorical possibilities you and others see!

Q: To become a published memoirist, you first read 100 memoirs, blogged about your learning process, attended conferences and workshops, and landed a contract. Most of us just plunge in—and flail around and sometimes sink. How did you originate your sensible and systematic approach?

Like most histories, mine only looks “sensible and systematic” in hindsight. Two early influences helped me a lot. The Kalamazoo Gazette conducts a literary awards competition every year. There’s a very literate audience and many excellent writers clustered in that region. I had just moved there from Goshen, Indiana, and decided to try my hand at memoir.

Personal essays were my favorite genre to teach in the Expository Writing class I had taught for years, and I had published three or four personal essays in books already. So I took a long weekend at Gilchrist Retreat Center and wrote three short memoir stories. They poured out of me, and one of them won first place in the contest. One of the characteristics of Rosy Cheeks is that she is easily encouraged. 🙂

Another help was to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and hear, early and often, that writers must blog—and that the chances of getting published by mainstream publishers is next to zero if you don’t have an already-established platform. Discouragement is the source of creative inspiration for Rosy Cheeks. So I started thinking about publishing alternatives early on.

The idea of calling on and calling forth community did not occur to me at the beginning, but it’s in my Mennonite DNA. When I came across that idea, I felt I had “hit the home pasture,” a lovely phrase from my favorite writer Willa Cather.

Q: On your blog you refer to having forged a faith journey outside of the Mennonite community you grew up in. To me, that sounds like a book in itself—and one I’d dearly love to read. How big a part of Rosy Cheeks is that aspect of your story?

A very large part. I am still a Mennonite. The church I attend today is different from the church of my youth, and I have been able to incorporate into my faith new experiences that extend beyond my previous Mennonite boundaries. I appreciate my Mennonite heritage even more than Rosy Cheeks, my adolescent self, did, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wrestled with it then and now.

Here’s one of my first draft memoir discoveries. I still remember how a light went on in my head in fourth grade when I finally understood what a topic sentence was—the biggest idea in the paragraph. Remembering that moment (I can still see where I was sitting in the classroom) triggered a second epiphany: to tell my particular Mennonite story, I am going to find the topic sentence, the biggest idea. I have to reach before and after, inside and outside, my own little speck in the vast universe of time and space. I’m struggling to find words for that kind of mythic story right now. The key, I think, to broadening the concept of the spiritual journey is to go deeper into the faith and into the land that produced me and to try to find the root structure that connects all of us.

Next: Showalter explains her view of memoir as a “radical act.”


Filed under Author Interview, electronic publishing, memoir, religion & spirituality, working method

9 responses to “Finding her memoir’s ‘topic sentence’

  1. I never heard of Showalter until I read your interview with her.
    Thank you, Richard.
    A question, though: How does one access her writing guide? I didn’t find a link to it on her site. Perhaps I was blind or obtuse when I took a few turns around her site.
    Stuart Rose

  2. Great piece. Loved it, and as someone with a memoir almost done, timely. Thanks Richard!

    Lori Ann

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

  4. One of the things I love about Shirley is her systematic approach, even if it doesn’t seem like that to her!

  5. Garpnaicall

    Concordo compiutamente nonostante le idee espresse finora. Continuate in questo modo.

  6. This may seem strange, Richard, but I have come back a year later to look at this interview and am so grateful to you for your good questions. As I revise in the next 6-8 weeks, I need to make the connection clear in the epilogue between my purpose and my story. I find that I already did a lot of this work a year ago. Thank you! Isn’t it wonderful that the Internet in general and blogging in particular allows us to find our past ideas and fragments of our past selves? In that way, it is itself a demonstration of ubuntu. I can’t be the best me unless you ask me the best questions. 🙂

    • Cool, Shirley. When I started this blog 4.5 years ago I actually thought of it as a place where I might capture my own insights, kind of a public file. And once in a while I actually do use it that way myself: What was I thinking then, that idea I had? Glad your own insights here have helped you. Of course, you are in a stage where all your receptors are humming!