Showalter: memoir is a ‘radical act’

My interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter concludes with her discussion of her writing process and of her vision for the potential for memoir, a “radical act,” to build peace in the world.

Q: You prepared for writing a memoir by reading and attending workshops, so I suspect you’re a what fiction writers call a “pantser” instead of a “plunger” for the actual writing. Did you outline what you’re now writing or make a timeline or otherwise make yourself a roadmap?

I guess I’m a “pantser” if I understand the distinction. I wrote a proposal to Herald Press, the publishing arm of Mennonite Church-USA. The proposal required me to outline how I envisioned the project and to send some sample chapters. I did that last summer after having written about six to eight essays of an average length of 3,000 words. I had a beginning, a very fuzzy roadmap, and a willingness to work hard. I knew most of those chapters would not be usable without revision and placement into a larger structure.

By giving myself a deadline (and now by placing a countdown clock on my website!), I was making myself accountable both to my editor and and my readers. But most of all, I am accountable to myself.

I don’t have an MFA in creative nonfiction, so I am trying to create the curriculum that fits my life circumstances (living in an exciting new city and taking care of my grandson 5 hours/day) and my personality. Being a “pantser” keeps me focused. I take in all new influences like a sponge on its way to a canvas where it will leave traces of color on the memoir I am trying to paint with words.

If I had “plunged” without the urgency of a deadline, I would still be a sponge, but a more contemplative one. I might even be able to place color on the memoir canvas more artistically at a later time, but I also take the risk of never getting to the canvas at all. So here I am, with pants in chair, ready to hit Chapter Seven again.

I do have an outline, but only of chapter titles, not chapter content and structure. Right now I am following it primarily to get my subjects lined up and organized into different “buckets.” It could change drastically after the draft is complete.

Q: Now for a dumb question. Why is writing so hard? I smiled when you mentioned on your blog that you are finding it laborious. I remember amazedly thinking the same thing halfway through my own memoir.

I smile too. And I don’t know the answer for anyone else, but let’s try a few Mennonite farm girl responses off the top of my head:

  • Because of sin in the Garden of Eden. For writers it often happens like this—you read a great writer’s prose and all of a sudden the words on your own page, which thrilled you to write, sound tinny in your own inner ear. That’s called covetousness, and it is a sin because it turns joy into sorrow. We aren’t called to be Annie Dillard. There’s only room for one of her. We are called to appreciate and learn from her. And then to sing our own song in our own voice.
  • Because “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” And doing it right is always harder. Just ask H. Richard Hershey, known as Daddy by Rosy Cheeks.
  • Because first drafts are always full of manure, to paraphrase Anne Lamott.
  • Because hard work is good for us! Writing is another form of manual labor, and manual labor requires the building up of muscles. Muscles get sore and tired before they get fit and toned. “You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.”—Philip Glass
  • Because we forget that even though we are alone in our room, we are never alone. We are always connected to the greatest force in the universe, love. We have to listen, relax, and wait. Love will sing through us if we don’t push too hard.
  • Because we are so easily distracted by lesser things.
  • Because we are afraid we might hurt someone with our truth.
  • Because we are afraid both of looking proud and being self-absorbed.

 Q: You write in your recent post on the concept of ubuntu that “memoir writing is much more than a single writer with a pen in her hand.” You say, “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.’ ” Could you say a bit more about importing to America this win-win ethos?

Radical, of course, means “going to the root.” So that’s why I’m so interested in the long and deep view of my own life.

I’m just beginning to think about this Ubuntu idea, so I am far from articulate about it. I spent time with students in Haiti and in the Ivory Coast as part of the Goshen College international service learning program. I traveled with a group of higher education leaders to South Africa. In all these times of cultural immersion, I sensed the spiritual wealth of the people in these countries through their music, their storytelling, their visual art. So when I heard Archbishop Tutu describe Ubuntu, I visualized people dancing and singing, laughing and playing together. I hear the freedom songs, and my spirit soars.

Here’s a group of young singers coming under the spell of freedom by singing the South African freedom song “Singabahambayo.” One of the characteristics of a freedom song is that it doesn’t limit itself to the problems of the day but imagines breaking free in time and space. You can’t sing these songs and sit still. Notice not only the movement of the bodies but the interaction with the audience, the impromptu hugs, the abandon and exuberance.

The invisible web connecting all of us to each other can be made visible in community. Mennonites have their own forms of Ubuntu: we build community with our food, our arts and crafts, our care for the victims of disaster and poverty, the sick and the dying, and our nurture of children. My particular Mennonite faith prepared me to experience a universal principle named Ubuntu.

I get excited when I think about the potential for memoir to build peace in the world.

I get excited when some of the burden for my own book is carried by others who have graciously shared their stories with me via the web. I am motivated to endure the hard work just described in the question above because doing so might help some reader break through to transformation in his or her own life.

One of the greatest poets of all time, Emily Dickinson, expressed an Ubuntu thought in this poem I memorized in eighth grade because I had an old-fashioned teacher who made us recite in class.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Ironically, Dickinson was a recluse. But I like to think that she would agree wholeheartedly with the Ubuntu goal of becoming one’s best self by writing to the best self of others, not only easing their pains but also igniting their full flowering.

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5 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, memoir, poetry, religion & spirituality, working method

5 responses to “Showalter: memoir is a ‘radical act’

  1. I found your blog through Shirley’s and am glad I did. This is an interesting interview series. Shirley’s ideas about why writing is hard work really resonate, particularly the idea that the most worthwhile experiences are always difficult. As a Mennonite, I agree that the “ubuntu” concept is interwoven in spiritual life, but I am just now wrapping my mind around the idea that it applies to memoir too. It’s easy to think of memoir as a deeply isolated or even selfish act, but done well, it’s just the opposite. Perhaps only by “going to the root” and sharing our own stories can we actually reach out to others. The more I contemplate this idea, the more, like Showalter, I “get excited when I think about the potential for memoir to build peace in the world.”

  2. Darrelyn Saloom

    Wonderful interview and description of why writing is so hard.

  3. Thank you, Richard and Shirley, for these posts. I’m feeling at a stale point in my writing the last little while and these conversations, with their encouragements and advice, are helping. Every so often I need to review and dig deeper on my “topic sentence” for the project, as well as be reminded that it’s sometimes just plain hard work!

  4. I too found your blog through Shirley’s. I like what I see.

    For me, it all boils down to that feeling of blissful satisfaction when I’ve written something I’m really happy with. Of course, tomorrow I might decide I hate it, but still there is that sense of accomplishment that is like an addiction and always keeps me pounding the keys. 🙂

  5. I’ve enjoyed this series with Shirley Showalter. I admire her blog 100memoirs, and am interested in her memoir project. Thanks for bringing us inside her process and wisdom about writing and life.