Category Archives: electronic publishing

‘Narrative’ blog honored

My standards are so low. I don’t feel like I am . . . protecting writing from amateurs or dabblers or those who are simply no good. My students have expressed a profound interest in writing. I let them write what they want to write.—Michael Martone, linked below

Marissa, who blogs at Paucis Verbis, has named Narrative one of her top five favorite blogs of 2012 (already!). I am pleased and grateful to her for this notice and for her kind words.

She also quotes liberally from my About page, performing another service: rubbing my nose in my known reality that it’s way past time to overhaul that mess (the blog’s most-hit feature). But this July will be Narrative’s fourth anniversary, and that counts for something—isn’t that like 100 years in internet time?

I started Narrative when I was two years into writing a memoir, and I’m still working at both. I’ve learned a lot about each realm, unsurprisingly, in retrospect, since I wasn’t yet reading blogs back then and hadn’t read nearly enough memoirs. I’ve since been pleased and humbled to read other bloggers and memoirists.

My memoir was solely what counted as “writing” then. And it still does, in the sense that books of any kind still signify and justify time spent unlike articles or stories or essays or posts. Unless you can collect the pieces into books. But I’ve come round to viewing blogging as writing, and, as is obvious, as a genre unto itself. Anyway, there’s a dignity to anything competently done that’s continued and that evolves. This is my 252 post, according to WordPress, which also tells me that Narrative has had 87,513 visits.

Blogs are new jugs for old liquids. Plastic jugs, maybe. But I was grateful for my plastic iced tea jug when I dropped it the other day and it bounced. It’s now in the recycle bin, because it leaks, but that beats having gotten a sharp shard in the foot. (As George Carlin used to ask, What if the reason we were put on earth was to discover and make plastic?)

Michael Martone touches on such matters, on art high and low, on counting any writing as writing, in Bill Roorbach’s recent interview with him on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour. Martone is an arts-for-arts-sake guy, in other words he’s artsy as hell, but he’s also a Hoosier, which evens his keel and suffuses with sweetness his utterances:

The writer because of the changing nature of the means of production the way books and magazines are made finds him or herself involved in what we used to think was the designer’s job, the publisher’s job, the editor’s job. . . . “Writing” a postcard is an act of publishing. And I love being involved in not only the abstract writing of the message but the concrete manipulation of the material.  The stamps. The writing instruments. And the post office contributes the cancellation, the bar codes of routing.  There is so much to read–other than one’s own writing– on the card. So many texts.  In museum school there is an argument between those curators that want to deploy labels with artifacts and those that don’t.  I like a third way of thinking about it. The labels themselves are artifacts that can themselves be labeled, even expanded. . . .

I teach writing in a generative way now but in an institution that is rigorously curatorial.  I have been fortunate at Alabama to be able to clear a space for the students to do lots of things and not worry so much about being professionalized. Try things. Discover self and art. It is a gift I can give. None of the students here pay for the schooling. I don’t make any promises as to what they will do or become.  I just say come here and write with me. Let’s find out what writing is for you.  Let’s make something up. My standards are so low. I don’t feel like I am a police teacher protecting writing from amateurs or dabblers or those who are simply no good. My students have expressed a profound interest in writing. I let them write what they want to write. I guess I am a flakey artist.  I have embraced that. I am far more interested in quantity of writing than in quality. Not at all interested in critical thinking–there are plenty of teachers around here for that. I tell my dean when he inquires after my goals for writing that successful outcome would be in twenty years my student will still be writing. How can we assess that he asks. I tell him in twenty years we will have to ask.


Filed under blogging, electronic publishing, MY LIFE, NOTED

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

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