Tag Archives: Shirley Hershey Showalter

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately, not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

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

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.”

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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.”

Ubuntu!

Next: An interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter.

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