What it’s like to launch

It’s a good thing I promised to say something about the launch of my book, because I’ve slipped back into regular mode, meaning it feels somewhat distant already, so why go on about it? And we’re having wintery weather at the moment – yes, that’s snow caught in the grass – when just days ago, pre- and launch days, that is, it was gorgeous autumn. As if in the meantime a season has come and gone.

It’s good for me, though, to remember and also explain things to myself, and in addition, Shirley Hershey Showalter, in a FB post, said, “I hope you’ll describe what it’s like to launch,” so here I am, on about it. (She’s very close to completing a memoir manuscript for which she already has a contract, so her launch lies soon ahead of her.)

For me, then, and Shirley, and anyone else interested, this is about the launch of my collection of short fiction, What You Get at Home, last Tuesday. Continue reading

On reading to write: a short interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter

A talented and determined young writer I know (Angeline Schellenberg) commented on my previous post and in the process raised with some good questions on the relationship between reading and writing. While thinking about this, it occurred to me that I must ask Shirley Hershey Showalter, whose blog 100 Memoirs  I read regularly, for her thoughts on the subject. Shirley — “a farmer’s daughter turned college proessor, then college president, later foundation executive” — is writing a memoir about growing up Mennonite in America (1948 to 1966) and she’s going about the learning/reading side of it very deliberately.

Today, between a visit with a friend and picking her green beans, Shirley graciously sent me her answers to three questions.

1. You set out to read 100 memoirs, with the intention to write one yourself. What are you looking for?

I am following the advice of Heather Sellers in her book Chapter by Chapter. She says that before trying one’s hand in any genre, first read 100 good examples. Most of us have read 100 novels if we are readers, but not too many people have read 100 memoirs. Hence the goal.

What am I looking for? Structure, voice, sensory detail, and tone. The story itself is secondary to me, although I find some lives more interesting than others. How the story is told fascinates me most.

2. How does the experience of reading affect your own project?

I am just now starting on what I call the long arc, or a full childhood memoir of 40,000-60,000 words, having published five short memoir essays of 2,000-5,000 words that received modest praise. ( I am easily encouraged. :-))

I make notes in the margins of the memoirs as I read them. Other people’s memories ignite my own. When I review the book, I usually comment on structure, voice, and tone. One good thing about blogging is that you have a collection of searchable material all located in the same place. I am hoping to finish the long memoir and may occasionally go back to the 272 blog posts to find a quote or remind myself of a particular model.

But I doubt I will do that often. I hope to sit in a dark room in the early morning and throw away all the models. I want to be like Thea Kronborg in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I want to stand in the stream of history and feel all that is not me fall away so that all that remains is what I was created to be. I want to sing!

3. Do you find, as A.S. noted, that reading other examples of what you’re doing can be reactionary rather than generative, and that it makes it harder to hear one’s own voice? What advice do you have to make the experience generative, to keep your own voice?

It’s okay to copy the masters–like Rembrandt’s students did–and like many, many young artists do when still impressionable. You will learn from the process. Don’t be intimidated by a great writer’s voice. Instead, get inside it and explore. You could find your own voice in the process. Back to Thea Kronborg. She had conventional voice training first, learning what others before her thought was important. Then she stepped into a landscape that was bigger than herself and bigger and older than her training. When she returned from her experiences in the desert Southwest, she sang from a new place and had her own great voice.

Harold Bloom has written about the anxiety of authorship here summarized, and Susan Gilber and Sandra Gubar responded. I personally prefer Willa Cather’s imagistic explanation better than all these post-Freudian theories. A woman writer stands in the stream of literary history, but lets it fall away to reveal the purer self that sings naturally in her own body, in her own voice.

Thank you Shirley! You’ve given us some wonderful wisdom here (and some provocative links), for writers, yes, but for practitioners of anything really, from preaching to parenting, all who must absorb the influence of others while honing their unique approach. I’m very much looking forward to the song you’ll sing in your memoir!

Happy in the age of memoir

We live, it’s often said, in the age of memoir. 

On one level, a statement like that is simply an assessment of what’s obvious in so many aspects of our culture. Certainly in the media — books, television, radio, internet — the weight of communication now often rests on the shoulders of personal narrative, on “reality” by way of experience. It’s a democratization of ideas and values supported by technology, especially in social media like Facebook or Twitter, where anyone can record the progress of their existence publicly, with as much inanity or imagination as they possess, or in places like the blogosphere, with its vast potential to reference and record one’s life. (And yes, here I am, too.) 

And just this past Sunday, an example of living in the age of memoir in our church: whereas baptismal candidates at one time marked their desire for baptism by memorizing and assenting to a catechism, however formally or informally that might be presented, the five young adults who will be baptized in our congregation this Easter Sunday shared their life stories thus far, at least in relation to faith. And as they did so, they revealed the differences that individuals have, and the inspiration and insight we have come to expect when we listen to people’s stories. 

At another level, it’s clear that there’s plenty of room for critique, and for criticism too, in the notion of “age of memoir.” Even in describing it, there’s the implication of narcissism, the contagion of the me-generation, the focus on the individual at the expense of community (which in Anabaptist circles, at least, is not quite how it’s supposed to be) lying not that far under the surface.

The now battered copy of Little Pilgrim's Progress my mother read to me, which I later also read to our children


I’m in no mood for complaint or criticism, however. Beginning with the children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress which fixed itself indelibly on my mind in my earliest childhood — and was, as far as I’m concerned, a first taste of “life-writing” (a term I prefer to memoir, as it encompasses biography, confession, memoir, journals, letters, autobiography) because of its journey motif, even if not strictly life-writing itself — I’ve been steadily shaped by the expressed experiences of other people. And I still haven’t had enough, frankly.

Some of my interest is plain curiosity about others, but some is the quest for resonance with and wisdom from others which I need to live my own life. And I’m not sure that women in the particular categories I fit have been expressed nearly enough; I’m hungry for more of that too.

So if it’s the age of memoir, I’m saying that I don’t mind at all. I just want to find the right pieces of it, and think about it properly. Which brings me to a blog site I often visit, a kind of one-stop beginning for lessons, guides, discussions, and reviews in the area of memoir: 100 Memoirs. (I love the witty subtitle: “because 99 just isn’t enough.”) Shirley Hershey Showalter hosts/writes the site. She’s a former president (1996-2004) of Goshen (Ind.) College and wants to read 100 memoirs on the way to writing her own memoir of growing up Mennonite in America, 1948-1966. She picked the name for her blog from Heather Seller’s advice to new writers, as she puts it in her opening post, “to read 100 excellent examples of their genre before attempting to enter the ring with the best.” If you’re interested in memoir, whether as a reader or writer, it’s a great place to learn and stay connected.