Interview with Memoirist Shirley Hershey Showalter

by Matilda Butler on April 14, 2014

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Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: Women’s Memoirs is pleased to welcome Shirley Hershey Showalter to our website today. Shirley, it is a special pleasure to have you here today to discuss your amazing memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. We’d like to start by asking you about the decision to write your memoir. Writing, especially writing about one’s life, is a long and often difficult process. When did you decide to write and what was the unexpected, or expected, result of the writing?

Shirley Hershey Showalter memoir authorShirley Hershey Showalter: Isn’t it funny that we talk about “decisions” as though they happen suddenly or unexpectedly? In my case, the story is one of evolution rather than revolution.

I started writing my own essays in the 1990’s as I was teaching the personal essay form to students of Expository Writing at Goshen College. I noticed how vivid writing became when based on students’ own experiences instead of research.

Taking a weekend retreat at the Gilchrist Retreat Center near Three Rivers, Michigan, gave me the opportunity to start writing about childhood.

I submitted two of my short memoirs written on retreat to the Kalamazoo Gazette essay contest. I won prizes for three consecutive years from judges I respected, which encouraged me.

After we moved to Virginia and then again (temporarily) to Brooklyn, New York, I began to think I might have a book-length story. I submitted a proposal to Herald Press, and they accepted it!

For me, the first surprise was how easily the first, short, essays flowed out of me and how relatively easy it was to revise them until they felt polished.

The second, opposite, experience resulted from struggling with overarching themes and narrative arc for the longer work. I had much less experience doing this and had to slog through the editing process until at last both I and my editors approved of the final manuscript. Writing well is definitely hard work! Thank God, sometimes we are blessed by “flow,” but if we expect to find it every day, we won’t ever finish our work.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: When you began writing, did you have a theme and message in mind or is that something that became obvious as you wrote?

Shirley Hershey Showalter memoir authorShirley Hershey Showalter: I started the book with a working title: Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Girlhood. Readers of the book will recognize that this was a nickname given to me in junior high by a favorite teacher. I felt conflicted about it because I associated my rosy cheeks with being a farm girl and a Mennonite. Being Mennonite was a rare experience in America. It was too particular to connect to other people, so I looked for another word that would communicate the universal while I also described the particular. That word was BLUSH.

Once I found that word, I also had the main theme. I had to show how my feisty child self came to terms with the embarrassment of being Mennonite. Not by submitting. Not by rebelling. But by embracing the tension itself and enlarging the boundaries of both her faith and her life. I call this process learning to embrace the blush. And I have found that it resonates with thousands of readers.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: Shirley, back when we first knew each other, you had a website called 100memoirs.com and you were in the process of reading and reviewing 100 memoirs. We feel that memoirs offer fascinating classrooms for learning about the genre. Based on your experience with these 100 memoirs, can you share some of the lessons that you learned and make suggestions to other writers about the best way to let published memoirs help them?

Shirley Hershey Showalter memoir authorShirley Hershey Showalter: I still have that website! It’s now embedded in www.shirleyshowalter.com. You can find memoir reviews, memoir in the news topics, and lists of good memoir in the blog categories on the right-hand side of the blog. After almost five years of blogging, I have moved the focus from memoir itself to my own memoir and the community of readers who are interested in these subjects:

Leaving a legacy
Simplicity
Mennonites and Amish
Leadership
Women’s stories
The baby boom generation

Since readers want to know about what happens to “Rosy Cheeks” in the next stage of her life, I am preparing to change the focus of my blog to the years 1966-1970 when I was in college at Eastern Mennonite. Those were years of tumult, passion, and romance for me. Outside our Mennonite ivory tower, the Vietnam war raged; assassinations, riots, and revolutions threatened to change every institution in the country forever. I am fascinated by the juxtapositions I experienced as a pacifist and budding feminist in this cultural context. The same interests that drove me to get a PhD in American Civilization, an interdisciplinary study of our amazing culture, are now taking me deeper into reflecting on my own young adulthood.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: I’m glad to know your valuable reviews are still available. I’m sure our readers will get much from them.

It is clear from your memoir that you dug deeply into not only your life but also into reflections on the context of your life. Some people fiercely hold on to the traditions and beliefs of their family or religion or community. Others reject, just as fiercely, the values of their childhood. It seems that you explored your past with an openness that allowed you to cherish parts and bring the best of the past into a modern perspective. I’m not sure you would agree with my summary. But would you tell our readers about the perspective you took when you began work on your memoir?

Shirley Hershey Showalter memoir authorShirley Hershey Showalter: I agree with your summary! I am still Mennonite because the church itself expanded widely enough to hold me inside. Yet I am not blind to the shortcomings of faith, and I needed to share some family and faith stories of pain. Writing a memoir and now talking with readers, including my family and friends, about its meaning has led me to trust how much honesty people can accept when they know that the author’s intention is to heal, and not to inflict, wounds. After all, we are promised: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

Memoir author Shirley Hershey ShowalterShirley Hershey Showalter grew up on a Mennonite family farm near Lititz, Pennsylvania. The first person in her family to go to college, she eventually became the first woman president of Goshen College in Indiana. After six years as an executive at the Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo, Michigan, she became a full-time writer living in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She tweets @Shirleyhs. Her Facebook fan page is here: https://www.facebook.com/ShirleyHersheyShowalter.

The link to the left is for the Kindle version of Blush.

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