Dora Dueck, author of This Hidden Thing

This week one of my own favorite bloggers, prize-winning Canadian novelist Dora Dueck, interviewed me on her blog about an issue central to my reason for starting this blog: to learn to write by reading better writers than myself. You will want to click the link above and explore her thoughtful blogs, but in the meantime, here is what I told her earlier this week:

From Borrowing Bones blog.

Shirley H. 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 professor, 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 Gilbert 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!

Thanks, Dora. And now readers, here’s your turn. Can you give one example from simply reading another book that has made a difference in either your writing or your life??

Shirley Showalter


  1. Sharon Lippincott on July 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    What an encouraging and profound post. Each memoir I read encourages me. Some lead to writing insights, but more often they spark self-examination as I ask, What do *I* think about that? What has *my* experience been?

    I used to highlight, underline and/or annotate everything I read, including the Bible. As I looked back, those notes had grown cold and I found them annoying. These days I use sticky flags and take the ten or fifteen minutes to transfer thoughts to an EverNote or a “writers notebook” document. Those are more searchable and accessible, and most of the books I read now belong to the library, either before I read them or shortly after. Sooner or later the others are likely to be passed along or donated to the library booksale. I don’t have shelf space for an unlimited collection!

    I wish I’d known about the 100 memoir concept a dozen years ago. I have not kept track. I’m probably close to 50. But I wasn’t reading with the same discerning eye a dozen years ago that I have today, so maybe I should start with what I’ve read in the past year or two, or just the ones I’ve reviewed.

    • shirleyhs on July 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Thank you so much, Sharon, for this wonderful set of concrete examples from your own life. Such a helpful comment for other readers, including me. I’ve not had the discipline to make notes from books electronically. But I admire yours!

      And no problem if you come to the concept later in life! Nothing is ever wasted unless we ourselves fail to notice and appreciate what was good for one time can be made better now. Yes, by all means, start now! Time for the well-known Goethe quote–especially the last lines below:

      Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative (and creation). There is one elementary truth in ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

      Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  2. Mary Pfeiffer on July 17, 2011 at 3:21 am

    I couldn’t agree more with your idea of reading memoirs leading to better writing. My high school senior writing teacher had us read and analyze a different author each week–from classic to contemporary–and then write a piece in that author’s style. Her advice was that it was OK to try to “copy” the author; by the end of the course we would have assimilated from all and adopted style, tone, and voice natural to ourselves. As Willa Cather said through Thea Kronborg: all that was not me fell away and what remained was my natural voice. Today when I’m stuck, I pick up a favorite author and read bits and pieces until inspiration returns.

    • shirleyhs on July 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm

      You had a good teacher! I wonder what you remember most from that exercise? How hard it was, perhaps.

      I recently re-memorized I Corinthians 13 in the KJV. I found myself amazed at how deep it took me into words, rhythms, images.

      Great strategy for ending writer’s block, also!

  3. Charles R. Hale on July 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    I’ll give you five authors, Shirley, whom I think have made a difference in my writing style: James Salter for his lyrical style; James Joyce for his imagery; poets Milosz Czeslaw and Federico Garcia Lorca for the depth of feeling, and Pete Hamill for his earthiness. It’s hard to say one has had more influence than the other. I enjoy them all and always walk away a more informed writer for having read them. And from the mishmash, I am what I am. (Quoting another great icon there, Popeye the Sailorman.)

  4. shirleyhs on July 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    These are wonderful mentors, Charles. Thanks for sharing not only their names but the gifts you have received from them. “I yam what I yam, too.” Olive Oil.

    • Charles R. Hale on July 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm

      Milosz had such an impact on me that I wrote his name backwards. Czeslaw Milosz. Funny.

  5. Linda on July 17, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    I agree that any author should read in his/her genre with awareness of the writing technique and style, but in the end you must find your own voice, and it may vary depending on the audience for the book or even the characters. In the case of the memoir I wrote of my mother’s life, it was “Little House on the Prairie” since my mother did not have much formal schooling and the book was meant for children as well as for seniors who lived through WWII. If I wrote my own story, I’d have a totally different style. When I write book reviews, I often find I’ve written them in the style of that book! Mostly, I admire writers who have incredible imagery and metaphor, recently Luis Alberto Urrea. That’s not my style, but I can learn to incorporate some of that in my writing.

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