Since my own memoir focuses on growing up Mennonite, I have read a number of Mennonite and Amish memoirs and reviewed them here, here, and here.

Ervin Stutzman, the current executive director of the Mennonite Church USA, gave himself an interesting memoir challenge: “How can I write the story that includes my own life (described in the third person) but is focused on my mother?”

Third-person autobiographies have appeared before. Henry Brooks Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, may have written the most famous one–The Education of Henry Adams.

Perhaps the category that best fits this book is neither memoir nor autobiography, but rather family history. Memoirist and memoir coach Virginia Lloyd recently offered five defining distinctions between the genres in this post on Lynette Benton’s blog.

I was curious enough about this choice that I asked the author a few questions. He graciously agreed to answer them below.

Q: Who was the audience you envisioned for this book (and a companion family history called Tobias)?

A: At first I chose to publish with Cascadia Press, who edited the book. When Cascadia editor Michael King went to co-publish with Herald Press, they bought the rights to publish it themselves. I envisioned a largely Anabaptist(Mennonite and Amish) audience, although it has sold much more broadly than that. Some of the most interested individuals were other-than-Mennonite. They write me on Facebook or contact me by email.

Q: What were the concerns you had as you thought about writing the book (s)? Did other people caution you against doing so?

Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director, Mennonite Church USA

A: My main concern at first was that not many people would be interested. But I soon learned that many people were interested. I don’t recall that anyone cautioned me against writing.

Q: Did you fear that telling the story of your father’s financial challenges and your mother’s struggles as a widow would be a problem for you or members of your family?

A: I never struggled with fear–except perhaps in the case of my father’s business dealings. But I decided that telling the truth about our family was more important than keeping a particular reputation. That turned out to be one of the most formative experiences in my life, and gives me courage to speak the truth in many other ways in the church. I don’t worry too much about what people think, so I am bolder now. People tell me they notice it.

Q: It seems challenging to put yourself into the story without becoming a major character. I am fascinated by my awareness of your presence–or not–as you tell the story. How many scenes came from direct observations you remember and how many came from stories your mother or others told you?

A: In Tobias, I depended entirely on the stories of others, since I could not draw on a single memory. In Emma, I drew from much more personal knowledge, but I tried to write from my mother’s point of view rather than my own. Even so, 2/3 of the book is from other sources such as my sister’s diaries and journals. I also drew from many interviews with siblings, uncles/aunts, and others who knew her well.

To get feedback and buy in for the project, I shared the manuscript of both of my books with all my siblings and all of my mother’s and father’s siblings.

Q: Who/what was the major source of memory for you? How did you access your memories and get others to do the same.

A: I soon learned that story invokes story. I could ask individuals if they remembered anything about my father, and they had very little to say. But when I told them a few stories, it prompted many other memories and stories. And after I published the books, I got some of the best stories. I have recorded those in dozens of pages in my journal.

From various sources, I created a timeline that ran to 48 pages for each of my boxes. This helped me to keep the time chronology in order. I drew from diaries, newspapers, as well as many interviews.

Q: Have you encountered any hurt or opposition in your family after the book was published? While you were writing? How did/do you handle it?

A: I have not encountered any hurt and very little opposition. In fact, this project has been one of the most helpful projects to unite our family. All of the members of my family are enthusiastic about these two books. My oldest brother, who was not close to me, often thanks me for the work I have done for our family. My sister-in-law wrote me a letter telling me that Tobias of the Amish is the best thing that ever happened to her husband.

One of my uncles has not been enthused about my book Tobias. I think that’s because it does not paint his father, my grandfather, in a very positive light. He told me that everything in the book is true, but that I would not have had to write it all. It is because of his influence that the local bookstore in Hutchinson, Kansas stocks the book, but does not display it on the shelf.

Q: You have always been a very busy person. How did you find the time to write? What was your discipline?

A: I am a fairly disciplined person, so I subdivided these large book projects into a smaller series of many projects. For example, I made many lists, such as 1) cars or equipment we owned, 2) places we visited, 3) family traits or verbal expressions, 4) furniture or appliances, 5) the rhythms of the day, the week and the year, and 6) activities and artifacts in the various rooms in the house, the garden, the butcher house, the barn, the church house, etc. I also made lists of animals and plants, along with a variety of weather conditions.  I visualized all of these in my mind’s eye as I wrote. I also conducted a photo harvest in my home community. Each of these activities was a project in itself, and they prepared me to write in a more full-orbed way.

I have learned that all I need to keep making progress is to visualize the next physical or mental step that will move me toward the ultimate goal of publishing the book. That might be as simple as reading 20 pages of a diary, scheduling an interview, drawing up a list, or writing a paragraph that I know will be revised. All of these activities are more productive than allowing my psychic RAM to cycle endlessly with a blank page in front of me. All of them help to overcome “the power of the white (page).”

I integrated lots of interviews with people in different communities into my travel schedule for the church. I also scheduled times to write, whether I felt like it or not. Sometimes I took a week of vacation, which was very “expensive” in terms of commitment. I tried to make it pay by carefully planning my time. For example, it took me two weeks of vacation to search through all the copies of the Sugar Creek Budget from 1918-1956 that gave me information about Hutchinson, Kansas; Nowata and Thomas, Oklahoma, and Kalona, Iowa. I read 11 years worth of my sister’s diaries by scheduling this activity over a period of time.

I wrote an extensive chronology and plot development scheme for both books before I wrote the narrative. Some of the hardest work that I did was to envision my mother’s fatal flaw, and how she overcame it. I came to see the development in her life, which was hidden to me as I was growing up. Now I revel in the feedback from widows who tell me that I really described well what my mother was going through. Again, I tried to capture the ethos of my parent’s community by a simple and restrained writing style.

Had I simply starting writing out of my limited memory, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. My research added depth and breadth to the plot as well as the descriptions. And of course, I discovered much more than I could put into the book. In fact, I cut out more than 50 pages in the last draft of Emma, just to keep it focused and short enough for people to read.

Q: Did you find “flow” easily after you got started writing? Did your energy and attention sometimes wane? What did you do then?

A: I can really get into the flow when I get started. At times when my energy waned, I talked to people about my project. They expressed enthusiasm for it, which gave me new energy. Few things energized me like learning new stories from people.

Q: Did you do a book tour? Participate in any other marketing events?

A: I have spoken to groups about one or both of these books in Harrisonburg, Virginia; Sarasota, Florida; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Walnut Creek, Ohio; Hutchinson, Kansas; Kalona, Iowa; Laurelville, Pennsylvania; Palm Springs, California; and Middlebury, Indiana, always to receptive audiences.

When people ask me if I enjoy writing, I tell them that I enjoy having written. There is a difference.

Which do you enjoy more–writing or having written?

Have you ever read (or written) a third-person memoir or family history?

Do you have any further questions for Ervin Stutzman?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Jerry Waxler on April 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    You are highlighting a powerful, important impact of this genre. When we read memoirs by other people like ourselves, we delve deeper into other aspects of our cultural background.

    We also have the mirror experience. We read memoirs by people who are different so we can dig deeper into their experiences as well.

    It is a wonderful time for people who want to engage on a personal level with individuals of all types and backgrounds.

    Memory Writers Network

    • shirleyhs on April 13, 2011 at 1:42 am

      I agree, Jerry. And as I read this memoir (family history), I found myself connecting with the author as he loved his family and his church and yet struck out on a new path on some occasions. In other words, he was both same and different. And I as a reader was also. He is a keen observer and good story teller. I recommend the book.

  2. Carol Wong on April 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I would like to write a family memoir too. From what I have read, I know that I will love your book. I read another book by a son writiing about three generations on both sides of his family, ‘Oh Beautiful’ by John Paul Godges. Have you read that book. It would very different from yours but I think that you would like it. I am wondering, at the beginning, how did you avoid becoming overwhelmed with stories? I think of one story and it brings me so many more.


  3. shirleyhs on April 13, 2011 at 1:47 am

    Carol, I hope you do write your stories! I have not read the book you mention (so many books; so little time), but I have read dozens of memoirs in the last few years. The best ones have the kind of structure that sweeps the reader along–just like a good novel. Yes, memories do rush in once you open the spigot. The way I deal with this “problem” is to keep a timeline, a list of memories and the time they occurred. Once placed on this list, a memory is there to be told another day.

  4. Lynette Benton on April 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    What an excellent, enlightening interview. Now, I’m eager to read “Emma.” The challenges Stutzman undertook—integrating personal and family memories, journals, and letters, as well as writing from his mother’s perspective—are impressive.

    As I write about my family’s relationship to money, and its consequences for my siblings and me, I’m interested to see how one writes memoir/family history in which one is largely, but not entirely, an observer. Maybe “Emma” will offer me some insights, as well as what I think will be a very good read.

  5. shirleyhs on April 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Hi, Lynette, glad you found this post helpful, since yours was helpful to me! I do think you will find Emma a good read. I was reminded of my favorite passage in Barack Obama’s first memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which ten-year-old Barack is getting instruction from his step-father that his mother does not approve of. Obama the writer, who was in his early 30’s at the time, had an uncanny ability to recreate the inner motivations of all three characters in the story and to let the setting tell some of the story. A young man that knows his mother that well and knows how to write this well must be a good man, was my thought after reading that passage.

  6. A Joyful Chaos on April 15, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  7. shirleyhs on July 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    If you want to hear Ervin in an interview about his childhood, you can do so here:

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