This Story Corps Booth is close to City Hall in Manhattan

While I draft memoir chapters about growing up Mennonite, I am also writing to you, the friends of this blog, and to others on my facebook page and twitter feed. Is it worth it to spend my time this way? Sometimes I wonder.

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a friend of this blog, Loretta, to  describe how I try to balance two very different kinds of writing. I’m working on chapter nine of my Mennonite memoir (recalling a childhood without television, the storytelling revolution of the 1950’s) while also being active as a blogger, and user of Facebook and Twitter, the current storytelling media.

I was initially encouraged to blog as a way to build a “platform.” I despise that word. But I love the idea of a community of writers and readers. I want my story to resemble ubuntu, helping others to become better selves as I seek to do the same. Ideally, the work done to build relationships online also helps to focus on long-form memoir writing.


It takes discipline and deadlines to maintain momentum toward the goal of completing the draft of the memoir.And that kind of contemplative writing must have first priority.

That’s why I decided to put a ticker on the home page of my blog. It sends a shiver through me to see the numbers go from where it was when I started the new website, 300 days, to where it is now: 209 days. It also, connects all of my writing to my mission in life: “to prepare for the hour of my death. One good day at a time. And to help others do the same.”

The ticker asks me not only am I on track with my schedule, but have each one of those 90 days, now gone forever, been good days?

And what is a good day when it comes to writing, anyway? Well, let me try to describe my ideal day.

1. Start with a good night’s sleep.

2. Greet the new day at sunrise. Enjoy breakfast and conversation with Stuart,who leaves at 8 to care for Owen.

3. Alone in the apartment, begin with spiritual reading (right now, I am reading through the book of Proverbs and use two daybooks — one of Thomas Merton’s journals and one of Mark Nepo’s writings).

4. Meditation. I use an iPhone app that gives me nature sounds, monastery, and ambient music choices and has a timer. I set it for 20 minutes.

5. Get to draft writing as soon as possible after meditation, calling up the pools of memory from out of the silence. On a good day, I can write 1,000 words. I leave holes in the writing when I don’t remember a name, a year, a color, etc., make notes to call relatives, look up info in certain books, check in with former colleagues, etc. Writing a memoir, I find, requires multiple perspectives to jog your own memory. I have spent hours combing through old photos and documents gleaned from my mother’s basement and will spend a whole week in August doing more of the same. Actual writing is often secondary to all these other memory joggers. I look forward to the next phase of revision, hoping I can focus more on language and structure and less on recall.

6. Sometime between noon and 1 p.m., I leave the computer and walk to Owen’s house, have lunch with him and Stuart, and spend the rest of the afternoon playing, strolling, and feeding Owen. While he naps, usually for no more than an hour and possibly as little as 30 minutes, I can catch up on facebook, twitter, and think about the two blogs I am writing; this one and granny nanny diaries. I like to have a new blog post in mind when I finish my current one. I find that when the idea for the post has cooked on the back burner, it flows more easily when it is time to hit “publish.” I like to post this one on Mondays, send out Magical Memoir Moments to subscribers on Tuesdays, and post to granny nanny diaries on Fridays.

7. After dinner, I have another 3-4 hours for whatever seems most pressing. If I am getting close to my memoir draft deadline and need to work on that, I do so. If I have time to play with social media, I do that. Over time I have increased my focus to being writing and memoir related across all social media platforms. Sometimes we go to the theater or meet friends in town.

8. A good day always includes exercise, hugs, and conversations. These occur throughout the day, while taking care of Owen and sometimes with Stuart. We enjoy walking the Brooklyn Promenade at sunset and at night and have done that often at the end of a good day. The last three words before sleep: “I love you.”

Another friend, Jim, asked me at the Mennonite/s Writing Conference if it isn’t a distraction to be engaged with an audience via social media at the same time I am doing “real” writing? How do I avoid writing only what others want to hear rather than what is in my own heart and mind? It’s a great question. All I can say is that I trust my knowledge of my own heart, and I know that my perspective is limited. As others share their stories, either here or on my facebook page, new facets of my own story emerge.

In the “good old days,” goes one myth, writers wrote poems, short stories, novels, or (to a lesser extent) memoirs. They worked as solitaries. In ateliers, like visual artists. They shunned the rest of the world as they wrote. If their work was brilliant, it found an equally brilliant editor and prescient publisher, and they moved from being writers to being authors. Only a few were called to this monastic life, and fewer yet were published. Some who were never knew fame. Their brilliance was only discovered after their deaths.

I’m not that kind of writer. I’m glad I’m living in the age of memoir — a world where everyone has a story, and many people are sharing their thoughts, insights, and cute little cat videos in French with each other. If I sit and watch cat videos all day, it’s not a good day.

But my memoir has benefited often with a small but very vocal group of people who are rooting for me and want to help me cross the finish line of publishing.

Here’s a story about just one of the many benefits of being on social media while writing memoir.

‎I call it the extended mind. I first saw it when my facebook friend, award-winning novelist and former writing coach, Bonnie Jo Campbell, asked her friends questions about her current work.

Mother holding me, 1948

As I was writing about wearing a prayer covering (such as my mother is wearing in this picture), I felt limited. So, last week, I asked mine this question and got these answers:

“Soup strainer,” “crash helmet, “doily.” What else have they been called?

A longer dialogue followed the snippet above, and it has enlarged my thinking. I would not have recalled the sobriquet “sin sifter,” for example, if I had sat alone in my atelier for five hours. But on facebook, within 15 minutes, a former student living in Minneapolis could trigger a rush of feelings and new memories. And the number of people from all parts of the country who commented told me that this particular vein of memory was worth mining.

As the Story Corps booth sign (above) says, “tell your story pass it on.” Notice that they dispense with punctuation in this sign. I choose to think that’s because the act of telling the story and the act of passing it on are inextricably linked. Do you agree? Obviously, I have painted the positive picture here (“Rosy Cheeks” will always do this). I could talk about the other side of the dilemma also. What do YOU want to talk about?





Shirley Showalter


  1. Linda Hoye on April 16, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Your day sounds perfect! Over the past few years I’ve been balancing writing my memoir with a full time corporate job. It’s finally finished and will be coming out in June.

    I’m enjoying browsing your site. (who knew there was a Mennonite Writing Conference?!) I was given up for adoption by my Mennonite birth mother so am especially interested in all things Mennonite.

    Good luck with your memoir!

    • shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm

      Linda, so glad you found this site and that it has been helpful to you. Your story sounds very interesting. I want to check out your blog. It takes amazing commitment to write and publish a memoir while working fulltime in the corporate world. Congratulations on a wonderful achievement. Now I want to know more about the Mennonite woman who gave you up for adoption. And how it affected you to know that much about her. . . .

  2. Dora Dueck on April 16, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Ubuntu in action, Shirley, and very inspiring. I am tucking these bits away should I ever do memoir. Fiction feels less amenable to social interaction, though it has its community dynamics too, I think. Must mull on that.

    • shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

      “Should I ever do memoir.” I have been feeling your question ever since I saw that sweet picture of you in the tattered coat as a child. Someone with your command of language could tell a whole tale out of that one picture. You, actually are a case in point about ubuntu. We would never have met without our two blogs as starting points. I would not have read your wonderful novel, and we would not be talking across international borders right now. Blessings on your work.

    • shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      Check out Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website (link embedded above). She asked questions on facebook about shot gun ranges or other esoteric info so that she could get details right in her latest novel.

  3. ShirleyK on April 16, 2012 at 10:31 am

    You’ll cross that line singing. You’re amazing.

    • shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:29 pm

      You have the gift of encouragement, Shirley. Thank you!

  4. ShirleyK on April 16, 2012 at 10:40 am

    P.S. In Sticking Points it’s “gravy sieve.”

    • shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:29 pm

      Another one! Thanks.

  5. Tina Barbour on April 16, 2012 at 10:40 am

    I needed to read this today. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the social media. I just signed up with Twitter and Pinterest, and I’m already on FB and Goodreads. Keeping up with all that and with my blog and with my newspaper job leaves me feeling like I’m not spending enough time on my memoir.

    I like your discussion of the stories that we can find on social media. I, too, believe in the importance of stories, and not just for entertainment, but for the reminder of the connections amongst us all. Stories really show others who we are, and we usually find that we have much to connect us, including an abiding spirit within us.

    I am just going to have to start setting some boundaries and set some time limits so I can include what’s most important to me in my day: my spiritual life, my husband, my cats and my writing. I want to communicate to educate, encourage and engage others. I need to start ordering my day to fit that.

    Thank you for helping me to clarify my needs even as I wrote this comment!

    • shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm

      You got very clear in this comment, Tina. Brava! And that’s a whole other function of our online interactions. We think we are giving someone else the gift of our comment. (And are!) But in the process of responding to someone else, we discover our own next step.

      BTW, if you want to write about the other side of the equation — overwhelm — I offer you this space to do so. You might want to try your new disciplines for a while first.

      I have had to do the same thing. Daily rituals help. Time limits and set-aside times help too.

    • Tina Barbour on April 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      Thank you, Shirley! I’ll work on that.

  6. Susan Allstetter Neufeldt on April 16, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Wonderful post and inspiring to your fellow writers. I will take your focus with me into my own writing.

    One thing that differs in your life from mine: the amount of hours taken up by volunteer work, in my case being president of the Board of our church. The trick is not to let something else worthy, say campaigning for our wonderful congresswoman, fill in that space after June.

    I think your move away from your midwestern community and now to NYC protects you a bit. But it could be easy for you to shift focus too. I’m glad you see your grandchild and his parents regularly and continue to see your writing, blogging, tweeting, as some of the best things you can do now to make a contribution.

    Keep it up!

  7. shirleyhs on April 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Yes, Susan. You have detected one cause and effect of frequent moves. I have so far turned down all requests for board service and have no ongoing commitments at church yet. That will likely change as we settle in in Virginia. Blessings on your service. And on your book writing.

  8. jzr on April 16, 2012 at 3:18 pm


    Thanks so much for this post and your inspiration. I always wonder what other writer’s days are like. I think about the social media thing too and sometimes about the blog as well. But I’m told keep at it. As long as I’m writing somewhere I figure it’s okay.

    • shirleyhs on April 17, 2012 at 9:37 am

      You bring up another possibility, Joan. Thanks. It may be that any writing we do helps us become better writers — even social media writing, which is often not as polished as the writing in books and magazines in hard copy. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything. That’s true.

      For myself, it helps to separate the two kinds and to try to align meditation with contemplative memoir writing. I can do FB and Twitter on my smart phone while standing in lines.

      I did write a page of memoir on the subway yesterday, however. Nothing is impossible!

  9. Karin Krisetya on April 16, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I believe that the discussions and sharing (ubuntu) that come from telling our stories in a memoir form are the gifts received from the hard work of remembering. I can see how energizing those interactions are for you, Shirley!

    My dream is to write a memoir of sorts with my sister, Jennifer. I love the idea of multiple perspectives on a story, such as the classic tale told by Judy Blume “The Pain and The Great One”. When I read memoir I always find myself asking, “How did that other person in the story experience those events?” With two writers there is room to answer.

    • shirleyhs on April 17, 2012 at 9:43 am

      Karin, I love your idea of writing with Jennifer! Why not start with an essay, think of a story and a hook to a publication (Marion Roach Smith’s advice) and start small. But enjoy innovating!

      Also, if you don’t listen to the podcast Stuff They Didn’t Teach You in History Class, try it. (I know about this one thanks to my FB page). Two young women take turns relating a story and interacting with each other. Sometimes with different perspectives but very seamlessly woven together.

      I’m not surprised that you are curious about more than one perspective. That’s just who you are. And who you are is the place to write from. Do it!

  10. DazyDayWriter on April 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

    I agree, Shirley, that it wasn’t much fun being a writer without community. Something is gained from interacting with others who are pursuing a dream we can understand and support. Friendship is important … even in this era of “instant friendship” … that may never really evolve into anything at all. And there is so much to learn from others. In fact, I’ve come to believe that being part of the universal story is just as important as understanding my own story. Or are they inseparable, really? On a more practical level, engaging with others via social media can be energizing. It’s nice to know others are interested in what we are doing or trying to do. So while it takes “time” to create relationships online, I try not to give “time” control of my life. Our spirits know few boundaries and seem to seek out other energy fields … that inspire, that resonate, that console. Thanks for all you do, Shirley; it definitely matters.

  11. shirleyhs on April 17, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Thanks, Daisy, you are just so instinctively kind! I like the idea of not allowing “time” to be a master. I think of you with your animals leading a very Zen life. 🙂

    The gift of depriving time of its tyranny is that we can learn to have “presence” both in person and on the page. What a joy it is, even in a few seconds.

  12. shirleyhs on April 17, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Katie Boyts offered this link on my FB page yesterday. It’s a great illustration of how one writer stayed focused. He made commandments for himself which we can choose to follow too, if he solves our problems:

  13. Richard Gilbert on April 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    It sounds like you are finding a balance that works for you, Shirley. And you are feeding your soul through social media–and feeding your soul always feeds your writing!

    • shirleyhs on April 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm

      Thanks, Richard. That’s a beautiful way to describe the best impact of online community building.

  14. Jerry Waxler on April 18, 2012 at 6:59 am

    I love the balance, Shirley, and the clear explanation of your writing day, one of the best I’ve seen. (I wonder what app that is. I would love to have nature sounds available whenever I need them.) The title of the blog attracts me. I think my challenge with social media is that I tend to look at a world without walls and want to know all 8 billion people. (When I was asked to do an interview on an Indian blog, I fantasized about an additional 700 million friends. LOL) I need to reel myself back into the few hundred of my closest friends, and develop a more methodical way to achieve real mutually supportive online relationships. Keep up the great work, and thanks for reaching out to a memoir community. Yes, the age of the memoir. It’s great. Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  15. shirleyhs on April 18, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Thanks, Jerry. You also explain the balance you have found based on a tight, loyal (readers, you will love Jerry’s in-depth interviews and reviews!) following.

    I have an iPhone and if you search in the app store for meditation, my app is the first one that pops up. It’s free. Truly delightful.

  16. Loretta Willems on April 18, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Shirley, how nice of you to remember me. It’s been a while since I’ve commented on your blog. I’ve been holed up trying to finish my family book while also buying a house in Bellingham, WA and getting ready to move from Arizona this June. I am almost finished with the book now, down to the final edit of the last chapters and beginning to make contact with people in the wider world again.
    It has become clear in the push to finish the book that I am irrevocably a hermit-type writer. I need silence; I need emptiness, and I need lots of it. And silence for me means shutting out the web, social media—all the voices out there clamoring for my attention. I recognize how valuable social media can be for a writer. I realize that writers like me are at a severe disadvantage in today’s publishing world. I know I shall have to participate to some extent, but it cannot be on a daily or even weekly basis. It has to fit my pattern of work and being. Fortunately, I am not a full-time hermit. I like people. I enjoy presenting my work to an audience and speaking with them afterwards. But that is after the work is complete, not while I’m in the process of writing. While writing I depend upon a couple of trusted readers to give me necessary feedback. That is all the input I can handle until the final draft is complete.
    Your ideal day does sound lovely, and reading it has given me some ideas about my own daily pattern. Thank you.

  17. Kathleen Pooler on April 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Dear Shirley,
    Finding the right balance between writing and social media involvement is a huge issue. I appreciate you sharing what works for you in this inspiring post as well as all the great discussion. I think the key is to develop meaningful connections, to engage with a community who aligns with our purpose and message. We certainly can all be enriched, enlightened and inspired when we share our stories. The challenge is to stay on task with the daily writing in the midst of the endless opportunities for engagement. I have learned to concentrate on fewer social media avenues rather than try to invest in them all. Taming the distractions is a daily challenge. I love your statement that” everyday should include exercise, conversation and hugs” Thanks for all you do ,Shirley, for the world of memoir. I’m happy to be a part of it,too!

    • shirleyhs on April 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      Kathy, you do a great job of making selective relationships work for you. I was so impressed at the way you found some of the best writing bloggers on Twitter and engaged with them, almost from the start. (I noticed!) You’ve been strategic, and that always means more time for the even more important task of writing.

      I wonder if you would have an interest in writing a guest post on how you use Twitter? I think I could learn a lot from you. Let me know if you are interested. I’m sure others would be, too. shirley.showalter (at) Thanks for the comment.

  18. shirleyhs on April 18, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Loretta, the important thing is to “know oneself” and follow the path right for you. I admire your concentration and determination. My ideal day will begin to change once we return to our home in Virginia and once I don’t have daily childcare on my schedule. I hope to block out social media more often as I take a rough draft and revise, revise.

    Blessings as you move and as your press forward to the finish line with your book.

  19. […] weeks ago I wrote about balancing two kinds of writing — memoir and social media (Facebook and Twitter). Kathleen Pooler wrote a comment on that […]

  20. […] I find Paulette? Not at the University of Minnesota, but online. As I’ve been documenting in recent posts, online friendships continue to amaze me. Thanks to Richard Gilbert’s wonderful blog Narrative, […]

  21. Sherrey Meyer on May 8, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Shirley, I’m a little slow getting to this post, having just been blessed by finding your blog via Kathy Pooler and Twitter. 🙂 I appreciate the sharing of your balanced day. I struggle as a fairly new writer (memoir, of course!) with balance and this post has helped me focus on priorities. Unfortunately, I don’t have an Owen nearby to have lunch with or to cause me to create another blog, but I do have other interests with which to share an hour’s break. Thanks so much for sharing your gift of writing and life balance.

  22. […] it continues the conversation about social media and “real” writing that began with this post about social media and continued when Kathy Pooler did a guest post about Twitter here last week. As I write my own […]

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