Most of you know that my memoir-in-progress is about growing up Mennonite in Lancaster County, PA, in the ’50’s and ’60’s. So what a treat it was to attend a conference at Eastern Mennonite University called Mennonite/s Writing VI: Solos and Harmonies. The organizers Kirsten Beachy of Eastern Mennonite University and poet Julia Kasdorf of Penn State University did an outstanding job of packing multiple genres, music, criticism, performance, and worship into one conference.
As a bonus, Stuart and I got to see the mountains and the valley again in springtime. We love living in Brooklyn and we also love our home in Virginia with the view depicted here. Right now we have both feet planted in Brooklyn again. In our minds, however, we are preparing to go back “home.” While in Virginia, I experienced the conference through the lens of both places. Doing so, helped make it possible to stretch my imagination from defiance to acceptance to celebration — different stances taken by artists in relationship to the Mennonite Church both in the U.S. and in Canada.
I enjoyed and learned from every session I attended. However, the one that helped me the most as prospective memoirist was Gregory Orr’s talk on Aesthetics and Ethics. Orr is not a Mennonite, but, like Wendell Berry, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, and William Stafford, he resonates with many Mennonite writers.
Even though Orr’s talk was about poetry, I can apply it to memoir. He made a strong case for the social value of the individual voice. This is the case I have tried to make also, less cogently, in posts like this one on Ubuntu as a philosophy of memoir. Orr explained how aesthetics becomes ethics when the voice of the poet calls attention to the other as beautiful and invites readers to sympathetic identity with the beloved, often an outsider. The subjective consciousness, often accused of narcissism, only deserves that epithet when locked in an introspection of one self or an exclusive dyad of two selves.
As I moved from session to session at the conference, I tried to summarize the experience in a series of tweets. If you start at the bottom of the list below, you can take a chronological stroll through the conference
Mennonite/s Writing VI: A Conference Summary in 140-Characters X 41 Tweets
Julia Kasdorf’s concluding words challenge Menno writers to move past the narrative of transgression and rejection. Tricksters arise!#mwiv
Rudy Wiebe’s sermon at end of Mennonite/s Writing VI. Seven words of silence: sound, death, creation, joy, song, stone, writing. #mwiv
“Writing should be clean as a bone, hard as a stone. One word is better than two.” Elaine Sommers Rich quotes Elizabeth Yates #mwiv
Jessica Penner asks: what do you want to say? What are you actually saying? Why is your truth not the truth of the Mennonite world? #mwiv
Eileen Kinch describes the stance of the “between people” — both insiders and outsiders. #mwiv
“Like most authors I tried to learn about myself.” David Elias #mwiv
David Elias imagines himself transplanted to the Cave of Calypso instead of Winnipeg but still wanting to sing. His Mennonite legacy.#mwiv
David Elias sets up the proposition that there may be no such thing as a Mennonite writer. Without “props” what is there? #mwiv
Gregory Orr cites Paulo Friere: “Naming our world in our words” as his response to how the lyric poem confers dignity. #mwiv
Gregory Orr points to Emily Dickinson’s rewrite of Jacob and the Angel. “I shall not let thee go unless I bless thee.” #mwiv
“who walks a furlong without sympathy/walks to his own funeral dressed in a shroud.” Walt Whitman #mwiv
Adam Smith — a theorist of imagination and identification. Gregory Orr quotes from The Theory of the Origin of Moral Sentiments #mwiv
Sappho sets love above military force, the individual above the collective social values–the “over culture.” #mwiv
Sappho: whatever one loves most is beautiful. #mwiv
“Writing the poem helps the poet live” — the reader also, when experiencing the “shock of recognition.” Gregory Orr #mwiv
“The ethics of lyric is an ethos of love. . .Power to bestow power on another by calling that person beautiful.” Gregory Orr #mwiv
“Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Lyric” by Gregory Orr. “I’ve always favored aesthetics that challenge the status quo.” #mwiv
Cookbooks are bestsellers for both Herald Press and Good Books.#mwiv
The Center for Mennonite Writing at Goshen College is indexed by the Modern Language Association. #mwiv
“We tell the author to read our cleaned up edited version first, then read the marked up copy.” Phyllis Pellman Good #mwiv
Want to publish? Don’t ask editors for a meeting. Send a good query instead.~Phyllis Good #mwiv
“All my plays are about dealing with my anxieties.” Vern Thiessen#mwiv author of Einstein’s Gift, Lenin’s Embalmers, Shakespeare’s Will.
“Every play should pose a good question.” Vern Theissen #mwiv
Hildi Froese Tiessen describes the state of the art in Canadian Mennonite literature in three stages from homelands to traces.#mwiv
“I want to be the girl who lived.” [in contrast to the martyrs who have been iconic in Mennonite history] Ann Hostetler #mwiv
“It takes courage to spend time with the self in a Mennonite context.” Ann Hostetler #mwiv
The self in Mennonite garb: where does the writing come from? Ann Hostetler’s question in the state of the art session.#mwiv
The grandmother of Amish fiction? Katie by Clara Bernice Miller published by Herald Press. Valerie Weaver-Zercher #mwiv
Mennonites and Amish first show up in local color realism in early 1900’s. The are the “safe other” in a time of immigration. #mwiv
“Theology is a kind of writing. Words did not fall out of the sky. The strong poet must be transgressive.” Scott Holland #mwiv
Valerie Weaver-Zercher traces the history of the Amish romance novel–a combination of rurality, romance, and evangelical faith.#mwiv
“I didn’t know that grownups could do that!” exclaims Miriam Toews character Aggie as she encounters Diego Rivera mural.#mwiv
#mwiv Paul Tiessen deconstructs Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth in the context of the short-lived Mennonite publication Arena.
Amish quilts are “anything but humble.” Says museum booklet on Amish Abstractions. Marilyn Lehman questions this reading.#mwiv
#MWIV “I really miss her.” Grandma Keturah left deep impression on her large family. “Hair like ivory halo.” Lemon pie a way to find her.
“Can recipes tell a story? What can you tell about a woman from her recipe collection?” Katie Boyts asks. #mwiv
Blogger Katie Boyts “I’m going to write a cookbook, and you get to participate!” The Shoofly Project#MWIV
#MWIV first session I picked: Visual and Popular Culture.
I invite other readers who attended the conference to add their voices in the comment section below. By all means correct anything I got wrong. And if you are new to Mennonite literature and want to explore further, you might check out the youtube series put together by Hildi Froese Tiessen, professor of English at Conrad Grebel College of the University of Waterloo in Canada. I especially commend Julia Kasdorf’s talk, a verbal memoir which traces her career as a poet.