Mennonite/s Writing: A Tweet-based Conference Review

Allegheny Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, VA

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

@#Mennonite some tweets from Mennonite/s Writing conference available at #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

Gregory Orr is outlining the history of poetry, teaching his audience how subjective sensibility can convert love to a weapon. #mwiv #FB

“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 lyric poem is everywhere and always because it helps people survive.~Gregory Orr #mennonite #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

“Publishing is just connecting readers and writers.” Merle 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.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Ann Hostetler on April 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks Shirley. What a valuable index to wonderful memories! I’ve reposted this to the CMW facebook page, where I’ve also posted the few photos I took on Sunday, when I finally had a chance to get behind a camera lens.

    • shirleyhs on April 3, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Ann, you were so busy introducing speakers, honoring special guests, acknowledging former students and colleagues, giving your own paper, and driving 1250 miles that you must have been exhausted when you got home. I honor your devotion and hope many new readers will find the wonderful online journal The Center for Mennonite Writing here: and “like” it on facebook:

      May your amazing outflow of energy to others be rewarded by much rush of wind inward.

  2. Richard Gilbert on April 2, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Wonderful content and spirit, Shirley. By happenstance I heard a powerful memoir reading today by a Mennonite woman from southeastern Ohio. It was sad, because her father was troubled and killed himself, but was affirming in that she spoke her truth with courage and compassion both. This was at our students’ senior readings—all inspiring and humbling, as well as a testament to a liberal arts college where undergraduates are nurtured.

    Gregory Orr’s memoir is one of the best I have ever read; it is on my blog’s Favorite Memoirs list, along with a link to the review I did and a Q&A with him; I think he also did a guest post.

    • shirleyhs on April 3, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Thank you, Richard. I hope you direct the student in question to the online journal link in the above comment. She will discover that a supportive community exists for Mennonite Writers, thanks to the dedication of many professors and writers in the U.S. and Canada.

      And what a wonderful additional resource on Gregory Orr. I am going to post your interview with him both on my own FB writer page and at the Center for Mennonite Writers page on FB. Thanks for drawing my attention back to Orr. Now that I’ve heard him in person, these words mean more. I must read his memoir. Readers, here is Richard’s interview with Orr. Many of the ideas he shared in the lecture I heard are embedded here:

  3. Dora Dueck on April 3, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Shirley, it was wonderful to meet in person at the conference. Also to read your “tweet” summary. Comparing notes is a small way of being there again. I’ve set down some notes at my blog as well; they got longish I’m afraid. 🙂

  4. shirleyhs on April 4, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Dora, indeed it was a great thrill, if too brief, to meet you and hear your voice. I love the more complete report you give at your site. Other visitors to this page will benefit from your longer lens: here:

    And it was interesting to see how many similar perspectives we have on what will last. I just ordered Gregory Orr’s memoir.

    • Eileen R. Kinch on April 6, 2012 at 6:12 am

      Shirley, I enjoyed meeting you at Mennonite/s Writing. Thanks for your “summaries” of events at the conference. It gives me a peek into some presentations I wasn’t able to go to.

  5. shirleyhs on April 6, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Eileen, I smiled when I saw your name here. Thank you so much for overcoming your shyness and appearing here. Readers, if you haven’t read Eileen’s essay in the Center for Mennonite Writing, here it is. Eileen is one of a number of young writers who are taking Mennonite memoir to new and exciting places.I didn’t know that conservative Quakers existed until I read this lovely piece:

  6. […] 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 […]

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