Writing books is hard work.

After writing, revising, publishing, and touring with a memoir, 2011-2014,

I said I didn’t think I wanted to write another book.

The only exception would be if I felt called again.

Marilyn McEntryre

When my friend Marilyn McEntyre

asked if I would join her and others on a

panel discussion at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I readily agreed.

When she asked if I wanted to join the same group in a book proposal, I agreed again.

When that idea didn’t pan out, I was frankly relieved not to write a book,

but disappointed not to work with Marilyn.

I was happy to just write short essays and give occasional speeches, often on the subject of aging or Jubilación.

In the meantime, a new friend, Judith Valente, had stimulated my interest in connecting aging and spirituality.

Judith Valente, journalist and Benedictine oblate

Judith Valente, journalist and Benedictine oblate

I was writing a comment online when I found myself saying

“I’ll bet Benedict’s Rule would have something to say relevant to grandparenting,”

thinking of Judith’s most recent book,

How to Live: What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning, and Community.

And that’s when it happened.

I felt called to two things simultaneously:

1. to write about the spirituality of grandparenting

2. to ask Marilyn if she wanted to write about this subject with me

Marilyn enthusiastically agreed.

She has eight grandchildren and has been deeply involved in their lives

even while writing twenty books and teaching and giving workshops all over the country!

We immediately started brainstorming what kind of book to write

and what publisher to approach.

Within weeks, we had drafted a proposal and sent a query to an editor I knew

at Fortress Press which already has Marilyn’s 20th book in the pipeline.

We are delighted to be among the first authors included in a new imprint: Broadleaf Books!

After a few more weeks, we had book contracts in the mail.

Soon after I signed my name on the contract,

I read an article about Flannery O’Conner’s prayers, written when she was just starting as a writer.

Here’s my favorite:

“Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.

I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize.

Please help me dear God to be a good writer . . . .

That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it.

Contrition in me is largely imperfect.”

These raw and confused prayers, by a young woman who would develop

one of the clearest, sharpest literary voices of the twentieth century, inspire me to petition

the Source of all creation also.

Though contrition in me is largely imperfect also, here is my prayer:

My dear God, I haven’t forgotten how hard it is to write.

How my arms, shoulders, and neck ache after a day of too much sitting in front of a screen

and how long it takes to get out even the *#*# rough draft.

Help me to deserve the important subject to which you have called me: grandparenting.

There is so much I don’t know.

I don’t know, for example, what it would be like to raise grandchildren because of my child’s addiction.

I don’t know what it would be like to be cut off from my grandchildren by their parents.

I don’t know what differences race and class make in the lives of many grandparents.

My life reeks of privilege.

But I want so much for every child and every grandparent to be loved.

“I realize I don’t know what I realize.”

Please help me dear God to be a good writer despite all these blind spots.

To be almost as good as Marilyn will be fine. 🙂

If Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton showed the way

and Mary Karr and Anne Lamott still petition God

before, during, and after they sit down to write,

surely, surely I must do the same.

Do you pray? For your family? About writing or other work you do? Have you never prayed or have you given up on prayer? Please share. All stories welcome here.

Shirley Showalter

55 Comments

  1. Merril D. Smith on February 15, 2020 at 11:43 am

    Congratulations, Shirley! Best of luck with your new book.
    I don’t pray. It is not something I’ve ever done.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 11:53 am

      Thank you, Merril, for the kind thoughts and for making it safe for others to tell their stories of non-prayer too. I wonder if baking bread, enjoying great food and drink, and lingering in art museums is your form of inspiration?

    • John Birkey on February 19, 2020 at 10:39 am

      May your willingness to commit to writing another book, be both a blessing to you and those who benefit in the days that follow.

      • Shirley Showalter on February 19, 2020 at 10:42 am

        Thank you so much, John. I love the focus on the ones who may benefit. Sounds like a prayer to me. 🙂

  2. Marlena Fiol on February 15, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    “If Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton showed the way and Mary Karr and Anne Lamott still petition God before, during, and after they sit down to write, surely, surely I must do the same.”

    Love this, Shirley.

    Mostly, I pray with enormous gratitude!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 3:01 pm

      Yes. Most of our prayers boil down to Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thank you, and Wow!”

      When we have reached our 70s in relative good health, we know how much we have to be thankful for. Grateful for you today, Marlena.

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on February 15, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Shirley, you already have a published memoir out there, and it’s a good one! Just to let you know, you can do this!! I’ll be cheering you on, and many others who have read your memoir want to hear more from you.
    I do pray, all the time, and have been enormously helped, knowing that when I am weakest, God is strongest. When I am at my wits end and when the path I am travelling is at its darkest and most dangerous, I have a guide. When life is good and I am feeling joyful, someone is always there enjoying it with me! For me, prayer is not so much the words that I say, but a relationship, a connection, a presence always available.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      “For me, prayer is not so much the words that I say, but a relationship, a connection, a presence always available.” What a lovely description of prayer, Elfrieda. I know you have practiced this “prayer without ceasing” habit for many years.

      Thank you for your vote of confidence in my writing. You are so kind.

  4. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on February 15, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Shirley, I just remembered that my friend, Elsie Rempel wrote the book : Please Pass the Faith: The Art of Spiritual Grandparenting.
    Published in 2012 by Herald Press. Perhaps you are familiar with it.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 6:18 pm

      Thanks for that reminder, Elfrieda. I have seen that book, and it will be good to find it again now that I am writing in the same general territory.

  5. Marian Beaman on February 15, 2020 at 4:15 pm

    Congratulations, Shirley and Marilyn! Approaching your new work with intention and contrition, of course you will succeed with God’s help. I’ve noticed other writers collaborating on projects. Perhaps you are continuing a trend.

    As it happens, I’m reading A Good Hard Look, novel about Flannery O’Connor by Ann Napolitano. In it the novelist has Flannery voice these words advising high schoolers: “Take a good hard look at who you are and what you have,” she said, “and then use it.” I can’t verify that Flannery actually said this, but it certainly rings true for you.

    About prayer: I pray constantly. Prayer is air to me. And I pray about everything.
    Soli deo gloria!

    P.S. When you need a break, perhaps you could teach a chicken to walk backwards, as Flannery reportedly has done.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 6:24 pm

      Marian, thank you. You know these undertakings are not done lightly.

      You mentioned the chicken. That reminded me of the post I wrote after visiting O’Connor’s birthplace in Savannah, Georgia. It included a video of O’Connor with her chicken! https://shirleyshowalter.com/a-good-man-is-hard-to-find-flannery-oconnor/

      Your regularity with prayer is an inspiration.

      I think I would enjoy the novel you are reading. After the next arduous nine months.

  6. Richard on February 15, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    Lucky you, working with Marilyn! Too bad Helen Alderfer isn’t still living. She’d have wisdom to share on your topic.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 6:29 pm

      Thanks, Richard. I’m sure you must have seen quite a few of Marilyn’s lovely essays at Christian Century over the years. I do indeed feel honored to be working with her. And I remember Helen fondly. I even spent a little time in her writer’s hut. I wrote a blog post about her 11 years ago: https://shirleyshowalter.com/helen-alderfer-poet-mother-wise-woman-role-model/

  7. Lilith Rogers on February 15, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Shirley, I don’t pray but I do practice gratitude every day. Being grateful for my warm, safe, comfortable little apartment in a sweet little fun town in Northern California, for my good health, good friends and loving family who are far away physically but close emotionally❤️Blessed. Lilith

    • Shirley Showalter on February 15, 2020 at 7:08 pm

      You do sound blessed, Lilith. Thank you for sharing how you focus your attention on all the gifts in your life. I sense real joy in your words and want to learn to know your work better.

      • Lilith Rogers on February 15, 2020 at 9:07 pm

        Oh, I have several self-published books of poetry and children’s books that I wrote some time back and that are available on Amazon but now I think they don’t do that print-on-demand thing anymore so don’t know if they are available. I’ve also written and starred in a couple of plays–one that’s a dIalogue between Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf–TEL.L IT SLANT. Working slowly on a memoir in various writing groups. and you can watch my one woman show about Rachel Carson on Youtube–Rachel Carson Returns. Still getting to perform that live occasionally around Sonoma County–esp. in the spring.

  8. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on February 15, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    Hard things happen better in community.
    Sounds like you have a great partner.
    And, I love your focus.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 16, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      Thank you, Dolores. As usual, you say a lot with few words. I’m hoping as I continue to ask questions and seek stories here, that you will share your wonderful experiences.

  9. Linda Hoye on February 15, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Oh, Shirley, I am celebrating from afar for you and Marilyn. What a wonderful opportunity! Of course the topic is near to my heart. My prayers will join with yours as you embark on this journey.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 16, 2020 at 1:48 pm

      Thank you, Linda. I know you know the pains and the joys! You are much further along in the process of bringing your second book to life. Thank you for joining your prayers with mine. I do the same for you.

    • Tina Barbour on February 17, 2020 at 11:33 pm

      Congratulations, Shirley! How exciting that you are working on another book. I don’t formally pray any more. When I do, it quickly becomes a compulsion, a part of my OCD. However, I still talk to God, if that makes any sense. I don’t stop and pray—just comment and wonder and complain and give thanks as the day goes by. I also find that reading poems and reciting them to myself is like praying.

      • Shirley Showalter on February 18, 2020 at 5:41 am

        I love how you have found your own way to pray. Just like Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow. A running commentary connecting your life to God. My guess is that you love this passage: The Color Purple Quotes. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

        • Audrey+A+Metz on February 18, 2020 at 11:10 am

          Godde bless Shirley, Anne, and Celie!

      • Audrey A Metz on February 18, 2020 at 10:51 am

        Tina, ‘though I don’t know you, you have given me a wonderful thought to carry around with me, to drench me in a refreshing, positive thought that really feels like a trusted companion:

        “I don’t formally pray anymore, but I still talk to God.”!! I LOVE THAT! Thank you for reminding me of the reassurance that Godde recognizes my talking to her (I mostly think of Godde as female ever since I attended a church as an adult where we prayed “Our Father/Mother who art in Heaven…”). Actually, your words immediately gave me a sense of relief and release from a question of a bit of residual guilt since childhood about the right or wrong ideas about Godde! Ditto your thoughts about poetry being prayer. AMEN and AMEN! Thank you and thank you, Tina!

        • Tina Barbour on February 19, 2020 at 7:11 pm

          I’m glad it resonated with you! I, too, have struggled with guilt over this.

          • Shirley Showalter on February 21, 2020 at 11:05 am

            🙂 to both of you



  10. Melodie Davis on February 16, 2020 at 7:14 am

    I’m glad you found an excellent partner for the book we also had talked about! I will share here that the project I am working on is actually coming along in very rough form and what you say here about “please help me dear God” will keep nudging me on. And I can appreciate Flannery O’Connor’s reminder of stiff shoulders and neck and sticking to it, even when it is not coming along. (And I’m guessing who that certain editor at Fortress is. 🙂 ) Very exciting and I know with this team and your combined platforms, you will produce something to read and celebrate and benefit from.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 16, 2020 at 1:50 pm

      Thanks, Melodie, for being one of the people with whom I could confide by questions as I was testing the calling to write again. I am glad your own project is doing well. Many blessings on that and thank you for your kind words of encouragement.

  11. Audrey A Metz on February 16, 2020 at 8:24 am

    Shirley. Observe. Sit. Write. Your fans who are stuck in their own commas, colons, and writer-constipations are holding their collective breaths as they wait for you to tell them “It’s OK. I’m still here and I’m going to tell you about it.”

    Thanks, Shirley, for your ever-down-to-earth writings that help us all get unstuck, no matter what our own roadblocks are in whatever it is we’re trying to do, say, accomplish.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 16, 2020 at 1:55 pm

      Thank you so much for showing up here again, Audrey. It’s good to know you have been reading all along, and it sounds like you might be writing too?? If so, I hope your constipation stays far away from your colon. 🙂

      I remember a traveling poet who came through Harrisonburg HS when I was teaching English there as a very young teacher in the early 1970s. One of the students asked him if he would write poems if no one read them. It made the poet cry. I know how much appreciative readers mean to a writer now. Thanks for being such a generous spirit.

  12. Sherrey Meyer on February 17, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    Shirley, I’m excited for your new writing adventure with Marilyn. And what better topic than grandparenting! Benedict had a lot of good things to say, and I referenced one of them in a recent post (https://sherreymeyer.com/2020-word-renewal/). I will also be posting this week on the subject of prayer. Does it seem we all have similar thoughts and expressions in this early 2020 year? Blessings on your writing life and your grandma life.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 18, 2020 at 5:59 am

      Thank you, Sherrey. Synchronicity. Again. We can’t go wrong when we go back to St. Benedict. “Always we begin again” was the theme you picked. And “renewal” is your word. I wish you well also. Maybe if Stuart and I have the strength for one more book tour, we’ll see you again in Portland. I will think of you holding your own book.

  13. Dora Dueck on February 18, 2020 at 10:36 am

    Congratulations Shirley! So happy for you. You have much wisdom to share, re spirituality, aging, grandparenting. — I feel very dependent in my writing too and often find myself in “help, help” mode in prayer!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 18, 2020 at 10:41 am

      Your words mean a lot to me, Dora. I seek wisdom from you on all these subjects too. And glad to know I am not the only one in frequent “Help, help” mode.

  14. Don Follis on February 18, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Shirley, congrats on getting the book contract. Your memoir was great, and so is your blog. I already am looking forward to reading the new book. I love the topic. I admire your humility, your tenacity, your authenticity and your prayer(s) about this new writing project. I’ve already prayed it twice. Praying it made me recall what happened to me as a writer of more than 750 religion columns for the Champaign-Urbana, IL, News-Gazette. After my third column appeared in print, I froze when the deadline came for my fourth column. “I can’t do this,” I said to my wife. “As a full-time pastor, I am too busy.” I picked up the phone to call the editor and say, “I’m sorry, and I apologize, but I can’t continue this column. I guess I spoke too soon saying that I wanted to write a regular religion column.” … Anne Lamott’s book on prayer had not been published quite yet or I would have prayed (screamed), “Help!” Fortunately, my good wife said, “Honey, don’t call the editor. Put the phone down, sleep on it, and it will come to you in the morning.” Well, It did and it still pretty-much works like that. … So write on, Shirley. You have good instincts, good insights, a good writing prayer and a good many of us who are eager to read what you will write!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 19, 2020 at 10:46 am

      Don, wonderful to hear from you. Thanks for sharing that story! And good for your wise wife who helped you persist until you could see light again. Having readers who care does that for us, doesn’t it?

      Your many years of pastoral care and care with language penetrate all that you do and all that you are.

      Thank you.

  15. Barbara McDowell Whitt on February 18, 2020 at 11:02 am

    Shirley, thank you for sharing your story of Marilyn McEntyre becoming your co-author for a book about the spirituality of grandparenting and that your new friend Judith Valente influenced your decision for the topic. I knew when i finished your memoir Blush that there would be more to come. Among the mementoes in my copy of Blush is a note from Kathy, for whom you signed a copy. She mailed her note to me on 21 Jul 2014:

    Dear Barbara,
    Thank you so much for the book. I plan to start reading it as soon as I finish the book I’m reading now. ‘Blush’ looks to be a very interesting read. We missed the two of you last night at the Smiths’ house. Give Natalie a hug for me. Thanks again!
    Love, Kathy

    As you know, Natalie (now 7) is our granddaughter who lives with her parents (our older of two daughters and her husband) in Arlington, VA. Her sister Caroline (our second and only other grandchild, now 4) was born in 2015. Bill and I will be heading their way from MO in late March.

    Best of the best to you and Marilyn as you pursue writing about the spirituality of grandparenting.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 19, 2020 at 10:55 am

      Barbara,

      You have been such a faithful kindred spirit in the writing journey. Thank you. And the “Save Room for Dessert” plate that hangs beside my stove has often reminded me of you and our time together in Harrisonburg. Natalie is age 7 already! And Caroline age 4. The book is intended for grandparents of young children, so that is exactly where you are. I am hoping that this blog can serve to connect me with other grandparents and surrogate grandparents. Marilyn and I know our own experiences are just the beginning!

  16. Phyllis Wulliman on February 18, 2020 at 12:34 pm

    Congratulations, Shirley! All the best to you and Marilyn.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 19, 2020 at 9:29 am

      Thank you, Phyllis. Old friends are the best friends. 🙂

  17. Shirley Showalter on February 19, 2020 at 9:29 am

    From Vicky Kirkton’s FB post, this reminder about prayer: From Richard Rohr reflection today…..
    “We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. . . . Prayer is the opening of mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing—closer than consciousness itself.”—Thomas Keating [1]

  18. Janet Givens on February 20, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    What exciting news, Shirley. I’m thrilled for you and for your future readers who are undoubtedly in for a treat. AND, for you own grandchildren, for they will surely benefit from what you learn as you write. Prayer? I hadn’t expected that question. I can’t say I pray, per se. Not anymore; not since prayer in the “Dear God” sense took on a selfish, “here’s what I want” tone. But as I write this, I wonder if it’s not so different from writing down what I want, what my own hopes and dreams are. But, then I generally let them go. If wonder, as in “Wow” (as Ann Lamott claims) is a viable prayer, then I can claim clearly to pray. I love the WOW moments of life. Thank you for this post. You inspire me, still.

    • Lucinda J on February 21, 2020 at 9:37 am

      Yes. Amen.

      And congratulations on your coming book! Sounds like a very worthwhile subject. Talking to people who have experienced what you haven’t will help you navigate those hard places.

      • Shirley Showalter on February 21, 2020 at 11:18 am

        Thanks, Lucinda. And thanks for mentioning a way to expand the reach of the book. I hope I find a way to do this. I have a writer’s group that always encourages me to include the difficult stories and the shadow side of life.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 21, 2020 at 11:16 am

      Thank you, Janet. You have been a great encourager and networker from a long time! I know I can always count on you for honesty and creativity.

      Thanks for mentioning my grandchildren as one of the audiences. Like all memoirists, I will struggle with what I call the “Annie Scale.” The tension between absolute honesty (Annie Lamott: if they had wanted me to say nice things, they should have been nicer. And Annie Dillard, not everyone can buy ink by the barrel, so be kind. (paraphrased from memory). I tend toward Annie Dillard anyway, so my grandchildren are safe. But I love the zestiness of Anne Lamott and the “realness” of not sugarcoating reality.

      Prayer and journaling and writing poetry and writing of any kind have much in common. I am quite confident that you pray often when you use Anne Lamott’s categories.

  19. Audrey A Metz on February 20, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Shirley, you haven’t mentioned Contemplative prayer, have you? I would love to hear your take on it. To me, it’s vastly different from the way of praying I learned eons ago. It’s a way of BEing that rescued me from “praying” in the prayer -by rote way I had been taught/ and caught from teachings in church and school. Your thoughts would be welcome!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 21, 2020 at 11:21 am

      I have appreciated and experienced contemplative prayer for a long time, Audrey. It has taken many forms from insight meditation to centering prayer to journaling with a daily practice to just sitting in silence with a candle after reading scripture or other spiritual writing. Love it. Some years I am more faithful than others. This year I am being more faithful.

      • Audrey A Metz on February 25, 2020 at 10:18 am

        ….Good we haven’t forgotten how when we come back to be more faithful, eh? Your comment challenges me to become “more faithful” again…..sigh….why is it so easy to wander away when there is so much room and time to wonder in quietness and thoughtful, contemplative silence??

  20. Anne Ross on February 22, 2020 at 11:50 am

    This very blog by Shirley, this prayer, memory of spending two wonderful summer writing workshops with Marilyn McEntyre at Zypher Point, listening to Elizabeth Talent talking on NPR this morning about writing and perfectionism, and my OWN paralyzing perfectionism and writing, are all an answer to my own prayers. The Spirit is remarkable. Thank you, Shirley, for your words. I am a brand new first time ever grandmother, a perfectionist, and a wantabe writer. I am overcome with awe at the work of the Spirit that I am reading your blog today after praying, once again, about wanting to releasing me to write. Thank you.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 24, 2020 at 7:33 am

      Anne, I am so glad that you have found both of us. As a brand new grandmother, you are a perfect fit for the writing we are doing for this book. Hope you continue to follow these blog posts. And to contribute your thoughts and stories. I didn’t know that you knew Marilyn. May you find a way that marries the best of your desire for perfection with the call to be a writer. Let your grandchild be your teacher. Thinking of you and smiling.

  21. Laurie Buchanan on February 23, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    Shirley — I’m so excited to learn that you’re writing another book. I can hardly wait to read it!

    As to prayer — I resonate to the core with Elfrieda’s description: “For me, prayer is not so much the words that I say, but a relationship, a connection, a presence always available.”

    • Shirley Showalter on February 24, 2020 at 7:40 am

      Laurie, welcome back. I love watching how you self-regulate, engaging passionately and completely online and then going off to a beautiful place completely offline. I hope as I write future posts related to grandparenting that I can tap into your base of wisdom. What I love about this relationship is that all other experiences — of parenting, work, and friendship — enter in to this new opportunity to deepen. Or as you and Elfrieda put it, bask in a presence always available.

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