My Mother's Pulpit: Published Memoir, Contest Winner, Ethical Dilemma

Ask memoir writers what their greatest challenge is and many will say, “how and when do I share my writing with the relatives and friends who are part of my story?”  Up to now, when I finished a personal essay, I sent it off to my family to make sure there were no gross inaccuracies and because I thought they would enjoy seeing what I wrote.  They did, and I appreciated their corrections and suggestions.

But this week I am going home to see most of my siblings and my mother.  I will be carrying a story that won first place in the Kalamazoo Gazette Literary Award competition and was published in a special literary edition on March 29, 2009.  It’s called “My Mother’s Pulpit,” and you can read it here.  I chose not to tell my mother about this story or to send a copy to her.  I want to deliver it to her in print and read it to her in person.  I think, hope, pray she will love it and see it for what it is–a tribute to her indomitable spirit.

But since the story reveals that she embarrassed me, like most mothers do to most daughters at some point, I am a little nervous about her reaction.

Some memoir writers have written about this dilemma.  Annie Dillard shares her work with family members in advance of publication.  Jeanette Walls, in The Glass Castle, amazingly, has the full support of her mother in telling the story of how she became Park Avenue daughter who has a baglady mother.

Other writers, such as Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors, however, have been sued by family members or friends or have become estranged from them because their versions of the truth clash, or they simply don’t want the family dirty laundry put on the line.

Truman Capote alienated nearly every friend he had left after the publication of Answered Prayers. No amount of fame or literary achievement would be worth that to me.

Another way, oddly enough, that friends and relatives can take offense results from not mentioning them. Memoir writers probably ought to place gargoyles on their houses to protect themselves from all potential hazards of the calling.

I take comfort in the case of the residents of Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, which at first did not like the way she portrayed them in her stories and novels.  Now Red Cloud proudly displays itself as the place that fostered Cather’s imagination, and the economy of the whole town is heavily dependent on the devoted pilgrims who come to visit the places she described in book after book.

I am hoping that Mother, who gave all her children a love of stories, will understand both my motive and my structure and characterization in the recently published story. I have counted on her unconditional love all my life, and I know I can count on it one more time.  She plays the same role in my memories of childhood that she played in all the war-time Manheim Township High School dramas–leading lady.

Do any of you have advice for me?  Personal experiences to offer?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Chelsea on April 6, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Good luck with your visit and with sharing the story. I hope she loves it. There is a lot of love in the piece.Have you been to Red Cloud? If not, maybe we can all visit it on a road trip someday. Just checked on the map and it's not really on the way between Michigan and Oklahoma–but a detour is possible!

  2. shirleyhs on April 6, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Thanks, Chelsea. Yes, Stuart and I visited Red Cloud in 1978 when Anthony was a toddler and we were living in Wichita, KS, for the summer. We wrote a travel piece for the Wichita Eagle-Beacon that was published in the Sunday paper. Stuart was a reporter working for his UT pal Joe Harper, the managing editor of the paper, that summer.

  3. Lanie on April 8, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I'm pulling for Mom. I have a hunch she's going to come through with flying colors for ya! Don't we Moms all know at some level that embarrassment is built into the job description? And don't we daughters all carry that embarrassment memory into our own motherhood later? It's all so intricately interwoven. . . .

  4. shirleyhs on April 10, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Mom came through beautifully. I will probably do an entry about our last three days. Very gratifying. Thanks for the moral support, Lanie.

  5. Gutsy Writer on April 13, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I can't wait to what she said now that you're back. I also want to thank you for a great post with the same problems we all face. In my case it's with my 21-year-old son. He simply says, “He doesn't want to read it.” Who knows what he'll say later on.

  6. freestyles on May 9, 2009 at 2:07 am

    Hey I could agree with you on this, young kids are just like that, i am sure my kids would also do the same as they grow up. Emma

  7. shirleyhs on May 10, 2009 at 5:23 am

    Hi, Emma. Thanks for your comment. I'm going to check out freestyle now!

  8. freestyle on May 14, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    The pleasure is all mine shirley, just keep coming with interesting posts, I will keep coming back. Thanks for checking out Freestyle, I hope you find it good!Emma

  9. Web Design Lexington on November 14, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    True stories especially those that caters to love: for the family and friends are sure hit. It's like designing a bright future gained from the positive aspect of the stories being written.

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