Sometimes we get surprised by joy–by the growth of seeds we planted but did not cultivate.

Dr. Catherine R. Mumaw presents me with a two-volume memoir set

On August 18, 2010, I was asked to attend a tea commemorating the beginning of the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society at Eastern Mennonite University, my alma mater. Apparently, in 1994, when I gave a speech at EMU (“Renewal from Within: Transformation in Higher Education”), I recommended that senior professors enter a new role in the academy–“senior fellows” at newly-established academic centers designed for this purpose. I delivered the speech just two weeks after publishing an article advocating the idea in  The Chronicle of Higher Education. I remember writing the article, but I did not remember including the recommendation in my speech. That was the seed I dropped while engaging with the audience.

In the intervening sixteen years, EMU designed just such a center which is now flourishing. I encourage you to check the link above which outlines many roles the ACRS “senior fellows” play.

One important role of ACRS is mentoring. On August 18 I was moved to be in the presence of many of my own mentors–Catherine Mumaw taught the fine arts class which started me and many other students on a life-long path of art appreciation. Jay Landis taught me public speaking, a skill I used when I returned home to speak at EMU. Myron Augsburger was the college president who imprinted upon me the importance of spiritual and intellectual leadership in an academic community, an image that unconsciously formed my own presidential years at Goshen College, 1996-2004. And the current EMU president, my friend and colleague, Loren Swartzendruber took time from his busy schedule to attend the tea.

All I could do was say “thank you” to them and to the other faculty members who comprise the ACRS. A more dedicated group of people I have not met in all my travels in this country and abroad. Special thanks to Ray Gingerich, Cal Redekop, Vernon Jantzi, and Roman Miller, who planned the event. Robert and Nancy Lee edited the books I was given. Here’s a slide show of some photos taken by Ray Gingerich.

A second, but equally thrilling delight, was that the ACRS chose memoir as one of their most important methods of creating identity for the Center. The two volumes of memoir published by Cascadia Press carry the logo not only of the university but also of the Center.

So, as I was developing my own interest in memoir as represented in this blog, the ACRS was stimulating the writing of 32 short memoirs collected in two volumes. I will review these volumes in a future post.

As the country begins a new school year, the eyes of students and teachers shine with hope. For a few days or weeks, at least, the love of learning seems to be reignited in everyone. If you have a chance, hug some of those students and teachers. And give them some sharp pencils and smooth-flowing pens. You will never know where your influence stops. And they will never know where theirs stops either.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Jim Juhnke on September 5, 2010 at 2:46 am

    I’m looking forward to your review of the two ACRS books of short memoirs.
    I would also be interested in your recommendation of memoirs with a central theme of high youthful idealism and optimism encountering, suffering under, and somehow surviving the hard knocks of experience in the real world. I did not find that theme as forcefully represented in the ACRS memoirs as I would have expected from a Mennonite sample.

  2. shirleyhs on September 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Thanks, Jim, for this insightful comment. I wonder if Mennonites active in/attached to church institutions feel free to tell the whole story of the struggles of their lives? I will keep your question in mind as you read the book. Those who struggled with the external world, of course, can tell that story freely. Peter Dyck comes to mind. The absence of overt struggle could be a kind of denial (unhealthy) or forgiveness (deeply spiritual). If it is the latter, we all need to know how to walk this path. But we also need the stories.

    As for other memoirs with the narrative you describe: Angela’s Ashes might be the contemporary classic. Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club; Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin’ and his other memoirs; Gregg Mortonson, Three Cups of Tea. Jill Kerr Conway’s three memoirs. There are many trauma recovery memoirs too. Mennonites who leave the faith or at least the church sometimes write these. But I take it that you are looking for another kind of narrative.

    Here are some previous posts that you might enjoy:

  3. Jim Juhnke on September 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    The typical Mennonite or Amish narrative is one of growing up in an environment beset with restrictions, and then finding freedom and happiness through more or less successful achievement in the outside world. Mennonites learn early that it is possible to know and to do God’s will. Those active in/attached to church institutions find ways to enact, at least in part, God’s intention for their lives. If the memoirs published by the Anabaptist Center for Religious Studies seem to lack passion and struggle, it may be because the authors are simply happy to have been middle sized frogs in small ponds. A retired teacher in a Mennonite college, I’m embarrassed to confess how much I identify with these stories, and how limited is my imagination to plumb the depths of my denials or my forgiveness. I wonder if this is a dominant Mennonite syndrome that helps explain why there is so little really gripping Mennonite literature.

  4. shirleyhs on September 6, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Ooh, Jim, you have hit a nerve. Thanks for this comment, full as it is of the post-mid-life review–and a real challenge to Mennonite writers everywhere. I hope to share this conversation with the good folks at the Center for Mennonite Writing. (see this post if you have not found the Center online yet: You put your finger on a central question. For pacifists: what to do with the central role that conflict plays in all good fiction/memoir/writing. This is a similar question, is it not, to the historians’ arguments about consensus and conflict in U.S.history?

    One could argue, I imagine, that Mennonites, small group that we are, have created an amazing amount of good literature in the last 40 years, even though we are latecomers to the party. But have we dealt well with conflict? Peace shall destroy many, including many writers?? Is this what you are saying?

  5. Jeff Gundy on September 6, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Interesting discussion, indeed. I haven’t read the books, but I’ve long shied away from writing memoir in a sort of sustained way, mainly because my day-to-day life is really not all that dramatic or interesting, even to me. Sometimes I think this marks a personal failure to seek out more adventurous and perhaps risky experience. Sometimes I think I’ve just been lucky not to have to deal with the sorts of stress and tragedy that many people face. (And I often remember that it could happen to me tomorrow, or yet this afternoon.)

    I got a chuckle out of Jim’s remark about being “middle-sized frogs in small ponds,” which does describe my situation pretty accurately. Of course I wonder sometimes what might have been different had I tried harder to climb the academic ladder, or to write the sort of book that would actually sell a lot of copies. How much do we really choose that sort of thing, and how much do we do what we’re meant to do? Hard telling.

    I would only add here that I’d be quite reluctant to claim that I’ve been “doing God’s will” all these years. On the other hand, I haven’t received any direct imperatives to go do something else, either . . .

  6. shirleyhs on September 6, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    I struggle with some of the same questions, Jeff (and Jim), although having spent the last 5.5. years in a different world, I ask it in a different way. And perhaps, being a woman, I have different expectations for what constitutes a good life. Who knows.

    One memoir that manages to fascinate without the usual conflict narrative is Mildred Kalish’s Little Heathens, which I reviewed here:

    One could call Mildred a big fish in a small pond, too. She never did anything to garner fame until she wrote this book in her 80’s. She deliberately rejected the ready-made victim/heroine narrative by downplaying the role of her absent father in her life. Instead, she focused on sensory detail of a bygone era with such relish, delight, gratitude, and feistiness that she landed on the cover of the NYTimes Book Review with a rave review from Elizabeth Gilbert. There are other models for memoir other than misery overcome. Not many, I’ll grant you, but some. Scott Russell Sanders does a great job with an “ordinary” life, also. Rhoda Janzen and Haven Kimmel turn lives similar to ours into humor and/or satire with differing degrees of wisdom underneath.

  7. Jim Juhnke on September 8, 2010 at 2:22 am

    Jeff, I too thought my life uninteresting. So I assumed my autobiographical writing in retirement should be simple chronicle written for my family. But then Tristine Rainer (Your Life as Story) hooked me with the notion that the story is there for everyone. We just need more vivid imagination and mastery of the essential story elements. The story will out. I should try memoir.
    Rereading my two-year courtship correspondence with Anna Kreider (1961-63), I was startled by the high idealism with which we began adult life. In callow youth I planned to mount a challenge to militarism and racism, to rewrite American history from a pacifist perspective, to become part of a committed fellowship of believers, etc. So the stage was set for a memoir in which my idealism would founder on the rocks of reality. I would discover I didn’t really know the will of God and I couldn’t achieve it.
    Wrong! I got a job at a Mennonite College where a supporting community enabled me to work productively at all my goals, with modest achievements along the way. I never doubted that Shalom is the will of God. And I saw signs of God’s enabling grace.
    Unfortunately for my story, my life was not disrupted by divorce, church splits, alienation from parents, failure to get tenure, or moral lapses by beloved role models. I now try to explore the possibility that I am in denial. But the exploration fails.
    What to do about the absence of story? Shirley, are you suggesting the antidote is richness of sensory detail? I find that challenge quite daunting. Maybe retired historians should write chronicles, not memoirs.
    Shirley, your reference to gender differences prompts me to observe how different my experience has been compared to that of Lee Snyder, who was so winsomely surprised by unexpected opportunities. I, in contrast, knew what I wanted to do from the outset. I girded my loins and, with the help of my community, went out and did what I had planned to do–at least in part. As I recall from my earlier reading, most of the writers in the ACRS memoir series, overwhelmingly males (though Lee Snyder is included), have stories more like mine. I will be interested to see if your reading confirms this.

  8. shirleyhs on September 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    I find this conversation fascinating–and so helpful to my own thinking. Thank you. Let me see if I can tease apart some intertwined themes:

    1. chronicle v. sensory detail (a conflict! 🙂
    2. small pond v. big pond
    3. denial v. forgiveness
    4. men v. women
    5.story structure v. story content

    On #1, chronicles are useful, as you know. Start with a timeline and fill it in. Just look at it. See what happens. Can you remember taste, touch, smells, sounds? A History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman is an amazing book. The details may come upon reflection. The process is different than the process of writing history! Go to YouTube and type in Ira Glass. His two videos on Storytelling are excellent.
    2. Small pond schmall pond. I don’t accept the premise. Any pond is full of life. Size doesn’t matter. 🙂 Walden, for example. It’s all in the depth of living, perceiving, and connecting. Grace is the word I would encourage you to follow. If you can unlock that one, you will write a masterpiece. Or at least you will add depth to your chronicle.
    3.Denial and forgiveness are not really opposites, even if I made them so in my earlier comment. If we haven’t had much to either forgive or deny in our lives, we are fortunate, I suppose. Is that grace?
    4.Our sample is too small to determine patterns based on gender. But I do find myself attracted to Lee Snyder’s story. Have you read her entire memoir? I reviewed it here: I am tempted to say that Mennonite women leaders of the first generation had to be “accidental” leaders called externally rather than driving to the top from internal ambition. But that’s too simple, and my own story is not exactly like Lee’s, of course.
    5. Read Parker Palmer’s essay on writing in the latest Christian Century.
    Start small. Write one good memory and give it the shape that grows organically out of the story itself. Don’t give up. And keep coming back here. There are over 200 posts on this site, many of which I hope might contain an idea to be helpful. Also, bring your great questions. You certainly help sharpen my thinking.

  9. Richard Gilbert on September 16, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Wow, what a stimulating thread you got going, Shirley. Wonderful.

    I think of Sam Pickering, the model for the teacher in the Dead Poets Society movie who has written one book of essays after another about his ordinary life and his heightened sense of curiosity about the world. He’s a professor at a middling university, I forget where.

    And of course I just reviewed Nabokov’s famous Speak, Memory in which he almost perversely downplays huge events, like his family’s exile from Russia and his father’s murder, in favor of writing about the aspects of daily live he loved. His passions, not all of them huge and many very ordinary. His point, worth making, was that life isn’t defined by big dramatic things, or shouldn’t be.

  10. shirleyhs on September 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Oh good, Richard. So happy to have you join this conversation. I hope others reading these comments will discover your incredible blog Narrative. I just read your review of Nabakov’s Speak Memory ( and resonated completely with it–the review, that is. I found the book because Mary Karr put it on her top 11 memoirs, and I have read about the first third, pausing often, as you did to admire the language and to let my jaw drop time after time as he describes details. I forget more in an hour than he forgets in a year. Yet the book did not draw me in. It had an emotional coldness to it that put me off. I’m glad you felt that also. Maybe now I will just direct my readers to your review and to the book without having to review it myself.

    I will have to look up Sam Pickering, also. Thanks, Richard! Jim, are you still reading? Any new thoughts?

    • Richard Gilbert on September 16, 2010 at 5:41 pm

      Hi Shirley,

      Everyone in despair or discouraged as a writer by her or his humdrum life must go immediately to this link and read Brenda Miller’s essay on her passion for toast:

      She’s a great essayist, and has tackled big subjects, but this one is clever, concise, funny, and darn good! Something anyone could attempt, turning one’s attention that way, though doing it and what she did is harder than it looks. The point is, there’s material. I know this toast piece may not make a memoir, but then again it might be part of one.

  11. shirleyhs on September 17, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Loved this! Thanks.

  12. Richard A. Kauffman on September 17, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Some unsolicited words to Jim Junkhe: yes, write your memoirs. Don’t worry at the outset about the big issues. Don’t even worry about your audience. Maybe it is no bigger than your kids and grandkids. And yes, be inspired by reading many other memoirs and the work by William Zinsser on writing memoirs. I would underscore Shirley’s recommendation of Scott Russell Sander’s A Private History of Awe. I’ve met Sanders several times–got to sit next to him at a dinner party once when he was the honored guest–and he’s a very humble guy with Quaker sensibilities and a wonderful sense of place, both of which Mennonites can relate to.

  13. shirleyhs on September 17, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Thanks, Richard. I was hoping you would go deeper with the connection to Sanders. And then there is Wallace Stegner, and William Stafford.

    Jim, are you still reading these comments? See how the community of faith and the community of writers continues to support you? All you need is to talk about how you redefined success (by choice or chance–lots of conflict opportunities here) over a lifetime, and you will have a story many, many people relate to.

    Also, I am curious about all those memoir writers in Harrisonburg, VA. We haven’t heard from any of them yet. Maybe they are waiting on my review. That could take some weeks (backlog!). Hope the conversation continues in the meantime. And I need some more women to chime in here, too!

    This is really good stuff, folks. Thanks so much.

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