My mother holding me as a baby on the right. My cousin Mary Ann and Aunt Jane on the left.

Last week on this blog Annette Gendler offered her prescription for how to write about family, which might be one of the most difficult challenges a memoir writer faces.

Annette invited me to write about religion, since both of us are shaped by faith. This morning I appear here as her guest blogger.

The best analogy I could think for the writer and reader of was that of a plane ride. Here’s the beginning of the post. Please follow the link to Annette’s site and visit her great collection of posts there if this subject interests you.

Writing About Faith – Imagine a Plane Ride

by Shirley Hershey Showalter

We all know that politics and religion are like the third rail of conversation. But do they have to be?

If you and I meet on a plane or train and fall into conversation, it’s only a matter of time before something one of us says leads me to tell you I’m Mennonite. Here’s how you might find out:

“Where did you go to college?” Eastern Mennonite University

“You were a college president? Where?” Goshen College, a liberal arts and Mennonite college in Indiana

From there, you either drop your questions and turn to your Coke and peanuts, or you push on:

“Did you drive a horse and buggy instead of a car?”

More here:


Feel free to leave comments and/or questions at either Annette’s blog or below. We both are interested in what makes this subject fascinating, or not, to readers.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Kathleen Pooler on November 12, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Shirley, I really appreciate your excellent guest post on Annette’s site and left a comment there. It is well-timed for me as I tackle how to weave my own faith into my own memoir in a way that doesn’t sound preachy. I think it is a fascinating topic because it is so deeply personal and finding a way to convey it in writing in a genuine and inspirational way that connects with readers can be challenging. Thank you both for addressing this.

    • shirleyhs on November 13, 2012 at 9:21 am

      Voice and tone play a huge role in whether or not a story about religion reaches an audience beyond the true believers in that religion. Readers know if they have room to breathe or if the worldview of the author has closed them out. Your own open, compassionate, curious spirit will attract many readers, Kathy. Trust it.

  2. Annette Gendler on November 12, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks for offering your insight on my blog!

    • shirleyhs on November 13, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for the opportunity, Annette. Your question made me think about a subject I may have been taking for granted. I hope others who are writing about religion will find it helpful. I failed to mention that reading about memoirs about Catholic, Mormon, Pentecostal, Buddhist, Muslim, and other religions has helped me think about my own.

  3. Dora Dueck on November 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Great analogy and advice in the guest post, Shirley. I think this is a significant challenge, also for writers of fiction, whose characters may or may not be religious, and when they are, may vary considerably in how much power it has in their lives or how they express it. And whether in fact it matters in the story. I must mull on your points further.

  4. shirleyhs on November 13, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Thanks, Dora. Truly there is a wide range — even among those who show up in the same pews. I am seeing this fact as I look at two sides of my own family. Such different ways of being Mennonite. The trick is to find ways of expressing the differences that don’t focus just on the insider language or what others would consider minutiae.

    When we talk about religion, what do we see? We have the beliefs, the practices, the experiences, the personalities, and the cultures all coming together. Every Mennonite (or member of any other faith) has his or her own story. The more strands woven into it, the more readers will respond. I think. 🙂

  5. Richard Gilbert on November 15, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Mary Karr got away with it, and I think you will too, Shirley. It’s a real minority who’d take offense, and in your case they are forewarned by your title. Plus there’s sociological if not historical value, for those with that bent. The faithful mustn’t fall silent if they are sincere—and honest. Spiritual ignorance seems so widespread and, as Eckhart Tolle says, “Spiritual ignorance always brings pain.”

    • shirleyhs on November 16, 2012 at 10:12 am

      Richard, thanks for your thoughts. I hope by writing this book I can clear some of my own spiritual ignorance. It’s especially difficult, I think, to find the deepest wells of faith and to share transparently about one’s own struggle with ego. Listening to Wendel Berry’s voice on the Diane Rehm Show last night, I was so struck by the compassion and humility in it. That combination is there in the best of my tradition. But I don’t find myself to be the best exemplar of either.

  6. Wayne Groner on December 3, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Super advice, Shirley, for uncomplicating writing memoir. I posted a link on my Facebook page. Have you read Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler? I loved it. Another excellent resource is Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence. She has more than 400 questions similar to those in your guest post. I agree we can learn a lot and grow out of our prejudice pews by reading memoirs of people outside our faith. Please let us know when your memoir is published.

  7. shirleyhs on December 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks so much, Wayne. It’s wonderful to know of your interest in my memoir. You are helping motivate me to work hard on the revisions today. Yes, I read Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler. I didn’t have time to review it, however. Since you loved it, would you like to do that? I would publish your review on this blog. email me: shirley.showalter (at)

    • Wayne Groner on December 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      My pleasure to review Ira Wagler;s book. What are your guidelines: format, number of words, approaches, etc? Do you have a date in mind?

  8. Sharing My Faith in Memoir on August 1, 2014 at 1:24 am

    […] few weeks ago Memoir Authors and teachers, Annette Gendler and Shirley Showalter posted a discussion on their blogs about sharing faith in writing. It made me stop and think about […]

  9. […] few weeks ago Memoir Authors and teachers, Annette Gendler and Shirley Showalter posted a discussion on their blogs about sharing faith in writing. It made me stop and think about […]

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