On the Road Again: Coming to a City Near You?

Forty-five years ago, these two merry wanderers decided to set off on the journey of life together:

Stuart and Shirley whirling

Stuart and Shirley whirling, 1969. Beside the barn on the Home Place.

We used the image of the Conestoga Wagon to dream together, having been influenced by the story that a Mennonite invented the wagon, and having read lots of Little House on the Prairie books, we somehow associated freedom, love, and joy with travel and with the West.

Now that we have resettled in the East, and now that we have traveled together for 45 years, we decided to celebrate this anniversary by doing a huge summer tour, using Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World as an excuse to set up book talks along the way. Before our special date of August 2 arrives, we will have visited seven churches, a retirement community, three historical societies, several colleges and universities, and many bookstores.

We’ll also do a lot of sightseeing in the cities below, visit many friends, and spend two days in Glacier National Park.

You can find the full itinerary of speaking engagements on this page on my website. But here is a list of places we will be starting this weekend:

1. May 17, noon, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, The Mennonite Heritage Center

2. May 18, morning, Blooming Glen, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Church

3. May 27, 7 p.m., The Cell Theatre, 23rd St., New York, NY

4. June 1, 5-7 p.m., The Friends Meetinghouse (Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship), 15 Rutherford Place, New York, NY

5. June 4, noon, Samaritan Center fundraiser, Elkhart, IN

6. June 5, 10 a.m., Greencroft Retirement Community, Goshen, IN

7. June 5, 7 p.m., Kazoo Books, Kalamazoo, MI

8. June 30, 1 p.m. Harrisonburg, VA Public Library

9. July 6, morning, Portland Mennonite Church, Portland, OR

10. July 6, Pacific Northwest Mennonite Historical Society, near Zion Mennonite Church

11. July 9, 7 p.m., Third Place Books, Seattle.

12. July 11  7 p.m. House of James Book Store and Café, Abbottsford, BC, Canada.

13. July 13, morning, Vancouver, BC, Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship

14. July 20, morning, Faith Mennonite Church, Minneapolis

15. July 26 Workshop From Perplexed to Published, Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh

15. July 27 morning, Pittsburgh Mennonite Church Sunday School

Instead of a Conestoga Wagon, we’ll be traveling by Amtrak. We got a 30-day pass and will be on two scenic routes. The Coast Starlight along the Pacific Ocean. We won’t be waiting to be selected into the Amtrak Writers Residency program. We’ve made our own!

And the Empire Builder from west coast to east coast. We will be using Superliner Roomettes, like the one in this video:

Will we be coming to a city near you? I’d love to see you! Ask us, and Stuart and I might even try that whirling thing again.

Have you taken a long train ride? Have any advice for us? I will probably blog about the trip, so send me your questions, too!

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Catherine R. Mumaw: A Different Kind of Mother’s Day Tribute

Who mothered you in addition to or instead of or beside your biological mother?

As we celebrate mothers this Sunday, I invite you to answer this question.

For me, there were many such women. Women in my family; Mary Lauver, our pastor’s wife and a leader in her own right, and many others in my church. My teachers. Then there was summer camp. And this woman.

Catherine R. Mumaw, Director

Catherine R. Mumaw, Director at Laurelville Girls Camp. Photo was included in 1957 or 1958 Shen.

In childhood

Catherine R. Mumaw entered my life first as the director of summer camp at Laurelville Mennonite camp in 1959. I turned eleven years old that summer.

I remember three things about Catherine from my deep memory well:

  • she was a woman in charge.
  • she had a lovely lilting southern accent. Yet she wore a covering like my mother. This combination amazed me.
  • she loved to sing and she led singing with confidence, just like she led the prayers and the announcements.

Catherine showed up in my life again during college. As one of the first women in the Mennonite Church to earn a Ph.D., Catherine taught home economics and fine arts at Eastern Mennonite College. Here’s how she looked in the 1970 yearbook, the Shen. Most of her colleagues were male.

Catherine Mumaw and Homer Mumaw, EMC faculty members, 1970

Catherine Mumaw and Homer Mumaw, EMC faculty members, 1970. The Shen.

Professional model and colleague

I took fine arts from Catherine and remember her as an enthusiastic professor with high standards. She pulled my best work out of me, taught me about the architecture of cathedrals, the vanishing point in classical art, and the structure of the symphony.

Later, Catherine and I both served on the faculty of Goshen College during a time of great change in her field of home economics. She later went on to teach at Oregon State University for several years, making international work her chosen focus. This work became a springboard for the next four years as a volunteer education adviser at Kathmandu University in Nepal.


Catherine and I have become friends again in our post-retirement years. Catherine has been battling cancer. She has neither denied that fact nor wallowed in it. Instead, she continues to mother me by modeling what I hope to do as I contemplate the end of my own life. She laughs. She gives away her possessions to her friends. And she continues to make things.

Catherine stopped by my house with a present the other day. It’s a musical memoir: a CD with an accompanying booklet. It details eighty years of musical education in the family, church, and academy. It begins with “Jesus Loves Me” and ends with Lutkin’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

Catherine has no biological children. She married Clair Basinger late in life and has become mother to his four daughters who have brought her great joy: Eileen, Carolyn, Darlene, and Debbie. Yet even if she had not become a mother through marriage, she would still be among my mothers.

I have her songs on a CD with this picture on the cover.

Catherine in a role she was born to play.

Catherine in a role she was born to play.

But what I really have are her songs and stories in my heart. Through her work as musical memoirist and storyteller, I can carry her stories. They amplify my alto voice the way that soprano, bass, and tenor surround me in church.

In my mind’s eye I will always see her, in front of all those girls at camp, being in charge, and singing!

 Who are your mothers? Please select one woman who has influenced you and say why and how you remember her below. Or give us one of your own musical memories.

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Are You a Pantser or a Plotter? Approaches to Memoir Writing and Life

Among writers, the question is this one:

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

When I first heard this question, I immediately linked it to my graduate adviser at the University of Texas at Austin. After I passed my Ph.D. exams, he said,

Just think of finishing your dissertation this way: put your seat in a chair and stay there until you’re done.

Having confessed to being a  sprinter rather than a marathon runner in last week’s post, you might have already guessed where I come out between these two types.

Instead of labeling myself, however, I’ll show you a picture:

2014 calendar with trip planning papers below

2014 calendar with trip planning papers below

This picture of how I am planning a year of book touring looks a lot like the way I “plotted” Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. More about this trip later, but for now, you can just witness some of the complexity.

Back in October 2011, when I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and taking care of our grandson Owen by day, I made up a timetable for writing. Then I blogged about it, making myself more accountable to my readers.

I respect deadlines, and when I announce one, I usually come through. I’ll sit in my seat even after my shoulders, neck, and arms begin to hurt. (I know, “sitting is the new smoking” and I need to change that habit.)

But being a “pantser” refers to more than the location of one’s derrière! It also means that a writer finds joy in the journey itself and wants to discover her way to the plot. Not surprisingly, this term is used most frequently by fiction writers.

Good memoirs read like fiction. They require narrative arcs. There’s an art and a science to developing such arcs. I placed my life stories, most of which were written in short segments, into a series of questions meant to interrogate the narrative of my childhood.

Did you have a choice to become Mennonite or not?

What was going on in the church and in the outside world that influenced the answer to that question?

What happened to your family after your father bought the farm?

To answer these questions before the end of writing a draft was to become a “plotter.” I tried on that role and took lessons from some pros. Here are my notes on how to storyboard:

Storyboard notes

Storyboard notes

If you’ve read Blush, you might or might not recognize this pattern in the story. I had difficulty making my life fit into the form.

I saw my model as being most like Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, which I reviewed in 2008.

My guess is that Mildred was a pantser, whose reminiscences were woven together beautifully through the “high spirits” still evident in her approach to life, and who had a great deal of discipline over her daily habits, writing this book one story at a time.

If you are a writer yourself or contemplating becoming one, you will enjoy the video below. You can see that the question of whether to write from an outline (plot) or from curiosity about your characters (pants) can throw writers into a tizzy of conversation.

But whether or not you take time to watch the video, I hope you respond with some stories of your own in the comment section below. Do you prefer to discover your way to the finish line by following your intuition and “high spirits”? Or do you need to chart a very careful path in advance? Something in between? Something different depending on the circumstances?


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Are You a Sprinter or a Marathoner? Is There a Third Way?

My daughter just ran ten miles for the first time with her friend Kristi.

Having my propensity toward rosy cheeks, she got beet red:

Kristi and Kate after Kate's first ten-mile run

Kristi and Kate after Kate's first ten-mile run

She did not, however, inherit the capacity for long-distance running from me or from her father.

She earned every mile from her own effort. Having worked hard to run in two 5K races in the past, I am proud that she will run a half-marathon soon.

If you have read Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you may remember that I pounded out a very fast 50-yard dash, impressing my gym teacher, who went on to nickname me “Rosy Cheeks.”

So I guess you could call me a sprinter. In fact, when I look back on my career, I’d use that term metaphorically also. I moved from challenge to challenge, pouring my energies into quick bursts. The longest I ever persisted in the same job was the eight years I spent as the president of Goshen College.

Before that and after that, I moved from one academic or administrative task to another, usually when someone else asked me to do something.

I’ve sometimes felt envious of the marathoner, who puts “slow twitch” muscle fibers to such good use, continuing past all obstacles to draw upon deep reservoirs of inner strength.

However, what comes more naturally to me, what I seem to be built for, is the dash, an explosive burst of energy. One dash leads to another and then to another.

It would be easy to say I am only a sprinter. And to try to justify sprinting v. long distance runs, or careers.

Dividing the world into two classes can be fun. But fruitless.

How many times have you heard a statement that begins by dividing the world into two classes?

The famous humorist Robert Benchley pricked that bubble with these words:

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

--Robert Benchley

Robert Benchley, image from Wikipedia

Robert Benchley, image from Wikipedia

I’ve decided, after pondering the two classes of sprinter and marathoner, that I aspire to neither. As a Mennonite, I like to look for a “third way” when presented with two alternatives.

In this case, the third way I choose is to be a marathon sprinter. Each of the bursts of energy in my life has led me to the next over all sixty-five of my years. When woven together, like a braided rug, each individual sprint, like an old t-shirt, contributes to a marathon whole, like a large rug.

Writing a book and then touring with it has been a major sprint. I’m still waiting to feel the familiar nudge that calls the next sprint out of me. Perhaps you will be the person whose story inspires my next step.

At my age, it may look more like a jog or a walk, but that’s fine with me. It’s all part of the journey home.

Are you a sprinter or a marathoner? A marathon sprinter or a sprint marathoner? I’d love to hear stories about running, metaphors, dualisms, whatever came to mind as you read this story.

Next week? Stay tuned for the big Writing Dualism: Pantser v. Plotter

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How to Get Ready to Die: Easter Lessons from My Mennonite Mother

“Just don’t say, ‘She fell into the arms of Jesus.’”

We were talking about death and funerals, fun topics for a 65-year-old woman and her 87-year-old mother.

When Mother described the clichés and embellished phrases of some obituaries, we both howled in recognition, eager to reduce the serious, universal, subject of death with just enough defiant humor.

Mother was expressing the most important idea she wants her funeral to convey. She wants to for her faith in Jesus to shine through — not in fancy language –  but by how she lived her life.

Mother and me on the deck, Spring, 2014

Mother and me on the deck, Spring, 2014

It’s Holy Wednesday for the Christian church, and my mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker, is with me in Virginia for her second visit since we moved here in 2010.

She brought along two new “friends” — her hearing aids and her cane.

I asked her what it’s like to be 87 years old.

Sometimes, she said, I feel like I am 39 again. Energetic. Interested in my surroundings. Looking forward to a new day and new challenges.

But when I go to bed at night, I am very aware of my age.

  • I take out my “partials” that helped me chew and taste my food
  • I take out my hearing aids, that (sometimes) help me hear and contribute to conversations
  • I take off my glasses that still let me read (!) and see people’s faces
  • I take off my elastic hose that helps reduce the swelling I get in my legs

We  laughed at the image of the deconstruction of the elderly self, one item at a time, but then Mother got serious and said, “When you are really tired, you just want to flop into bed like you used to, and suddenly, you are exhausted in a deep, new way.”

During the visit, Mother enjoyed reading, writing, and reciting — three activities she started in fifth grade and has continued all her life.

Mother looking up from her journal. Spring, 2014.

Mother looking up from her journal. Spring, 2014.

We drafted an obituary — hers — and listed all the groups and interests Mother has been part of, getting lost in our attempts to remember dates of other deaths, which friends are gone now and which ones remain.

Mother looked up and smiled broadly, asking, “Where are we? Am I dead yet?”

Another eruption of laughter.

Our talk felt very healthy.

I only teared up once.

It happened when we talked about her funeral when Mother said, “I’d like Doris to sing that song. If she can.”

Her eyes grew misty.

“She can,” I said emphatically.

Then a thought struck me: “You will help her get through it,” I said, my breath suddenly constricted, as I let myself imagine life without Mother in it for just a moment.

Then I looked away.

As hard as it is, it also feels good to have this kind of  “necessary conversation.”

Mother declares herself to be ready. She’s made peace with God and her fellow man, as the Mennonite Church examination required of her in her youth.

She wants all of us to be ready too. That’s why she can laugh when she talks about death. She knows who will have the last laugh in the end. She loves this movie and especially this “saying we have in India.”


Celebrating Easter with Mother will have a special meaning this year.

Death has been swallowed up by victory.

Triumphant tulips after a hard winter.

Triumphant tulips after a hard winter.

I now have Mother’s wishes for her obituary and her funeral written down in my own journal.

I’m not ready to let her go! But I also know that my own time is coming, and when it does, I too want to keep laughing. I will want to talk with my children about death, removing a little of the sting, creating memories which will come back to comfort them. If I go suddenly, they will have these words.

When it’s time to say good-bye to Mother, I will be like her, the person who described herself as “drunk with grief” when her mother died.

Mother says funerals in her youth contained more wailing and sobbing. Today they are more subdued, the focus being on celebration of life. “Celebration is good, but not suppression of feeling.”

Nevertheless, Mother doesn’t want her funeral sermon to be a eulogy. The focus should be on the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

“My legacy is my family. They will sing and play for me.”

And so we will.

Have you talked with your parent(s) or children about your wishes surrounding end of life? What suggestions do you have to help make the conversations better, easier?

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Three Things Every Grandparent Learns Again and Every Wise Parent Knows

Today’s post was going to be about children and memoir storytelling. I had it all set up like this:

The perfect granny picture. We're reading a giant Richard Scarry book.

The perfect granny picture. We're reading a giant Richard Scarry book.

The post would be the third in a series of how my grandchildren are my spiritual teachers. The first post (2011) was about learning attention and proprioception (awareness of the body) from a baby. The second (2013) focused on learning to become one with nature. I would continue the tradition of borrowing from other writers, like Wordsworth, and Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott to enhance the depth of my own experience. I love these little essays and wanted to write another like them.

But it was not to be.

In preparation for a talk I am giving Friday night called “I Love to Tell the Story,” I created a literal story board:  copies of pictures that appear in my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

the literal story board

The literal story board.

I thought Owen, now age three, would select photos he was curious about and want to hear stories.

Alas, he was much more interested in his new Hello Kitty coloring book. In the 2.5 hours between the time he awoke and the time Stuart and I strolled him and Julia to school, Owen didn’t ask for any stories. Instead, he shed some tears. He:

  • cried because I wasn’t in bed when he came to wake me up
  • cried because Julia was playing with the bouncy ball he instantly decided he needed to have
  • cried because the stripes on his socks were too wide

Was all lost?

Of course not! Even in their tears, Owen and Julia teach Grandma and Grandad. They give us gifts different from the ones we hoped for. But they amaze us by wisdom we can neither predict nor demand.

ready for a ride

Grandad buckles up skeptical Owen while Julia waves.

What spiritual gifts have we gained from a week of intensive grandparenting?

I. Let go of expectations.

Sometimes grandparents forget what to expect at a certain age or develop expectations of what will or won’t be fun for a child.

Wise parents know that children run according to their own feelings and needs. They have their own timetables for everything. Often, by going where the children are instead of insisting that they come to you, you get to explore places you would not have gone otherwise. Those places may be better than the ones you anticipated in advance. In the process, you start asking what you might need to let go in your own life.

As Dr. Stephen Cowan says, “Each season, each stage, each little rhythm of our life is a matter of letting go. This allows us to get rid of what we don’t need to make room in our lives for new information. Learning to let go is not always easy and each child has his own adaptive style and timing. Nature favors diversity.”

II. Practice in reframing.

Tears flow easily for three-year-olds. And they give way just as easily to smiles. Sometimes a little creativity is necessary. For instance, I discovered, along with Owen, that:

  • it’s easy to pop back into bed and start snoring so that Owen gets to wake you up and clap his hands when you rub the sleep out of your eyes. His offer to make you coffee will jump start your day better than caffeine.
  • a bouncy ball can bounce two ways; a brother can bounce it to a sister.
  • questions re-orient thoughts: “I wonder if any of the other socks in the drawer look like they want to be on Owen’s feet today?”

III.  Take time to smell the roses, literally and figuratively.

Such a cliché, smelling the roses. But how often do we do it? Owen examined every one of these flowers, seeking names of types and colors. He filled the glass with water and noticed that the flowers drank it with their stems. He sniffed the roses on the table.

Smelling the roses

Smelling the roses

He also exclaimed about the buds about to pop on the trees outside. Every day he examines them to see how much progress they’ve made.

His wise mother allowed Owen and Julia to dig in the dirt in the front lawn and asked them questions about what they saw.

Soon we will travel back to Virginia. We will leave with all of our senses tuned tighter (and our backs a little sorer). We will often hear imaginary laughter. And we’ll stride back into our own world with these two stepping stones to wisdom firmly in place:

Steps under the sink.

Steps under the sink.

I haven’t drawn any morals from this story related to memoir or to writing. But I’ll bet you can! What lessons in wisdom have you learned anew from your own children and grandchildren? Or have you had other teachers of the same ideas? Do tell!

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Learning from Rachel Held Evans: A Book Tour Pro

Do you know Rachel Held Evans? If not, you should.

She’s a barrel of laughs.

A good laugh with Rachel Held Evans

A good laugh with Rachel Held Evans. Photo credit: Jessica Hostetler.

She’s also a bestselling author and a courageous leader among Christian Feminists online. She’s helped many people bridge between faith and doubt. Read this blog post about World Vision and see how much energy (over 600 comments) she generates! My respect for her has only increased after I met her on March 19 at Eastern Mennonite University.

Rachel is also a memoir and book marketing pro. Less than half my age, she teaches me. When I heard she was coming to my alma mater, right down the street from my house, I knew I had to be there.

If you are an avid reader, if you are a writer, you look forward to events like this one that give you an opportunity to meet a favorite author — or maybe just a famous one who becomes a favorite after the event.

After Rachel’s visit I created a check list of a dozen activities I did before and after the event. It’s easy to forget networking skills when caught up in the excitement of the moment.

I figured that if I needed to remind myself of how to help the writer, the sponsoring institution, and myself, perhaps these simple strategies might help my readers also. I also want to get better at serving authors and readers through this blog, so I’m hoping you will improve the list after you read it.

I’m about to go on another tour myself, and though I’m not a star like Rachel, the list below might help me know how to act and how to ask for help when I’m the speaker.

The List: A Dozen Ways to Connect

1. Check out the pre-event publicity. Help spread the word on social media. I used Facebook.

2. Twitter comes in handy before, during, and after the presentation. If you have an account, share a few pithy quotes. Retweet others.

3. After the presentation, ask a question. It doesn’t have to be profound, just sincere.

4. Buy the book!

5. Get in the line.

Rachel Held Evans, Andrea Schrock Wenger, and Blush

Enjoying conversation when I reached my turn in line. Andrea Schrock Wenger (left) was the host. Photo credit: Jessica Hostetler

6. Pay keen attention when others talk to the author.

You can learn a lot from an author about how she listens to her fans. Some clearly want to dispatch with the task as quickly as possible. Rachel Held Evans focuses on the person in front of her, not on the length of the line. People in the line don’t grow restless. They know they will get Rachel’s full attention when their turn comes.

7. Photo op? Of course. Offer to take photos for others in line also. Good chance to deepen friendships with readers as you wait in line. If you’re lucky, a good photographer you offer to help, will help you. Thanks, Jessica Hostetler!

Getting my copy of A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Getting my copy of A Year of Biblical Womanhood autographed. Photo credit: Jessica Hostetler

8. Follow up. Thank her for the visit in Tweet form. Feel a little thrill when she replies or favorites the  tweet.

9. Follow up. Offer a guest post.

10. Write a blog post about the event such as this one.

 If I had been thinking further ahead, I would have asked to interview her on my blog!

11. Tweet a link to her it as a way to say thank you one more time for her mission in the world. Only another writer knows how lonely the journey can be. I think I will also tweet some of my laugh lines from A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

12. And then leave her alone. She’s an introvert. And she’s got another book to write!

How can you improve this list? Can you tell a story of what it was like to meet a famous author? I’d love to listen!

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Richard Gilbert’s Memoir Shepherd: A Masterpiece of Rumination

Did you know that there are 150 ruminant species living on earth?

Cover photo, Shepherd: A Memoir of Freckles, the good mother.

Cover photo, Shepherd: A Memoir of Freckles, the good mother.

Sheep, goats, and cattle, however, play a special role. About 10,000 years ago they helped bring us agriculture and the familiar landscape of pastures and meadows.

I learned that fact from one of my favorite guides to memoir, Richard Gilbert, whose posts and comments have appeared on this site for the last three years.

Richard himself is an ruminant, a writer who grazes down to the roots and then chews on ideas until they yield nurture.

In his forthcoming book (May 1 from Michigan State University Press)  Shepherd: A Memoir, he ruminates on three archetypal quest themes:

  • the son’s search for his father
  • the search for a lost bucolic paradise
  • a spiritual quest for invisible wholeness and connection

 I. The Son’s Quest for the Father

The story begins before the first page. We learn, in chapter one, that the author’s paternal grandfather committed suicide took his own life years ago. Something  immediately “clicks,” bringing all other descriptions of the author’s father, Charles Churchill Gilbert, into the foreground. The suicide happened when Charles was fourteen. By the time of this story, which takes place after 1996, Charles has died. As a father, he was both charismatic (when in public) and distant (to his sons, at least, a “stone face”).

The father also lost an inheritance by buying two cattle farms, never able to make them financially sustainable. He was no slouch, however, but a man of action and dreams, ahead of his time in some ways, able to make contributions to aviation and agriculture even when he couldn’t save his farms. His son Richard admired him.

At the impressionable age of six, author Richard moved with his family away from the second farm, the lost paradise in Georgia, to what many would have considered a better place: Florida and the middle-class suburban life that surrounded the space industry in its prime. From then on, Richard would have a dream, perhaps an obsession, to return to the land.

In mythic language, he wants to find the holy grail and restore the land to fecundity. He will do this in some ways for his father and in some ways in opposition to his father, besting him at his own game in the classic ways of sons. He will live to tell the story. He will write a book.

Of course, Charles Gilbert, the father, was also an author — of a niche publication still available online: Success without soil: how to grow plants by hydroponics. The memoir Shepherd could have been called Success With Lambs. Fortunately, it wasn’t. But I do note that its Amazon category is not memoir but horticulture!

Throughout the book the reader yearns along with the son for the father’s gaze, touch, verbal approval. It never arrives in fullness. Even the final good-bye fails to satisfy. The father’s heart gives out, but the son still cannot reach him:

I fell on him, kissed his rough cheek, tried to hug him. He submitted quietly, unmoving, his face slightly turned from our first embrace (291).

II. Paradise Lost, Found, Regained

At the center of this narrative lies two farms. First there is that lost farm in Georgia, the one that the boy Richard lamented and the man Richard tried to find through the purchase of a magical but run-down property in Appalachian Ohio in 1996.

By this time Richard was a middle-aged man and a father, married to a woman he met when both of them were graduate students at Ohio State University. Kathy, unlike Richard, grew up on a farm and held no romantic illusions about it.

Nevertheless, Kathy works “like a horse” and applies herself to leadership in academics, eventually becoming a college president. She has a gift not only for working hard but for seeing opportunity. She finds the seventeen acre farm, ironically called Lost Valley, and she suggests the strategy of bidding an extra $101, which is enough to make them winners.

Throughout the book, Richard ignores her sage advice only at his own peril. And she is there to help in every project he initiates, smoothing relationships with neighbors and their two children, and offering plenty of labor.

But Richard is the one who eventually finds the project that will bring in income and make him a shepherd. He settles on assembling a herd of Katahdin hair sheep. He learns, the hard way every time, how to purchase, select, breed, tend, feed, and evaluate his herd.

Coming from a farm myself, and having investigated farm inheritance issues in my own memoir, I can heartily endorse Richard and his father’s conclusion about farming. You can only make a go of it if you inherit the land or if you scale up from small to large or both.

If you want to know just how many adventures old buildings, animals, and town/gown issues in a small town can produce, read the book! You will veer from one near-catastrophe to another. And you will learn to love sheep, especially the one pictured above, Freckles.

Along the way, make sure you pause to appreciate Richard’s gifts as a writer. His imagery will pull you into his cave, where you will find, for example, “jagged stalagmites of greasy mud” (32).

His exquisite braiding of three different stories: childhood, early adulthood, and life on the farm may at times confuse you, but never confuses him. I suggest you create a timeline for his life as he distributes clues.

 III. Wholeness. The Mystic’s Quest.

The "ruminants" I grew up with -- cows. Richard didn't choose this animal because he didn't want to be "chained to an udder."

The "ruminants" I grew up with -- Holstein cows. Richard didn't choose this animal because he didn't want to be chained to an udder (31).

“The animals, their reproductive cycles, the pastures, and the farmer’s efforts move in turn with the seasons, with the entire tilting, spinning planet.” (55)

Throughout the book, the author offers us glimpses of his soul. Behind all his longings — for the approval of his family, especially his father, for the chance to create and live in a rural paradise, and for the achievement of a work of art in this book — lies one big longing: he wants to feel himself part of the “entire tilting, spinning planet.”

No writer can do more than suggest this kind of union. And too much yearning turns the words into abstract mush. Richard always stays with the concrete image but manages to suggest invisible forces beyond.

In fact, this book contains one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever encountered. It sent a shiver through me and rewarded me for close reading. As a reader, I got to put the whole together myself.  The words are suggestive, transcendent, and yet grounded. I defy you to find a better, more electric, ending.

And I’ve got to believe that somewhere Charles Churchill Gilbert is saying, “Well done!”

What else would you like to know about Richard, memoir, this book? Are you also a ruminant?

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100 Magical Memoir Moments: A Possible New Book?

Have you ever walked out the door, sniffed the air, and felt an arrow fly into your heart?

Sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, San Francisco. Wikipedia image.

Sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, San Francisco. Wikipedia image.

I think there must be another kind of Cupid in addition to the one at Hallmark  — a Memoir Cupid who sends us pangs of joy or sorrow from our past.

Scientists who study memory know that the senses, especially the sense of smell, connect us to storage of people, places, things, and events we know we experienced before, but we don’t recall vividly — yet.

Two years ago I wondered what I could offer readers who are ready to think about or talk about or maybe even write about their own stories.

If you have read Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you know that my mother wrote a story called “The Magic Elevator” in high school and that she has now told that story to three generations of her own family.

I wanted to offer my readers entré into the world of memory, which is just as magical as the world of imagination. Some would say the two worlds are the same. :-) But in the case of memory, the fairy dust floats over real objects, sense perceptions, and artifacts.

So, what if I sent you one of my artifacts by email every week and made a short observation and asked you a question. Could I share the Magic? Would Cupid’s arrow sting you also?

I decided to offer Magical Memoir Moments to readers in 2012, the year before my book was published. I wasn’t sure what images to send. So I tried landscapes. And old photos from my family collection, some of which ended up in my published memoir.

And, of course, I had to throw in a few photos of Cupid’s best weapon — my grandchildren.

Sample Magical Memoir Moment

Sample Magical Memoir Moment

Uh oh. I found a typo in the text above. Can’t correct it right now. Just like all Magic, this one includes a touch of imperfection.

Yesterday, I sent Magical Memoir Moment #100 out the door. This weekend, I have to fill up Cupid’s Quiver with new arrows to send to the 620 people who subscribe. You may remember that making an eBook out of the weekly offerings now accumulated was one of my goals for 2014, along with travel. I’d also love to grow the membership in Magical Memoir Moments, so please share this post online if you enjoy receiving Cupid’s arrows, and please subscribe yourself if you haven’t tried them yet. If they aren’t for you, it’s easy to unsubscribe at the bottom of every message.

sign up in the box on the right-hand side of your screen

Sign up in the box on the right-hand side of your screen. You'll have to scroll up to the top.

In addition to signing up, I would love your guidance about what kind of Moment to select. I have pictures galore. Some are color and contemporary, like the sample above. Some are old and frayed.

I’m thinking of collecting the best 100 of these into a book called 100 Magical Memoir Moments. I may call some of my tribe members together to help me select which 100. Let me know if you had a favorite and/or want to help select.

As you think about your own Magical Memoir Moments, do you have a story to share of a time your heart was pierced by memory? I’m all ears!

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What’s the Best Way to do a Book Tour? A Hybrid Approach Between Virtual and “Live”

Hamming it up with Maxine in Kansas City

Hamming it up with Maxine in Kansas City. Photo credit: Shirley Yoder. I got to be a tourist and had a blast at the Hallmark Visitors Center.

Book tours have gotten a bad rap lately. Publishers seldom sponsor them except for their A-list authors in A-list venues in large cities.

In fact, back in 2011 Anne R. Allen advised authors to celebrate their demise in a post titled  RIP the Author Book Tour.  She preferred BLOG tours and social media, which, three years ago, were all the rage. Later, some authors questioned this method also, but most found them worthwhile. Here’s author Madeline Sharples in 2012 explaining the benefits on Examiner.com.

My own response? Do both: travel and use social media!

So here are five tips extracted from my recent trip to Kansas City and two small towns: Hesston and North Newton, Kansas. I spoke to more than 600 people in mostly packed venues. I sold and signed at least 88 books. My email list grew by more than 100 names. I had a whole team of people helping me.

1. Define success before you begin.

What makes any endeavor in life successful? Clear goals in advance help. For example: are you going to go strictly by cost/benefit analysis? Cost of tour versus income from book sales?

If so, the only way to go is having the ability to charge for public speaking. Even then, your fee will need to be hefty if your costs are high. It’s almost impossible to fly, rent a car, pay hotels and restaurants, without having someone at the other end who wants you enough to pay expenses plus at least $500 in honoraria. If you have this, the book sales become the icing on the cake instead of the cake itself.

On the other hand, you may have the luxury of having a “bucket list” of places to visit and people to see. You may be willing to make that the “cake” and everything else the icing.

Most authors fall somewhere between the two extremes above.

Tweet: “Your book tour goals should be linked to the reasons you wrote your book in the first place.” @shirleyhs

My own goals for this tour were to sell two boxes (88 copies) of books sent in advance by my publisher, renew ties with friends in the area, listen to and engage with readers, hone my abilities as a speaker, and generate buzz in the community about my book Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

These goals are linked to my overall goal as an author to leave a legacy, to promote values such as simplicity, peace, and kindness, and to prepare for my own death by living one good day at a time. I also want to learn as much as possible about writing well. And I can only learn that by engaging with other writers, coaches and critics, and my readers.

It’s important to note that BLUSH is nearly six months old. That’s past the shelf life of the average book. BLUSH is now in its third printing, which means it’s on track to exceed the publisher’s minimum sales goals, but now is a critical time.

Tweet: “For books, as for all other living things, the rule is: grow or die.” @shirleyhs

It’s also important to note that most authors don’t make a living from sales of their books. I never expected to do so. I place the writing and marketing of this book into the category in my budget called education and travel. I am fortunate enough to not depend on sales for success, but I’m both frugal and still have an inner child’s voice inside, the voice that opened BLUSH with these words:

Tweet: “Ever since I was little, I wanted to be big. Not just big as in tall, but big as in important, successful, influential.” @shirleyhs

So, I am very actively involved in promotion for this book. For my own learning and enjoyment, for the benefit of my chosen charity, and for FUN!

2. Start about five months before the actual tour.

Here’s a checklist of both “real” and “virtual” activities:

  • examine your calendar for potential “anchor events and locations.” Then reach out to people you know in the area. (My anchor event was a conference my husband was already attending in Kansas City. His expenses were paid, which reduced mine.)
  • ask for help from people who have reasons of their own to want to help. Fans of your book. Other writers, friends, former students and colleagues, online friends. You can ask for suggestions of contacts for bookstores, libraries, churches, colleges, and retirement communities. I found all my venues through this avenue.
  • Social media. Use FB friend search to locate both current friends and friends of friends you may know.
  • As time gets closer to events, consider using your author page on FB to reach a new audience. I coughed up $50 to advertise just to Kansans. My number of “likes” expanded by about the same number.

3. Select topics that meet local needs/interests and show your interest in their area.

Tweet: “Humor is the engine that lifts a tour from duty to delight” @shirleyhs.

I spoke to five different audiences and did not duplicate any topic. I worked with the sponsors of each event to listen to their needs and craft titles that they could promote with zest, which they did.

the red shoes

"Dorothy"'s red shoes were a subject of pre-tour conversation on my FB author page and on the FB event page

Time to introduce my red shoes. They are a whole story in themselves. Here’s the quick and dirty version. I posted the picture above on my author page and asked,

So, if you go to Kansas, what item of apparel do you get to haul out of the closet? Do I dare wear these? To a Mennonite Church??

More than 640 people saw this post (about the number of “likes” I had on the page) and about 30 people commented. Since FB usually makes you pay to get that many eyeballs, I knew the shoes would make a great conversation piece. I was truly uncertain in asking about them in the first place, but people loved making multiple connections to Dorothy, the wizard of Oz, Kansas, tornados, fashion, Mennonites, and feminism. :-)

One of my amazing Tour Team members just happened to be a professional photographer, Jon Friesen, who, without my requesting it, took a whole storehouse of excellent pictures. Then Kathleen Foster Friesen, one of my first contacts in the area, put up the photos online, reporting on three of the five events which she and Jon attended. Without prompting, Jon posted this companion picture of my feet under the table where I was signing books at Schowalter Villa.

red shoes under the table in Kansas

Red shoes under the table in Kansas. Photo credit: Jon Friesen.

A wonderful gentleman in the audience of my last talk, which happened to be about humor: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Memoir,” opened the Q & A session with the question:

“I notice you are wearing red shoes. Can you tell us why?”
Tweet: All I had to say was, “I’m in Kansas! @shirleyhs

He brought the house down.

4. Keep the conversation going online before, during, and after the events. But, offline, be absolutely present to each person.

Here are two Friesen photos that tell a story I love. The first is a photo of the audience at the last event. The woman in blue is asking a question. Look at the expression on those faces as she reaches deep into her soul to pull out words.

An audience member asks a question

An audience member asks a question. Photo credit: Jon Friesen.

Kathleen herself takes wonderful pictures. She captured the exchange below at the Kauffman Museum. When it was shared on Facebook, one of my friends said, “This is my favorite.” I think you can see how and why exchanges like these fuel me as an author whose mission is social and spiritual.


listening one-on-one to a question

Listening one-on-one to a question. Photo credit: Kathleen Foster Friesen. Taken at the Kauffman Museum.

5. Never stop saying Thank You!

I tried to thank my hosts Jim Juhnke and Miriam Nofsinger, Kathleen and Jon Friesen, Clif and Karen Hostetler, Rachel Pannabecker, Wendy Miller, Nathan Bartel, Sue Stuckey, and Bethany Martin (as well as many other staff members of Bethel College, Schowalter Villa, Faith and Life Bookstore, Hesston Mennonite Church, and the Kauffman Museum) when I was there. My publisher was also very helpful. Jerilyn Schrock at Herald Press arranged to have the books shipped to Kansas City and helped me with logistics of connecting them to Faith and Life Bookstore in North Newton. She also supplied book cover posters and book plates for any venue that used them in publicity.

Yesterday, I spent three hours sending thank-you cards. This blog post is another way of saying thanks.

Now, what else would you like to know, authors? And what else fascinates you as you look at the behind-the-scenes life of an author, readers? Your comments below will make this post much more valuable to all of us.

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© Copyright Shirley Hershey Showalter
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