An Exclusive Love: Author Interview

Here’s another memoir author interview of a memoir that’s been translated into 15 languages and is soon coming out in paper after a successful hardcover run. Learn from the author directly!

1. Please describe the plot of your memoir briefly.

It’s the story of my grandparents, who commited suicide together hand in hand in their bed in Copenhagen late in their life. In writing this book I tried to explore why they did it – whether it might have had to do with their history, which is one tied to the horrors of the last century; as Hungarian Jews they survived the Holocaust, in 1956 fled to Denmark where they lived a totally assimilated life. It’s also a big love story about two extraordinary people who were inseparable until their last breath.

 2. How did you come to write this story?

The fact that they died like they did had left me with an uneasy feeling. I wanted to find out as much detail as possible about their last day in order to work through the overwhelming feelings that derived from my not-knowing the facts.

3. Your book covers three generations. Can you describe the structure you chose for such a multi-layered memoir? Was it a struggle for you to find this structure?

The structure came very easily to me. The main story was the last day in their life which I tell based on facts but of course fictionalized, as I wasn’t there when it took place. To get the whole picture I had to tell about their background as well, and I also included myself, my journalistic approach to find answers.

 4. You chose to open the book with this stunner sentence: “On 13 October 1991 my grandparents killed themselves.” Did you know you would give the reader this information right away or was that first sentence a decision you came to late in the writing process?

 First things first: Actually once I had the first sentence the whole book almost wrote itself. Well, not really, but from the first sentence on it all fell into its place. So the first sentence was where I started because that’s where the whole story starts, for me.

 5.Your book was translated into English (from German) by Anthea Bell. What is the experience like for you to read your book in multiple languages? Diana Athill (whose Somewhere Towards the End was reviewed here) credits your precise and supple writing style for the way the book translates into English. Any comments on the author/translator relationship?

My book has been translated so far into 15 languages. English and French are the only ones I am able to read, apart from the original German. I am very happy with the English translation. Anthea Bell translated W.G.Sebald into English, so I feel that I’m in very good company, and I trust her skill completely.  

 6. Since your publisher is bringing out the paperback version in January, can you tell us a little about the difference between a hard cover book launch and the paperback publication? From an author’s perspective, do you like the fact that the book gets to launch twice?

 When it was first published as a hardcover it felt as if my child was moving away from home and starting a life on his own. Now, as paperback, it’s as if it starts to study abroad or something. It’s been quite a while since it has left me but apparently it is still doing fine. That’s nice.

7. What kinds of responses have you received from readers about the way you handled the suicides of your grandparents?

A surprisingly great number of people told me about suicides in their family. No one complained in any way about my way of presenting it. So I guess I must have handled it okay. I know that I tried to treat it with respect and to let the protagonists, my grandparents, have their dignity.

 8. The Holocaust continues to claim victims much after the actual atrocity took place. Did writing this story reveal anything new to you about the Holocaust, and perhaps about human nature itself?

 No. I didn’t have anything new to add about the Holocaust. As far as human nature is concerned, I just tried to tell my grandparent’s story as truthfully as I possibly could

9. How do you feel about the marketing part of the author’s job? You are involved now in a blog tour arranged by your editors. Do you wish you did not need to do this? Or do you find it enjoyable? Which marketing tasks do you like most/least?

It’s fun to answer questions. So far I’ve liked everything I had to do as far as my book is concerned. No one has ever put me in uncomfortable situations. I am a journalist myself, so I know about that side about the job.

 10. What have you learned about the nature of memory and truth by writing a memoir?

Memory is a very personal thing. Each of us has our own truth. That my name is on the cover of the book symbolizes that this is my truth. It’s not the truth. Just mine.

Johanna Adorjan, photo by Peter von Felbert









I love how direct Johanna is in her answers–just like the gaze in her photo. Do you want to ask her anything else? What did you learn from her?
Posted in Guest blogger | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

An Inside Look into Finding an Agent and Publisher: Terry Helwig’s Story

Terry Helwig signing her memoir Moonlight on Linoleum

Remember the wonderful interview with Terry Helwig in which she shared her book marketing strategies? Well, thanks to the gentle nudging of one of that post’s most engaged readers, Linda Gartz, Terry is back. Here’s how she found her agent and publisher, in her own words. I suggest you go to her site to learn even more. The link will take you directly to a set of great writing tips.

I like how Terry takes the process of writing, editing, and publishing seriously and herself lightly. I hope you’ll enjoy and learn a lot.

From Terry to Linda (and all of us):

Linda, in addition to the writing/publishing tips on my website (open tab on writing tips), I strongly suggest authors go into a bookstore and leaf through books similar to the type of book they want to publish.  Oftentimes agents, editors and publishers will be mentioned in the acknowledgments which means these people and publishing houses likely have an interest in your genre.  I have been writing off and on for thirty years.  It wasn’t until I wrote Moonlight on Linoleum that I sought out an agent.  When my manuscript was finally read, I was told that I had a diamond in the rough; but in order for the agency to represent my manuscript, they suggested I hire a NYC editor to help me polish “my diamond” to make it more marketable.  I was told that publishers now prefer complete, edited manuscripts ready for publication because so many places are short-staffed and feeling the economic crunch.   The truth is, the cost of hiring a reputable editor gave me great pause—the cost was thousands of dollars, plus there was absolutely no guarantee that my manuscript would be accepted anywhere.  It was a gamble to be sure.  In the end, I decided to take the risk and, after undergoing the editing process, I was lucky enough to get an advance that more than covered the cost of the editing. I am well aware the ending could have turned out very differently.  I certainly don’t recommend this path for everyone, but it worked for me.

Do you have your own publishing story? What else do you want to know from Terry? Isn’t she generous to share so many ideas with us? Please thank her. And if you are interested in family history, check out Linda Gartz’s fascinating website also.


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Contests for Memoir Writers — And Resources to Help You Prepare

It’s the season to be jolly and give shout outs to other bloggers and teachers. First, let me tell you about a contest from one of my “oldest” online writing buddies, Sonia Marsh. She and I met at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference in 2008 — or was it 2009? At any rate, we’ve both been blogging and writing manuscripts ever since. Sonia has created an amazing  contest. I am hoping some of the readers of this blog will take the challenge she tosses out below. If you have never written memoir but enjoy reading it, here’s an opportunity to try your hand. You could be a winner!

Sonia’s blog can be found here, and her Twitter handle is Gutsyliving. I love her tag line — “life’s too short to play it safe” — don’t you?

Also, here’s a free class being offered on how to write a memoir with an emphasis on short ones. Perfect for the contest above.

All the info you need about signing up for the class is here. Tessa Smith McGovern, the teacher, sent me the link because she thought the readers of this blog could benefit. If you do, please come back and tell us about your experience here.

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Online community networks are wonderful ways to find good opportunities and also good resources. Lots of them are free or reasonably priced. Enjoy!

If you have a resource you want to offer, please hop on to the comments section. 

Out of curiosity, how many of you are writing memoir, thinking about it, or have already done it. Hop on for this purpose also.




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A Walker in the City: Inspiring and Daunting

November 20, 2011.

Brooklyn, New York

It’s nearly midnight. I’ve just closed the book A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. Outside Flatbush Ave. pulses with movement and light in the rain. The wet streets glisten and double the images of white headlights approaching, red taillights receding, and green traffic light swaying above.

The Express Lube carwash sign glows brightly, but the flag in front of it flutters wanly in the wind, its thin sodden fabric no longer furling, Under the large scarlet letters CAR WASH the burnt-out remains of another sign are faintly visible. But the last two letters burn brightly. OIL CHANGE has become merely GE.

High above the street looms a huge billboard with Adam Sandler’s face inviting us to his Christmas movie Jack and Jill. And above the billboard a huge blue logo accompanied by a single word in white letters: CHASE.

A woman heading this way onthe dark street fights the rain with a flimsy umbrella. From a distance she resembles a pteradactyl, giving the contemporary urban scene a touch of prehistoric mystery. Thousands of windows have a view of this same street, so perhaps I shouldn’t imagine that I am the only one watching this one woman in this particular place at this moment of time.

I think about the connections and differences between the life I’ve just read about and my own. Just five miles from the high-rise condo building on Myrtle Ave. where I am staring out the window, Alfred Kazin’s Brownsville still exists. His memoir, written in 1946 when he was still in his early ’30’s, already described a lost place, a place of immigrants yearning to breathe free, a place the author both loved and hated.

Alfred Kazin

I actually met Alfred Kazin in the 1980’s when he lectured at Goshen College and I was a professor there. He was at that time about 68 years old, only five years older than I am now. I thought he was ancient. The only one of his books I had read at that time was On Native Grounds. In graduate school it was considered an example of “old school” literary criticism.

Among New York Jewish intellectuals in the 1940’s-1960’s, where Kazin earned his literary and cultural street creds, his least honored work was his three-volume autobiography. Considered too personal to  “count,” with his peers at the time they were written, the three books that begin with A Walker in the City (and also include Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew) may well become the most classic texts of his long and voluminous career. I now understand why A Walker in the City rates so well as a coming-of-age memoir even though it is basically a collection of essays rather than an integrated narrative. The secret lies in the layering of childhood and adulthood, the vivid sensory detail and the emotional intelligence of the narrating author.

How does a writer remember such vivid physical and emotional detail from childhood? Kazin is almost as gifted as Vladimir Nabakov in doing so. Here’s just one example. As he plays a game called Indian trail, “the greatest moment came when I could plunge into the darkness down the block for myself and hide behind the slabs in the monument works. I remember the air whistling around me as I ran, the panicky thud of my bones in my sneakers,and then the slabs rising in the light from the street lamps as I sped past the little candy story and crept under the fence.” Every child runs. Only a one in a million adults remembers running this way.

Flannery O’Conner once said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.”

The drama of childhood is all about newness, ritual, feelings expressed and unexpressed, attachment and loneliness. The experience may well be small, the space limited, and the information scant, but a great writer makes the most of quotidian materials.

I am awed by this ability. Sometimes, reading the work of really great memoirists, I feel very small because they seem to be able to remember and evoke such profound detail. Then I read an article in The New York Times last week about talent and its correlation with working memory. After that one, I feel like that woman on the street struggling against the wind, her umbrella offering no shelter.

Anybody out there know what I am talking about? I suspect that part of the solution to this problem is to write and write and write. Sometimes the detail comes back that way, the perfect metaphor flashes with light. The sidewalks of memory glisten in the rain. One thing is sure. If I don’t write a lot, I’ll never remember beyond the broad, sunny, surface. If I want to get to the double image, I’ll need to sing, a lot, in the rain.

Posted in Classic Memoir/Autobiography, Personal Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Going Grey Caused Me a Problem: Did I Do the Right Thing?

Seated in the bright meadow of the former Silver Summit Farm,

I like to think that I’m not vain about my looks. My make-up case is a sandwich bag, and I use its contents rarely. For my lips my favorite brand is Chapstick.

But fifteen years ago, I did dye my hair and kept on doing it. Over time, I began to be curious about what my real hair color was.

As I wrote a book proposal this summer, I was also preparing to create a website to gather this blog and the memoir-in-progress book community as it forms, which meant doing a photoshoot and hiring a media company.

Luckily, I didn’t have to go far to find either one. My niece Joy Derner takes wonderful photos at Portrait of Hope Photography, and my daughter Kate and her husband Nik Stoltzfus are a great team to call on at Plumb Media in Pittsburgh. Let’s hear it for small businesses and nepotism, er, networking.

The first photoshoot took place in May 2011 near Lititz, PA, at the farmhouse I called “Grandpa’s house” in childhood and “home” when I was a teenager. Since my name “Shirley” means literally “of the bright meadow,” I wanted some pictures taken in that meadow, which is now a public park. The jogging path in the park follows the route I took as a barefoot teenager to call the cows home to be milked in the evening. Joy asked me to sit on a rock in the creek for this photo. The delight you see on my face may be that the shoot is almost over and I can get out of the cold creek.

At Forgotten Seasons Bed and Breakfast, formerly Silver Summit Farm, May, 2011

Then, at the old farmhouse now Forgotten Seasons Bed & Breakfast, she brought out a basket of kitties and an old hymnal and asked me to sing to the kitties. A great idea. We had much fun in the process.

There was only one problem. I had decided, after moving to Brooklyn, NY, to take care of grandson Owen, that I would see what color was under that auburn I had been getting updated at the hairdresser’s every five weeks.

Turns out the colors are quite different.

I’m fine with being called “Grandma” and with my silver hair. Really, I am. I’m even more fine with my job as “granny nanny,” which I’ve been documenting weekly here.

However, as the time approached to select the website photos, it was clear we had a problem. If there was going to be truth in advertising, I couldn’t use those old photos. Or could I?

Joy Derner to the rescue! I hired her a second time on Nov. 3, 2011. Again we enjoyed being together and she had creative ideas for locations in downtown Lancaster, the place where my mother and Hess grandparents sold their farm products twice a week for decades. Here’s a slide show of the seven photos I like best from the second shoot. And below are two of the seven just to give you a preview.

Which ones do you like best? Do you think I could find a way to use both sets of photos (use the older ones in sepiatone, date the photos)?

Also, many writers look pensive in their photos. Do you like a serious pose or a smiling pose on a book cover and/or author website? Which of the photos seems to tell, or suggest, the best story?

Taken close to the Lancaster Central Market, Nov. 3, 2011

In front of Central Market, Nov. 3, 2011, Lancaster, PA

Posted in Memoir-in-Progress | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

Chinaberry Sidewalks: Another Excellent Crazy Childhood Memoir by Rodney Crowell

Welcome new guest blogger, Richard Potter. Below you can learn more about him and more about an excellent memoir from singer/song writer Rodney Crowell. If you love memoirists Mary Karr, Rosanne Cash, and Jeanette Walls, you will love this one also. 

By Richard Potter

Chinaberry Sidewalks is my first direct exposure to a great American writer, Rodney Crowell. A songwriter first and foremost, with Chinaberry Sidewalks Crowell proves to be a gifted memoirist as well.

As I prepared to write this review, it became clear that my indirect exposure to Mr. Crowell reaches back more than thirty years. He wrote one of my all-time favorite songs, “Ashes By Now”, which was covered by Emmylou Harris in 1981 and again by Lee Ann Womack in 2000. Crowell’s name appears as producer and composer on several of my treasured vinyl LPs, including Harris’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978), and Rosanne Cash’s Somewhere in the Stars (1982). (Crowell and Cash were married from 1979-1992.)

More recently, my favorite memoirist Mary Karr posted a video of Crowell and herselfin the act of co-writing lyrics for an upcoming album. In a 2010 interview with Crowell, Karr asks, “What possessed you to go from being a Grammy-winner to being an actual literary memoirist?” Crowell explains that he did not want to limit his creativity to music, especially as he grew older. “I wanted to learn to paint on a different canvas so I would never stop working as an artist.”

At first, Crowell found he was “drunk” on how many words he could use, and it took some time to be weaned from the “trickery” he had come to rely on to write songs. Chinaberry Sidewalks demonstrates that Crowell can easily stomach the solid food of sentences and paragraphs, and that his gift of storytelling crosses easily from music to memoir. His account of cracking himself over the head with an empty pop bottle displays a clever sense of humor: “I got the full cartoon effect. It felt as if I’d split my skull into two pieces. I saw stars. Drunken birds tweeted, chirped, and crash-landed on the seat next to me. Guardian angels swooped down for a closer look, winced, and sped off in search of scraped knees or bumblebee stings.”

Crowell can just as easily make you cry. Chinaberry Sidewalks is a series of vignettes drawn from his memories of growing up poor in east Texas, the only child of an alcoholic father and a Bible-thumping mother. The book opens through the eyes of a five-year-old eavesdropping on his parents’ 1955 New Year’s Eve Party. Disgusted by the drunken behavior, young Rodney accidently-on-purpose fires a .22 caliber bullet into the linoleum floor. He braces himself for the worst as his father grabs the gun. “Instead, he hugged me so close to his heart that even through the ringing in my ears I could hear it pounding. Being squeezed so hard gave me a feeling of comfort. My peacekeeping mission was complete. There would be no fighting that night.” Although there are many “knock-down drag-outs” to come, it is clear that Crowell truly loved and respected his mom and dad. In his interview with Mary Karr he describes Chinaberry Sidewalks as their “triumphant love story…cloaked in the strangest housecoat you’ve ever seen.”

Despite the abuse he witnessed and suffered — physical, mental, and emotional — Crowell responds with humility, strength, and courage. He recognizes his parents as fallible human beings who made mistakes, but loved him nonetheless. At his father’s deathbed Crowell lifts the curtain on his own inner battles: “His condition seemed to mirror every ounce of self-loathing I’d managed to accrue in thirty-eight years of living, and an overwhelming desire to kill him screamed through every pore in my body.” Horrified at the thought of harming a dying man, he asks then-wife Rosanne Cash if she could understand his feelings. “He’s just burning off the past, Rodney,” she says quietly.

From cover to cover, relationships take center stage. Two full chapters are devoted to the bond between Crowell and his childhood friend, Dabbo. Crowell appears to bring the friendship to a close at the end of Part Two: “My partnership with Dabbo dissolved completely when I encountered the awkwardness of junior high and a whole new set of social concerns. Despite our best efforts, the two-year age difference between us became a chasm we simply couldn’t cross.” But then Dabbo abruptly reappears less than two pages into Part Three. This is about the only place where the memoir misfires, and it demonstrates how difficult it can be to cross-pollinate a series of vignettes with the chronology in which they occurred. Fortunately it is a minor disruption, and easily excused as Crowell weaves his stories into a warm, comfortable blanket of love and forgiveness.

On the back of the dust cover, fellow songwriter Kris Kristofferson states that Chinaberry Sidewalks is “so well written I had to immediately reread it to see if it was as good as I thought it was. It is.” I wholeheartedly agree, and hope Mr. Crowell won’t make us wait too long for Volume II of his gifted storytelling.

Do you think a songwriter has an advantage in learning the art of story telling?

Do you like to read about “crazy” families? How do such memoirs impact your view of your own childhood, your own family? Leave a comment please.

Richard M. Potter is a freelance writer, musician, and consultant to nonprofits. He blogs at, jams at, and loves his wife and two teen-aged children at home in Kansas City, Missouri.

Posted in Celebrity Memoir, Guest blogger | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Marla Likes It! A Query Critique Lesson

Remember the old Life cereal commercial? “Mikey likes it!”? Here it is again.

If Mikey likes it, it’s got to be good.

Well, in memoir query critique, if Marla Miller likes it, the same is true. She’s a tough critic, but kind. And she’s seen a lot of query letters in her role as columnist for The Writer magazine. You’ve met her here before in four previous posts. Now she has gathered all her memoir critiques in one YouTube location.

Her last memoir query critique got two thumbs up! Watch below:

What have you learned about memoir by watching Marla? What else would you like to know from her? She’s generously answered questions here before. I’m sure she will again. Don’t you just love Mikey? Wasn’t it fun to see him again?

You can learn a lot about what grabs and keeps an agent’s attention by watching Marla Miller critique query letters. Often she makes substantive revision suggestions. Here are a few Marla liked. Watch and learn:

Posted in Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Terry Helwig: One Author’s Adventures in Social Media Book Marketing

True or False: Marketing a book is a grueling chore.

You already know this is a trick question, don’t you? The answer? True for some. False for others. Some people love to meet other people and share stories with them. They draw energy from their readers and look for innovative ways to meet more of them at less cost.

One such author is Terry Helwig whose new award-winning memoir was reviewed here by guest blogger Lanie Tankard a few weeks ago. Terry graciously agreed to share her experience of book touring. Below is her story in her own words.

With the downturn in the economy and the upsurge of e-books, book marketing is rapidly changing for authors—especially new authors. Instead of paying for airline tickets, hotels and transfers, many publishers are turning to radio media tours and social media to

Moonlight on Linoleum

promote new releases.  My recent book tour to promote Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter’s Memoir was a combination of both the old book tour (flying and driving) and the virtual book tour (staying put).

While I traveled to several states to promote Moonlight on Linoleum, released October 4th by Simon & Schuster, I undoubtedly reached more people in a single day on a radio media tour while sitting at my dining room table. Wearing a headset, I talked to 19 radio stations in 16 states over the course of eight hours.  The taped and live interviews, ranging from ten to thirty minutes, took place with an array of radio hosts from syndicated NPR programs to morning talk show hosts, the most memorable being Bulldog, Jeff, the Dude who hosts Rude Awakening.

While this service is far from free, it was much more cost effective than flying me to 16 states.  My publisher hired Auritt Communications Group to set up the radio media tour.  A kind, calm-voiced operator, Anna, guided me through the entire day.  She patched me into one radio station after another, told me when to hold, and when to hang up and take a quick break. She listened to every interview, hearing similar answers to oft repeated questions like: How did you come up with your title Moonlight on Linoleum?  What do your sisters think about the book?  Was it hard for you to relive some of the more traumatic moments?  Anna surprised me when she remarked half-way through the day, “I’m going to buy your book; it sounds so interesting.”  It occurred to me that Anna and I had bonded—not face-to-face—but virtually.

In addition to the radio media tour, my publisher touts the value of social media (Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, Skype, YouTube, blogging, a website, etc.) to promote books.  Simon & Schuster offers its authors exclusive Social Media Tutorials on its Author Portal site.  I had already created a website and a Facebook fan page for Moonlight on Linoleum, but GoodReads, Skype and Twitter were still unexplored frontiers.

My publisher gave 50 advance reader copies (ARCs) of Moonlight on Linoleum to GoodReads to give away to its members.  This helped readers become aware of my book months before it was publicly released.  I have no doubt the favorable reviews created a buzz for the book, helping it to become one of GoodReads October 2011 Movers and Shakers.  Even without a give-away, a Simon & Schuster tutorial encourages its authors to sign up for a GoodReads author account.

Another Simon & Schuster tutorial explains how to set up a Twitter account.  Within an hour, I was tweeting from @TerryHelwig.  I enjoy tweeting.  Creating a succinct message in 140 characters is a challenge and helps hone my writing skills.  Plus, I like giving a nod to worthwhile organizations, authors, and bookstores.  When I was on book tour in Atlanta, I stopped into Charis, an independent bookstore.  The store was pleased that I tweeted a

signing books at Charis Books, sent first in a tweet

picture of me signing their stock and mentioning the name and location of their store.  When I tweeted about being in Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, five people showed up because they had read my tweet the night before.  Twitter proved to be a fast and efficient way to communicate information about my book.

Now, a month after Moonlight on Linoleum’s release, I hope to settle in and learn how to Skype so I can video chat with book clubs in November.  I like the idea of sitting at home, wearing my favorite pair of fuzzy socks, and talking to my readers in rural and metropolitan communities around the country.  I can interact with many more people because I don’t have to hurry to catch a plane afterward.  Instead, I can click off the computer and slip into my own bed—which could be my favorite perk of a virtual book tour.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Have any book tour experiences to share either as a reader or author? Book club members, what do you think of the Skype idea? Have you ever used technology to talk directly to authors?


Posted in Marketing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Shirley Kurtz on the Difference Between Writing Memoir and Fiction

Shirley's Memoir

Welcome today to Shirley Kurtz, another memoirist and Mennonite. Shirley and I graduated from Eastern Mennonite College (now university) and both of us have used our English majors as writers all our lives. Shirley, however, began writing books long ago and has published one memoir, several children’s books, and now a novel. I asked her to reflect on memoir v. fiction. She chose to do so by offering samples (in italics below) from her memoir, Growing Up Plain, and her new novel, Sticking Points.

Shirley's Novel

Plain and True

by Shirley Kurtz

I stumbled upon Cynthia Rylant’s book at the public library, But I’ll Be Back Again, its jacket in bold pink, purple, yellow. I can do that, I thought. Say which boys, divulge the pathetic love life. Though my daddy’d never left us, hadn’t I known misery? Hasn’t every child? I pawed through my parents’ box of old photographs and found enough to go on, to drive my plot. Writing for young readers, upon these pictures I would hang my past.

Right here was proof. I wasn’t about to try for a genealogy bogged, exhaustive history. Just, people didn’t know certain insider details about plain-dressing religious sects. Folks deserved better—these persons whose idea of “Mennonite” was a Hollywood starlet with bangs sticking out of her prayer cap. Writing Growing Up Plain I wanted to set the record straight. “Plain” could be lots more severe than what you saw in movies. It could exhibit to the nth degree.

Still—and this was just as important—ways could be found to circumvent the strictures. This conniving involved agony and tedium and maybe even spiritual warfare.

I must have had at least as many waves in my hair as Jeanne Wert and the others. In the nighttime I’d set my waves with bobby pins and then put a hair net over top, to control the frizz. Also, for a while we all thought it stylish to wear our hair pulled tight back over our ears. I got sores behind my ears from them being jammed against my glasses.

Extra nuggets—poor constipated Mary H., Rita Zerbe’s short shorts, my Kool-Aid flood—came in useful, helped me firm up the picture. That’s a tricky part—convoluting the narrative just enough to roil it, not muddy things. And I knew I mustn’t skewer my family and friends. Not only would that have been low-down, I also would’ve been skewering myself. So kindness required a measure of guile, of magical thinking. I labored to speak truthfully.

Due to my obsessive-compulsive streak, this matter of honesty has always felt like a sorely inconvenient blister of obligation. Maybe others view their dexterity with words as a gift, even a right to be indulged, but I’m not that lucky. Younger, when freelancing articles for Mennonite church magazines, I seemed constitutionally incapable of producing the godly, uplifting personal-experience type material editors went for, and being phobic about relating accurately the quandaries this lack of spiritual prowess caused me, I sometimes turned to fictionalizing.

Rachel isn’t her real name, and I’m making some other things up too. But she is, indeed, a woman of conflicting passions. Torn in the flesh. Perhaps not the kind of person you’d expect to find reading her Bible religiously. The thing is, she promised. It happened on a Sunday a number of years ago. The minister at her church, at the conclusion of his fervid sermon on the devotional life, asked everybody to stand, everybody who could promise to read some Scripture daily, and how could Rachel way up front in the third row just sit there like a heathen? Was this minister smart or what?

These magazine articles—the husband was George—weren’t your typical fare, but the Gospel Herald snatched up a number. Lamentably, I crossed the line with a piece titled “Goats and Bulls and Some Fur that Flew”:

In Sunday school George had made a tipsy comment about religious rituals—sacrifice—and set Rachel off. She’d long stewed over the Abraham-and-Isaac incident in Genesis. Why would’ve God told Abraham to butcher and roast his child? Weren’t Abraham’s aborigine neighbors already offering baby sacrifices, not just their burnt specialties like lamb kidney, calf gall bladder, birds with wrung necks? Now, in Sunday school, George wasn’t only suggesting that pious deeds couldn’t absolve a person, George was also pronouncing God’s love as unconditional, saying that nothing people might do or think could make any difference.

And then Rachel spoke up. She just had to say it. “No kidneys! No pigeon heads! No gall bladders and kidneys! God didn’t want kidneys!”

Other class members cringed. Even after the bell rang, the fur was still flying.

The Gospel Herald editor wrote back, “Sorry, but I’m going to pass on this one. That’s because of what I assume will be my readers’ reactions to the Abraham-Isaac part of the story. I’m finding many of them not too ‘kind’ when it comes to commenting on Scripture.” Evidently the atonement question presented dangerous complexities. Writing for the audience, contributing to the official, institutional mouthpiece, had its limits. Even fudging, I couldn’t delve into things.

So you could say I had little option. If I wanted to go all out, pour my soul onto the page, what other recourse? My aversion to arid, inaccessible theological exegesis—and my ignorance—plus the compulsion about not lying—would mean a story swollen with homey description and inconsequential incidents (seemingly higgledy-piggledy, but in fact not), and featuring a made-up Anna instead of Rachel, a woman hung up on just about anything imaginable, and disastrously air-headed, and married to Wade.

Writing Sticking Points, frittering years on the novel, I baldly prevaricated. A novel allowed for scandal, ribaldry, shame, faithlessness—and I took plenty advantage. No memoirist possesses such liberty. Yet when I flip through the book now, it feels close enough to the truth.

Defeatedly Anna moved around the house putting away her purchases. The two jars of mayonnaise banged into the cupboard above the toaster. The can of black olives rolled onto a different shelf. The parsley flakes, vanilla, and olive oil noisily met their appointed spots. The bundle of toilet paper landed on the bottom staircase step in the living room to wait till she went upstairs later, and so did the shampoos with their contents listed in teeny tiny print. She thought for a second, then picked up the Pear Mango Passion and brought the label close to her nose. Cocamidopropyl betaine, phooh. Sodium laureth sulfate. Ammonium xylenesulfonate. Mightn’t these horrid-sounding compounds be brain-cell soluble and carcinogenic?

Or here: Concerned that maybe nobody had fed the cat, Anna leaned over the banister to call down to Wade. He was into another radio oldie now, drowning out Percy Sledge, doo doo doo-oo doo doo dooo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-oo-oo-oo, and collecting his lunch fixings, and she heard the crisper drawer of the fridge bang open and abruptly shut.

Uh-oh, she thought, no more raw peppers? Wade’s soulful yipping and whining broke off. Was he looking in the hutch? Uh-oh. Next thing, she heard him go charging down to the cellar, and what sounded like the potato crate dragging, like he’d accidentally hooked it with his foot in the underworld shadows and was trawling it along behind him on his way over to the canning shelves. “An-na!”

Conceivably, taking Anna’s part I stayed truer to life than I thought possible.

Does the theology come across? I hope so. Had I been attempting a memoir I couldn’t have dreamed up the scintillating teacher in Wade and Anna’s Sunday school class.

Susan turned and took the chalk from the blackboard ditch. She rubbed the holder end against her chin, deliberating. Alternately, she made tiny repetitive clockwise circles in front of her, like she was practicing her penmanship. She put the chalk back down. No fluttering, her mouth pooched the whole way out to China, she looked long and hard at Wade. “There is a hell. Unless you think it’s just a fundamentalist construct.” Fun-da-men-ta-list. She ground out the word in unhappy, tight bits.

And since Susan is a mere figment, I can’t be accused of maligning. I’ve never heard a mouthful like that from anybody at church—not from Jack, either, or Brenda, Peg, Jay, the rest.

So there you have it. Not every last writer can dredge up whole reams about the did-and-done ordeals and hijinks, faithfully rendered. The writer might manage a teeny segment of the past, but not a full-blown, serious memoir. Somebody too conflicted, or hamstrung by rectitude, can only do it obliquely.

Shirley Kurtz, memoirist and novelist

Shirley seems to enjoy the relative freedom of novel writing. I can understand that. Certainly kindness and truth sometimes seem to be in conflict when writing memoir.

Shirley’s audience and editors seem to have expected a certain kind of narrative. What do you think of Shirley’s solution to that problem? Do you have any questions for Shirley? I’m sure she’ll be happy to respond. I really like her book title Growing Up Plain. I confess that I learned about the book because I was considering that title myself. Shirley got there first. Good for her!

Posted in Anabaptist Memoir, Guest blogger | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Left Brain/Right Brain TED Talk–Resolving Opposites

My friend Susan posted a TED talk on facebook recently (see below) that has helped me think about one of the more perplexing themes of my memoir: how opposites attract, fight,resolve, and need each other.

Here’s a set of my opposites:





Does this video help explain or resolve any opposites for you? Love to hear your thoughts.

I also loved the part about the role of the neocortex in creating distance, which can result in both manipulation and empathy, Machiavellian or Erasmian, abilities–another set of opposites.

I’ll leave you with this Albert Einstein quote at the end: 

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Posted in Memoir-in-Progress | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments