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 www.terryhelwig.com 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

Janet Oberholtzer: Because I Can

Janet Oberholtzer and I have a lot in common. We both grew up Mennonite in Pennsylvania. We are both living lives we never imagined as children.

Janet’s story, as you can see from her memoir book jacket, describes her miraculous recovery from a terrible accident. 

I have been gently turning down offers to read and review new memoirs due to the stringent deadlines for my own manuscript. So when Janet contacted me via Twitter to ask if I would review her book, I said I could not, but that if she wanted to send me a copy, I would send questions to her for an interview post.

It’s a tribute to the power of her story that when I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. I read it all the way through and then wanted to know more. Below are my questions and Janet’s answers.

1. Please begin with a short summary of your memoir story.

From my publisher:

In seconds, a family vacation became a nightmare when a horrific auto accident decimated marathon runner Janet Oberholtzer’s legs and shattered her pelvis. It seemed unlikely she’d even survive, let alone put back any of the pieces of her life. Her determination carried her through the difficult physical recovery but was no match for the depressing emotional and spiritual trauma that followed and proved almost fatal as Janet struggled to come to grips with her new normal. Today this heroic woman is leading a full life and back to running half-marathons. Because I Can is a story that will give you hope … whether you have physical limitations or if your world feels hopeless due to difficult circumstances, unwanted changes or the monotony of life.

2. Growing up Mennonite seems to have been part of the shadow you sometimes experience in your soul. Can you describe how this happened? What kinds of experiences left you feeling fear and judgment in Mennonite community?

The strict traditional Mennonite sect I grew up in placed more emphasis on following the church rules of how one dressed and what activities one could do then on a personal spiritual journey. I began struggling with this during my teen years with the final straw happening as I planned my wedding. To select a wedding date, an engaged couple went to visit the church bishop. I expected this visit to include conversation about the importance of marriage, whether we loved each other and how we could keep our marriage strong, etc.

Instead he talked about what we could or couldn’t do at our wedding. My dress had to be a plain mid-calf length dress with no lace. I had to wear black nylons and black shoes. We couldn’t have flowers, a tier cake or anything fancy. The list went on and on.

We had a traditional Mennonite wedding because I knew my dad wouldn’t pay for any other wedding, but soon after that time, we pulled away from the traditional Mennonite culture and church.

In my 20’s, as I figured out who I was outside of that culture, I disliked everything Mennonite, but with time my pendulum has reached a more balanced place as I’ve become more aware of the myriad of other Mennonite sects that provide a more positive experience and that do amazingly good things locally and around the world.

3. Your terrible accident came at a time in your life when you were very vibrant and active–a mother, business woman, church member, and runner. You went from vivid life to muddled memory, forced inactivity, spiritual doubts, and fears so strong you occasionally even considered suicide.

Yes, exactly … that sums it up well. And I didn’t have the skills to process all the changes. About half of Because I Can is how I discovered that to process the changes, my mind and spirit had to go through a time of renewal.

4. Please share how you came to tell your story. What got you started as a writer? What has kept you going? What is the Rhizome Cultivate Contest? How and when did you enter?

I was an active kid, but I was also the kid who often had a pen and paper in her hand. At age 15, I read Julie by Catherine Marshall. As I finished the book, I decided I’d like to be a writer someday. While many Mennonite groups value a college education, the strict sect I grew up in did not. So I didn’t have the option of pursuing my desire at that time. I married at age 20 … three boys and a business soon followed. During that time, the only writing I had time for was business plans, marketing material and a seasonal column in a local paper.

After being injured, I wanted (and friends/family encouraged me) to write a memoir. I began writing while also learning more about the craft of writing. I attended writing seminars, took classes and went to writing conferences. After five years of many stops and starts I finished the rough draft and was ready for the next step. The publishing world is tough, so I hired a freelance editor. Her first review almost made me want to give up the idea of publishing, because some sections of my manuscript only needed minor changes, but others needed a complete rewrite. After picking myself up off the floor, I locked myself in a motel room for a week and tackled the needed changes. My editor declared it successful and ready for publication.

I looked into the options from traditional publishing to self-publishing. I queried some agents, then heard about a contest at Rhizome Publishing, where they were giving away a publishing contract for one manuscript. I love winning things, so I tweaked it some more and finally sent it in the day before the deadline. It won the contest. And as they say, the rest is history … it was released on September 20, 2011.

5. Please tell what you have learned about book publishing and book marketing from you experience of writing and selling your book.

It’s hard work. Harder than I ever anticipated! But it’s also rewarding. I’ve begun hearing from people all over the country. Some are struggling with their own physical challenges, others identify with my struggle with depression or with the spiritual doubts and questions I have. Plus I heard from amazing people like former college presidents who read my book 🙂

6. What has happened to you and your family since the end of the book?

We are doing well. We’ve moved about ten miles from my hometown of Morgantown to a house my husband remodeled. He works in construction, sometimes with a local builder and other times remodeling houses he buys/sells. The boys are in various stages of college, internships and finding their dream jobs.

7. Are you planning to write another book?

I would like to … I’m considering a few options now. I have a few friends who have amazing stories to tell, but they aren’t writers, so maybe I’ll write their stores. And someday I’d like to try fiction.

8. What gives you joy right now?

Running, being outdoors (in warm weather), reading and having meaningful conversations where I learn more about the other person, myself and/or something I’ve had questions about.

9. One of my own themes in telling the story of what it is like to grow up Mennonite is pride v. humility. Do you think a culture can enforce a humility ethic? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to try to do that? What have you learned about pride and humility by writing your memoir?

This are great questions … but I’m not sure I have answers for you right now, I’ll have to think about that for a time.

Thanks, Janet, for this glimpse into your life and your new life as a published memoirist. Congratulations on your book. Those interested, can order the book and/or connect with Janet by following these links: You can order paperback copies of Because I Can at Janet’s website and on Amazon. Or order for your Kindle or Nook. You can connect with Janet on her blog, on Twitter and on Facebook.

But first, please offer your questions and comments in the space below. Janet will respond and so will I.

Posted in Anabaptist Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

The Accidental Memoirist: How a Writer’s Rare Disease Became the Catalyst to “Overnight” Literary Success

I am thrilled to share with you a lovely essay written by Jon Reiner, whose new memoir describes what it is like to live with the medical command NBM, nothing by mouth — no food, no drink. For three months.

If you want an excellent introduction to the memoir, read the Esquire essay that preceded it. Now to the exciting back story written for the 100memoirs.com audience.



Jon Reiner

This story begins with one man in very bad shape in a hospital bed and another man sitting across from him in a battered hospital chair. Permit me to peel back the hospital curtain.

The sorry sack in the bed is me. I’m two months out from emergency surgery that saved my life but planted so many post-surgical complications that I’m sliding toward a lousy end and in a last, desperate, counter-intuitive, medieval act, my doctors have prescribed a nothing-by-mouth sentence that will last a while longer. No food, no drink, 18 hours a day on a pump feeding me through an IV.

The visitor sinking into the springless chair is my friend Mark Warren, a Happening Guy in dark jeans, pressed white shirt and natty blazer. Mark has been a pal during my ordeal, bringing me shopping bags of galleys and review copies cleared off his desk. He’s the Executive Editor of Esquire, and we’ve known each other for a decade since our sons were in pre-school together. Mark’s been to see me several times and checked-in on the phone, as well. He’s offered good counsel to my depression and existential angst.

The room is bathed in the ghoulish green light that gets creepier when visiting hours end, which will be announced in a few minutes. “I want to talk to you about something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” Mark says, pinching the rimless glasses off his bridge and folding them into his breast pocket. His delicate features look more open and sturdy with the glasses off. “I want you to write about this experience for the magazine.”

I raise the head of the mechanical bed to sit up and reach something close to a conversational position, absorbing Mark’s offer. I speak before thinking. “Mark, I’ve been waiting for that kind of an offer for 25 years, but not for this. This is awful. No one will want to read about it. I wouldn’t want to read about it. I don’t even want to think about it.”

Before throwing up your hands and calling me an ungrateful S.O.B., I must share a little background information. For the previous quarter century I had studied and written fiction and drama, and, though I remained frustratingly unpublished and unproduced, the dream I still held was to see my name in print on the cover of a novel or on play. In fact, Mark had read my most recent manuscript just a few months earlier and helped me with introductions that led to some spectacularly enthusiastic, maddening rejections. “Jon Reiner, novelist,” yes – but this? Write about me? Write about being sick? I don’t think so.

“No, no, no,” Mark responds strongly. “The story isn’t about how miserable you are. The story is about what it’s like to have to live without food, here and outside when you’re home. What impact does food deprivation have on your life – psychologically, socially, culturally. You’re in an existential crisis. Craving what you can’t have is the embodiment. Everyone has a relationship with food. Everyone will be interested in this.


Mark left, and I didn’t think about the offer. I didn’t think about much but my encroaching doom, for a few days. I had asked for pen and paper immediately after I came to from the surgery and had recorded a page of notes about the shocking and surprising events that led me to Dr. Paz’s table. However, I’d stopped after a page and not returned to the notebook. My life was just so bleak, I didn’t need to plumb it on paper. But, I was thinking about food – constantly, vividly, desperately, nostalgically, hopefully – and I came back to my smart friend’s story pitch. The story is food. I also thought of a quote of John Berryman’s that I’d long loved in the abstract, and which, now, had more meaning than I ever could have imagined: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”

Fiction shmiction. You’re a writer. You’ve been presented with a compelling story. What can you do with it?

I was discharged from the hospital and started writing, got sick again and went back in, continued writing, was discharged again and finished writing the feature story titled “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat.” It was published in the September 2009 issue of Esquire and included a full-page photograph of me. I was published. The following spring, astonishingly, excitingly, absurdly, the story won the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for Feature Writing. I was the anti-food food writer. It’s a niche, and I’m the only member.

The story also afforded me a creative benefit I didn’t appreciate until writing. Because of my circumstances – sick, starving, afraid, depressed, unemployed, son, brother, husband, parent – I was a sympathetic character. The reader’s compassion granted me wide latitude as a protagonist, and I could probe a difficult, flawed, conflicted, interesting character without worry of offense or alienation. I could be brutally and refreshingly honest without fear of losing the reader. It was the ultimate creative liberation. Like St. Augustine, I selected my sins in the story in order to heighten the drama of my reform.

While writing the magazine story, my dear friend and old college classmate, Mitchell Waters, said, “Esquire will be a great opportunity, but I really think of this story as a book. You should, too.” Mitchell is a literary agent. He was excited by the story when it was published and offered to represent me.

“Yes, a book would be a great opportunity,” I said from my living room couch, “but if we sold the proposal to a publisher, I’d be worried about being pigeon-holed as a memoirist, a non-fiction writer. You know that my real ambition, my real love is fiction.” Okay, I do grant you permission to throw up your hands and call me an ungrateful S.O.B.

“I understand that,” Mitchell said. “But the genre really doesn’t matter now. This would be good for you, good for your health. A writer writes.”

Jon Reiner, accidental memoirist

Underestimating the blessing of friends in your life does both them and you a disservice. I did prior to this episode in my life, and haven’t since. With Mitchell’s skilled guidance, I wrote a book proposal, and he submitted it to publishers. The morning after receiving a phone call, I was sitting at a conference table inside the Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books offices. Me – inside the Simon & Schuster building! By the time I arrived at my sons’ school to pick them up that afternoon, I had an offer. The next day, we accepted. I was a 25-year overnight sensation. I was a memoirist.

The end.

There’s so much to talk about in this essay! Story as food. The advantage of disadvantage in memoir. Genre doesn’t matter. Please offer your thoughts. What lights went on for you about memoir when you read this essay?

And what about the story itself? Have you had any similar experience with food deprivation?  Know anyone who has?

Posted in Guest blogger | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

A Book Contract — A Dilemma and An Idea

Big news for 100memoirs.com. After three years and 302 posts blogging about other people’s memoirs, I  have a book contract of my own.

The contract was completed August 5. It’s taken me three months to tell my readers about it.

I was tempted to go incognito and then spring the surprise when the book was published. But the more I meditated on whether and how to share my good news, the more I recognized a core dilemma. I’ve found that if I wrestle with these dilemmas, opportunities arise.

The dilemma: Mennonites frown on excessive individualism and can pick up signs of pride from a mile away. Some might even say that “a single life Mennonite memoir” is an oxymoron. Pride will be a major theme in my book. As an imaginative, inquisitive, and exuberant child, I confronted the church’s teachings against pride in my youth even while absorbing and appreciating the church’s greatest gifts — community, simplicity, and peace.

That liminal space between becoming smaller for the sake of others and celebrating too wildly at my own party has taken me a lifetime to find. Sometimes I fail utterly. Sadly, I’ve had to learn how to celebrate outside my faith community. But what I really long for is a celebration larger than self — a way to bring the self fully present and alive inside the community and at the same time enlarge the space of the community itself. Could this happen? Could it happen through memoir — not only my own, but others?

Let me tell you a little story:

The best-selling book by a Mennonite author for many years was the Mennonite Community Cookbook first published in 1950. The author was Mary Emma Showalter, my husband’s aunt. Here’s how she described the idea for her cookbook:


Among the cookbooks on the pantry shelf at home there has always been the little hand-written notebook of recipes. As a child I learned that this blue notebook, which contained a collection of my mother’s favorite recipes, was her favorite cookbook. Not only were all the pages of this notebook filled with recipes, but inserted between the pages were loose sheets of paper on which were written other favorites. These were copied by friends and relatives whom Mother had visited at some time and whose specialty she had admired. Since a cookbook of the favorite recipes of Mennonite families had never been published, I began to sense that the handwritten recipe books were responsible. I asked to see them wherever I went and was astonished to learn how many of them had been destroyed in recent years. The daughters of today were guilty of pushing them aside in favor of the new, just as I had done one day. This collection is a compilation of over 1,100 recipes, chosen from more than 5,000 recipes sent in. They come to you from most of the Mennonite communities in the United States and Canada.

Anna Mary Herr Hess' (my maternal grandmother) kitchen notebook

My mother still has such a notebook  from her mother. I estimate that Grandma Hess, who died in 1951, created this notebook soon after her marriage in 1918. Soon the notebook will be one hundred years old.

Aunt Mary Emma, as the Virginia-based cookbook author was called by my husband and his siblings and cousins, collected recipes by asking for them in church publications. I don’t think my Grandmother Hess responded from her farm in Pennsylvania, but at least she kept her own notebook instead of throwing it away. I still make a few of the recipes, my favorite being steamed cherry pudding. But the collection of other notebook entries in the Mennonite Community Cookbook was the most important book in almost every Mennonite kitchen (and many others as well) for generations.

And, what’s also true, is that most Mennonites have other treasures in their homes, like those recipe notebooks, that they have not valued highly enough. They come in the form of letters, diaries, photos, and heirlooms of close and distant ancestors. Many of them are already lost. But it’s not too late to claim a great heritage.

Today it is almost impossible to reach all Mennonites through a single outlet or publication. We live in too many places and speak too many languages for any one publication to reach us all. Churches borrow from many different sources. The Mennonite magazine and Mennonite Weekly Review reach many, but certainly not all, Mennonite homes in the United States. Facebook, Twitter, and blogs reach some others.

I would love for storytelling and story writing to become as Mennonite as shoofly pie. And I would love for the whole world to join in the great Mennonite story-telling enterprise as if it were a hymn sing. And for Mennonites to sing in the hymnals of others.

What if:

  • Stories were as important as recipes.
  • Mennonites would begin to share their stories. Not in a single master narrative but in truthful tales of real emotions and remembered events, practices, and people.
  • Some of those stories were sold as books and their authors toured the country, not only speaking about their own stories, but holding workshops on storytelling and story writing in churches, schools, libraries, and homes.
  • Sunday school classes and small groups would read Mennonite memoirs together and then write or tell their own stories to each other.
  • The stories that aren’t published are collected Story Corps fashion on a blog or made available as podcasts.
  • Historical Societies around the country sponsor annual storytelling and story writing events.

I don’t exactly know how all of this would look, but I do know that it greatly inspires me to tell my story if I know others are both helping in the process and thinking of their own stories and how to share them.

And so, dear reader, I am sharing my memoir writing timetable with you and giving you the keys to holding me accountable. I’d like to create in some fashion a Mennonite Community Memoir! And you don’t have to be Mennonite to come to the table.


  • Draft intro, chapter one and chapter two are finished. Very rough!
  • Chapter three deadline is Nov. 2. Yikes!
  • Chapter four: Dec. 1
  • Chapter five: Jan. 1
  • Chapter six: Feb. 1
  • Chapter seven: March 1.
  • Chapter eight: April 1.
  • Chapter nine: May 1.
  • Chapter ten: June 1.
  • Chapter eleven: August 1 (to allow time for moving from Brooklyn to VA and for two international trips)
  • Chapter twelve: Sept. 1
  • Chapter thirteen: Oct. 1
  • Chapter fourteen and epilogue: Nov. 1.
  • Revisions, photos, index, permissions, etc.: Nov. 15, 2012–Feb. 15, 2013
  • Estimated publication date: Fall 2013

Does this timetable give you heart palpitations? Probably not. But I can feel a few coming on.

That’s why I need you now more than ever.

I will keep you updated via this blog and a new website now in production. Soon I’ll have a FB page where I will be able to ask questions as I write. For example, if you are Mennonite, what do you remember about preparatory services for communion? Did you have to be able to say, in the company of witnesses, that you are at “peace with God and your fellow man” before you were ready to “partake of the cup”? What did/do you think of such a practice?

If you aren’t Mennonite, what would you like to know about Mennonite life?

Of course, as I write, I will continue taking care of grandson Owen until we leave Brooklyn at the end of May. I consider him an inspiration rather than a drain on my creativity, and his presence in my life is part of my memoir story that I will try to describe in the epilogue.

I would love to hear from many of you in the comments section and to build a larger community through the subscription list (right hand side) to this blog. Please respond to anything in this post that gives you pause, brings up a memory, or an idea. How can I be of service to you?

Now a final story:

When I became the 14th president of Goshen College, the chapel committee invited me to sing a call-and-response hymn, “Lead Me, Guide Me” by Doris Atkers. Somehow I managed to sing the solo part, buoyed up by the voices of the community, and there followed eight years in which God and that community gave me the strength I needed for the many tasks as president. Now I feel like I am standing alone at the mike again, but I know you will be there and that if you are, great things will happen. Lead me, guide me, again.

I am weak and I need thy strength and pow’r

to help me over my weakest hour.

Help me through the darkness thy face to see.

Lead me, O Lord, lead me.

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Composing a Life: Counterpoint in Memoir

If you missed Fine Arts 101, read Lanie Tankard’s review below and click on all the links. You will enjoy the ride–especially since a lot of those links take you to countries and cities in Europe. Lanie is heading off to Singapore soon. We’re all lucky she squeezed this fine review of an excellent memoir into her crowded schedule. Since Lanie and I both have this teacher bug we’ll never get rid of, here’s more about Singapore. But be sure to come back to read the review!


by Joshua Cody

New York: W.W. Norton, October 2011  (272 pp.).

Available in hardcover and ebook formats.

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

“In memory everything seems to happen to music.”

Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

The Latin word [sic] in brackets is a heads up to the reader that what may appear strange or incorrect has in fact been written intentionally or quoted verbatim, according to the unabridged edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language.

Thus, we suspect before we ever crack the spine of Joshua Cody’s new memoir about being sick, titled [sic], that we’re likely to encounter the unconventional within its pages. Indeed, that becomes so much the case that Cody may have created a new form of memoir, or at least a subgenre that redefines the approach. I’ve always been fond of intellectual nuance, and [sic] displays it in abundance.

Cody brings to writing a music composer’s ear, to memoir a forceful libretto of cancer survival, and to readers a brilliant polyphonic score played capriccio, energico, and espressivo.

Joshua Cody was a young composer in New York City about to finish a PhD at Columbia University. He had already earned a bachelor’s in music composition at Northwestern University, studied privately in Paris, had a Chicago radio show called “Music of This Century” on WNUR–FM,  cofounded the international journal and website Paris Transatlantic  as well as the Ensemble Sospeso, and written a number of articles.

Then he noticed a lump in his neck, and his life turned upside down when the tumor was diagnosed as a belligerent cancer. Cody cuts right to the chase on the first page of his memoir as he brings us along with him to begin chemotherapy, wondering, “’What’s it going to be like?’”

We hitch a ride inside his head as he’s handed orange pamphlets, “professionally printed, the Garamond font levelheaded, direct but never alarming, confidential, appropriate; poised; the thickness of the paper just right, more consequential than flimsy copy stock, but a good long way from cardboard, which would be terrifyingly permanent. The care that takes, the thought that goes into it: all the parameters are really masterfully designed, as if the hospital had hired a PhD in semiotics from Brown.”

He digresses into his thoughts as he waits, likening that period between being a patient reading the pamphlets and “the unknown experience that beckons” to “Philippe Petit on that taut tightrope between the Twin Towers.”  Cody wants specifics, like what kind of chair he’s going to be sitting in and whether he would be alone in a room.

“Are you expected to carry on a conversation with the nurse? What’s the etiquette?”

Anyone who has spent time docked in chemo ports of call, or accompanied a friend or loved one to such anchorage, will nod in recognition of Cody’s trenchant observations.

And it turns out he’s not alone in the chemo room: “I’d brought a friend, my journal.” Slowly he reels out his life, giving us the backstory of his illness and the childhood memories it triggers. He is a relative of Buffalo Bill Cody.

Joshua Cody thinks about all that is around him, all that is going into his body, all that he has experienced, and all that might happen. He follows, in fact, any line of thought when it pops up in free association. He tunes out his oncologist speaking to him in the present, wondering instead about the strong aroma of rubbing alcohol in the room.

“What was the source of the odor?”

Then he takes off pondering the meaning of happiness, considering the things he would miss if he “made it out of all this alive.”

He talks a lot about writing as he writes — metawriting. He utilizes a conversational manner to bring the reader into his stream of consciousness with phrases such as “I’ll talk more about this later” and “Why relate all this?” He points out “the literary tone I am attempting to employ.”

Cody switches from Susan Sontag to David Foster Wallace with the ease of a conductor directing a baton toward different sections of the orchestra. He transitions from Mozart to the Rolling Stones on his iPod as effortlessly as he talks about actor Ray Liotta in the movie Goodfellas in one paragraph and painter Paul Klee in the next.

Cody travels in his thoughts, rolling along wherever the train takes him. One minute we’re in Paris  with Ezra Pound, and suddenly we find ourselves in Germany: “Like this one time I was in Düsseldorf with a couple of German friends having brunch, and….” Next thing you know, he’s having his car washed in a Chicago suburb, pondering the effect of sunlight on water and glass, listening to Debussy in his head.

Suavely Cody blends remembering with theoretical musings, observations about his cancer treatments, and descriptions of the sex and drugs he turns to for escape. It’s a virtuoso performance.

He begins to experience chemophobias. He sees a psycho-oncologist. He compares the chemotherapy that has just failed him with the radiation that is supposed to save him. His mother arrives to assist, and we see pages of her notes. He reproduces his calendar, covered from corner to corner with medical appointments.

“Being sick is very much a full-time job,” he comments.

Cody is aware of the “immediate stimuli of the present moment” bombarding him along with the “recalled stimuli of the past.” He notes, “And these two layers wrap around each other like two electric currents encircling some wobbly magnetic pole.”

He tells us of his marriage to a Bulgarian girl named Valentina and his fake imprisonment in a pretend hospital room to assist the Kádár government of Hungary in a propaganda charade, with fake IVs in his chest and arms.

His mother arrives, and he tells her they can leave to go to the limo waiting outside because the pretense is over. When he rips out the fake IVs, pretend blood spurts out. Pretend nurses rush in, while eeeevvvver so gradually he is made to understand that everything is very real indeed — that he is in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant and he is having a morphine fantasy.

“Well it just goes to show things are not what they seem.” That line from the Sixties song “Sister Morphine” is an appropriate summation of the events in Chapter 5, which is also aptly titled “Sister Morphine.”

Mick Jagger,  Keith Richards, and Marianne Faithfull cowrote the lyrics to this haunting song. The Stones and Faithfull each recorded “Sister Morphine.”

Recently (October 10, 2011), I heard Faithfull perform the song on her Horses and High Heels tour at Rotterdam’s  Nieuwe Luxor Theater, where this highly talented woman who has battled both morphine and cancer received two rousing standing ovations for her marvelous show. Click here for her performance of “Sister Morphine” at the Citadel Festival in Berlin on May 29, 2011.

As for Joshua Cody: “They took me off the morphine that night and switched me to fentanyl.” He turns to Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche to make sense of it all, saying, “The crystalline clarity of this morphine delusion proves, perhaps, the Nietzschean maxim that ‘some situations are so bad that to remain sane is insane.’”

Cody considers creativity, memory, subtext, and voice in memoir — asking: “So what, exactly, separates a sharp memory of early childhood, say, from a morphine delusion, or an image seen in a dream from an image read in a book? They’re all equally tangible, equally intangible products of electromechanical signaling.”

These questions are the kind of research done by neuroscientists like David Eagleman, who spoke at the Texas Book Festival on October 23 about his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainHe noted there are as many connections in one neuron as there are stars in the Milky Way. A NOVA profile explores Eagleman’s investigation of the question: “How does the brain construct reality using the information it takes in?”

Cody debates why certain things bring comfort during hospitalizations for such traumatic events as bone marrow transplants, reminding us “finding sources of pleasure is an important aspect of dealing with high levels of pain.” He compares painters and writers, saying writers are “unjustly burdened by the weight of words.”

Cody examines his parents’ marriage and divorce, and his relationship with his father, who tried to make it as a writer but never did.

Author Jonathan Franzen has also trekked in this territory of memory, particularly in “My Father’s Brain” in How To Be Alone: Essays. Indeed, Franzen makes an appearance in Cody’s memoir several times. (I reviewed Franzen’s most recent book, Freedom, on 100 Memoirs when it came out last year: Part I and Part II.) When I heard Franzen interviewed by Lev Grossman in Austin recently, Franzen mentioned that he was reading [sic], calling it a “weird memoir by an overarticulate guy with cancer — really good.”

Cody underscores the important role his mother played in helping him during his treatments, taking notes and running interference with hospital personnel. He writes, “My mother’s transcription of the dialogue between patient, doctor, caretaker, and pain management staff is fascinating in its expression of the fragile complexity in calibrating the collaboration of different specialists.”

He explains what it means to be in discomfort, he weighs nonbeing versus aging, and he relates the feeling of his near-death experience during the bone marrow transplant. He tells us what suffering is like for the sufferer, and comes close to suicide until he realizes he wants to kill the disease, not himself. Cody knows he’s getting better when he begins to feel boredom, and then says to his mother as they’re finally leaving the hospital, “I love traffic.”

He worries the night before he has to return for more scan results. He can’t sleep, so he sits down to write in his journal, remembering his father’s advice: “write it out, write it out.” He wonders if he’s losing his mind.

“Just keep pen to paper,” he tells himself.

“I am trying very hard,” he replies.

He wraps up his book with “the motif of journals and memoirs” and discusses “’journals’ as opposed to notebooks,” quoting David Byrne  on this arcane point.

Finally Cody admits he’s a bit tired.

“This book turned out to be a little longer than I thought, and way more work. Plus I’m hungry.”

He ends with a crescendo of framing.

As Victor Hugo put it in his essay on William Shakespeare, “Music expresses that which cannot be said, and which cannot be suppressed.”

Joshua Cody is a maestro and his words will ring in my ears for a long time. Bravo!


Photo by Jessica H. Tankard, Amsterdam

Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

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