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Last updated July 22.

July 22, 2013 issue

Tags: Opinion

Opinion: Memoir manifesto

Shared stories — even humble ones — can strengthen faith communities

By Shirley Hershey Showalter

We are living in a global age of memoir.

Around the world new voices are arising to tell us what it is like to live inside their skins — child soldiers, princes, paupers, prostitutes, CEOs, people who decide to live biblically or eat locally, people who circumnavigate the globe. If someone has done it or dreamed of doing it, you can probably find a memoir about it.

Mennonites have joined the global chorus. In fact, the Mennonite memoir has come of age. From The New York Times bestseller Mennonite in a Little Black Dress to the hundreds of books published with small presses or through the many new self-publishing options, Mennonites have been telling their stories in record numbers.

Technology, especially blogs and social media, has accelerated the storytelling impulse that first arose in caves and around campfires. Today a huge number of people entering their “active senior” years has combined with these new technologies. We have the makings of a story­telling revolution: discretionary time, plus the naturally reflective developmental stage of late adulthood, plus access to a printing press.

Mennonite poet-philosophers such as Julia Kasdorf and Jeff Gundy have led the way in creative nonfiction. Many Mennonite professors have developed courses on memoir. Rudy Wiebe won the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest.

What happens when Mennonites decide to tell the truth about their lives? I can’t speak for all Mennonites, but I can share my experience. Six years ago I entered a literary contest that set me on a memoir path, but not without doubts. After the initial euphoria of remembering stories and writing them in a state of “flow,” I encountered “little monster” thoughts:

  • Who do you think you are?
  • What makes you think your life is interesting to anyone else?
  • Don’t you know that most best-selling memoirs are about misery? You’ve had a boring life by many people’s standards.
  • On the other hand, if you probe deeper, you will find conflict, the essential element of every riveting story. Uh oh. That could lead to more conflict. You like conflict much better in stories than in life!
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  • Shirley, This really hit me, "too many people die with the music locked inside them" You've touched upon the core issue-- our stories matter and we need to share them for ourselves and for each other. Those of us who choose to take the risk realize the obstacles along the way but forge ahead knowing that our stories go beyond ourselves. Thank you for a thought-provoking, insightful essay. Beautiful!

    - Kathleen Pooler (jul 23 at 7:26 a.m.)

  • Kathleen, thanks for this comment. "Our stories go beyond ourselves." Exactly. One of the many paradoxes of the individual within the community.

    - Shirley Hershey Showalter (jul 24 at 10:35 a.m.)

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