Opinion: Memoir manifesto
Shared stories — even humble ones — can strengthen faith communitiesBy 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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