How to Grow a Memoir: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Writing Blush

Blush_frontcover copyI’ve just finished reading Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World by Shirley Hershey Showalter (Herald Press, 2013), and this beautifully written memoir has become my new favourite book. On the surface it might seem there’s little in common between my Asian heritage and her Mennonite childhood, between my city upbringing and her rural life, yet I can well relate to her larger themes of family, faith, home and growing up.

I’d love to sit down with Shirley to talk about any of these themes, but for this interview, I’m focusing on the writing of Blush. If I ever write a memoir of my own, it will be one of the examples I turn to, and more broadly I’m eager to learn from how she continues to grow as a writer and blogger. Thank you, Shirley, for being on my blog today.

When did you first decide to write a memoir, and what was your process/timeline from idea to publication as a book?

I started small. First I wrote memoir essays. In the 1990’s I contributed to books of personal stories, Godward, She Has Done a Good Thing, and several others. Then I submitted essays to the Kalamazoo Gazette essay contests, 2007-2009, winning awards each year. When I moved to Virginia in 2010, I began thinking about a book. In 2011 I talked with editor Amy Gingerich at the Mennonite-USA Convention in Pittsburgh. By August of that year I had a contract and a plan to write one chapter a month for the next year. I stayed on that schedule and revised the draft many times. By July of this year I was finished with the manuscript. It was published September 19.

I love the way the theme of “blush” starts with the title and is sustained to the end of the book. The contrast between “plain” and “glittering” is also a recurring theme from the subtitle all the way through the book to the epilogue. How did you come to decide on the title and subtitle, and at what point did they become the guide for your narrative?

The themes emerged slowly. The working title for the book was Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Childhood. This title came from a high school nickname. I remembered how uncomfortable that name made me. Then I heard someone recommend one-word titles and tried to connect the feeling with one word. Blush was it! The subtitle came a little later and each part of it was debated. Should it be “a” or “the” glittering world.”Meets” or “in.” Etc. When we did the cover reveal, Amy Gingerich explained how we made all these choices.

I worked on the first draft and the title simultaneously. When the cover and title were set (a year ago), I had the opportunity to revise with them in mind. Searching for glitter in the outside world while not yet seeing the gold at my feet became a visual image for the subtitle. Blush gave me a universal theme of feeling embarrassed, bold and afraid at the same time.

What kind of reflection, interviewing, and other research did you need to do for your book?

I had unorganized photos, some genealogy books and charts, the internet!, and access to many of my elders who are still living. You rightly guessed that this was a big job. A few small errors slipped through. I corrected some of them in the second printing. I hope to correct two more in the third printing.

The book ends with young Shirley leaving home. Can readers look forward to another book that follows Shirley through her college years and beyond? Why or why not?Shirley Showalter

I am answering this question by migrating the theme of my blog and leaving publishing options for the future open. The year 2014 will be the year of multiple book tours for Blush. I’m open to speaking engagements anywhere that will pay my travel expenses. While I do that, I will write one short essay each week on my blog. I am an American Studies scholar, and I would love to look at the 1966-1970 years (my college years) through the lens of my particular and sometimes peculiar location as a Mennonite in the process of dropping outward signs of separation from the world.

You have some stellar supporters for your book from journalist Bill Moyers who wrote a cover blurb to author and educator Parker Palmer who wrote the foreword, and many others. Are these people you know personally, and how did you (or the publisher) approach them? What advice would you give to other writers looking for great endorsements?

I am deeply grateful to both Bill and Parker for their help. I came to know Parker when I was a senior fellow at the Lilly Fellows Program in the Humanities and Arts. And then to know both of them through my work at the Fetzer Institute. While I don’t get to see either of them often these days, I cherish their friendship. They are both the “real deal” — consistent in character in both private and public.

As for advice on finding endorsers? Find other writers you care about and do something to help them. On social media, follow and share and engage when you have something helpful or encouraging to offer. Invite them as speakers to your area. Most people are more accessible today than they have ever been. And even famous people need supporters and helpers. They also want to help others and often will do so if they recognize you, your values, and the quality of your work. That’s the other thing. Don’t embarrass yourself by sending them an unrevised manuscript.

Thank you, Shirley, for this behind-the-scenes look at writing Blush. I wish you all the best as you continue with the book tours and blogging. I’m so glad to connect with you and will continue to follow with interest.

Are you writing your memoir or planning to? Do you have a question or a tip to share?



Categories: Book Reviews, Writing

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15 replies

  1. Thanks so much, April. You and I have a mutual admiration society going even though we’ve never met in person! I loved Sacred Pauses, also, and wrote about it on my blog http://www.shirleyshowalter.com/2013/01/31/who-else-wants-simplicity-april-yamasakis-sacred-pauses-offers-a-way/. We have been traveling similar paths though far from each other. I’m honored to appear on your blog today and open to any questions/observations from your readers. Happy to come back and respond.

    • Thanks, Shirley, I see that you’ve been busy commenting while I’ve been out and about today, and now I’m ready to get caught up! You are a wonderful example of your last point in the interview about people being more accessible and wanting to help. I’ve seen that in you over and over again, and really appreciate getting to know you online. Your generous spirit is a wonderful gift to me and to many.

  2. Thanks April, this is very helpful in terms of understanding what is involved in a project such as memoir writing. Everyone has to chart their own course but it’s always beneficial to learn from others who have been successful when you are starting out on a journey.

    • Elfrieda, you are absolutely right! Each person finds her or his own way, and today there are more choices than ever before! The secret is to keep writing and making at least some progress each day. Forgive yourself when you can’t and keep going! I know you have already made a huge contribution to your family’s history, and I see you as very devoted, energetic, compassionate person whose writing legacy will forever bless your family and friends.

      • Elfrieda, I love the way you speak of writing a memoir as a journey, and I see that in Shirley’s process beginning with shorter essays and then the book over a number of years. Your comment also makes me think of the interior journey that it takes to think back over the years and to ponder how they unfold. I wish you well as you chart your own course in this.

  3. Great interview. I’m glad to have some insight into Shirley’s writing process, and have been uber impressed by her ability to get her work into readers’ hands. I think she’s a model for how Mennonite writers may need to position themselves in the future. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Melanie. Finding readers is a great challenge. With more than a million books available on Amazon, the biggest question any author faces is “how do I find the people who will love this book? who may even need this book?”

      It’s been fun to learn about social media in my old age. 🙂 Younger writers like you will have many creative options that I haven’t explored. Other memoir writers at the National Association of Memoir Writers have been very helpful. As have evangelical feminists (that you helped me find –thank you!) and many other people who are interested in Mennonite life but are not Mennonite.

      Here’s the great article you wrote about Blush, in case April or other readers missed it.http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/november/real-complexities-of-simple-life.html

      • Shirley, thanks for leaving the link to Melanie’s insightful article, and Hi Melanie – thank you for stopping by. I too am “uber” impressed with Shirley’s ability from writing such a wonderful memoir to as you note, getting her work to readers. Social media definitely plays a part these days, as well as other offline ways of connecting with people–I see Shirley doing very well at both, and am learning a lot from her example.

  4. Shirley, thank you for exploring your process of writing and publishing your memoir so openly. I have found that themes and title seem to evolve through the writing, too. We do have to find our own way through the process but sharing your lessons learned is invaluable to the rest of us. Thank you both for an excellent interview. The story behind the story is often as intriguing as the story itself!

    • Thanks, Kathy, I am fascinated by your own process as you go out and find new wonderful writers. You are so supportive of others; I also sense that you have a special talent for extracting the information you find in other blogs to help your own writing. Finding a balance between helping, creating content for blogs, and commenting and sharing and writing your book is so hard. That part of the process I don’t think I do half as well as you. So I hope that April and her readers will find you and learn from you also. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Kathy, you have an amazing website, and I appreciate your welcoming “kitchen table” there. Since I’m pastoring full-time plus writing/blogging, I don’t read and comment on blogs as much as I would like to, but I enjoy stopping by when I can and learning from you. Your kind words here are a blessing. Thank you.

  5. April,

    Thank you for your carefully constructed questions and sharing your interview with Shirley here. I am glad to have found you through her recommendation on FB.

    In your blog post, I am struck by Shirley’s commitment to learning and exploring through all the phases of the memoir project, from research to ongoing communication with the community of readers. And that is the challenge to each of us, whether blogging, writing books, or whatever journey we find ourselves in the midst of … to discover the possibilities at each point along the way. I will follow your blog with interest too.

    All the best,
    Kathleen

  6. Kathleen, I know you’ve addressed this comment to April, so I’m sure she will respond. I have a sense that the two of you will resonate with each other’s work. So happy that you took the time to comment. Thanks. Onward to discover new possibilities and sending you blessings for yours.

  7. Dear Kathleen – It’s good to meet you, and thank you for following. I’m following back and look forward to getting to know the Friesen Group also. Exploring new possibilities and continuing to learn are so key whether in writing or pastoring or the kind of organizational work that you’re involved in. I’m glad to learn from many companions along the way and now to count you among them. Looking forward to many new possibilities….

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