Q&A: Shirley Showalter reflects on Blush.In my recent review of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World I noted how author Shirley Hershey Showalter wrote interestingly about her happy childhood for a wide audience, though she grew up in the specific, narrow, and intertwined agrarian and religious world of Mennonite rural Pennsylvania in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Her parents’ firstborn, she was heir not only to their accomplishments but also to their unrealized ambitions. Obviously a smart, positive, and attractive child, she had her own gifts and desires to express as well. The result, set against the backdrop of the changes sweeping America and her church, provides more than enough tension for a good story.
Showalter explains in a short video about the book:
The book’s title—Blush—refers to my discomfort in that place between the church and the world. It also means that I tried so hard to be sophisticated. It took me a long time to discover that God made me a feisty, curious, plain Mennonite farm girl for a reason. When I am vulnerable and wholehearted, I am much more aware of God and my community can come in and support me, even in times of conflict and pain and doubt.
I’m no longer plain on the outside, but I would love to be plain on the inside. Being plain is not simple. True simplicity requires us to drop our pretenses, let go of our ego and learn to embrace the blush, rather than to fight it. This wisdom is ancient. It’s as true for you as it is for me. And the place where it leads is home.
I know Shirley Showalter as a virtual friend, having become a fan of her blog some years ago. She answered some questions by email.
Why did you write Blush?
I have no single reason, but that doesn’t mean I had no purpose. In fact, I wrote it for all of the following: to leave a legacy to children and grandchildren, to “bring the muse into my country” (following Virgil and Willa Cather), to describe a rural and religious world that no longer exists, to place my childhood inside the context of the larger cultural changes happening in America, and to inspire others who may feel caught between worlds or who grieve or who are facing conflict between the generations.
Though a true memoir about your first eighteen years, with its diverse subjects, photos, footnotes, glossary, and recipes Blush contains elements of history, scholarship, and traditional autobiography. How in the world did you manage to pull so many threads through the story?
I started with about seven or eight stories that had been written for other publications. I outlined other subjects from a timeline I created early in the writing process. Then I created a narrative arc diagram and made three other diagrams to help me layer the themes of blush and simplicity on the yonder side of complexity. This concept of second naivete (Paul Ricoeur) or second simplicity (Richard Rohr) has been identified by many philosophers and poets over time. I first encountered it years ago in the writings of Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly. Blushing became the metaphor I was looking for to connect the “me then” of childhood with the “me now” of late middle age/early elderhood. In adolescence, I blushed when I encountered complexity in the world outside the church. I blushed when my inner desires erupted in ways I couldn’t control.
From the vantage point of 65 years, however, I could see, for example, in my happy, sectarian, childhood, the seeds of a much more universal approach to life and faith. The simplicity enforced by bishops in my youth became the simplicity I myself chose after having lived a life of complexity in middle age. In the book trailer, I describe myself as no longer being plain on the outside but desiring to be plain on the inside. That’s what I mean by a second naivete: choosing to endorse the principles that lie underneath the old rules, especially the principle of love.
Placing stories in their historical context comes naturally to me, since I was trained in American Studies. I tried to create the kind of book I myself enjoy reading. I love old photos. I knew that some readers would need explanations of the more exotic practices of my faith (hence, some footnotes and glossary), and recipes—well they were just the icing on the cake. I had to remember to let the narrative lead and offer the other elements as complementary, not essential.
Many writers benefit from developmental editors. In your book’s Acknowledgments you credit freelance editor Dave Malone (Malone Consulting) for helping you get your manuscript into final shape before you submitted it. Could you discuss his shaping or what he helped you see?
First, I have to credit Darrelyn Saloom, who became an instant friend after having been an online friend. Darrelyn volunteered to read my manuscript, which had already been submitted to my publisher. When she told me that it wasn’t ready, my heart sank, but I also recognized the ring of truth in her words. She connected me to her editor friend Dave Malone, and he and I together gave the manuscript one more complete revision. The biggest changes? We cut 20,000 nonessential words (one whole chapter and numerous interesting digressions) from the manuscript. Dave also helped me to tighten the narrative focus within stories, reserving the “punchline” for the ending, for example. Those are the two most valuable changes from this final revision. I worked for three solid weeks, taking suggestions and rewriting. I’m glad I did it. This last-minute push was one more example of the value of growing up on a farm. As Daddy always said, “Every thing worth doing is worth doing right.” And “you gotta make hay while the sun shines.” :-)
[Cynthia Newberry Martin has featured Malone on her blog, in a self-interview about himself as a writer.]
What did you learn about yourself in writing Blush?
A lot! Mostly, I learned how much my parents still live inside me. I recognized things like the irony that I was “plainer” than either my mother or my grandmother at age 17; I was the third generation of “only daughters” on my mother’s side; my grandfather’s conflict with his brothers paralleled his conflict with my father. All these are things I saw in new ways through reflection, conversations and interviews, and by sitting still for a long time and gazing at old photos a long time.
Did writing the book help you to see more clearly oppositional aspects of your life, which are epitomized in your very name (Shirley means “bright meadow,” but she was named after Shirley Temple)? For example, modesty versus ambition; the virtues of a tight, counter-cultural faith community versus the opportunities of the diverse secular world (or even versus mainstream religious denominations that would seem to accept lesser commitment).
Oh yes. Thanks for picking up on the irony and opposition in my name. The first few sentences of the memoir about wanting to be big plunged me into opposition right away. Pride v. humility. Large v. small. Church v. world. When I wrote them (at the end, not the beginning of the process), I knew I had “hit the home pasture,” to quote Willa Cather.
What do you hope your memoir provides for general readers, for scholars, and for Mennonites? For your family?
I have a different dream for each type of reader. But here’s the way I envision the way this memoir might serve the needs of all four groups, reversing the order above:
I start with my family. The memoir will ground my grandchildren in one fourth of their genetic pool, and it will implicitly pass along values that I consider important. My siblings and cousins have expressed appreciation for it, and my mother is ecstatic. I also hope other Mennonites will have their stories told. Many Mennonite readers have already said, “this book puts into words feelings and experiences I too had.”
If Mennonite readers resonate, I hope they will tell their friends and share the book with people who are curious about Mennonites and Amish, perhaps because of media coverage or because of reading other books or traveling to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
I’ve also been building a community (you interviewed me about this effort—Ubuntu) among readers of my blog, newsletter recipients, and Facebook author page. Some of my most enthusiastic readers are not Mennonites. I hope that this book “crosses over” to the wider audience of those who love memoir. I find that many readers resonate with the “blush” theme. The encouragement to “embrace your blush” can apply to nearly everyone.
Scholars will probably have less interest in this book than in other kinds of analysis and well-documented artifacts. I’m glad narratives can contribute to the historical record, and to that extent this book may count as scholarship. I tried to be careful with the facts.
Previously: My review of Blush.