As announced last Monday, I am happy to welcome Shirley Hershey Showalter as a guest blogger today. We met in the online world last year; I was initially intrigued by her 100 Memoirs blog in which she set out to read as many memoirs as possible to learn how to write her own. I left comments, and we connected. I have followed Shirley’s quest to write her memoir about growing up Mennonite, and I was particularly curious how she tackled the dicey topic of writing about faith, mainly because I have been struggling with how to do that myself. So I am thrilled that Shirley was willing to share her insights (Thank you, Shirley!):

Writing About Faith – Imagine a Plane Ride

by Shirley Hershey Showalter

We all know that politics and religion are like the third rail of conversation. But do they have to be?

If you and I meet on a plane or train and fall into conversation, it’s only a matter of time before something one of us says leads me to tell you I’m Mennonite. Here’s how you might find out:

“Where did you go to college?” Eastern Mennonite University

“You were a college president? Where?” Goshen College, a liberal arts and Mennonite college in Indiana

From there, you either drop your questions and turn to your Coke and peanuts, or you push on:

“Did you drive a horse and buggy instead of a car?”

“No. You are thinking of the Amish, who are ‘cousins’ to the Mennonites but practice a stricter separation from the world.”

“Is it true Mennonites are pacifists? Why?”

“The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) is the centerpiece of the Bible from a Mennonite perspective. Many generations of Mennonite teaching and community life go back to the belief that Jesus meant what he said there, including ‘Love your enemies.’ ”

“You don’t look like a Mennonite.”

“I was a ‘plain’ Mennonite in the 1960s until my branch of the Mennonite Church no longer required prayer coverings and plain dress. I hope I’ve moved from being ‘plain’ externally to being ‘simple’ internally. I still feel respect and kinship for the best of the more conservative Anabaptist (both Mennonite and Amish) traditions.”

My 21-year-old mother holds me on the right.
My aunt holds my cousin on the left.
Date: early fall, 1948

I’ve enjoyed many conversations with strangers over the years. The best ones of these turned into mutual exchanges. I might ask, for example, the question Krista Tippett often uses at the beginning of her radio show OnBeing: “What was your religious or moral environment as you were growing up?”

This way, I’ve heard quite a few faith stories from other people of many religions and no religion. In general, when people share their experiences of faith descriptively, others find them interesting. Being different from the mainstream actually makes your story more interesting. It took me a while to figure that out.

For a long time, I was embarrassed about wearing a prayer covering in public school and sitting on the bleachers as the other kids learned to dance in gym class. Now those stories are at the very heart of the memoir I’m writing called Blush: A Mennonite Girl in a Glittering World. I’m currently revising the manuscript and expecting publication in the fall with Herald Press.

So if we can have heart-felt and mutual conversations about religion with strangers in person, how do we translate that experience into writing memoir?

Here’s my thesis:

Writing about religion is a lot like talking to a stranger on a plane.

If the subject comes up there naturally, it might be one to consider for your writing. If it doesn’t, perhaps your story should focus on other aspects of your life.
My advice:

Be transparent.

Tell the truth about your religion, both the good and the bad.
No religion is perfect. All religions have made a contribution to individual
lives and cultures.

Write from your heart.

Focus on experience rather than doctrine, unless and until the doctrine impacts your own story. Then feel free to share how you were moved, drawn in, transformed, defeated, terrified, shamed, or otherwise impacted by your faith.

Invite rather than exclude the reader.

If you have followed the first two pieces of advice, you will have created a space wide enough for both you, the protagonist of your story, and the reader. The reader is on your side, wondering what will happen to you as you navigate the differences between your internal desires and the external realities of your life.

Readers may even start pondering their own values, beliefs, and commitments. This would be wonderful! But they will close the book if they sense you have the hidden motive to convert them. On the other hand, if you do this well, you could be the member of any religion and a sympathetic reader could be someone of a religion in conflict with yours. Does this happen often? No. Would it help us to live more peacefully if it did? Yes.

Do you talk about your faith or your religious background to strangers? Does this analogy make sense to you, or do you think it better not to get into this subject?