Interviewing Shirley Showalter

A Voice that Sings
with Shirley Showalter

Somehow, when I launched SunnyRoomStudio in early 2010, I discovered Shirley Hershey Showalter.  Intent on writing a memoir of her own one day, she had committed herself to reviewing 100 memoirs.  Did she reach her goal?  Of course!

To say that I was inspired by her approach and obvious dedication might be an understatement.  So, recently, it was a pleasure to ask Shirley, this “memoir guru,”  a few questions.  I hope you enjoy getting to know this inspiring and insightful woman.  Shirley is now at work on her memoir and her new website even notes how many days are left until her manuscript is complete.  When I checked today, 233 days.

When reading a memoir, Shirley looks for “a voice that sings.”  I think you will agree, after reading her interview, that Shirley also possesses a voice that sings.

  • Farmer’s daughter turned college professor, then college president, later foundation executive, Showalter has published articles in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of  Higher Education, Christian Century and many others.  Her work-in-progress is about growing up Mennonite in  America, 1948-1966.

Welcome, Shirley, to my sunny space for kindred spirits.
A pleasure to have you here!

Q:  Shirley, you seem to be in the “spring” of your life … new projects, an adventurous and happy spirit.

I do feel an amazing surge of energy in this stage of my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver calls it. I love waking up to a new day and thanking God for the beauty around me. The first daffodil to bloom in Ft. Greene Park sets my soul on fire, especially when I can show my grandson that brilliant gold color and help him feel the velvety petals.

  • What’s the secret of this joy?

Partly, I was eased out of a comfortable nest at the end of my career.  Something about falling teaches us to fly — Three Waves of Transformation.

However, although my last job ended earlier than expected, I was already on a journey like so many other people, especially women in their ‘50’s and ‘60’s. We are just coming into our own at this stage of life. Gail Sheehy and others have documented this fact.

Now is the time to collect up the “other selves” (in my case, creative writer) that got shelved in my career path and ask them what they still want to learn and do. Social media has become a valuable tool for learning and connecting to other women and men who are exploring new facets of themselves – like you, Daisy! I love the freedom to move physically, psychologically, and spiritually in this stage of my life.

  • I call it “dancing with change” and have written and spoken about it frequently in the last year.

Q: What was the first memoir you ever read, its impact on you?

For some reason I have never forgotten a book I took off the shelf in second grade called Heroes and Heroines. I can still see the red, white, and blue cover. It was biography rather than memoir, but it stirred me. I discovered through this series of stories about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Betsy Ross, and Dolly Madison, et al, that they were ordinary people who took risks and used their talents creatively. I wanted to live like that.

Probably the first memoir that moved me in high school was Black Like Me by John Griffin. Growing up in a lily white rural area, I had a lot to learn about race relations and people of other backgrounds. I was completely captured by Griffin’s stories of hatred and prejudice, the grinding realities of everyday life based solely on skin color.

Q: You’ve worn different hats in life … which one is most meaningful to you, and why?

Oh dear, this question is almost as hard as choosing my favorite child. If I may, let me change the metaphor . . . instead of choosing one hat, let me select one meaningful bead from each life I’ve lived and make a necklace out of it.

  • Being a high school teacher taught me that you have to share your passion for your subject and not take student interest for granted. The most meaning came from trying and failing and getting better every time.
  • College teaching in a liberal arts setting allowed me to broaden my interests in several subjects and to connect them, learning from wonderful colleagues. I loved the freedom to create new courses, share my passions (see above) and to then see students go out into the world with their own hearts on fire.
  • Being president of Goshen College for eight years was definitely a very lovely jewel. I place it in the center of my necklace. Among the many joys, probably the greatest was the project of building an amazing Music Center, working with the leadership team to combine the student, faculty, alumni, and local community dreams. Seeing the invisible become visible, listening to the inaudible becoming music, these were thrills beyond telling.
  • Working at The Fetzer Institute was one of those rare privileges. I met scores of people whose books I had read and admired. I was in groups that had private conversations with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu. I got to meet many Nobel Peace prize winners, other spiritual leaders, and scientists. What a stimulating environment! But what was even more meaningful was building a loving and learning community within the organization. I was able to bring all my previous roles together and unite them.
  • Now I am a writer. I find meaning when I am moving pen across the page or letters across the screen and reach an “aha” moment. As I listen through the silence for the voice of a child I am no more, I hold my grandson on my lap and look into his eyes asking him to tell me his secrets so that I may know my own.
  • Which brings me to the thread of the necklace. While I played all of the above roles, I was also wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister, aunt, and now grandma. These relationships wove themselves through all the rest and were essential to my public roles. The clasp that joins the beads and threads together is the great love of God.

Q: You are working on a memoir … how is this book different than one you might have written 10 – 15 years ago?

What a great question. First of all, I was president of a college ten years ago and would not have been able to write the book then! But if I had, I would probably have been most drawn to the moments of change that turned me into a leader or which shaped my approach to leadership later on. Now, as I write, I think of my younger self as a character with the nick name “Rosy Cheeks.” I am interested in peeling back the layers of her formation to what she sensed but did not know. She was part of a long and unusual tradition, the Mennonite Church, and I want readers to experience the contours of life within that community, but she also was an explorer of wide open spaces and a bit of a rebel. There were mystical and material sides of her, sometimes at odds with each other. How did that happen?

Q: How do you stay centered amidst the zaniness of contemporary schedules? 

I don’t claim to do this well, but I find that contact with nature, silence, meditation, and a good cup of tea have great powers. I also love to walk the streets of this temporary home of Brooklyn. My husband and I especially enjoy the walk along the East River looking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We are amazed by this view every single time, and the sunsets are extraordinary. My grandson Owen is a bundle of energy, but he sometimes allows me to just hold and rock him. I let my spirit flow back and forth through time and eternity with him in my arms.

Q: If you were to drop everything in your life, decide to become a monk, a spiritual leader, where would you begin? 

I would begin with Thomas Merton and his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain which I have not yet read, but would under those circumstances! I do, however, read excerpts from Merton’s journals and would keep a journal using his as inspiration. I would go for even longer walks and spend even more time in silence, prayer, nature, and with family.

Q: Plato, Picasso or Einstein – which one would inspire you to write his biography?

I’d pick Picasso today, although it might be another tomorrow! I want to see with his eyes and feel the paint going onto the canvas under his hand. I want to live in Paris and speak French and love and fight with Gertrude Stein.

Thank you, Shirley, for this engaging conversation about
your life and work.  I look forward to reading your memoir,
to hearing more from a voice that sings!

Connect with Shirley on facebook or via twitter @shirleyhs

Blog by DazyDayWriter @ work in SunnyRoomStudio: all rights reserved.

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