Monday, September 30, 2013

Inspiration and Creativity - A Writing Workshop

Writing is energizing.  It is a source of renewal.  Yet often we sabotage our desire to write and uncover the stories within us.
How do we unlock the creativity and inspiration that may have lain dormant within us due to the demands on our time and our own quest for perfection? 
When two women in the Circle offered their 1950s-style bungalow backing up to a wooded enclave for a writing workshop, it seemed the perfect place to devote a morning to ourselves before the hectic pace of the holidays.  Together we will ponder those demons that stifle creativity. Am I good enough?  Why would anyone care what I have to say?  Why do I feel guilty spending time to write? We focus on fun and informative ways to tap into our muse and stimulate stories. Join us at Jan and Flo's for inspiration and creativity.

Inspiration and Creativity:  A Writing Workshop

Created by Susan G. Weidener

Saturday, Nov. 16  

10 a.m. to 1 p.m

202 Millcreek Road, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462

What to expect:
  • Learn how we block our creative spirit and stifle inspiration.
  • Reconnect with your voice as a writer.
  • Discover simple writing techniques to create story.
  • Time to write.

Through discussion, writing prompts and opportunities to read aloud our work, this workshop offers tools and techniques to begin or fine tune a writing project.   

Open to writers of all genres and experience levels. Bring your favorite writing tools: Notebooks, laptops, pens and pencils.

Cost: $25.  Checks should be made payable to Women’s Writing Circle and sent to 75 Jennifer Drive, Chester Springs, PA  19425.  For more information, contact Susan Weidener at: 

Where:  The home of Flo Shore and Jan Backes, located in Plymouth Meeting with easy access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Free street parking.  Light refreshments served.

Instructor: An author, editor and former journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan Weidener leads writing workshops and started the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. Susan is the author of two memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat, which is about being widowed at a young age, and its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, a woman’s search for passion and renewal in middle age. Susan is interested in how women can find their voice through writing and storytelling.  Her most recent work appears in an anthology of original stories about women’s changing and challenging roles in society called Slants of Light: Stories and Poems From the Women's Writing Circle.  Susan lives in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Community Supports a Writer

Every life has many layers.  No more important is the layer of community. At Shirley Showalter's book launch for her memoir Blush:  A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World held in Lititz, Pennsylvania, the community was out in force.  They had come to support their hometown heroine, a writer, the rosy-cheeked little girl they remembered who by her own admission wanted "to make a splash in the world." 

I had traveled to Lititz for this special celebration having met Shirley through an online writing group. The communities we form online, while not face-to-face meetings, have become very powerful for the memoir writer.  I had become intrigued by Shirley's story of faith, family and community, and impressed by her generosity in greeting and acknowledging other writers through our online forums and blogs.  As such, I invited her to write a guest blog post for the Circle.

I  traveled to Lititz, which is about 50 miles from my home, because it is important to me to support other writers as they support me.  This is the essence of our Women's Writing Circle.  Supporting and finding in community the validation of our words and the risk-taking to dare to make our own "splash in the world." 

I was fortunate that two women from our Slants of Light anthology, Harriet Singer and Jan Backes, both of whom have been loyal attendees of the Circle over the last several years, decided to go with me on this warm September night.  Like most people, the three of us were intrigued  . . . fascinated with the culture of the Plain People, the Mennonites, and the story of a young Mennonite girl and her struggles to come to terms with the seductive call of  the "glittering world."  The girl, now a woman, had come  back to her hometown of Lititz to celebrate her journey through memoir.

Susan, Jan and Harriet
Shirley in bright red and black jacket and black slacks warmly greeted us in the cream and white foyer of Lititz Mennonite Church.  After we had embraced, she and I exchanged copies of our memoirs.  Since our life stories are held within those pages, no other words needed to be spoken.  

The book launch was a celebration of remembrance, worship, singing and prayer. When the Mennonite pastor officiating asked the question, "Who knew Shirley when she was in elementary school?" dozens of hands in the congregation went up.  Likewise, when she asked who knew Shirley in high school?  . . .  more hands . . .  Who knew her when she was president of Goshen College, who were her students there, who knew her when . . . . more hands, more hands. This gathering of about 200 people obviously had a shared history spanning generations.

Our little contingent from the Women's Writing Circle was also touched when the pastor announced Shirley was donating the proceeds of her book to the Longhouse Project of the Hans Herr House.

Lititz is in many respects a surreal place, albeit with the distinction of being voted "America's coolest little town." Almost frozen in time with its clapboard houses and narrow streets, the town evoked memories of when I went to my grandparents' home in Germantown, Pennsylvania. At the big kitchen table covered in shiny flowered oil cloth, we ate cold cuts and homemade coleslaw and potato salad for Sunday night supper.  Relatives from Germany lived within a 10-mile radius of each other.  Eventually, my relatives moved on, or moved away, sometimes as far as California as in the case of my own brother, Andy.  My father, Andrew Weidener, went to Maryland for his first teaching job and then to Philadelphia's Main Line. Germantown became merely a touchstone to his past.


Caring about each other and our stories is the essence of authentic simplicity and love.

Although there is great satisfaction in finishing, publishing and being acknowledged for our work,   if there are any instructions on writing and life I can offer, it is this:   We cannot do this without the love and support of community, whether it is the family, the neighborhood, the church or other writers.

For this is truly the reason why we create our stories. Whether it is a family legacy, a childhood history - or like my memoirs - stories of love, passion, loss and renewal in adulthood, none of us could do this without the backing of a strong community.  The support of well-wishers makes this a journey not of the solo traveler, but about all of us.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jackpot Writing Roseanne Style

I've been watching the 25th anniversary celebration of "Roseanne" on cable television.  When the show debuted in 1988, I remember calling out to my husband.  “Come here!  You have to see this woman! You won’t believe her!”  Instead of  a sex goddess or a saccharine sweet-tempered mother, here was something brand new on television.  A strong, outspoken woman. "I don't know how to be weak," Roseanne confesses in one episode.  She took us into the trenches of day-to-day living. 
Once a week, John and I settled in on the sofa and watched the newest episode of “Roseanne,” the jazzy, horn-blowing opening letting us know we were in for another gritty experience. Her stories were controversial, which made them interesting and entertaining.  Roseanne raised the bar for television sitcoms.   She was an innovator.
Watching the reruns of the show, I think they are as relevant now as two decades ago and offer lessons to writers.  She gave us unfiltered and complex views of being wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend. Meaningful portraits drove each new episode. Her rebellious older daughter Becky scorning her; Roseanne's exhaustion of being a waitress and working mother . . . husband, Dan, a man with a volatile temper and strong opinions who she unflinchingly stood up to.  Sometimes scared and overwhelmed, Roseanne showed us fear translated into caustic and irreverent wit not just toward others, but herself.  I felt, too, she was having a good time with her stories . . .  her ad lib laughter obvious in many scenes in the “Conners' kitchen” with Jackie, Dan or the kids. 

Roseanne's last words on the show.... "I realized that my dreams of being a writer wouldn't just come true; I had to do the work. And as I wrote about my life, I relived it, and whatever I didn't like, I rearranged. I made a commitment to finish my story even if I had to write in the basement in the middle of the night while everyone else was asleep. But the more I wrote, the more I understood myself and why I had made the choices I made, and that was the real jackpot. I learned that dreams don't work without action; I learned that no one could stop me but me. I learned that love is stronger than hate. And most important, I learned that God does exist. He and/or She is right inside you, underneath the pain, the sorrow, and the shame. I think I'll be a lot better now that this book is done."
Looking back on writing my memoirs, I made a commitment to writing them to the end, wherever the road might lead. I couldn’t wait to get that first cup of coffee in the morning and head up to my study . . .  later, lingering over what I had written, taking a walk and reflecting, coming back to it the next day. I also learned that some days were better than others.  I realized that some days the words wouldn't come and it was fine to take a break and put down the pen.
In hindsight I appreciate the entertainment value of writing my life stories. I remember one scene I wrote in Again in a Heartbeat.  It was about when I first proposed marriage to John . . .  a stolen lunchtime proposal on his lunch break and mine, just after we had made love.  I could hardly believe my own audacity when I looked back on it! Proposing marriage.  Luckily, he came to the rescue and agreed and then proposed to me.  In Morning at Wellington Square, I recalled the joy of meeting the first women who came to the Women’s Writing Circle.  We were surrounded by books in a space that resembled a bookstore right out of Dickens’ London.  Had I really had the nerve to think I could organize a writing group on my own?
Among the many benefits and tasks of writing are:
  • Reliving  joyful moments of our life.
  • Relishing rich detail and lively dialogue.
  • Believing our story matters.
  • Laughing at ourselves.
  • Being honest. 
  • Learning more about yourself.  
  • Taking risks.
  • Cultivating your voice.  Roseanne taught us, it's a sure way to hit the jackpot.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome here in the Circle.

Monday, September 9, 2013

In Fear and Hope a Story Emerges

When writing our memoirs, it often helps to begin by journaling.   As Sherrey Meyer writes in this guest blog, transferring our innermost thoughts onto paper becomes the catalyst for the healing process, and provides a wellspring of  acceptance, openness and lack of judgment about our own feelings and emotions.  

I met Sherrey through our growing online community of memoir writers on Facebook.  Her heartfelt and insightful reviews of my memoirs made me realize how generous she is in "getting the word out" about women finding their voices through writing.  As she works on her own memoir, she offers her story of hope and healing. Please welcome Sherrey to the Women's Writing Circle. ~ Susan
As a child growing up, I knew fear. My mother, Nelle, disciplined using fear in the form of verbal and emotional abuse. One of my greatest anxieties arose from the thought I might displease her. I knew too well the result of her displeasure. Because I hoped to please her, I never gave up trying despite fearing the reward for possibly failing.  (In the above photograph with my mother and nephew Kevin, December 2000 when I was preparing to move her from the nursing home in Tennessee to Oregon after determining she had been abused in the Tennessee nursing home.)

An excerpt from my memoir in progress provides an example:
I dreaded getting in trouble with Mama. From a very early age, I remember the emotions created by one of her favorite punishments. Inflicting humiliation and dread on the object of her anger seemed to bring her great satisfaction. I hated to hear the words, "Go outside and bring back a nice long switch. And while you're walking back make sure you pull off all the leaves. That way it will hurt more and the sting will last longer so you'll learn from this." Before leaving her presence, my head bowed and my steps began to shuffle. The posture of a defeated soul. It didn't help to cry -- tears only increased her anger. And if tears fell, there'd be another barrage of words, "I suppose you think those tears will make me feel sorry for you. Well, they won't!"
Off I’d go to pick the tool to render my punishment and walk back to the house, tears coursing down my cheeks, while my child fingers stripped the switch bare. I could already feel its sting on my legs and back. I walked what seemed the longest walk cloaked in a blanket of dread for what was to come. All the while I hoped that one day this and other punishments would be cast aside. Still, despite that hope, I feared what might be if I failed again.

Eventually I began to realize that my hopes and fears were woven together in my childhood experiences. In my second marriage in the early 1980s, my husband began to gently work on my reactions to my mother’s habitual manipulations and abuses. With his help, I began to stand taller and stronger. I began to learn how to use hope in a way that quelled my fears inherent in my relationship with Mama.
  • By now we lived out-of-state and her rants and abuses were via phone conversations.  The moment I heard her voice I began deep breathing exercises to calm the stress of conversations with her.
  • Knowing the result when I countered something she thought or said I began speaking in more “vanilla” terms. In other words, I kept my comments from being confrontational. That isn’t to say I gave up and didn’t speak my own thoughts and opinions. I learned to speak them differently. 
  • I began journaling after our phone calls, transferring my thoughts out of me and on paper.
  • I am including letters to my now deceased mother written in my child voice throughout my memoir. I share with her my fear, dashed hopes, and even happy days we had together. These letters allow me to face my fears in black and white, dissecting them away from who I am today and giving them a home outside of me.
The letters have been most therapeutic. I didn't know what would happen when I first started. The catalyst was an ugly memoir that came bouncing forward and I needed to cope with it, so I sat down and wrote out my feelings. That's when the letters started. 

These last two steps, writing in a journal and writing these letters, have been instrumental in transforming me into the woman I am today. My fear of failure no longer dominates my activities and dreams. I have risen to a level of knowing myself from the inside out, not from the outside in as Mama defined me.
Hope for change in the face of fear or any other detraction from happiness and positivity is always present. It is much simpler to engage in hoping for change and improvement.
Hoping to hear my mother’s words of affirmation, I asked my mother one day when she was more alert than usual if there was anything she needed that wasn't being seen to. I remember she looked at me and said, "Sherrey, you have done everything just right." These were the last words she spoke to me before she died. I had waited 57 years to hear that very affirmation and validation.
I believe hope represents all we see as positive  . . . fear is the opposite, showing all we believe to be negative. And yet, they are often inseparable. What strange companions these two emotions are.
Hold out hope as a lantern lighting the way in face of any fears you may have. Hope will guide you down the path to the next good thing coming your way.  Hope is what made me who I am today.
“Hope and fear are inseparable. There is no hope
without fear, nor any fear without hope.”
~ Fran├žois de La Rochefoucauld
(French memoirist, 1613-1680)
A retired legal secretary, Sherrey Meyer grew tired of drafting and revising pleadings and legal documents.  She had always dreamed of writing something else, anything else!  Once she retired she couldn’t stay away from the computer, and so she began to write.  Among her projects is a memoir of “life with mama,” an intriguing Southern tale of matriarchal power and control displayed in verbal and emotional abuse.  Sherrey is married and lives with her husband Bob in Milwaukie, Oregon.  You can reach Sherrey on her websites:  Healing by Writing and Found Between the Covers or email her at

Monday, September 2, 2013

Writing To Find Authentic Voice

Shirley Showalter's memoir, Blush, is making its debut this month.  We met online through a writing group and I was fascinated to hear she had written about her life as a Mennonite. To write a memoir is hard enough, to write one as a woman raised in a Mennonite community seemed huge. I've always appreciated the beauty, serenity and charm of Lancaster County, where much of her story takes place. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and every autumn when the farms and fields in Lancaster County turned a rich gold, I traveled there to enjoy this very special place where people have for centuries formed close bonds around church and community. Please welcome Shirley to the Circle.

I’ve lived the life of a pioneer. I was the firstborn in birth order, the first person in my family to go to college, and the first woman president of Goshen College. I’ve enjoyed the role of path breaker, but not without struggle.

You see, I’m a Mennonite, and Mennonites value humility above almost all other virtues. You won’t be surprised to learn that publishing and marketing books about one’s own life has a very short history among Mennonites. However, the outside world has begun to tell stories about our religious cousins, the Amish, and about us Mennonites. Sometimes the stories ring true. Sometimes they are laughable to anyone who has lived in an Amish or Mennonite community (which are often found side-by-side).

 Kathy Wenger, co-owner of the Forgotten Seasons Bed and Breakfast, Lititz, Pennsylvania, the farmhouse that functions like a character in Shirley's memoir. Note the historical plaque in the background. The house was built in the late 1730's.

So telling an authentic story about Mennonite life appeals to me, and so does contemplation and community – connecting to self, others, and God. Writing has helped me find my voice at every stage of my life, which is one of the most important reasons I wanted to write a memoir: to go deeper into the process of self-discovery and connect to the same process in the lives of my readers.

This book trailer tells the story:
Above is the photograph of Kathy Wenger and me. This house belonged to members of my family for at least 80 years. Today it’s called Forgotten Seasons Bed and Breakfast. I love the fact that I can still sleep in the rooms of my childhood. And that the new owners are Mennonites who look and act much like the people I grew up with.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, attracts over eleven million tourists a year. They come looking for beautiful, manicured family farms, plainly-dressed people, and a sense of entering another world within a larger one. To me, growing up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, this world was not unusual at all. It was, instead, the very center of my universe. My parents and nearly everyone I knew well was Mennonite. I would have to decide whether to become Mennonite too. Therein lies one of the biggest inner conflicts in the story.

Fifty years later, after a career as a professor, college president, and foundation executive, I began to reflect on my childhood in a new way. I wanted to test whether some of my stories would interest, inspire, and help others. First I had to become the historian and psychologist of my own life.

What could I learn from my experience of growing up “plain” (another word for Mennonite and Amish whose prayer coverings and modest dress define them)? A literary contest in the local newspaper gave me a place to try my hand. So, I took up my pen, went on retreat, and began to write. When my first memoir essay won first place in 2007, I took that encouragement as a sign to continue.

My opportunity to write a book-length memoir came in 2010 after I had moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia. I proposed a book about a “real-life Mennonite” experience, hoping that among the millions of people who travel to Lancaster County, watch Amish reality shows, and read Amish and Mennonite fiction there would be some readers with a real craving for authentic first-person stories. Herald Press, the publisher for the Mennonite Church, offered me a contract.

A book contract means deadlines, and it means learning how to move from the essay form to the book form. It means searching for larger themes. I found all of these tasks to be more challenging than I expected them to be based on the relative ease of writing the first essays.

Since the publisher needed a title a year before the book was finished, the task of locating a theme was accelerated by one of the most helpful tools ever – a deadline. The publisher and I moved from a working title of “Rosy Cheeks” (a high school nickname) to the more universal title of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a GlitteringWorld.

This title named the primary tension between church and world in my inner life that I wanted to explore. I wrote a full draft, cognizant of the theme, but still not happy with the narrative arc. So I hired another editor to help me with developmental editing of the story. And I wrote an introduction that finally “clicked.”

After I wrote those words, I was able to do two things: (1) edit with purpose, strengthening the theme, and (2) imagine how a reader might make use of my book in her or his own life. Thus, the phrase “embrace your blush” became part of the story I now have to tell about the book as its author. Finally, I had language to connect my life with any life.

I’ve learned so much already from my journey into my own past. Now I’m eager to engage with readers as the book enters the world and I tour the places that have formed me. The official book launch will take place September 19 at 7 p.m. at Lititz Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and will include singing and story telling with Mennonites old and young, plain and fancy. Please join us if you’re in the area. It will be an inspiration and a party. Enjoy homemade cookies from the old family recipe in the book.

Here are a few lessons gleaned from my experience for other memoir writers:

·         Start small. Essays, poems, op eds.

·         Recognize the need for a narrative arc, or at least a thread of themes and subthemes, when you write a longer work. Look early and often for the answer to the question: “what is this book about?”

·         Get help from the best editors you can find. Locate beta readers also.

·         Build a community of people interested in your themes as well as in your life. This is necessary if you are to find an audience larger than friends and family.

·         Seek endorsements from folks who have audiences similar to the ones you want to reach.

·         Involve your own blog/FB page/newsletter following in key decisions and events. Show them how grateful you are for their interest and show them their influence in the final product.

Shirley Hershey Showalter began her career as a high school English teacher. After receiving a PhD in American Civilization from the University of Texas at Austin, she became professor of English at Goshen College in Indiana. She was named president of Goshen College in 1996 and served there until 2004. After six years as a foundation executive at the Fetzer Institute, she and her husband Stuart moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she was able to devote herself to writing her memoir in 2011-2012.  Her website is: