Monday, August 19, 2019

Marian Beaman on Memoir and Writing About Family

In March, 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Marian Beaman on a writing retreat in Chincoteague, Virginia. We immediately hit it off, so I was thrilled when some time later Marian contacted me and asked if I would provide a developmental edit for her memoir, a coming of age story of growing up Mennonite. As I began reading, I felt transported by her beautiful, lyrical descriptions of a bygone time and place. Pennsylvania Mennonite country is not far from where I grew up and my grandparents, largely of German descent, appreciated country life, cold cuts for Sunday supper, the value of attending church. Even now, when I drive through Lancaster County, where Marian's story is set, I feel a certain kinship with the landscape and its way of life. Marian wrote of her family with respect and humor, but also with an eye toward how they had molded her character and forged her determination to become her own woman. Out of this came Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl, available to the reading public on Sept. 14.

Marian will be guest author on Sept. 21 at our Women's Writing Circle where she will join us in read around, and give a presentation on her new book and her journey as a writer. A book signing follows. Please welcome Marian to the Circle.

Picture a Scene

I grew up Mennonite in the 1950s in a rural area near Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, halfway between Lancaster and Harrisburg, the capital. My parents, sisters, brother, and I lived in a white, green-shuttered house along the street at the top of a hill; my Grandma Longenecker and Aunt Ruthie lived a half mile away at the bottom of the hill in a Victorian house surrounded by an acre of woods. I volleyed between two houses, one close to the village of Rheems, where I went to school. Each of my family homes provided me with two ways of living to choose from.Bossler Mennonite Church was at the center of our social life as this collage of my family reveals.

My Cast of Characters

Mother Ruth was a traditional Mennonite homemaker. My grandmother Fannie, a fancy woman, became plain after she married my grandfather Henry. They were round in some ways, including the girth that amply filled their aprons. They both taught me the home arts, my mother showing me how to make a caped dress and skirts for school; my grandmother, how to make potpie, sauerkraut, and knot a comfort to warm the needy.

My Aunt Ruthie, who lived with my Grandma, could fit the title “feminist” because of her unconventional Mennonite life. I describe her in my memoir: “Aunt Ruthie had a heart-shaped hairline and hazel eyes. Two thin lines formed lips that did not suggest laxness. As sharp and as versatile as a Swiss army knife, she sported a watch with a crocodile-skin strap around her wrist.” She never married, and the few men she did date never came up to her standards. The only Longenecker woman with a drivers’ license, a master’s degree, and a movie camera, she had an impressive resumé: principal of Rheems Elementary School, tax collector for West Donegal Township, bookkeeper for the church and my dad’s business, and “mother” to many Vietnamese refugees in her own home.

Ruthie “the Cheater,” my teacher for the first four grades, tipped the scales in my favor on two occasions: She improved my artwork, so I’d win a prize at the Elizabethtown Art Show. Later, she gave me an edge during the weekly spelling bee, pointing to the word reconciliation (on the sly) in the dictionary. I was her favorite niece.

Memoir: Not a Walk through a Mennonite Meadow

My father, my most complex character, required me to dig deep to examine motivations for his behavior and my reaction to his treatment. I had an adversarial relationship with my father. I was his foe. He beat me and locked me in the cellar as punishment for being mouthy. As memoirist, I knew I had to tell the truth for my story to be authentic. Nevertheless, I went through phases as I struggled to describe my relationship with my him: I moved from resisting the revelation of family secrets to full disclosure:

1. I’ll leave out the bad parts. Many readers like a “clean” read, no bad language, abuse, or torrid sex scenes.

2. “But your story won’t be authentic,” an inner voice chided.

3. I read other memoirs as I wrote my own; I noticed that other writers didn’t have to go on a rant to tell their stories, even the ugly parts.

4. As time progressed, I summoned the courage to reveal secrets. Fortunately, a fellow blogger and memoirist invited me to a retreat in her vacation home in Virginia. I wrote a draft of the most emotionally wrenching chapter in the presence of five other sympathetic writers who cheered me on.

5. Later, one editor observed, “Your dad wasn’t all bad. Show some happy times with him.” To balance the harsh tone, I inserted some pleasant memories.

6. Thus, my story now illustrates a dawning awareness: What could have been a terrible rant about being physically abused turned into an acceptance of the past and recognition of my father’s limitations. Then came forgiveness, and appreciation for his gifts to me: a curious mind, love for music, and interest in politics and family history.

Two chapters about the abuse appear in my book, “The Whipping,” and “Dungeon in Hell.” But then I added some detail to show my father as three-dimensional, a round character.

I ended the chapter entitled “The Whipping” with this:

“I would love to have memories of his holding me on his lap, wrapping his arms around me, and telling me he loved me, no matter what I had done. Flashes of pleasant times do remain, though. Daddy took walks on Sunday afternoon, often in the meadow along Foreman Road, close to our home. A few times, I went with him, pausing as he sprawled out on the glossy grass, staring at the sky, sometimes falling asleep. Then I observed tufts of wild red clover interspersed between the blades and a butterfly dipping down for nectar. Once he took me deep-sea fishing with men and women from the church. We had a huge haul of bass, and he brought home his share, scales shed and ready for the pan.”

Then I wrote this ending to the chapter entitled "Music Tames my Dad":

“My love of music, a gift from my father, certainly has not canceled out the lasting effects of his abuse or erased it from my memory. With the passage of time, I have moved from the disgust I felt as a girl eventually toward tolerance and now a measure of understanding of my father and his appreciation of music. Recalling my dad’s love for music taps on my heart and mind like a tuning fork. Thus, melodies in both major and minor keys have become a tool for expressing my own emotions — and a direct link to the softer side of my dad and to my heavenly Father.”

How do you show the lighter side of a dark character?


Marian Longenecker Beaman is a former professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville, Florida. Her memoir, Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl, records the charms and challenges of Mennonite girlhood in mid-twentieth century Pennsylvania. The writer’s formative years coincided with the decade before which the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church experienced major change, especially regarding dress code for women.

Such is the backdrop for the story of one Mennonite girl who benefited from a sheltered life with boundaries, but who bucked church tradition along with coming to terms with an adversarial relationship with her father. She shares her story to preserve these memories, the bitter with the sweet, and to leave a legacy for future generations.

One of Marian’s stories, “Gutsy in Ukraine,” was published in My Gutsy Story Anthology by Sonia Marsh, September 2014. Another story, "Making Love Edible", appeared in the Food and Faith issue of The Mennonite, September 2016. The Jacksonville Arts and Antiques magazine published a personal profile in the December 2018 issue. Her memoir will be featured in the National Association of Memoir Writers’ Virtual Book Club, 2020.

The author writes weekly on her Plain and Fancy blog: She lives with her artist husband, Cliff, in Jacksonville, Florida, where her children and grandchildren also reside.

Find Marian here:


Nancy said...

Marian, I especially liked point #5 in which the editor told you that your dad was not all bad, that he had some good qualities, too. I grew up with an emotionally abusive, controlling father with whom I had a love/relationship. As I matured, I tried to remember the good times, the good qualities he had to balance the bad ones. It helped me understand him and to finally forgive.

kathleen pooler said...

Wonderful post, Marian and Susan! Two of my absolute favorites meet on the page to create so many valuable memoir writing tips. I too had to inject lighter, happy moments into the dark side of my son’s addiction. Your book is a treasure, Marian, not only for your family but for the worldwide audience who will want to be transported Into your world. It shows the beauty of forgiveness and clarity in the face of abuse that memoir writing can create. Thank you both.

Marian Beaman said...

Thank you, Nancy! I'm copying here a comment I left on the Facebook page: "Some of our life experiences are similar, Nancy. I'm glad you can relate to my adversarial relationship to my father. I just wish he could see my plaque for the Outspoken Citizen Award for speaking out against Wal-Mart's overreach in my former neighborhood."
I guess we both learned to tame our tongues though maybe that was not your problem. Thanks again for commenting!

And, thank you too, Kathy! Your words always encourage me! You lovely postcard with book cover imprint arrived in the mail today. Very classy, my friend!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Kathy, Marian did write a very thought-provoking post, clearly showing her process. A great educational piece for all memoir writers. Thanks so much for stopping by with your comments.

Sherrey Meyer said...

Marian and Susan, having read Mennonite Daughter and reviewed it, I especially enjoyed Marian's post on her process. Marian and I share many similarities in our growing up years, and I have had similar struggles. Struggles that since my fall in 2016 have kept me from touching my draft manuscript and at times even thinking about what to do with what I've written. Marian's post has given me much to think about, and I promise, Marian and Susan, that with this bolstering piece I intend to give it a great deal more thought.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Sherrey, Life circumstances often get in the way of writing. Sometimes, too, the immense amount of work a book requires, especially when we're trying to do it all ourselves without the backing of an editor or publishing house that many famous writers had, can be intimidating even for those of us without health issues. As I work on "A Woman Alone", as I did this morning, I struggle with structure, message, making sure each sentence is rich and without cliche or unnecessary words. We women have had to cobble our stories out of grit and determination, stealing moments here and there from family and other tasks in order to write a book. I am happy to hear that Marian's piece offers a guidepost to the writing process, especially when it comes to those very difficult subjects, such as writing about family. Writing is hard work and digging deep, but with support and encouragement from a community of writers, the load is at least a little lessened.

Merril D. Smith said...

Excellent post--I like how you described the stages you went through in writing about your dad, Marian. I'm looking forward to reading your finished book! I know you will also enjoy being a guest at Susan's Writing Circle.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thanks, Merril, and we loved having you teach poetry in our Circle. Wish you could join us.