Monday, March 11, 2024

Guest Post: What Mennonite Readers Want From Mennonite Writers

At our recent writing conference, Rose Miller led a discussion on what's missing in Anabaptist writing, then summarized it all and sent it to me. You can read it below.

What do you think of when you think of Mennonite writing? Some of us have visions of poorly designed covers and stories that followed a prescribed path. Mother always smiled gently, Father chuckled softly, and Peter and Rachel learned their life lessons with diligence. We also think of writers that combined compelling characters and realistic lives into an unforgettable story. For me, one of those writers was Christmas Carol Kauffman. Her books were my favorites in the school library and were read and re-read with enthusiasm.

Writers have a tremendous opportunity to speak into and influence our culture and thinking. They also provide a window into our lives that speaks to people not in our faith. That’s why it is important to constructively discuss how we can improve on our writing and make it relevant to current generations.

The questions below were asked to a random group of about 30-40 people.

Discussion Questions

1. In a typical year, how many books do you read by Mennonite authors? What would help this number rise? Church libraries, ease of access, platforms like audiobooks and ebooks?

Most answers were less than five. Very few were more than that, and none were over ten. To help the number rise, quite a few suggested more well-read audiobooks. Church libraries would also help, because most readers have limited space and money for all their books. Another suggestion was a place to buy used copies, like Thriftbooks. Affordable options are great! Hard covers with illustrations are generally more expensive than soft-covers.

2. What genre (mystery, memoir, etc.) do you feel is lacking in Mennonite writing? What would you personally enjoy reading?

It seems good fiction is the biggest lack. Most of the stories that are published for adults are about someone’s painful, harrowing life experiences. (This may have more to do with publishers than writers.) There is not a lot of relaxing, happy stories for entertainment. A good suggestion here was for historical fiction about Anabaptists throughout history. There could be room for this on several age levels.

Another thing lacking seems to be literary works, whether fiction or journalism. More suggestions were for Mennonite apologists; non-fiction that meets ethical and academic standards with cited sources; subjects like sciences, psychology, and marriage; and more in-depth exploration of the complex human experience. Ordinary life is also beautiful and interesting to read! A good Mennonite mystery could be both humorous and insightful if done well. There also seems to be a real lack of men that write: does a culture that values physical labor consider that to be an acceptable profession for men?

3. Do you consider fiction worthwhile? Would the Mennonite life-style be cheapened by it, as in Amish romances that present a glamorous and unrealistic view of Plain People?

One of my personal pet peeves is when I hear people say, “If it’s not true, I don’t have time for it.” All good fiction contains elements of truth and it can be an effective tool for difficult subjects. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of this. We (mostly) agreed that good fiction can teach a lesson, be very inspiring, grapple with reality, and make us kinder, better people. One of the most powerful tools in fiction is honest characters with flaws that deal with real issues. In real life, not all the loose ends tie up into a neat bow on top. Good fiction will reflect this.

4. What do you find unattractive in Mennonite writing? What do you find appealing?

The answer here was largely unrealistic. Some others were lack of humor; small world-view; poor syntax, structure, and plot; using writing for a “bully pulpit”; over-emphasized morals; narration instead of story-telling; shallow and unemotional. Whew, that was a lot! Let’s move on to what we find appealing.
Most of us like authors that are trustworthy. Writing that doesn’t contain bad language and compromising scenes is getting harder to find, even in children’s books. Some more strong points are real people’s stories; authentic descriptions of Mennonite life; the practical teaching on living out our faith; and a common world-view. Another comment here was that reading a book carries a lot more weight when it is written by someone whom you know to be a person of good character.

5.What are some practical ways Mennonite readers can support Mennonite writers?

We need and want Mennonite writers! Here’s some ways to encourage them:
Buy their books! Tell other people about them. Rate and review their books on platforms like Amazon and Goodreads. Email or message them to let them know what you liked about their book; writing into a silent void can be disheartening. Support writers’ conferences and encourage writers to seek further education. Promote and teach good writing and literature in Christian schools. Encourage men to be creative and share their writing. Don’t take writers too seriously! They should be given room to be human and to also exercise creative license so they can tell a good story. Keep criticism kind and productive.

An interesting comment was that we as Mennonites place a high value on community. Writing well requires a certain degree of loneliness: sometimes writers are forced to choose between writing and community. Give them some room for that and don’t judge them harshly for not always showing up. And last, but not least, offer to wash their dishes or babysit so they can write.

To summarize, I’ll quote from a fellow reader: “I find the same things appealing in Mennonite writing as I do elsewhere: information presented in ways that are easy to retain, stories that help me understand others, and writing that is witty and skillful at conveying ideas.”

A big thank you to Rose for asking good questions, leading a lively discussion, and summarizing it here.

How would you answer her questions? What would you like to add? Share your thoughts in the comments. Comments are moderated, so they won't appear right away.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

The Writing Conference: The Wild Idea That Actually Happened

WAWC 2024 was an idea that grew into something much bigger than we imagined.

In a way, it began with the first writers’ dinner some fifteen years ago.

Writing is by definition a lonely occupation, just you and your pen or computer, almost impossible to do in the company of others. 

Anabaptist writers in the West are especially alone. It’s not uncommon to be the only writer in your congregation or, depending where you live, the only Mennonite author within a hundred miles. Sometimes you feel like Elijah: "I, even I only, am left." Depending what controversial subjects you choose to write about, you feel like the rest of the verse applies to you as well: ". . . and they seek my life, to take it away."

Yet, connection is vital, and there’s nothing as replenishing as a group of writers getting together to talk about editors, queries, publishing, and all the writerly angst that no one else understands.

One August, I found out that half a dozen writer friends were planning to attend the annual Western Fellowship Teachers’ Institute just ten minutes away at Lake Creek Mennonite School. [It seems that in the Mennonite world, teaching and writing often overlap.] My sister-in-law Laura and I decided to organize a writers’ dinner one evening during WFTI.

It was going to be at Laura’s house, but then her family got sick, so we hosted it here. That led to an annual event that eventually included a wide variety of Mennonite writers, including ones that weren’t here for the teachers’ institute but were traveling through at just the right time.

Eventually, we got the wild idea for a writing conference, and in 2019, about 25 of us gathered for the first Western Anabaptist Writers' Conference at Pioneer Christian Academy. Mary Hake helped a lot, and Jon and Jane Kropf, and Laura the reliable sister-in-law.

At the time, we discussed doing it again because we all felt it had been a success. I thought we should form a committee and do it officially and right. But before that could happen, Covid hit, making gatherings much more difficult, and Paul was severely injured in a fall, followed by a long recovery. A writing conference was the last thing on our minds.

However, in 2022 and 2023, we again hosted writers’ dinners and both times people asked about another conference. “If you host it, we will come,” they promised.

All right then. Impulsively, I said would spearhead it again, and we'd see what happened. In the months to come, I'd ask myself what I was thinking. The truth was, I didn't think it through, I just dove in and did it, which is sometimes the best way to actually get things done.

Jane Kropf said she’s not at the stage of life to be in charge, but she’d be happy to help with ideas, so I went to her house one day with a notebook and pen, and she and I and her son Hudson brainstormed for an hour. 
I left with pages of notes and a basic outline for the day.
Liesel Kropf and Hannah Hozen helped with registration

Jane's niece Abby King arranged the flowers.

Jane and her family made the decorations.

Shamelessly, I recruited help, and one person after another said YES. Laura said she and John could take care of registration, having done it many times for WFTI. Mary Hake, who knows more about the publishing world than almost anyone I know, offered to teach a workshop on editing, take care of the books-and-handouts table, and meet with writers one-on-one to go over their articles. Jon and Jane said they’d set up and decorate. Faith Sommers from California offered to grill chicken for everyone and also offered her daughters to cook lunch and keep the coffee fresh and hot.

The chipotle bowl lunch was a hit.

Jane’s son Riley’s friend Elisei offered to design a website. 
My friend Donna from Eugene designed flyers and schedules. David Krabill from church, who had zero personal investment in the conference, supervised a team of young men who took care of sound and recording.

Jane suggested inviting Ernest Witmer from Pennsylvania, who had been her pastor in northern Minnesota years ago, to be the main speaker. Not only was he willing to come, but he and his wife Yvonne consented to leading a workshop together. Laura also reeled in a big fish, an editor from CAM Books named Alvin Mast who was willing to come and talk to authors individually about their projects.

Alvin Mast's workshop

The biggest glitch we encountered was not being able to use our church. We had hoped the damage from a fire last fall would be repaired in time, but an ice storm delayed the work on it. However, Lake Creek Mennonite School was available, so we switched venues at almost the last minute.

As the day approached, Laura kept messaging me. 39 registered! 45! Over 50!! Eventually, to our complete astonishment, we had 65 people on the list, including volunteers. People were actually taking our crazy idea seriously!

The week of the conference arrived. Paul the reliable husband shuttled people to and from the airport, monitored my stress levels, took me to the US Chef store to buy a carload of groceries, and printed probably 500 papers.

Paul also announced and organized.

Mrs. Smucker welcomed everyone

Hannah the neighbor baked cookies for us, and two nieces, Leah and Judy Smucker, came over and baked dozens of cinnamon rolls and cupcakes.

Friends with no connection to the conference felt led to pray for us.

The night before, a lively bunch of young people set up tables and chairs in the gym and chairs in the classrooms. They hauled in supplies for me, spread tablecloths, and arranged bouquets and other decorations, all without any noticeable decrease in their energy levels.

Riley was one of the energetic ones. 

The day arrived. We never got an exact count, but I think we had at least 70 people who came, as a few children came with parents and a few registered at the door. They came from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and California, fully realizing my dreams of gathering Anabaptist writers from all over the West to connect and learn.

Ernest Witmer talked about living and writing our stories with honesty and authenticity. The workshop leaders taught, the cooks cooked amazing food, and somehow all the different moving parts meshed into a successful day. I had even remembered to order an extra cartridge for my printer, which we hauled to the Lake Creek office. Sure enough, the printer ran out of ink halfway through the day, and I hadn't even forgotten the ink cartridge at home, which felt like the Holy Spirit was guiding our every step.

Liesel and Riley handed out donated books in the drawings.

Hudson Kropf led a workshop on poetry, Mary Hake taught self-editing, and Laura gave tips on telling others' stories. I taught about handling rejection and also on navigating the publishing process. Alvin Mast told how to publish with CAM, and Ernest and Yvonne led a workshop on processing grief though writing. Sharilyn Martin taught a popular and well-received workshop on writing for children, and Rose Miller led a discussion on what's needed and missing in Mennonite writing. Rose's conclusions will soon appear in a blog post of their own.

Ernest and Yvonne
Hudson led the singing and taught a poetry workshop.

Sharilyn Martin's class on writing for children

Many people thanked us for making this happen. They loved being in the company of other Western Mennonite writers. Who knew there were so many of us?!

We are so deeply grateful to God and to everyone who made this conference possible.

We now have an Official Committee and will soon start on plans for the next conference. I think it’s a given that we’ll do this again. The question is, should we host it every year or every other year?

Either way, if you're a writer in the West, you should be there.

Mary Hake is on the right, taking care of the book table.

Laura's books for sale.

The Hozen family was a huge help. Here Mrs. Hozen gives her photographer son a "Mom" look.

I was happy to see my friend Julie Nevue.

We all enjoyed the fellowship.