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Writing Across the Divide of Difference


By Shirley Hershey Showalter  

Shirley ShowalterAre you interested in a story about: 

  • Childhood
  • On a Pennsylvania dairy farm
  • In the 1950’s and 1960’s
  • In a Mennonite community
  • Sometimes feeling embarrassed and like an outsider in American mainstream culture

You might be just the opposite of all those things. I don’t know your culture nearly as well as I do my own, but I still want to reach you in my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

Most of us have heard the truism that the route to the universal is through the particular. But that doesn’t tell us how to write in a particular way so as to appeal to something deep inside another human being. 

Isn’t this connection to others the reason we write in the first place? 

Having tried my hand at creating a universal story out of my unusual one, I’ve compiled seven tips for how to use the concrete and particular so that your readers will imagine connections you don’t realize are there. What seems like a foreign country to a reader, just like travel in real life, can shed more light on another’s truth than familiar landscapes.  

Seven ways to write across the divide of difference: 

  1. Read memoirs which place you in the role of outsider. Observe when you were attracted, ashamed of your group, curious, and when you felt you were “just like” the “other.” Is the action happening on the page also happening to you? Can you observe why and how this happens? From Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Chaim Potok’s autobiographical novel The Chosen to Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, I have actually become another person in my imagination.  Then I want to know how that author got into and under my skin.
  1. While writing your first draft, try to describe everything as well as you can using sensory methods (Sharon Lippincott’s talk for NAMW may be relevant here). Don’t think too much about audience at this stage. Just tell the story. Pay special attention to feeling states (which are universal) and to making them especially vivid by “showing, not telling.”
  1. After you have a draft, think hard about an audience wider than your first one, yet not so wide as to be meaningless (example: open, curious readers probably over 45 years old who are interested in simplicity, peace, and leaving a legacy)
  1. After you have a draft you are ready to share, select good readers who are members of all the audience sets you desire. Ask for their honest feedback. A one-page questionnaire helps make response easy. Be sure to ask them where they felt confused about or distanced from the story.
  1. If you know that language and customs are too esoteric for the uninitiated, create a glossary at the back of the book. This allows you to be light-hearted and humorous if such an approach is in keeping with your voice in the memoir itself.
  1. Consider including stories that you know your “outsider” reader will identify with. “If they could be friends, then I could have been a friend also.” In my story that person was a high school friend named Jeanette.
  1.  Read your final draft aloud, possibly to some representative members of groups you hope to reach.


Bonus: A marketing tip. Select influential members of groups you hope to reach to write endorsements for the book.  Having a diverse group of friends who are willing to vouch for your book will help you find others like them to read it.

These seven tips are not the only or necessarily the best ways to overcome difference. I will be reading excerpts that illustrate the points and inviting listeners to offer their own insights and examples.

What books took you to another place across great difference and distance? How did the author accomplish this feat?


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