Conducted by Joanna Shenk
How did growing up in Kidron form you as a Mennonite and an artist?
My upbringing was heavily influenced by Swiss-German culture. Singing—especially feeling the power of lyrics—led me to writing. I felt part of real community in the middle of a hymn. But I didn’t know I was growing up “Mennonite” until I left that homogenous community for college. Pursuing the arts in my twenties, I questioned whether I was really Mennonite. Where would I fit in?
Growing up, I only saw a handful of women behind the pulpit. What drives my work is the individual female experience within a community. Yet the Mennonite tradition stressed living out my faith instead of telling about it. So when I chose a life of writing, which depends on words alone, it felt—still sometimes feels—like a risk.
Male leaders (even in the arts) might say otherwise, but I think Mennonites still put special pressures on women to avoid doing anything that might reflect badly on families or congregations. I can see how this deeply rooted mentality has influenced and affected my own family–and sometimes my own creative work.
Even if your art depends on the written word, you have to be living things out before you can write about them, yes?
Absolutely. Poet Julia Kasdorf has a quote that I often use as a mantra: “I bore witness in writing until I could speak.” And Basho, an ancient Chinese poet claimed, “to live poetry is better than to write it.” I’m attempting to do this in my everyday life and faith, to be able to speak from my truest self—the person I reconstruct in my poems—in short, to work towards a different world. Writing is safe if you never share it. But to publish your work invites others into the conversation.
Already my first book has simulated conversation about there being more than one version to the same story. We like facts and plain speech in the Mennonite tradition, yes? Jeff Gundy articulates how Mennonite creative writers need to work beyond fact and reason. When I published my book with Cascadia, it meant putting my poems directly into the hands of those I subconsciously most wanted to read them—and those I never imagined really would.
You’ve said the artist’s version of “submission” often means the opposite of backing down or being quiet. How have you thought about this given the negative connotations of women and submission in the church?
To me, a “submission” is the creative work I send out into the world. It’s a part of my voice asking for a greater community. Submitting in this way leads to growth as I learn to love and forgive myself. Artists get far more rejections than acceptance letters!
What kind of mentorship is needed to sustain such a lifestyle?
I think this is a complicated question since I don’t see many examples of working female artists within the Mennonite church. If there are, and surely there are more than I know about, what if their stories could be more visibly told? That alone would inspire young people drawn to the arts.
Church publications offer articles on and by service workers, pastors, and missionaries, but we have very few platforms for artistic individuals to have a voice. Only a few months ago, The Mennonite stopped publishing poems, and I think omission can be a powerful teacher.
What if I had seen women in public leadership regularly in the churches I grew up in, or witnessed how my community of believers publicly affirmed these strong women? How would that have affected my younger artist self?
How have you as an artist experienced your place within the church?
We artists often exist in a borderland within our churches, and I’m okay with that in some ways. At the same time, it takes a lot of energy to live constant “in-betweenness”! Some Mennonite churches have galleries, concert series, readings, which is wonderful. Since the ‘90s, the Mennonite Arts Weekend, Mennonite/s Writing conferences, MennoFolk, and the Mennonite Artist Project act as transient communities. But is this enough to encourage serious artists to stay Mennonite? There needs to be an ongoing conversation about how art and artists affect and contribute to community.
You’ve described creativity as following in the path of the Ultimate Creator. How then do you describe your art as being influenced by the Spirit?
Every poem or song is a call that won’t leave me alone until written, and I can’t ignore this as a Spirit-led action. The arts are a powerful way of being led by and to the Spirit because they slow us down, bringing out a dialogue or an emotion that often stays with us.
The arts are also a powerful tool for everyday peacemaking. I use as much “creative nonviolence” in my writing classes as possible, which means experimenting with mediation, mindfulness, and forgiveness. Anabaptists are so well known for life-giving humanitarian service abroad or in the face of disaster. But dealing with conflict, even diversity or change, among ourselves is sometimes a different story. I’m thinking of the emotional residue of church splits in my hometown alone…
But the arts give us permission to let down our walls. What might this play/photograph/poem say about my life or the world I live in? I read the Psalms with these same questions in mind.
Since we need healthy individuals to have healthy communities, it seems like an artist who is self-aware is an important model for others. Clearly the Mennonite church can learn a lot from artists. Say more about that.
Well, a lot of art comes out of a question: “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” So artists within faith communities offer an opportunity to explore those queries. And maybe the more we practice telling our stories to one another in public, the easier it will become to accept diversity in that storytelling. We need to find those difficult stories and make it okay to tell them. And we need to celebrate the joyful stories, too.
I understand that’s what you’ll be doing with your “Creative Mothering” workshops as a part of your book tour.
Yes, I’m a big believer in the powers of story and mentorship—whether we’re artists or not. Most women who have children naturally receive mentoring from older generations of women. But what if we experienced that intensity of mentorship between all women? We’re all nurturing something with our lives, and we’re nurturing each other too. That’s thrilling to think about. “Creative mothering” is a hands-on way for intergenerational women to shape and share their stories—the most authentic parts of who they are—through creative writing prompts and exercises. The workshop’s grounded in experimentation, play, and mindfulness, growing out of key questions like, What stories most inspire me? What stories go untold, and why? What stories do I choose to live out?
As part of the Women in Leadership Project for Mennonite Church USA, interested participants will be invited to submit creative work to project facilitators, possibly for a future publication or performance based on Mennonite women’s monologues. [Editor’s note: stay tuned for more information on this exciting project!]
So, how do churches get in touch with you about hosting a “Creative Mothering” workshop?
Each month this column of Equipping features input from a woman leader in Mennonite Church USA. The column is an initiative of the Women in Leadership Audit, which is now called the Women in Leadership Project. If you would like to learn more about the Project or get involved, please contact Joanna Shenk at email@example.com