Katie Funk Wiebe Writing Center dedication talk Oct 21, 2017

Katie at 19

Katie at 19: I’m afraid to be a writer…No one will ever see these things I write.

 

People often asked our mother the same set of questions: How do you find time to write? Where do you get your ideas? How do you handle the flak? How did you come to be a writer, as a Mennonite Brethren woman, anyway? What keeps you going?

So, I’ll answer those questions.

Katie made time to write.

Her ideas grew from her own experiences, big and small. She also told the stories of other women, often those overlooked by history.

About criticism, Katie said, “When I get a harsh letter, I feel like a virtuous persecuted martyr of the early centuries. I lie down and bleed a while…But then I get up again and write some more.”

How did she come to be a writer? Before her, the Funk women didn’t write. Her mother Anna hardly wrote even a scrap of a letter. Yet she read. For example, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Grandma read and discussed it with Katie. But her dreams for Katie did not include writing. “Writing?” Katie wrote later. “No one wrote for a living.”

At 19, Katie wrote in her journal, “I’m afraid to be a writer…No one will ever see these things I write.”

Growing up in the Mennonite Brethren church she heard “powerful voices calling me to a life of faith.” Yet she also heard a call to the world of the imagination, a call to writing, a call she never heard inside the church.

“To reconcile the two sets of voices – the one to a life of faith in Christ, the other to creative exploration, seemed impossible.”

She met our father, Walter, at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, where they worked together on the school newspaper. Sparks flew.

“The first years of our marriage,” she wrote later, “Walter and I spent many hours sorting through what God wanted of us. One day we knelt beside our kitchen table and committed our lives to a literature ministry.”

Almost immediately Walter got a chance to write a newsletter for the Youth Committee of the Canadian Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Katie had a baby; she cooked and sewed, she copied the newsletter on a mimeograph machine, and stuffed the envelopes. When Walter got too busy to do the writing, Katie hauled out her college typewriter. After five years, Katie was writing the whole newsletter.

In 1962, the editor of the Christian Leader, asked Walter if Katie would write a column, “Women in the Church.” The column name later became “Viewpoint” when Katie persuaded her editors that she had something to say to both women and men.  She wrote the column for 30 years.

As she began to publish, she was encouraged by her parents, her husband, and children.  Her mother told her, “…keep on writing and do not let critical strong letters upset you. People on the front have to face it. Sleep over it.”  Katie gained many fans.

Her first widely-read book was Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy.

In her lifetime, Katie wrote more than two thousand articles, columns and book reviews, and wrote or edited more than two dozen books. In 2011, she began a blog.

As Katie neared 90, though her eyesight was failing, she was working on four books. Three are already out, and soon we’ll see her translation of the book Terror, Faith and Relief: The Famine in Russia, to be published by the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

In 2000 The Mennonite chose her as one of twenty Mennonites with “the most powerful influence on life and belief of the General Conference Mennonite Church in the 20th century, by raising the credibility of Mennonite writing and giving voice to widowhood and women’s concerns.”

When people would ask what kept her going, she often said wryly that it was less agonizing to write than not to write. She believed writing was God’s assignment to her. It wasn’t a hobby, it was a ministry. Writing was the way she explored her faith, by looking at the questions and mysteries of her own life. She got great satisfaction from working with words and ideas.  She loved thinking up her own ways of saying things, not falling back on religious jargon, which she said was one of the worst diseases in modern society.

She also kept writing because she was committed and disciplined. She said, “I have never seen myself as a particularly gifted writer, mostly as a hard worker.” She did not wait until the mood hit her but simply kept on writing even when feeling, in her words, “a terrible dryness”.   

Katie told everyone, “you have a story to tell.” She took great joy in teaching people how to write their own story in an original way so that it would be clear and interesting. “As a writer, you are always open to new insights, new perspectives to an idea, an argument, a way of seeing life, while hanging onto what is basic to faith. You are willing to trim the fat off your thinking and change your mind, if need be.  And I have about many things. The energy in writing comes when you attempt to focus your vision ever more clearly for yourself and others.”

Katie’s family is so pleased that Tabor College is dedicating this writing center where emerging writers can gain confidence, and find their own voice.  Because your stories matter.

 

 

Lapjchen

Again…I need to make shoes. Like people of the forests since time began, I’ll chop down three or four birch saplings.  I’ll need seven long strips of the inner fiber of the bark, the bast. I’ll weave them around a wooden block roughly the size of my feet.  It’s winter, so I’ll weave the shoes a bit wider, so I can wrap lots of strips of cloth around my feet, to keep them warm inside my new shoes. My lapjchen. This is a nice pair. I did a good job. I hope they last the week.

This pair of shoes, also called lapjchen, or lapti, was given to my mother Katie Funk Wiebe by my Great Aunt Neta, when mom visited her in Moscow in 1989. From 1945 to 1953, Aganeta Janzen Block and her four children worked in forced labor camps in Siberia. These were the type of shoes they made for themselves during this time. The shoes didn’t last long.
 

Mennonites Don’t Dance

Despite the fact that Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr danced with her Mennonite father, we all know that Mennonites don’t dance.  Except for . . . Lizbeth, in the eponymous story in Darcie Friesen Hossack’s book MENNONITES DON’T DANCE, a girl who wanted to fall “straight into the real world”, go to a matinee, or at least, “be outside and running”.  But when Lizbeth danced, her world whirled apart, and she lost the rhythm of family life, of Mennonite culture.

Darcie Friesen Hossack is the choreographer for this circle dance of prairie stories about Mennonite families. She incorporates many of life’s big dance steps: loss of innocence, betrayal, forgiveness, redemption, restoration of hope, integrity, joy and love.

The book helped me remember the impact of the words I overheard when a child, the profound changes in me which were wrought by an adult’s seemingly banal action. The life of parents and other adult relatives is so mysterious. A sensitive child is always listening, watching, for some phrase, a tone of voice, or action that will bring meaning, that will illuminate the mystery of why these persons in whom we have trusted behave as humans, and fail, let us down, cruelly hurt us, and then sometimes take us back in their arms with love. A sensitive Mennonite child listens hard, for the clues can be like the dandelion wine a Mennonite mother hides in a concealed room in the cellar, and reveals to her daughter when the time is ripe. Or in another story, like a strip of torn wallpaper that triggers an understanding of how a difficult life was lived.

Jim Bartley of the Toronto Globe and Mail has given a nod to this book as among the “best first fiction of 2011”.  The book is up for some other honors and awards, and it deserves them.  Darcie, I’ll read your next book eagerly.

“Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Mennonites don’t dance? Darcie Friesen Hossack dances with words. She swings around her point of view, waltzes with suffering and love, does the two-step with dialog and setting.

Alert: If you are an ethnic Russian Mennonite from Canada, don’t read this book on an empty stomach. You will be craving pluma moose, rollkuchen and verenyky. As Darcie has commented, food is almost a character in her stories.

Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2010; 201 pp.; ISBN: 978-1-897235-78-2; paperback $17.95.

Visit Darcie’s blog whatlooksin or her Facebook page.

What is the taste of amniotic fluid?

1926, Saskatchewan, Canada: my grandmother Anna is on the right; her mother Susanna is in the middle

My red-haired grandmother Anna Janzen Funk was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of twelve children in a Mennonite Brethren family. The Mennonites were about 18 percent of a German minority of some two million in Russia.  She and my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1923, and the picture above was taken three years later.

When Anna had just turned 22, in early spring of 1918, she was working as a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. The Russian government had collapsed and now the Bolshevist regime was in power, attempting to transform revolutionary theory into soviet reality. Their army (the Reds) had taken over the area, seizing livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. The White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine. Also at this time, Russian peasants were vengefully confiscating the Mennonite farms, and, led by Nestor Makhno, participating in massacres against the Mennonites.

Anna’s family had disappeared.

Just a month ago, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male Bethania Mental Hospital patients. Now it was a Sunday morning, and the revolutionaries were back, warmly dressed, slurping soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked.

She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen.

When she opened the door, she was startled to see two dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River.

“Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?

The Reds were having their soup in the dining room at that very moment!

As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that their uniforms and boots were muddy from their scramble up the thawing banks of the Dnieper River.

There’s Anna on the back step at Bethania, the flour dusting her forehead, breath condensing into clouds, facing those hungry, rough young men. Perhaps one of them reminded her of one of her lost brothers. Whatever sparked it, in that moment, she took courage. She used what she had—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her disappeared family —and spoke.

Grinning, she scolded the White soldiers as if they were her brothers: “Boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”

Disarmed, they smiled and cleaned their boots. Anna quickly brought the trays of fresh bread into the Red group, eagerly encouraging them to fill their pockets for later, opened the front door for them and shooed them out. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

I have read that children in the womb can taste what their mother is eating. The food flavors the amniotic fluid. I imagine those days in 1924 when Anna carried my mother, she would have been eating borscht with sour cream, and many other delicious Russian recipes she brought with her to Canada.  But there was another flavor that Anna passed on to my mother — a taste for courage and creativity.

Letting go

Snowscape

I came across this poem, “Letting Go”, by my sister Christine Ruth Wiebe. It’s a Christmas poem and I know it’s after the holidays now, but reading the poem triggered some memories I want to share, and I want to share the poem, too.  It’s just a week after I published my book, BIRTH MOTHER.  Now that so many people are reading my book, I am starting to getting used to the idea of other people knowing the intimate details of that earlier time in my life. I just wish so much that I would have had the courage to share the story earlier. With my sister Christine, for example, and my other sister, my brother and my mother. Why did I hide my thoughts and feelings from them about this part of my life?  It was not until my second child’s thirteenth birthday that I told him about his brother — lost to us, out there somewhere in the world. Why didn’t I talk with my friends — my first husband — anyone?   Why did I lock my story up inside for decades?

Keeping a secret from your dearest ones cripples intimacy, and consumes enormous amounts of personal energy.

Christine passed away in 2000 without ever hearing more than the bare outlines of my experience, and the rest of the family also knew very little.  I am very happy, though, that she and the son I gave up for adoption had the chance to get to know one another, because he found me in 1996, when he was 27 years old.

And I am thankful that when my son found me, my heart had been opened and prepared for the reunion. This was thanks to the imagination, vision and encouragement of a special naturopathic doctor and two psychotherapists, retreats at Kripalu Retreat Center and Shalom Retreat Center, intensive journaling, yoga, and my husband’s love.

So here’s Christine’s poem:

LETTING GO

This is how it should be:
Christmas vacation, and I am six;
Daddy and I are driving outside the city
to a great hill with untouched snow.
Sun warms the car.
I climb up the tracks Daddy makes
hearing the crunch each time the first time.
We stand at the top, just Daddy and I, breathing,
and the sparrows laugh.
“I’m afraid,” I say.
But then we’re sailing
and I’m safe on a narrow strip of wood
clinging to his broad back,
a solid thing in a swaying world,
and I’m laughing and wishing
we could fall like this forever
into the sun sparkles and whipping wind
and the white snowdrift
waiting to embrace us
over and over and over.

– Christine Wiebe

September 19, 1985

Self-publishing on Kindle

An illustration from my book, Birth Mother

Why did I self-publish my book BIRTH MOTHER? Why did I publish first on the Kindle e-book reader?  How easy is it to self-publish an e-book?

Here’s the story.  About two years ago, I began sending out my book proposal to a half-dozen carefully selected agents. Some did not get back to me, and others responded very tardily, with regrets. I was in a big hurry to get my story out in the world. Also, I said to myself, “Self, no matter who publishes your book, you’ll have to do your own marketing. Why not self-publish?”

There was a time when self-publishing carried a similar stigma to bearing a child
“out of wedlock”. But now some women choose in a mature and responsible way to become pregnant outside of a marriage or long-term partnership, and are respected for their decision.  Likewise, writers today can publish without being in a committed agent-publisher-author relationship, and can speak about their self-published literary children openly, without fear of being pitied or scorned.

I began by typing “self-publishing” into Google. I read some of the self-publishing blog posts. I examined a variety of tools for self-publishing, both e-books and print books.

I decided to start with an e-book because the process seemed faster, and because, being my own proof-reader, I knew that there were still a lot of typos in my book which I could discover over a period of months, and correct at my leisure, before committing my story to irrevocable print. (Although with print-on-demand, the books are printed as they are purchased, so at least the scope of typographic errors is contained.)

I decided on the Amazon Kindle e-book format over the Nook, or Sony Reader, because I would get to keep 70% of the proceeds, and because the book would henceforth be in Amazon’s prodigious catalog.

Publishing for the Kindle was tolerable and only took a few hours, albeit spread out over several months.  First, at https://kdp.amazon.com, I opened a Kindle Direct Publishing account.  Then I did what the site said to do:

  1. I saved my Microsoft Word file in filtered HTML format
  2. I downloaded Kindlegen for my Mac, and tried to follow the steps to convert my file to an e-book. I couldn’t figure it out.
  3. So I hauled out my PC, downloaded Mobi PocketCreator (PC only), and used this tool to convert my file to an e-book.
  4. I downloaded the free Kindle Previewer to check out how my book would look on a Kindle. It looked OK.
  5. I clicked the button on kdp.amazon.com called “Add new title”, which revealed a short form, with the expected questions, such as book name and description.
  6. I was given the opportunity to upload my converted file.
  7. I was asked for my cover file and I realized that I had not made one.  But there were some simple guidelines, and using PhotoShop, I created a cover image using an illustration by the amazing Chicago visual artist Ellen Greene. I arranged permission with her to use the illustration.
  8. Then the day finally came when I clicked the  “Upload book” button.
  9. A few days later, my inbox was graced with a missive from Kindle Direct Publishing: “Congratulations, You’ve been Published!”  I clicked on the link in the email, and sure enough, there was my book, on Amazon.
  10. My next step was to send out an email to my family and friends, and post on Facebook and this blog. That was December 28. As of today, I’ve sold 17 Kindle e-books, and one Amazon Prime Account reader has downloaded the book for free!

What is a “birth mother”?

In 1975, with "Snowden", planning my Mexico trip

When I announced my new book after Quaker worship Sunday morning, everyone present drew a blank at the meaning of the title, BIRTH MOTHER.  I used the term “birth mother” as that was the popular term in 1976, the year in which my book was set, in referring to the biological mother of a child who also has an adoptive mother. Six years earlier, when I signed the adoption papers in January of 1970,  the popular terms were “unwed mother” or “natural mother”.

I was instructed to write “final surrender” next to my signature on the adoption papers. Later, this term morphed into “placement”. Today it might be something else, I don’t know.

You can read more about the terminology and history of adoption in Wikipedia.

BIRTH MOTHER is available for the Kindle.

A print copy will be available in a few months, and I’ll post here and on Facebook to let you know.