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.