the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956
Photo of Shirley H. Showalter

The writing life

By President Shirley H. Showalter

The chocolate marshmallows from the Olympia Candy Kitchen are like Limoges china: among the finest. The chocolate is real – dark, thick and rich. Extracting Olympia chocolates out of a paper bag is an exquisite form of aroma-therapy. They also melt in your hands as well as your mouth. If you try to eat one while doing something else, you are likely to make a mess.

Like all works of art, these special chocolates quietly demand one’s whole attention. What I love about the marshmallows, as opposed to the creams, is the contrast between their lack of substance and the solidity of the chocolate. When I close my eyes and concentrate, I can feel a dance between a rich river of melted chocolate and the little puffs of air created by the marshmallows in the process of deconstruction. The near-nothingness at the center prevents the chocolate from coating the mouth so thickly that it overpowers the taste buds. “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” said Mae West. But even better is the kind of absence that heightens the pleasure of presence.

People who know me well have asked how I adjusted to the life of administration, knowing that I also enjoy the writing life. The question brings to mind William Carlos Williams, the physician-poet, who was a healer by day and poet by night. Sometimes administrative work is beautiful; at its best it heals, and always it is enhanced by the right words at the right time. The writing life, once engaged, never dies, and it can take myriad forms.

Other people have found many ways to join the writing life with “culture for service.” I like to think of the many Goshen College faculty writers who have spent their lives enmeshed in teaching and parenting and the quotidian demands of everyday life. They never lost beauty in “life’s duty doing.” I learned to dissect poetry in graduate school, for example, but I needed John Fisher, to help me love it again. My other colleagues in the English Department in the ’80s – Ervin Beck, Wilbur Birky, Nick Lindsay and Dan Hess – each found their own ways to combine writing and service. Just as they acknowledged their predecessors, they laid a base for their successors – Carl Barnett, Beth Martin Birky, Ann Hostetler and Bobby Lee.

Today the writing life is a real option for many graduates, whether it is a “day job” or a solitary calling. I urge our readers to find a copy of Ann Hostetler’s newly published A Cappella anthology described inside this issue of The Bulletin. Read it and enjoy evidence of the great poetic gifts now shared with the larger world. These gifts first sprang to life within and in tension with the Mennonite community, including the community of Goshen College.

A few days ago I received a gift from an unknown source in campus mail – a bag of seven Olympia chocolate marshmallows. Knowing that I wanted to write about writing this week, I held one in one hand and took up a pen with the other. The chocolates brought to mind a famous poem by William Carlos Williams called “This is Just to Say.” Williams believed that ideas exist only in things. In the case of the poem, the things were cold and sweet plums, and the purpose was to apologize for eating them. The poem reads like a refrigerator door note. But it suggests much more – the nature of trust in a condition of love, a statement about beauty and hunger and the priority they should have in our lives, the meaning of forgiveness, and the relationship between words and the ideas they represent.

Since I cannot write a thank you note to my unknown chocolate benefactor, I offer instead another apology – you might call it an apology for the writing life.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten the
that you
sent me

For pure
pleasure only
I spread them
all over
this page

Forgive me
they were delicious
so dark
and so rich
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