None of us know the full impact of our stories, only that we are compelled to write them. Shanti Elke Bannwart, author of Dancing On One Foot: Growing Up In Nazi Germany, says, “Creating art is dangerous. It strips you naked and stirs the deep waters of self-doubt; it pokes your nose into the gap between who you hope to be and who you fear you might be in reality.” Finding out, though, is worth the effort. Here are Shanti’s descriptions of her writing and publishing process with links to retreats she’s found and a contest resource.
Let’s start with this question: How did you know you were writing a memoir?
For a long time I didn’t. It’s like being pregnant and not knowing. I just wrote and didn’t think about a genre or about publication.
I think writing emerged into a more defined place in my life when I settled on the mystical Island of Iona, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. I had traveled with my partner, Claude, for a full year (his sabbatical) and needed to integrate those experiences through writing and solitude. So I said: “I want to stay in Scotland, I need to stay settled for some time and write, I need to digest the memories of this journey.” He had to go back to the U.S. and was not happy about me settling without him, but it strengthened our relationship and taught us about freedom inside commitment.
I believe that the art we make is deeply influenced by the ground we live on, the place where we breathe and eat and look out of a window. Sometimes we have to move to find the environment that is in accordance with the story we want to tell. For the beginning of my memoir, I think, I needed to be in Europe.
Memoir means visiting the past, but that visit opens doors to the present and future, and because you see it all in one big arc, you understand and integrate the past with the wisdom of today. You embrace the losses and shortcomings of your youth with the acceptance maturity brings. And also, you celebrate your life today fueled by the radiant child that lives still inside you.
How did you begin to write the book Sunstone published?
Somehow the writing about the year-long journey morphed into the writing about my own life’s journey. As a psychotherapist, I am deeply interested in the shaping and twisting influences in our lives as human beings, and one of the best places to explore that is in your own life. As I slowly unlocked the doors to hidden stories and memories, more and more of them opened up, calling me: “Here’s an event you want to mention, here’s a secret that wants to release its charge, here’s a person who needs to speak up!” Memory is like an underground river; as soon as you start digging, its currents come to the surface.Thomas Moore said: We humans are not evolving but circling, and the stuff of our souls keeps coming back for more attention and more living.”
So, I sat in the small stone house on this lonesome island (for four months) and lived two parallel lives: On the one hand, I was fully engaged in the experience of utter solitude and piercing aloneness, and on the other hand I was walking back through my childhood and through my experience of war and loss, and of childlike joy and discoveries. I realized how strong those women around me were, how life-sustaining and ready to “dance on one foot” and enjoy every small bit of delight.
To live in a place where nobody knows you and nobody has any expectations, frees you to be anything and anybody you want to be. I had time in abundance and that was blissful and overwhelming at once. I was naked and vulnerable, an unknown person on a powerful, sacred island in the Atlantic Ocean. Two ferries separated me from the mainland, I sank into a dreamlike state, where past, present and future merged into one space, filled with memories and ghosts and angels.
Tell us more about the isolation in Scotland and how that impacted your story telling — what you’ve said already is very interesting. Can you let us know some ways you think people who can’t retreat for so long can replicate what you were able to create for yourself without using as much time and distance?
I believe that we need from time to time to go on a “Vision Quest” in any form or shape, that means to take inventory of our lives and to be still and listen. These are the times which Rilke points to: “…for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life. ”
I think that’s not a luxury but a necessity, especially for a writer. And, yes, you can do this less radically than I did on the Isle of Iona and here are examples. During those ten years of writing the memoir, I was two times in Hollyhock off Vancouver Island, for three weeks in March: pre-or post-seasonal arrangements for frugal living with a frugal price. And I went for an unforgettable month to France, to “La Muse Inn” in Languedoc; this is a former nunnery (1650!) turned into a retreat center by a young couple from New York. I found it in Poets & Writer’s magazine, $600 for the month for the room. We did our own cooking. My stay there became part of my memoir, like the Isle of Iona. I think those retreats are a question of priority; they can be cheaper than going on a cruise or to Las Vegas or Disneyland. I also stayed a month in Edinburgh/Scotland, with HomeExchange and had an encounter with Doris Lessing at an international book fair; that’s also part of my memoir.
The core value of a retreat is time in abundance. That allows a place where every moment can turn into inspiration. You are “undistracted” and “cranked up” in your imagination and don’t have to hunt for ideas and insights because they come voluntarily to your doorsteps, knock at your door.
It’s so delicious, having time. Like John Lennon and Joko Ono; they didn’t leave their hotel room, making love without boundaries. You and your writing will be in such a state of intimacy.
Recently, I was in retreat in a space on Whidbey Island. The Writer’s Refuge rents those places. (I promised that to myself, years ago, I would give that gift to myself after I had published my memoir.)
I enjoyed the northwestern rains and — meeting you, dear Sheila, for lunch! I was there exploring my next topic for serious writing. It’s tougher and harder than I thought, troubled by doubts and phases of low energy. At my age, I wonder what’s left to be said as I dip one toe already into ethereal waters which are hard to put into words. But maybe THAT’s already part of the next writing process. I see baby-boomers grow older and assume they seek meaningful activities besides the joys of golfing and fitness regimens.
If you can’t do the “real” retreat, make a good sign for your door: “Don’t disturb, Sacred Rites in Progress” and tell the family you mean it. Virginia Wolff was right; you need a room of your own. Or take your tent, as I do, and go into the wilderness; in this country you find the most magical places just outside your village.
There is more about my Scotland stay in “Chapter Eleven: Sex and Sensuality” in my book.
What were the obstacles to writing the memoir?
I don’t remember many obstacles beside the always lingering doubt: Can you really write? Is this story interesting for anybody but you? English is not even your mother-tongue, why this and why you? – all that gremlin stuff which is well-known to any writer/artist. Creating art is dangerous. It strips you naked and stirs the deep waters of self-doubt; it pokes your nose into the gap between who you hope to be and who you fear you might be in reality. My suggestion: There are many excuses why you can’t go on and why you are not good enough; that’s O.K., just don’t quit!!
A creative process has its own fervent drive, which is sourced from beyond our personal obstacles and hesitations. I trust that energy and surrender to it humbly.
Then, I came back to Santa Fe, living my normal life, but one thing was different: I had fallen in love with the process of writing. I had an affair with this lover and I would not drop or hide him or her. I believe we need to have this love-affair with our writing or it will not hold enough attraction to keep us going. There’s not much meaning in that writing activity if it’s not for the sweet involvement, the intoxicating bond to creativity, the charge of life’s batteries through creative endeavors. We are doing this all for ourselves, for the love of doing it (and sometimes the hate of it) for nothing practical or justifiable. It’s just a wonderful way to be in this life — to walk around with the ears and eyes and heart of an artist. Henry Miller says: “What one has to tell is not nearly as important as the telling itself.”
You weave your story, like a spider, out of your own substance. When you write, you drink from the same energy that created the Universe. You write to understand this world and yourself in it, and the understanding might not really bring an answer to the questions that rattle you, but it triggers compassion and acceptance, and that leads already into the next question:
Who were the guardian angels?
I think the guardian angels are as involved as we are into the process of wanting to understand this world; they wonder what we might find out about the great Mystery of life as it is hidden in our down-to-earth and ordinary, sweaty and bloody existence. Those spirits look over our shoulder. They are the Muses or Gods within, and they LOVE to help us. Writers are co-creators who live between the upper and the lower worlds.
I wrote my memoir about growing up in Nazi Germany as a child and I wrote it from the place where I now stand as a women of seventy-three. This process revealed to me leading questions for my whole life: What is the attraction of violence? Why and how can normal people turn into monsters? Is there a force or archetype of darkness that can twist people’s minds? And, how can we live with deep joy of life beside that darkness and embrace it all? The title of my memoir is: Dancing On One Foot, which indicates the readiness to enjoy life, even when there’s only one foot left to stand on.
How long did it take you to write your book?
This was a journey of ten years and I don’t regret any minute I invested into it, including the money and time to achieve an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. My partner, Claude, often asked, “Aren’t you tired yet with revising and restructuring? When will you be done?” And I tried to explain: “This is a love-affair, who would want to cut love-making short ? It’s the journey that counts more than the final object. Everybody around a writer waits for the final product, be aware that it’s you and you alone who cares for the process itself.
I mean, imagine: the object of your endeavor is the span of your own life, the most interesting topic for any human being. That’s not egotistic; that’s full of purpose and fulfillment.
Though you fell in love with the process of writing, recounting tales of being the daughter of a Nazi during WWII could not have been easy. What propelled you to tell your story?
The self-definition as daughter of a Nazi came much later and that’s what people usually respond to first. When you write memoir, it’s first just your story, your life, your memories. As if you say “my garden” before you say and think “carrots and parsley and apples.”
And about the “not being easy” to write: There’s something so fascinating in writing about your own life, that easy or difficult didn’t come into foreground for me. As you discover who you are through the process of writing, it automatically makes you reach out and embrace the other members of the human race. It’s a humbling and also blissful path to live the “examined life.”
That’s why I write non-fiction; that’s why I am a psychotherapist. I am fascinated by the real thing, real people’s stories, naked, with the roots of the story dangling out in the open and dirt still on them. And, maybe I am deceiving myself. When you hold your baby in your arm you forget the pain of the contractions, the blood and the sweat.
Did you have readers in mind as you wrote? As you revised?
I have to admit that I did not really. I always saw women in general as being the readers; mine is so much a women’s story. Women during war seem the opposites of men during the war: the latter have to kill and destroy. But the women continue to create babies and feed and shelter life. I admired the women in my childhood, how they persevered, like giants, and kept a sense of humor and showed incredible strength. I told my mother: “When I am grown up I want to be a woman like you.”
I think we can’t “write for a reader;” it would be phony and miss the point. We write basically for ourselves, like love-making, at the end you are in YOUR body and that’s where you feel it.
How did the memoir come into the world through publication?
It’s a training in patience and that, too, is part of the journey. You have been pregnant for years and now you are ripe and eager to help the baby’s entry into the world. Experienced writer friends told me: “In general, if you want to find an agent or publisher, count on two years and fifty rejections.” That prepared me for the long haul and for unfaltering endurance in the process of submitting. Yes, it took two years and I got up to about thirty-six. Rejection, each of them got me closer to acceptance, I told myself. I looked at this time as training, and it’s true, I learned a lot. It’s this struggle with the “real world” out there that puts clay feet on our stories. And then I found a small and independent publisher who said: “ I am very interested in the topic.”
My memoir’s birthday into a book was recently, March 1, 2012. When I held the first example in my hands, I pressed it against my chest and felt utterly blissed-out, like the moment I had given birth to my first child. The joy was incredibly deep. The sensation of completion so fulfilling, it made all the work and struggle worthwhile.
And — I’ll tell you a secret: I went home and read the whole book from beginning to end, thinking “Wow! That’s the story of my life.” Being really involved and interested, I love how the book looks and feels, yummm. Like when you bake an apple-pie and want a big piece all for yourself and eat it with utter delight.
In what way is the journey continuing now?
I believe that my material is moving according to its own life plan now, and it is stepping out into the world with its own purpose. Miraculous things are happening. They start with this:
Not too long ago, I received an email from Moscow’s TV station number One. They informed me that they had read an on-line essay that I wrote about a similar topic to my memoir; so they asked if they could interview me. And then they told me that Moscow’s TV Channel One is producing a documentary about the children and other descendants of Nazi leaders and about those children’s burden of guilt and shame caused by their fathers’ and culture’s crimes. This documentary has the goal to heal old wounds from WWII. We found an agreement and so, at the end of April, the producers flew to the U.S. and to Santa Fe, where they shot a story and interview with me and the woman, about whom I had written the essay. (She is the grand niece of Herman Göring.)
Imagine that, Sheila, you, as a teacher for the writing of essays: imagine that our work goes out there into the world, growing its own feet or wings and following its own destiny, and we have so often no idea who will be moved by our voice and story.
I am deeply touched by the Divine timing and by this coincidence between my book and this documentary. I am impressed by the way the universe supports our goals when they are in service of a common good. These unfolding events go beyond my personal endeavors; they belong to the bigger web that weaves our work and us as writers into an invisible tapestry. The threats of this tapestry are being placed and knotted together by a wise and gentle hand.
How wonderful that the film crew found your essay. I believe there is no more important writing than writing the experience of our lives. Is your essay available for us to read?
Yes, it is on line here. Click on New Blog, and the essay will come up as the first one, title: “Place of Forgiveness,” under my name Shanti Bannwart.
I describe in it how this whole essay came to life, and that is a major part of the story I tell. The essay won a prize at the American PEN Women Writer’s contest (“Soulmaking Contest”, I highly recommend this one!) and is going to be published in the anthology: The Chalk Circle, Prizewinning Intercultural Essays, coming out soon.
What were your “best” rejections along the route to publication?
One stayed in my mind and touched me deeply. An agent, a woman, wrote me something like this: “This is good, well-written and professionally done. I read into the middle of the night, but I cannot represent you. My father was an American Nazi, and I am ashamed and I still hate him for that. I don’t want to show the human face of the enemy, the Nazi.”
I had a big binder and kept all the rejections because I was afraid I’d inadvertently send to some of the agents repeatedly. It’s not easy to keep track. I looked for small and independent presses, but you need to watch out that they are not too small. So many of the small presses are built on wonderful visions and so often they die – it’s a hard time for the book business. If they die in the middle of creating your book, you are in big trouble.
When you received your acceptance for publication, what did the publisher say attracted him to your manuscript?
He was mainly hooked by the topic. WWII is his personal interest. Otherwise, he’s out to make money and looks if a book has promise and will sell.
We are told as authors that even while we are seeking a publisher, we must be building a platform for promoting our book.
Was the online essay part of an effort to build a platform?
No, at least I didn’t plan it this way. It did its own thing. Miracles happen. I believe in them. I think when we have a voice which serves in some way a humanitarian cause, the Universe will support us; the Universe uses our writer’s voices to express itself
Platform is a big and (annoying) topic; it’s easier for younger writers who sail the Internet with good wind in their sails. I rather row my clunky boat and feel left behind by all those wizards. So, I stress out my guardian angel, ask for help – or pay somebody. Like the $1000 for the creation of my book’s website. So, I am writing Blogs on my new Dancing On One Foot book website and do the things one is supposed to do. But I try to make it fun! And I really like that site. I look at it every day. Yum! That’s the place, too, where the book can be ordered.
Yes, we have to do our own promotion, a writer friend of mine said recently: “Marketing my book is eating up my life,” but she smiled. So, where’s the time and place left for writing? Marketing and writing happens in two different worlds and every writer has to face that.
What other ways have you found to increase the size and depth of your author platform?
Here are some: Readings in your local book store and readings in private homes. Sending out emails to announce them, and getting familiar with electronic devices. I am represented at the London Book Fair ($300) and have an author’s service seeking and negotiating foreign book rights. After the London Fair, I received an offer from a Chinese Agent to represent my book there!! It does not cost you, but they get 15% after they close the deal. And I go to as many workshops about platform and marketing as I can digest. It’s fun to be with fellow authors and get tips and leads. I might also hire a publicist. They get you interviews, reviews, TV, readings.
I am busy learning about all of that, but I am also trying to make wise and conscious decisions about how to use my precious time best, concerning what is really meaningful in my life. Writing the book is reward in itself; selling it stands second in line. When I meditate, I envision my book flying out there across the world and doing its thing according to its own purpose. This is not about “success” in numbers; it’s about living the good life. Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Shanti, thank you for recounting your experience writing and publishing Dancing on One Foot: Growing Up in Nazi Germany. I look forward to publishing Chapter Seven, Lust For Life, about the parade of the Allied Troops marching into Germany when you were six years old next week for members of Writing It Real.
I really enjoyed being interviewed and contemplating answers to your questions. This process made me aware of how much fun it is if somebody wants to know about and listens to one of the most remarkable involvements in my life.
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