Photo: Ervin Stutzman. Photo by Phil Kniss.
Gordon Houser sat down to talk with Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, about his hobbies and his writing. Stutzman’s new book, Christian’s Hope, is releasing this month.
1. You’ve written academic books, church-related articles, biographies and historical fiction. Is there a thread that runs through all of your writing?
Most of my book-length writing—both fiction and nonfiction—has to do with the way that individuals interact with or within a Mennonite or Amish community. I’m fascinated by the way that communities shape individuals and how individuals in turn shape communities. I tend to write about individuals who are either coping with the stress of change or trying to bring about change within their communities, often in negotiation with the broader society. I’ve come to enjoy fiction writing, which depicts the sustained interaction of several characters who see the world very differently from each other.
2. Can you describe your writing process? When do you write? How much emphasis do you placing on drafting, revision, etc.? How do ideas come to you?
Writing works best for me in the early morning, before the onslaught of the day’s demands. That’s especially true for creative work, such as novel writing. At the end of a long day, I’m too tired to think creatively. However, it’s good for me to have a writing project on my mind when I go to bed, since some of my best ideas come to me when I’m sleeping. I wake up with ideas that were developed in my unconscious mind while my physical body was resting.
Ideas come to me in a multitude of other ways—from observing life around me, engaging in conversations and interactions with others, reading other people’s work, or just “out of the blue.” When it comes to novel writing, most of my best ideas come to me in the act of writing scenes. When I’m deeply immersed in a scene, my characters habitually take on a life of their own, moving me to laughter or tears as I write their story. It’s often those scenes which draw the most comments from my readers.
For my novels, I do extensive plotting and character development before writing any scenes. That outline provides the framework for the flow of events as well as the character development. I generally write a draft and then rewrite it once or twice before sharing it with my fiction coach or other readers.
I wrote my most recent novel on a computer program called yWriter. Listening to that program read my work aloud is a good way for me to catch typos and inconsistencies. I also seek lots of candid feedback on my novels, including readers with particular perspectives or specialties. For my upcoming novel, I drew perspectives from Native Americans, Amish, Moravians and specialists in family counseling, as well as a fiction coach. In addition, I share my writing each month with a writers group. I appreciate their candid, constructive criticism.
3. You chose to write about an ancestor who serves an iconic purpose for both Mennonites and Amish, Jacob Hochstetler. Did you have any fear about telling his story truthfully and yet with artistic freedom?
Yes, I thought this through pretty carefully, knowing that many people—especially fellow Hochstetler descendants—would have strong opinions about the way he and his family were depicted. So I tried to remain true to what was already known about him and then portrayed his life in keeping with historical sources for that period, written through a creative lens. As part of my preparation, I carefully studied the research findings published by other Hochstetler descendants in the quarterly Jacob Hochstetler Family Association newsletter.
4. You deal with conflict in the church on a daily basis. Does writing help you manage your own stress? Since conflict is a requirement in nearly all forms of literature,
have you gained any insights into “real life now” from writing about “life then” using the tools of fiction?
At times, writing can create stress for me—most likely due to looming deadlines and an exhausting schedule. But most times, writing relieves stress, like taking deep breaths or rubbing a sore muscle.
For me, historical fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, helping me see the world through the lens of those who’ve blazed a trail for us. When it comes to spiritual and emotional processes, “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). I agree with my spiritual director that fiction writing has helped me both deepen my spiritual life and develop as a leader. I’ve learned that life is complex and that the difference between heroes and villains is often a matter of perspective. That’s why—in my series of historical novels called Return to Northkill—I didn’t hesitate to make the protagonist in the first book the antagonist in the last one. Fiction writing helps me comprehend how easily people can view me as a church leader in either of those roles. It’s a humbling realization.
5. Do you consider writing a hobby, a calling or something else? How do you compare it to other interests and gifts you have in woodworking, for example?
Woodworking as a hobby gives me the pleasure of creative physical expression and the concreteness of a task that can be completed, which is sometimes hard to find in my “day job.” In contrast, writing is a calling. I write because I feel that it makes me a better person, and helps make the world a better place.
6. Speaking of woodworking, tell us what you do.
I’ve done a variety of woodworking over the years, including three sets of kitchen cabinets. In the last decade, I’ve turned toward woodturning. I like woodturning because I can generally complete a project on a weekend. I belong to a lathe club called Woodturners of the Virginias and enjoy the mutual learning I share with the other members.
7. How do you find the time for all these pieces?
It all comes down to priorities. Since creative projects have a high priority for me, I prefer them to spectator sports or media entertainment. I’d much rather use my hands to create something than
to watch someone else at work or play. That’s true for my wife, Bonnie, as well, so we encourage each other in creative expression. From early in our marriage, we’ve tackled joint projects with what we call “couple power.” Much of the beauty that meets the eye in our home bears silent testimony to the harmony as well as the creative tension in our marriage.
For decades, I’ve practiced a number of practical and spiritual rhythms/routines which help me to stay physically healthy and emotionally positive while also being highly productive. This way of life has come to feel normal for me, not unduly stressful.
John Gregory Dunne once said that “writing is a manual work of the mind, a job, like laying pipe.” To extend that metaphor, I first write out a plan, draw a map and then lay some small length of pipe every work day until I reach the destination. There are of course, the unexpected delays and the shortage of supplies, if you get my point. Occasionally I use tools like the “Pomodoro technique” to keep me focused on writing when I’d rather be doing just about anything else, like laying real pipe.
Sabbath is very important to me. I rarely work on my projects on Sundays, whether it be writing or woodturning. On about half the Sundays of the year, I attend church in my home congregation. Those days of “rest and gladness” are dedicated to corporate worship/fellowship, napping, walking, reading and spending time with Bonnie. Sabbath rhythms stoke my emotional and physical reserves for a very full schedule the rest of the week.
Read past seven question interviews online.