Mennonites, Ventriloquists, and Memoir

The wild, permissive Rentzels with a red porch light live next door to our family, the Mennonite Longeneckers, one of several plain families that live on Anchor Road.

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

In their parlor, the Rentzel’s old Emerson black & white TV has introduced me to the wonders of The Howdy Doody Show with Buffalo Bob. As often as I can, I escape at 4 o’clock every day, running next door to ask Mammy Rentzel whether I may watch the show. Of course, she says Yes. I become part of the Peanut Gallery, mesmerized by Howdry Doody himself, a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the Union in the 1950s.


My favorite parts are seeing Quaker Oats shot from guns, cannon-style and laughing along with the speechless Clarabell the Clown, who talks with a honking horn or squirts seltzer water. The shades are always pulled in the Rentzel’s tiny living room that smells like pipe smoke and mothballs, adding to the secretiveness of my television viewing. We’re not allowed to have a TV at home. Our church forbids it, but there is no rule to keep me from watching shows on somebody else’s TV! (Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church,1968, Article V, Section 7):

Television programs are often destructive to the spiritual life and undermine the principles of separation from the world, the precepts of Christian morality, the proper respect for human life, and the sanctity of marriage and the Christian home.

Yet, Phineas T. Bluster, Clarabell the Clown, and Howdy Doody himself, continue to cast their spell upon me. Before I knew the word, I observed that Buffalo Bob Smith was a ventriloquist, himself voicing words that appear to come from the mouth of Howdy Doody.

The word ventriloquist derives from two Latin words: “venter” referring to the belly and “loqui,” to speak. Isn’t that what writers do? Speak on paper or computer screen from a place deep inside themselves where language mixes with thought and feeling.

Critic Brian Boyd says of writer Vladimir Nabokov, “In his novels Nabokov can not only ventriloquize his voice into the jitter and twitch of [his characters], but he can also” invent incidents . . . names, relationships.” Like a ventriloquist, Nabokov in his autobiography entitled Speak, Memory translates his life experiences into words.

Yes, memoir writers do just that: Give life to their memories by putting them into words. If your life is recorded as jottings in a journal or collected as photos in albums, you are “writing” memoir, perhaps starting out as amusement for yourself, but just so bequeathing a legacy to the next generation.

I’ll bet you may already have recorded your history, ventriloquizing your voice into something tangible: letters to family members in college, love letters, scrapbooks, family photo albums (physical or online) even recipes.

Question Mark w border1_1x1_300

How are you ventriloquizing your experience: art, journals, recipes, a memoir?

Inquiring minds want to know. The conversation starts (or continues) with you. As you know, I will always reply.


22 thoughts on “Mennonites, Ventriloquists, and Memoir

  1. What a thoughtful post. I like your rumination on the words ventriloquist/ventriloquize …hmmmm is the latter such a word/verb? My wp spell check is alerting me that something is wrong, but then it also, alerts on Castilian, a word I know to be true and correct. Our writing dredges up such words that will be passed on for the next generation who totally get it.
    Moving to the states when I was 5, I totally missed out on the advent of TV and Howdy Doody. We acquired one by the time the Mickey Mouse Club was going strong. Our family shared a lot of conversation as we watched Perry Mason on Saturday night and the Wide World of Disney on Sunday night. Memoir writing? I’ve heard quite a few blogging friends refer to it. Perhaps I can find a class locally to explore this “genre.”


    1. Georgette, you are thoughtful and inquisitive! I saw the word “ventriloquize” for the very first time in a scholarly work, Nobokov’s Speak, Memory, his autobiography as a writer, so I assumed it IS a verb. But not until you ask the question today did I actually check on it. Yes, The American Heritage dictionary lists “ventriloquize” right under the noun form.

      Memoir writing? It’s not autobiography, but it is a slice of life or, as some say, a themed story from your life. Many of my blog posts are aiming in that direction, this one included. But I have yet to decide on a central theme.

      You have memories of your family watching shows and even discussing them on weekend nights. Great! I doubt that either of us now feel we missed out on too much not having a TV early. Now many of these shows are available on re-runs or in archives. Again, thanks, for reading, commenting–questioning, Georgette. I love it!


    1. Thank you, Mimi! Laughing and learning go together well, as we remember from our cooperative learning experience at the College. I always smile when I see your name!


  2. I think a lot of us watched TV at the neighbors back in those days. We liked to watch the Phillies, and yes, it was in black and white with only one or two cameras.


    1. I believe you’re right, Shirley. We were sneaking peepers! Jeepers, I know our parents knew about it, but probably thought it wasn’t worth fussing about. Maybe they wished they could do the same–ha!


  3. Here in Canada it was Mr. Dressup, Friendly Giant, and the exotic Chez Helene that entertained children in my generation–all Canadian classics. As for ventriliquizing my experience, my original goal behind starting my original blog six years ago was to document a legacy for my children. It has morphed and changed over the years. Then, I ended up writing an entire book and dedicating it to my granddaughter. It’s speaks to my adoptee journey but it’s also her legacy. I knew if I didn’t write it down the story would be lost forever.


    1. Thanks, Linda, for the Canadian perspective on children’s TV. Here is the link to view and buy her book:

      Your story inspires for two reasons: 1. gives a direct connection to those who have had the experience of adoption as either parent or child, and 2. supplies a “push” to write down our own stories for future generations, a goal I am working on right now.

      Again, thank you, Linda.


  4. I plan to research and investigate memoir writing. So far…mine is just stories written out in long hand that I did not wish to forget. When i type them up for blog posts I leave out so many details.


    1. You are so good at historical fiction and other types of writing; memoir would be just another genre for you. I have on top of my desk a copy of Nina Amir’s How to Blog a Book. She declares that blog posts (like one you did just about your life this past week) can become books where you, yes indeed! turn on the detail. Good to hear from you again, Susan.


  5. We didn’t have a TV either, but I did see Howdy Doody sometimes when we visited other homes. (main reason, we didn’t have electricity) I have always felt fortunate that we didn’t have a TV until I was ten years old. Because of that I read more and used my own imagination to create stories. I write fiction but some of my short stories are about growing up on the farm. .


    1. No electricity, no TV, and living on a farm. We would all like to know more about you!

      When I had my own family, we did have a TV, but I resisted getting color TV for a long, long time because I thought the children would spend more time watching. In the meantime, they did read more and made up little plays with props for our amusement.

      Thank you for visiting today, so we can get acquainted.


  6. Marian — I absolutely love your comparison of ventriloquism to writing:

    “The word ventriloquist derives from two Latin words: “venter” referring to the belly and “loqui,” to speak. Isn’t that what writers do? Speak on paper or computer screen from a place deep inside themselves where language mixes with thought and feeling.”

    You asked your readers how we are ventriloquizing our experience: art, journals, recipes, a memoir?

    Not one for the accumulation of paper, much of my life is captured in bite-sized pieces with supporting photographs over at Tuesdays with Laurie. I maintain extensive photo albums on Shutterfly, and I keep a photographic food journal on Pinterest. A person could also look at my “timeline” on Facebook and see what we’ve been up to. And while I’m no technological whiz, I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to share words and vivid photographs with each other — even across the globe — in nano-seconds.

    I do have a memoir that captures a very specific window of time titled, “Fourteen Christmases.” I’m not sure, yet, what I’m going to do with it. Even if I do nothing, the writing process, alone, was cathartic and well worth the time and effort.


    1. I admire how you keep clutter at a minimum and organize your various interests into compartments. Of course, I strive for the stream-lined look both in life and work, but right now my desk is a mess. My husband, on the other hand, would think my desk pristine. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

      About your writing, there will come a time when the slice of time recorded in “Fourteen Christmases” will fit right in. I for one would like to read it. So thankful to be able to converse several times a week through our blogs posts and Facebook. I appreciate too how you promote my work via Twitter and FB. You are a constant inspiration to me. Thank you!


  7. Marian, Thanks for the wonderful trip down memory lane. I too was a Howdy Doody fan rushing to a friend’s home every possible day that I could. And I LOVE the idea of memoir writers being ventriloquists. Great post. Thanks.


    1. As you can tell, the germ for the idea of connecting ventriloquism with memoir writing came from the Preface to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, his autobiography. I like how what I discover resonates with readers like you. Thanks for the comment, Joan.


  8. I have been tinkering with memoir for a few years now. I want to capture my Indonesian experiences, but the choice comes down to writing for myself or trying to write for a publication market.


  9. Your Indonesian experiences are ripe for memoir writing since this genre captures just a slice of life. Though not an expert, my impulse would be to write for myself first. I believe your manuscript would have a fresher tone if you weren’t thinking about a specific market. You are such an accomplished writer and with your penchant for humor and wit, how can you miss. I’d buy your book, Traci!

    I have joined the National Association of Memoir Writers
    and have found great resources there, including “free” tele-seminars, helpful links, and best of all, access to the best writers in the business.


  10. Since ventriloquism has its roots in words that refer to speaking from deep inside oneself, the metaphor makes sense applied to memoir. You speak so eloquently with both words and images. Thank you, Fiona. By the way, I can’t wait to see what spring brings to Sweden.


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