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Must Write

Edna Staebler’s Diaries

By Christl Verduyn & Edna Staebler
Subjects Waterloo Region, History, Canadian History, Biography & Autobiography, Life Writing, Language Arts & Disciplines, Creative Writing
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9780889204812, 312 pages, September 2005
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554588114, 312 pages, August 2009


Excerpt from Must Write: Edna Staebler's Diaries edited by Christl Verduyn

From Chapter 3 1940s: Must Write

August 26, 1949


My article on the Mennonites was delivered to Maclean's yesterday. God save it from their cutting pencil. It is much too long. I hope they won't destroy its life and leave only the externals. Spent the evening with the W. O. Mitchells (32). They are so earnest, so eager, so completely natural. Bill is like a lion, he roars and immediately after he purrs and yet to say he is like a lion is rather ridiculous since essentially he is a gentle soul, but fiery. He read, and we discussed, E. M. Forster's article in Harpers,”Art for Art's Sake” (33). Bill loves Forster. I must read him. I don't know why but something in me turns away from him as a man who stands on the brink of life and will not let himself be drawn into it. I may be wrong. I know nothing about his life. “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are always new filters etc. “ Bill said he thinks I should rewrite my Neil's Harbour book as a novel. He thinks it could have terrific power, whereas now it is just a sort of snapshot album. He is right, but can I wait long enough to change it? I need now the freedom that having a book published will give me. Or will it? No, one must always struggle for freedom, struggle with oneself, that is. I could have much more freedom here every day if I would not let myself be interrupted by all the people who come to me here. But I don't want to hurt them. I want them to love me. But this analytical thinking about motives is what I want to avoid. I must learn to let my thoughts be creative, and analyzing is not creating.

Forster speaks of mateyness (34). An artist may not become matey. Bill interpreted that to mean that he must not accede to the expected. One must not conform, give in against one's principles, fall in love. The article went on to speak of detachment and slouching around with a hat pulled down over one's eyes. I thought he talked of actual mateyness with people. Surely one must know people, listen to people, observe people, absorb people to become people, in order to create people. We don't really create. We merely digest and that which we have absorbed comes through us in a new form. That is why I doubt if I shall ever write quickly. It would be like gobbling something up and spewing it out, undigested--very vulgar. But to get back to this mateyness. As one listens to people, one gives one's attention. They give whatever they have or want to give and the artist lets is seep into him to become a part of him. . . .

Excerpt from “How to Live without Wars and Wedding Rings” 1950 (published in Maclean's July 1, 1950

Martin's Meeting House, on the highway north of Waterloo, is more than a hundred years old; its painted clapboards gleam white. A wire fence surrounds its yard, kept neat by a munching cow, and the cemetery beside it where rows and rows of plain white slabs mark the grassy, flowerless graves. There are no family plots: here Nathanial Lichty, Josiah Ernst, Susannah Eby, Israel Weber, Veronica Erb, Rebecca Shantz--and the stillborn infants of David and Bevvy Martin--lie side by side.

Open buggies, two-seaters and boxlike dachwaegles (top buggies) came in a steady stream as the black-clad people gathered to worship. Horses pranced up to the cement stoop along one side of the building. Women and little girls in shawls and bonnets alighted; grandmothers went through a door near the front, mothers and children near the centre, young girls hurried to the back. Men and boys drove to the hitching chains, then entered the church on the farther end. In a crowded cloakroom on the women's side, shawls hung on wooden pegs and black bonnets lay on shelves; on the heads of the rosy-cheeked, chattering girls wore caps of white organdie with pale coloured ribbons tied under their chins. The style of their hair and their print cotton dresses had no variation.

Light flooded the church from small-paned windows, walls were whitewashed, scrubbed pine floors and benches were worn smooth and shiny. Women sat on one side, men on the other, on benches that were half the length of the church, each bench a step higher than the one in front of it. In the aisle between them were two stoves with long smokestacks. Suspended from the ceiling above each bench on the men's side were wooden bars with wooden pegs for the men's broadbrimmed hats.

A long, desk-like lectern in the centre front of the church had an open space before it to be used for baptism and feet-washing ceremonies. Behind the lectern five men sat side by side; a sixth man approached, kissed and shook hands with the others, then took his place among them. “That's our preacher,” Salome whispered to me. “The others are preachers too and our bishop. “

Chosen for life by lot from slips of paper drawn from a Bible, the Old Order Mennonite preacher, Salome told me, is also a farmer. He receives no pay, prepares no written sermons: his spontaneous word is believed to be inspired. And he has authority. If a church member buys what he is not supposed to, marries outside the Old Order, gets drunk too often, or does worldly things, the preacher will speak to him privately. If the vanity or sin is not repented, if it is irremissible, the erring one is denounced before the congregation. Though cast out of the church, he is not treated unkindly and, if contrite, may return.

Salome opened a hymn book printed in German script. Led by a man's voice, the congregation sat while it droned each syllable; the bishop preached for half an hour. The members of the congregation, turning to face their seats, knelt for silent prayer, their backs to the front of the church. “To live honestly and at peace with all men” was the text of the preacher's hour-long sermon in Pennsylvania Dutch.

Throughout the service the older men and women sat very still but in the long benches in front there was constant movement of babies and tiny children being hushed or taken to the cloakroom by mothers with bulging satchels. Two rows of lively little girls, their braids tied with string or a bit of shoelace, couldn't restrain a few giggles. The young girls who sat high at the back of the church turned solemn eyes towards the preacher or stole glances at the young men on the high benches at the other side of the room.

During the last hymn the little ones filed into the cloakroom. Babies in bright print or lustre dresses, black stockings and colorful booties were bundled up in black or purple shawls. The service over, women and children clustered on the cement stoop to chat till their men drove up smartly to pick them up in their buggies or two-seated wagons. Salome blushingly told me she was invited out for the day.

“Sunday is our visiting day,” Bevvy explained. “Sometimes we have twenty people drop in for a meal. “

“And don't you know they're coming?” I asked.

“Not always, they chust come after church. When Menno Horsts moved to the farm over there behind those maples they had fifty-six the first Sunday. “ She smiled. “Everyone was inquisitive to see their new house. “

“How do you feed them?”

Ach, that don't bother us, everybody helps. There's always lots in the cellar or the garden, and every Friday we bake cakes and buns and nine or ten pies. If somebody comes they're all eaten at one time and if not we haf them the rest of the week. “

During the next three days the Martins answered many more of my questions.

“The preachers tell us to vote if we need a new bridge or something like that, but we don't know enough about politics to vote for the country. Artificial insemination of our cattle gives us better stock. With electricity we can do more work. Salome can run the tractor. Telephones we may have in the barn for business--if we sell fresh meat or the like of that--but not in our houses for pleasure.

“We wouldn't want our children to hear some of the things on the radio or television. If we had musical instruments we mightn't sing so much ourselfs. We never heard yet of any of our people stealing or getting in any trouble with the law. “

I told them a story I'd heard about a man who tried to sell a car to an Old Mennonite. The farmer said he couldn't buy it because the devil was in it.

“But what about the gasoline motor you use?” the salesman asked. “It's the same thing--isn't the devil in that too?”

“Maybe, but he's fastened down and I can make him do whatever I want, in a car he's running around and might get out of control. “

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries, edited by Christl Verduyn


Introduction: “Life as Writing”

Edna’s Chronology

Family Lines

1. 1920s Words to Express

2. 1930s Longing to Make Something

3. 1940s Must Write

4. “Duellists of the Deep” 1948

5. “How to Live without Wars and Wedding Rings” 1950

6. 1950s Writing

7. 1960s Must Work

8. 1970s Something to Write About

9. “Cape Breton Harbour” (excerpt) 1972

10. “The Great Cookie War” 1987

11. 1980s The Business of Publishing

12. 1990s Must Do

13. 2000 Still Interested and Interesting




Long before she became the renowned author of the best-selling Schmecks cookbooks, an award-winning journalist for magazines such as Macleans, and a creative non-fiction mentor, Edna Staebler was a writer of a different sort. Staebler began serious diary writing at the age of sixteen and continued to write for over eighty years. Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries draws from these diaries selections that map Staebler’s construction of herself as a writer and documents her frustrations and struggles, along with her desire to express herself, in writing. She felt she must write—that not to write was a “denial of life”—while at the same time she doubted the value of her scribblings.

Spanning much of the twentieth century—each decade is introduced by an overview of key events in the author’s life during that period—the diaries vividly illuminate both her intensely personal experiences and her broader social world. The volume also presents four key examples of Staebler’s public writing: her first published magazine article; her first award-winning publication; the opening chapter of her book Cape Breton Harbour; and her lively account of the Great Cookie War. Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries portrays an ordinary woman’s struggle to write in the context of her lived experience. “All my life I have talked about writing and kept scribbling in my notebook, as if that makes me a writer,” wrote Staebler in 1986. This volume argues that the very act of writing the diaries, with all their contradictory accounts of writerly ambition, success, and conflict, made Staebler the writer she yearned to be.


``Scholars interested in Canadian life writing will welcome the publication of this selection of Edna Staebler's diaries. ... Readers my think of Staebler as a folksy writer of cookbooks, creative non-fiction, and journalistic pieces, but the diaries reveal a woman and author of considerable depth, subtlety, and complexity. Arguably, the diaries are her major literary achievement not only because of their sheer volume -- Staebler kept a diary for eight decades--but also because of the quality of the writing. ... Verduyn . .. supplies invaluable contextual material through brief introductions to each chapter, through endnotes . .. [and] . .. a cogent (if brief) essay in which she locates Staebler's diaries in historical and critical contexts. ... The inclusion of this extratextual material makes Must Write a thoroughly scholarly edition. Verduyn has honoured Staebler's writing achievements; she has also made an important contribution to Canadian life-writing studies by bringing to a wider audience a significant primary text. ''

- Linda Warley, University of Toronto Quarterly, Letters in Canada 2005, Volume 76, number 1, Winter 2007

``Those who read Edna Staebler's diaries will discover the qualities her friends already know: here is a woman whose words reveal a growing self-discovery, an independent spirit, and the stubborn courage to be true to herself. ''

- Wayson Choy, Trillium award-winning author of All That Matters andwinner of the Edna Staebler Creative Non-fiction Award forPaper Shadows

``This edition does important recovery work, bringing attention to a woman writer who is not well-recognized in the Canadian literary canon. ''

- Laurie McNeill, Canadian Literature, 191, Winter 2006

```Interest is everything,' Edna wrote in 1928. In these pages she reveals her endless curiosity and enthusiasm for other people's lives while at the same time harping about her stubborn urge to write, her insecurity, her hesitations, and her agony when she does not or cannot write. ... Edna Staebler's diaries attest to her determination, her courage, and her easy-flowing pen. ''

- Pauline Carey, Canadian Book Review Annual, 2006