Brenda Bartella Peterson’s writing and speaking mantra is “keep it real.” Her topics, her life stories and her humor all point toward the goal of teaching others to live authentically. Brenda’s career path reflects multiple skills and interests. She was the senior advisor for Religious Outreach for the Democratic National Committee and executive director of Clergy Leadership Network, the first religious-left political action committee. Brenda has been a corporate trainer, non-profit executive and minister as well as successful speaker and writer. Her writing can be viewed on her website and blog. Brenda and her husband, John, live in Lexington, Kentucky to be near the brightest, prettiest, most charming grandchildren the world has ever known, objectively speaking, of course. Her most recent work, No Rehearsal: A Memoir, is now available Morris Book Store, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Barnes and Noble, as well as, Amazon.com and www.itascabooks.com.
Tell us some about No Rehearsal: A Memoir.
I had been told since college days that I needed to write a memoir. My answer was always, “I lived through it once, don’t need to live through it again.” About seven years after my son’s death, something in my brain clicked and I was ready to write. Even then, I resisted writing a narrative memoir. My writing colleagues like to joke that I had to be hit in the head nine times with a mallet to finally understand that my story needed to be in narrative form. I didn’t want my story to be the next “misery memoir.” I knew the real message of my life was that one could live through the most difficult of life’s challenges and still experience hope, joy and all that makes life worth living.
When was the moment you knew you needed to write this book/work?
About seven years after the death of my son.
What was your favorite part of research for this title?
Viewing old photographs in order to remind myself of past events.
What was the most difficult element to pin down with this book/work?
The self-examination that is required to write a memoir can be daunting. I wanted the portrait that I drew of myself to be honest and revealing.
What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?
The secret to my writing is Carnegie Center classes, especially those led by Leatha Kendrick. The classes kept me focused on the difficult task of revising, revising and revising some more. Find a good editor who will be brutally honest with you about your writing. An editor who merely tells you the writing is wonderful constitutes no editor at all. I wish I could say I had some secret formula that always rendered literary gold but I am too peripatetic for such routines.
What is your favorite part of the publishing process? Least favorite?
It was a delight to get that final copy in my hands from the printer—like giving birth. All the years of hard work became worth it in the holding of that book in my hands. I found the publishing process to be easier than the writing process. Less personal, less painful. However, I hated copy editing. I’m not good at finding typos. Hire a good copy editor for that specific task.
Do you work with a writing group? How’d you guys meet?
There are a few writers that have formed as a result of Carnegie Center classes. We meet on our own when classes are not in session. Theses writers are post-graduate level writers and brutally honest with each other.
Favorite writing utensil?
Definitely a laptop. I have too much arthritis in my hands to comfortable write with pen or pencil.
What are you currently working on?
I have two books that I’m currently working on: When You’re Pissed at the Church, a book for those who have left the church, particularly Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials. The second book is a follow-up to my memoir—a book of essays on my life experiences, not yet titled.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you do for a living?
I am also a speaker and ordained minister. Writing is such an introverted activity and I am an extrovert. So speaking and preaching give me an outlet for my extroversion.
Do you read reviews? Why or why not?
I love reviews. They are one person’s opinions and I enjoy hearing all opinions.
What authors are inspirational to you?
For memoir—Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls come closest to writing as I dream of writing. For essay-type memoir, Anne Lamott.
O Magazine and Real Simple magazine, junk food for the mind.
If someone made a movie about your life who would play you?
This has been a great parlor game at the book clubs I have spoken to. Of all the suggestions, I’m leaning toward Ashley Judd or Katherine McFee.
What’s your middle name and where did it come from?
I was a week old and still not named. My aunt and ultimate role model, Bertha Jane Marshall, sixteen at the time, came to the hospital and asked my mom if she could name me. She named me Brenda after her pen pal in England. My middle name is Jane after her and a series of aunt-to-niece for four generations in our family.
Worst job you ever had?
Working in a book bindery one summer, endlessly pulling books off the sewing machines as the seamstress threaded the pages together.
You can read an excerpt of No Rehearsal below!
Memorializing My Raggedy Ass Father
The call from my half-brother Dennis at 8:30 on a Monday morning could only mean one thing — Dad had died. The last few weeks, he had wandered in and out of consciousness, and we all knew he was ready to go. I have shed no tears since that day, but on the other hand, I have received a gift of healing I never thought possible as related to my Raggedy-Ass father.
Weeks before Dad’s death, I had offered to do the funeral service. I knew officiating was a gift I could extend for my half-brothers that was unique to me. Then, leading the service was an abstract thought: One day I will preside over Dad’s service. Now, reality hit me: In two days, in Evansville, Indiana, I will stand in front of others and say something about Dad. The downward spiral began with a conversation between my rational self and my irrational feelings.
What the hell was I thinking? I can’t say something about him to even a small group of people.
I have to go through with it if for no one except Dennis and Greg. He was far more father to them than the rest of his scattered lot, but that’s still a low bar to set for parenting.
I will not stand up there and say lies. I will not preside over a religious service for someone who, as far as I know, never entertained a spiritual thought in his life.
That narrowed down the repertoire for a funeral service drastically.
I sat in my comfortable chair all day Monday and read through three books of poetry hoping the light would dawn. No light dawned. I sent an email to Dennis, Greg and Margaret asking for memories of Dad. Surely, I will find material there. I asked my son Sims what came to mind when he thought of Pap-paw-on-the-river (my children’s name for him). Their exposure to Dad was limited but Sims came up with the one word: fun.
As they had on so many occasions, my friends Don and Vonda Lichtenfelt brought wisdom and words. They arrived at our home on Tuesday morning with a file folder and books that might spark a flame and ease my anxiety. Those words from great thinkers sparked the magic, and by bedtime that night, I rested easy that I could speak to who he was and retain my sense of integrity.
Incongruous but true, Dad’s favorite watering hole, Leroy’s, owns a Facebook page. Their tribute stated he “sat at the corner bar stool, ordered a cheeseburger with onion and a 7 and 7. RIP Shoestring.”
So I began the service at Alexander’s Funeral Home West on Franklin Street in Evansville where Dad’s father was eulogized in 1952 and his mother in 1992. I moved out from the lectern and pulled up a bar stool. I invited everyone to join me in spirit at Leroy’s, order their imaginary cheeseburger and maybe even a “smart alec” as we prepared to remember “Shoestring.” I made clear that we would honor Dad by keeping it real.
Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Life and death are one even as the river and sea are one.” This rang true for the River Rat who spent many of his 87 years on the Ohio River and loved it as well as he loved any human.
No pretense or exaggeration was necessary to say we were remembering a unique and special character — truly one-of-kind. A River Rat, a brilliant contractor, builder, carpenter, bricklayer, a son, brother, husband (more than a few times), a father and friend.
Along with recounting the memories gleaned from my sibs, I also retold the story of his journey to the Super Inn in his wheelchair and how he got caught on the railroad track on the way home. My aunt, Aggie, Dad’s only sibling present, shouted out from the audience, “It was probably a lie!”
Dad somehow missed out on winning a Pulitzer or a Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar, Emmy or Tony award, but he did know the pleasure of small things:
A full moon
A four-pound bass
A full hog on the spit
A cold beer
A fast boat
A good day of skiing
A good belly laugh
And lots of women.
Dad built impressive structures all over the tri-state area with his hands and his intellect. He grew beautiful flowers in his back yard. He roasted whole pigs in his BBQ pit and entertained the entire neighborhood. Although incapable of expressing it, Dad held the transcendent in his heart, and that includes each of us.
There may have been a few among us that day who were old enough to remember the play Our Town or maybe even played a part in that classic while in high school. The character called the Stage Manager in the play had this to say,
Wow, there are some things we all know, but we don’t take ‘em out and look at ‘em very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years, and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
That statement held true for Dad. His eternal something is us. Through Dad’s numerous branches on the family tree and our kids and grandkids, Dad lives on. And I have seen in my own branch of this family tree that Dad’s inheritance is a mighty strong one.
As I began to close the service, Aunt Aggie shouted out again. “You know his name wasn’t Clarence William Sims Sr. It was just Clarence William Sims, no Senior.”
It didn’t seem apropos to argue with her that Dad became a senior the minute they named my brother, Clarence William Sims Jr., so with the mood of the last story destroyed I turned to what I know best and closed with a prayer.