Mary Kay Shanley is the author of 11 books that cross multiple genres, tapping into her skills as essayist, historian and journalist. Her journey to now began when her sixth-grade teacher told her she could write.


Such insights can chart a youngster’s future.


She began as a journalist, then wandered into weaving stories, including She Taught Me to Eat Artichokes, a national bestseller about women’s friendship. She has been honored as Iowa Author of the Year for Our State Fair—Iowa’s Blue Ribbon Story, an illustration-rich bookchronicling the first 150 years of people-stories. She has also garnered numerous awards for magazine feature articles and essays.


Mary Kay’s officemat
(and sometimes the boss)

Mary Kay is currently writing a memoir about the complexity of having been adopted in a world very different from today. The book will include her experiences, as well as those of other women — some who were required to give up their newborns to an adoption agency, and others who, like Mary Kay, were those babies given away.


As with other authors, Mary Kay’s career is blessed with serendipity. Early on, a teacher-friend invited Mary Kay to sit down in a little chair and talk with second graders about writing. She’s since expanded on that, as adjunct instructor at two state universities as well as at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival each year. Also, Mary Kay and Diane Douiyssi, a writer and a mentor to other writers, offer multi-day creative writing and reflective writing workshops throughout the US. But Mary Kay’s most rewarding experience will always be teaching inside prison walls. That’s where, truly, instructor and students learn from and teach one another.


Mary Kay believes there’s always one more story to tell  —
one more book to write —

one more workshop to offer  —
one more speech to give —
one more experience to savor.




The Obituary——Yours or Someone Else’s


Recently a group of area writers invited me to talk with them about the “how” of writing the personalized obituary. A decade or two ago, the notion that regular people could write obituaries for family members, or even themselves, wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Standard procedure into the 21st-century was to have family members provide the funeral home with information for the newspaper. A journalist——usually a cub reporter——wrote the obituary, which a copyreader proofed for accuracy. Then copy and photo were sent to the layout editor and, finally, to the pressroom.

But the winds of change, fanned by social media’s penchant for putting everything on the table, turned the stoic and static obituary into the personalized obituary——a cultural shift that enabled a new form of expression at the end of one’s life journey.

Increasingly, obituaries are written by a family member or friend——or even by the deceased (ahead of time, obviously). Facts mix with insight, stories, admissions, admonishments and even pleas.



  • The obit for a plant manager in Oregon was written by his grandson, who commented on his grandfather’s love of the QVC cable shopping network: “QVC lost a loyal customer on Sept. 28, 2016.”
  • Dan A. Wilson of Wisconsin wrote his own obituary, including some one-liners: “I crammed a four-year education into seven years,” and “There will be no interment since I’m going to be cremated. If you want to see me, you have to come by the house where Donna will have me displayed somewhere.”
  • When their 18-year-old son committed suicide after struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD and survivor’s guilt related to a tumultuous childhood in Russia, his American parents ended his obituary with a plea for Iowa lawmakers to address mental health crises that are inadequately funded.


The Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau brings insightful lectures and programs to various organizations within the state. I’m pleased to say that The Obituary——Yours or Someone Else’s is one now one of them.


For more information: https://www.humanitiesiowa.org