Writer Tells of Being an Outsider

University of Tampa students, faculty and guests heard Joe Mackall read from his works, and also witnessed the author’s dry humor that seems to grow from his life’s tales.

“It was a pretty screwed up neighborhood that I came from, although I didn’t know it at the time,” Mackall said before delivering his first reading.

The event took place Oct. 11 at Reeves Theater and was part of the Writers at the University series. Mackall read excerpts from and discussed two of his works, “”Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish”” and “The Last Street before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage.”

Mackall is an author and an associate professor of English at Ashland University. Although he is not a member of the Amish community, his knowledge of the Swartzentruber Amish comes from having lived as their neighbor for over a decade.

Mackall’s first reading, “”Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish,”” transitioned from a story about farming with Samuel and Mary Shetler, the focus of his story, to the death of the Shetler’s daughter Sarah.

Mackall used Sarah’s death to tell how the Swartzentruber Amish care for and depend on one another.

Mackall demonstrated a strong respect for the Swartzentruber Amish while still maintaining an objective view of their lifestyle.

During the discussion phase of the evening, Mackall commented that an Amish person’s idea of black people is based solely on what they see in the news. He was pointing out that there are both positive and negative aspects that come from living in the sort of closely knit environment that the Amish do.

Mackall’s next reading came from his memoir, “The Last Street before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage.”

The author described his writing process as being much more than just putting pen to paper.

“It was kind of like method writing. I got back into prescription drugs at the time,” he said.

Mackall credited his childhood friend Tommy with leading him to the story.

“The Last Street before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage” was originally supposed to be about Tommy and other members of Mackall’s boyhood clan. When Mackall researched his subject, he found out that Tommy was dead.

The excerpt Mackall read ranged from telling listeners what it was like to grow up at a time when turning 18 meant he could be drafted into the Vietnam War, to describing the first time he met Lisa, one of a number of girls he fell in love with as a boy.

Mackall described his first exchange with Lisa in vivid detail. A fiction writer might have spent many sleepless nights trying to create the imagery that Mackall used to describe to his audience how he had lived.

When he finished reading from “The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage,” Mackall looked at his watch and congratulated himself on only taking 35 minutes. He had promised the audience that he would take no more than 40 minutes.

An evening Mackall started with a joke began to draw to a close.

Mackall told the audience it was an Amish joke. The joke asked why a rooster runs off when its head is cut off, and answered that the reason is that the animal isn’t used to it.

The joke was met by a deathly silence that might have sent another speaker down Kennedy Blvd., and out to Tampa International Airport, never to return to the University of Tampa again.

But, Mackall just glanced around the room.

“Hey,” he shrugged, “It’s not my joke.”

And then, the laughter came.

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