ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
Creative Nonfiction, especially in first person, puts a human face on history in ways that most history books do not. Rather than make universal claims—This is what happened—the writer says, “This is the world as I experienced it.” If done well, readers will follow the I into that world of people and events they may not have considered before, confronting issues, even hot button issues, they may have avoided. Personal stories, well-told, have the power to cross boundaries of difference and discover what we have in common, which leads to more understanding and more empathy for those unlike ourselves.
I see this power at work regularly during performances of my documentary theater group called Onstage. We gather true stories, each year on a different theme, from people living in Central New Jersey—old and young, urban and suburban, immigrants of every ethnicity and race, Mayflower Americans, Muslims, Jews, whatever—and perform their stories in libraries, schools, senior centers, prisons, hospitals, theaters, wherever. What keeps amazing me is how it does not matter who tells the story or who receives it, connections keep being made that blur identities of race, gender, class, religion, even mental health. Recently, at a Memory Care Unit of a local “care facility,” we watched two dozen residents, as if in a trance, slowly, with each story, begin to look up, smile, clap a little, and by the end, chuckle with lots of clapping. We were stunned. Another time, performing at a Trenton prison, one of us did a monologue about problems with a sullen teenage daughter. The original storyteller was a well-to-do, fifty-something Mom in Princeton, yet it was a young Latina prisoner who jumped up during our post-show talkback to say, “I have those same problems with my daughter.” She then told her story as others nodded. Such is the power of the I.
But that power can also become a weakness, especially in memoir or personal essay. One person, alone, is looking at the world through a single lens of experience, and if that lens is too narrow in focus, readers get suspicious: What about this or that? Why should I believe you? Or even worse, So what? The longer the story, the more need for credibility.
That’s a good thing, I’ve found. Keeping these questions in mind keeps us honest and less likely to sound like a know-it all (always a turn-off). They encourage us to widen the lens of our storytelling by testing our version of story, forcing us also to consider: Would other people that appear in my story agree? What about readers who have had similar experiences?
Two strategies I rely on for addressing these questions both involve voice: first, to find the right voice to tell a particular story; second, to bring in other voices that both inform and challenge my voice.
Finding the right voice means finding the right persona to narrate. For many, persona conjures up fakeness, as if we only have one true self, but I would argue that we have many authentic selves and accompanying voices with which to tell a particular story. Which is the right one, that is the challenge. Should we tell it funny, angry or sad? Should we be the child, reliving a past experience in present tense or the adult looking back, maybe with pride, maybe with regret? We have choices—as every actor knows. Just go to YouTube and watch Lawrence Olivier, Adrian Lester, and Kenneth Branagh all recite “To Be or Not To Be,” and you’ll see how three different personae speak with convincing power, each emphasizing a different mood and struggle that the actor strongly felt in the role.
Sometimes the right persona comes at the start, as it did when I wrote about life in a long marriage. I was the wife, a veteran of forty years of sharing a bed, my voice loud and clear. When I wrote about my father’s German village, I had no such clarity. I was not an historian, ethnographer, or Holocaust scholar, so who was I? Why should anyone believe my version of village history and how could I gain my readers’ trust—or even my own trust?
The answer, after a few false starts, was a new persona: not as a mom or wife, not a teacher or writer—all comfortable roles for me—but as an American-born daughter of German-Jewish refugees on a quest to confront the history she’d avoided half her life. I invited the reader to join me —hence, the first-person, present tense—and accepted that if readers came to different conclusions in the many living rooms of Jews and Christians that we were to enter, so be it. To make my struggles and ambivalence part of the story, that was the source of my credibility in Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village.
Credibility, I’ve found, requires other voices, not just my own. I seek out a chorus of voices to inform, expand and challenge what I think I know—and assure my readers, and myself, that I’ve done my homework. My former colleague, Jack Connors, calls adding other voices OPV (for Opposing Points of View) and insists on it in his Argument and Persuasion classes. I find it equally essential for creative nonfiction, be it memoir, essays, travel writing, or narrative journalism, but I let the ‘O’ to stand for ‘Other” to include voices that inform and enrich, not just oppose. Other Points of View fill in background information, broaden our angle of vision, and question easy certainties. Each new voice adds complexity and nuance that make me think more deeply about people and events that I thought I understood, only to discover Not really.
You can find other voices through interview of those you know and those you don’t know. Some confirm experience; others challenge it—and then what? My student, writing about catching fireflies when she was six, “corrected” her story in draft three after her mother contradicted her memory.
Why not keep your story and include your mother’s? I suggested.
She tried that, liked it, and her essay became more complex and stronger not weaker, the class agreed when we workshopped draft four. The power of OPV.
Diaries, letters, and even official documents add other voices to first-person narratives, and if done well, they won’t overpower the narrator’s voice, always a concern. Two tips I have learned: choose the best excerpts to include and be an emcee, that is, introduce the other voice —don’t just drop it into the text without guidance. Two of my favorite models that do this: Lynn Powell’s Framing Innocence that weaves dozens of official documents into her story about how her town joined forces to support a woman photographer framed by an ambitious D.A. for child pornography. And Vikram Seth’s Two Lives for his brilliant use of letters in his story of his Uncle Shanti’s romance with lover, Henny, in the middle of World War II. See how he guides our reading and uses ellipsis to omit what isn’t relevant:
Among Henny’s letters are a few that Shanti sent her during the war; two written while he was in Egypt show something of how their relationship was developing—if at a distance. He continues to refer to her affectionately as ‘Kuckuck’ or ‘cuckoo’, and the tone, though a bit lecturing, is intimate….
Other ways to add voices? Dialogue is always a winner, empowering your characters to address the reader directly. In my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, whenever I called Stu a moron, he could call me an idiot. We stayed married. Even in this essay, rather than describe the Latina prisoner talking about her daughter, I let her speak for herself.
Footnotes allow us is to insert other voices, both to inform or challenge our narrative. Laura Hillenbrand in Seabiscuit, an American Legend uses an informal (rather than academic) voice to add extra facts worth knowing. Charles Baxter uses footnotes to let his son give his version of their trip to college. His essay format inspired mine in “Close Call,” about being a juror. I had asked my tennis partner, a District Attorney in that court for thirty years, to read it, and she said, Great! I’ll tell you where you are wrong.
But I can’t be wrong, I said. I’m telling it from a juror’s point of view.
That wasn’t enough, I realized, when she read it and told me all that I didn’t know. So I did what Baxter did. Whenever I got it wrong, I added a footnote, letting her tell the reader what she knew and I, as juror, did not.
Juxtaposition is another excellent vehicle for introducing OPV to explore a subject. In anthologies, readers are introduced to a multitude of voices and experiences, so whoever you are, you can find pieces of yourself in the struggles, whatever the individual solutions. It’s comforting and enlightening.
First-person writers can choose to share the narrator role, as James McBride did in The Color of Water. He taped recorded his mother and then he wrote alternating chapters—one in her voice, one in his—about the generational and racial divides of their growing up, schooling, religion, siblings, etc. Hilda and Aaron Raz go even further in sharing narrative power. In What Becomes You, each wrote, in alternating chapters, from both the parental and child point of view, about Aaron’s transition at age 29.
In 2018, I learned yet another tool for OPV: interstices or mini-chapters. The need arose after I read an unpublished memoir by a man, Max Sayer, whose Catholic family had lived five houses from where my grandfather’s house had been in Rexingen, my father’s German village. My book had been published ten years earlier, and I thought I was done with that story. I had focused on how good neighbors dealt with Nazi times and chose to interview Christian villagers who the Jews remembered as “decent people, but what could they do?” No one ever mentioned Max’s family. So when Max’s memoir of growing up during the Third Reich came to me, I wondered: Was this family once ardent Nazis? The silent majority? More decent neighbors? I read full of uncertainty.
When Max describes how his father quit the S.A. (storm troopers) in 1926 because of its anti-Semitism, that was a relief. So was the passage about how Max, at age 7, worried about the little Jewish girls on the street fleeing to England. But he also describes his excitement at his first Hitler parade at age five. At age ten, he was caught up in the rules regarding his Nazi cap:
… the correct bearing to go to church was to remove your cap at the entry to the church and place it on your heart with your left hand, leaving your right hand free for (Catholics) holy water and sign the cross. …The Hitler salute was only given with the cap on. Without a cap, your hands were placed on the seam of your pants, and your head in ‘eyes right’ or ‘eyes left’ position.
I wish I did not picture that Nazi cap, but there it was. I wish Max had not joined the Hitler Youth or gone to the Aufbauschule, a school for the promising boys of the Third Reich, but he did. They muddied my tidy narrative; that’s what OPV does.
There are 22 interstices or mini-chapters in the new edition of Good Neighbors, Bad Times Revisited. Each one is an excerpt from Max’s memoir made me understand village life under Hitler more deeply. Some affirm; some deny; but all enrich and complicate.
Part way through this project, my college friend asked if she could read Max’s memoir. I sent her this excerpt about the day after Kristallnacht:
… When I went to school next day there was still smoke coming out of the building and of heaps of furniture and books, which had been brought outside. A watch was set by the fire brigade, about three men, and when we kids came home from school we sneaked inside to have a look – the first time ever I set foot into a synagogue. There were books laying around everywhere and I picked up a tora scroll to take home, but when I came home, Mum sent me straight back to return it. The air was still full of smoke and wet paper and material – it didn’t smell like a Christian church at all, the whole thing looked very sad….”
She wrote, “Why mess up your very good book with this garbage?” A religious Jew, but not a zealot, she is usually tolerant of those she doesn’t agree with. But this story about a curious Catholic boy entering a ruined synagogue torched by the Nazis along with every other synagogue in Germany that night was too much. It crossed her line.
I thought of how many lines we don’t cross, how many people we shut out, especially now, because we can’t bear to hear or read another word from them. And yet, it was the unfamiliarity of Max’s story, his OPV, which drew me back to revisit a story in which two versions of history talk to one another. The need became clear when Max’s son, (who sent me the memoir for his eighty-nine-year-old Dad) wrote this accompanying note about Kristallnacht: “I hope you will forgive my father about the Tora scroll, but he was just an inquisitive eight-year-old and his mother insisted that he take it straight back where he found it.” I felt moved and curious—another voice to enrich the story.
In today’s Manichean world, when everyone not on “our” side is the enemy, the temptation keeps growing to ignore the “Other,” draw lines, build walls on these lines and make them higher and higher, but OPV can help. I say, let’s chip away instead, risking peepholes large enough to find people more like us than we expected.
Mimi Schwartz’s recent books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times Revisited- Echoes of My Father’s German Village (2021); When History Is Personal (2018); Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed (2002) and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (2006) with co-author Sondra Perl. Her short work has appeared in Ploughshares, Agni, The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, The Boston Globe, including ten Notables in Best American Essays. She is Professor Emerita in Writing at Stockton University and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. To know more (and meet the Sayer family on video), go to https:// mimischwartz.net.