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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Guest Blogger: Mimi Schwartz: Halfway Through a Story

Note: Lately I’ve invited selected writer/teachers to fill in for me while I’m recuperating from hip replacement surgery. My current guest, Mimi Schwartz, is a highly regarded writer, teacher, and scholar who has worked in this genre for much of her professional life. Mimi and I have been colleagues and friends ever since we began teaching freshman composition back in the 70’s. It goes without saying that she’s one of the teaching writers whose work I most admire.

Moreover, along with Bob Root, the late Wendy Bishop, and Lad Tobin, Mimi Schwartz was one of the earliest practitioners to use elements of creative writing in her composition classes. That, along with the 1980's teacher-as-writer movement, are responsible, at least in part, for some of the more innovative approaches we're now seeing in the teaching and writing of creative nonfiction.

Blog No. 22

Halfway Through a Story by Mimi Schwartz

I was on a roll. I knew my topic: living in a historic neighborhood. I knew my purpose: an opening for a collection I’d been publishing as stand alones over the years. All combined memoir with history or politics, including the politics of writing creative nonfiction. If this new essay worked as I hoped, I might just have a book I’d call When History Gets Personal.

I began writing easily with this beginning:

"I live on a cul-de-sac in Princeton, New Jersey an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revival), built in 1903 by the president of Evelyn College that is no more. Evelyn College was supposed to be the sister school of Princeton University down the street but was closed for ‘moral turpitude’ and/or for influenza before World War I. Either way, it is now a two-family house instead of a girls’ college meant to be what Radcliffe was to Harvard."

A few pages in, I went to the Princeton Historical Society and got great stuff on Evelyn College. And on George Washington, who stayed five houses away on his way to crossing the Delaware River. And on Albert Einstein who, in the 1930s, gathered in the corner house for discussions with friends. I quickly filled six pages.

But on the top of page 7, I started cleaning closets (two days). And revising my Web site (four days). And inviting friends for a long weekend. Only after the last load of sheets and towels was put away did I confirm what I already suspected: I had landed in the no man’s land between nonfiction that gives information and memoir that recreates personal experience and was overwhelmed by the information part. The “I” had been pushed aside by research and didn’t like being there.

My natural inclination when stuck is to keep rewriting the beginning. It is procrastination in the form of a battering ram that assumes the front door will open or fall down.

“I live in Princeton, New Jersey in a cul-de-sac of five houses. Mine is #4, an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revivial) that was built by the president of what was Evelyn College….

“At the end of our street is what was a college, Evelyn Place, and we live in an old white Colonial that was built by its President in 1903.”

Twenty versions later, the words shifting around endlessly, I finally abandoned the front door for the side windows. I opened a file called “Notes on Evelyn Place” and a lower case heading appeared: “white picket fence,” followed by a few paragraphs on how I never got used to the fence on the corner that was built twenty years after we moved in. Or the oak that died after the town laid new water pipes. Or our out-of-control holly trees that killed the grass in our side yard.

Under another heading, “Not Going Gently,” I wrote about the old woman in #1 Evelyn Place, who, at 93, committed suicide rather than go to a nursing home. And under another, “Pack Rats,” I wrote about my husband and I trying to clean out two shelves of one bookcase, so our children won’t hate us if we die before we move out.

Were these fragments connected? I had no idea. These were “notes” after all, so logic didn’t count. I also didn’t have to ask myself: “How do these serve the larger story?” or “Is this boring or accurate?” I filled three pages single-spaced in two hours, and the next day under “More Notes on Evelyn Place” I filled three more.

When I reread these entries days later, there was the voice I’d been missing. And there were possibilities for a structure not organized by house, or chronology, or famous historic figures, but by objects like picket fences and bookcases. History was still central, but the “I” took her rightful place beside her. Instead of having to discuss every house on my street (that is where I was when I got stuck), I could write about getting older, maybe moving out of my house, maybe not. And in ten or twenty years—this was the discovery I had just made—I would become part of neighborhood history, like it or not.

I’m not finished with my essay yet, but I am on page 12 and see an end around page 14. There may be more discoveries ahead, I hope so, but right now my new beginning feels right:

“I live in an old white house on Evelyn Place that still has a button on the wall next to the kitchen to call the servants. I press it now and then, hoping someone from the past will appear, but so far we’d only had written messages: “Helen was here, 1922,” scrawled under three layers of wallpaper we stripped off the dining room wall when we moved in….”

The facts about the defunct Evelyn College, its president who built our house, the cul-de-sac, Princeton New Jersey, Einstein, the underground railway, they all appear in this new version, but only after my two main characters—me and history—are in balance, working well together as they must when history gets personal.

Mimi Schwartz has published five books, including Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed and Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village ( A Bison Book, University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Available in paper and on Kindle.) She coauthored Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl, and you can read an interview with Mimi about Writing True at Mimi Schwartz Note: The above essay first appeared in the “Off the Shelf” column of Los Angeles Times – 8/23/09 and will appear in her new book, When History Gets Personal.

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