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

8/5/15, #41, Switching Genres Midstream by Mimi Schwartz

8/8/15, Blog # 41 SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM By Mimi Schwartz

Note: This month's guest writer is Mimi Schwartz.

Mimi Schwartz is a teacher, writer, and scholar who’s been working in this genre for most of her professional life. To my mind, she's one of our most prolific, well respected writer/teachers. Over the years, Mimi's work has played an important role in the genre's ongoing evolution. Just a quick look at her bio note below is testimony to the depth and breadth of her writing.

SWITCHING GENRES MIDSTREAM is Mimi's second contribution to this blog. You can find her first piece, # 22, HALFWAY THROUGH THE STORY, in the Archives, under 8/27/13.


When I taught a summer workshop on memoir in Vermont, one of my students was writing about her family, especially her uncle, a big shot in the Mafia. She read an excerpt full of detail, drama and “Breaking Bad” secrets, and we all said: “Forget memoir. Call it fiction!” The decision, safety-wise, was a no-brainer.

Switching genres because of practicality is usually less clear-cut—and it should be. We must weigh: What do we get and what do we give up? Say a sister threatens to sue. Is she bluffing? Say, an agent wants to sign us on if we turn our essay collection into a continuous narrative. Or an acquisitions editor calls to say she’d like to publish our memoir-- but as fiction. Hopefully, agents and editors have the story’s integrity and power at heart. But what if their advice is to satisfy a marketing department or the balance sheet? We must figure out: How much do I want to sell this work? Is the switch worth tons of extra effort? Am I resisting out of fear of killing my little darlings. Or….will I really kill them?

Practical concerns are outside/in pressures, not intrinsic to creating the best work that we can. What I’d like to focus on are the inside-out reasons for switching genres: the realization that the genre we’ve chosen is not serving the story we need to tell. Why? Because the story has changed—and the one we started is now the wrong story.

The catalyst can be a seismic shift of facts, as happened to Helen Fremont in writing After the Long Silence. It began as a novel, based on her parents’ trek across Europe on the eve of World War 11, a story of love, bravery, and adventure, she thought—until she found out the truth about her grandparents. Growing up Catholic in the Midwest, Fremont had been told that they died in an aerial bombing. But in researching the novel, Fremont learned that her grandparents had been murdered in the concentration camps—as Jews.

Making the switch from fiction to memoir was a huge decision. It meant disclosing her parents’ biggest secret and most haunting fears of the Holocasut. Yet, Fremont says, she had to do it:

"In effect, my grandparents and aunts and uncles had been wiped off the face of the earth by fascist regimes. There are no gravestones, or markers, and the generation of eyewitnesses is rapidly dwindling. Holocaust revisionists and deniers increasingly dismiss the fact of the extermination of Jews as fiction or fantasy and I felt it important to add my voice to the record. Fiction no longer served my needs: I realized that I had to write the story, finally, as memoir."

Often we switch genres because “Why am I writing this?” is elusive. We try another genre to enlarge or change our perspective, find a more authentic voice, and hopefully trick ourselves towards the truth.

Novelist Sue Miller describes how this worked for her when writing The Story of My Father, her memoir about dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Miller, known for her fiction, wrote what she thought was a promising nonfiction draft and sent it to her agent who found “some of it fascinating, some very moving, and of the rest, she said, ‘It strikes me that it is perhaps of most interest to the writer.”

Miller, taken aback, reread the draft months later and knew she’d have to start again. But first she had an idea for a novel about a death of a parent and it became The Distinguished Guest. She then revisited the memoir and decided the problem could be voice because, as she says, “I was accustomed to using the first person only fictionally—hiding behind an imagined speaker who might be close to who I was, but who wasn’t.” So Miller wrote personal essays “to practice using a non-fictive first person voice in some shorter works that would be less difficult emotionally….” Then she wrote another novel, this one called While I Was Gone.

With each genre shift, there was a shift in what Miller understood about the memoir. First, she thought it was about her father being emotional absent as she grew up. The she thought it was about rescuing his life from the meaninglessness of Alzheimers. Finally she realized, as she writes in “From a Lecture on Revision,” that her father needed no rescue and that “the narrative in the final revision is of my grief and struggle and what it taught me.”

I always find Miller’s essay of process enormously comforting as I struggle with psychological roadblocks, especially when I wrote Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village. Like Miller, my discovery of what the story was about came late in the game and involved switching genres, in my case from narrative nonfiction to memoir within the same work. It took eight years of life experiences and a lot of writer friends reading my chapters and saying “Where are you in the story? We want more of you” until I moved from observer to participant, called my work memoir, and went through the manuscript, retelling all that was hidden in the text with a new voice, the right one for this story.

Voice was not the problem in writing Swimming Above the Black Line, which I called it memoir at the start. It was about the six months when, at 47 and 48, my husband had a heart attack and I had breast cancer two weeks apart. An editor liked it but wanted me to play down “our recuperative honeymoon”—that’s what we called it—and play up the health survivor story. I tried—but it felt wrong. I found myself turning a few chapters into essays that got published. I began writing new essays, and suddenly I was writing a book of linked essays about our long marriage that became Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed. Our recuperative honeymoon was now the middle section of the book, and that felt right. Those six months were part of us—but they were not our whole story.

Switching from memoir to linked essays changed a linear story into a nonlinear one, one arranged more by theme than by chronology. Reflection and humor played a bigger role than drama and suspense. The old structure was gone, including what Annie Dillard in The Writing Life calls “the bearing walls,” the ones you dare not destroy.

“They have to stay,” she says, “or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck."

When we switch genres in midstream—consciously as Fremont did, or intuitively as Miller and I did, we test those bearing walls. As she says, sometimes “it can’t be helped.” We hope we know when that sometimes is—but we only know for sure after the fact. We hope the new walls will be sturdy enough, shapely enough—and that the person who dwells within those walls, that elusive I to tell our story is just who we are looking for.

Bio Note:

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 lisaromeo.blogspot.com

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