Mimi Schwartz322 Review is pleased to feature Mimi Schwartz for our fall issue. She is the author of five books; the most recent is "Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father's German Village," a winner of the ForeWord Book of the Year Award in Memoir for 2008.
Her other recent books include "Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed," voted a 2002 book club favorite by JCC book clubs, and "Writing True: the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction" with Sondra Perl, an anthology used by writing programs nationwide including the Masters of Arts in Writing at Rowan University.
Her short work has appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Agni, The Missouri Review, Jewish Week, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Writer's Chronicle, among others, and six essays have been Notables in the well-known anthology Best American Essays. A veteran teacher and lecturer, Schwartz is Professor Emerita at Richard Stockton College and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. "Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father's German Village" will appear in paperback this December.
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Do you have a personal, working definition of "creative nonfiction" which helps guide your work?
Creative nonfiction, for me, means writing about the real world as I see it. It is a subjective stance, rather than the seemingly objective stance of, say, the journalist or the historian. I gather facts and do research as they do, but try to convey them through storytelling techniques. My aim is to use description, character development, dialogue, and a strong personal voice to make my observations and experiences come alive on the page: to show, not just tell about my world.Why do you write creative nonfiction? What is so attractive about the genre?
I was writing fiction when, out of the blue, my husband had a heart attack and I had breast cancer two weeks apart. It changed us, individually and as a couple, but I couldn't tell our story as fiction. No one would believe such a plot! So I wrote some real life vignettes about what was happening and liked the challenge of finding "the extraordinary in the ordinary," as Cynthia Ozick puts it-a necessity when you are neither famous nor infamous. I also liked the opportunities for using "I" to examine larger, political or social issues and to bear witness on the world as it is. I found that readers responded more personally to first-person true stories, as if knowing "This was not made up" connected their experience to mine.
The other big attraction of creative nonfiction is its emphasis on experimental form. The "creative" in creative nonfiction is all about breaking away from conventional nonfiction structures-and finding new ways to tell your true story. The anthology section of Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction is packed with great writing that is innovative in form. You can see how to move back and forth in time and place. And shift in and out of someone's head, and tell a whole story as a phone conversation. You can depict a family break-up by cataloging the TV programs everyone watched. The possibilities are endless; and how freeing that is.
Can you describe the process of writing a lengthier piece of nonfiction? Where do you begin, and how do you know when you're finished?
I don't usually know beforehand how long a piece will be. Often, I start with a fragment of memory, or a short essay, even an Op Ed piece, and realize that I have more to say. And I write more. And at some point, I sometimes see the makings of a book. What's key, whatever the length, is that what I write goes beyond what I expect. I need to discover something new in the act of writing; I need to surprise myself. As I tell my students: if you know exactly what you want to write about, you are writing the wrong story.
The right stories for creative nonfiction begin with something bothersome, something that makes you feel uneasy-or presents a question you need to answer. What I call bread-and-butter nonfiction (the kind favored in school and business) is about passing along information, telling what you know. Creative nonfiction is about exploring what you don't know. The mind at work is what energizes the writing and drives the discovery process. It is often right there on the page, a part of the narrative tension that makes for success.
Keeping in mind the difference between "Truth" and the smaller, demonstrative "truth," when-if at all-is it acceptable to exaggerate or omit certain facts?
Omission is part of all writing. We're always making decisions about what to leave in or omit, about what's important and what's irrelevant, about what goes in the foreground and background of our texts. Even in reportage and analytic writing, as in doctoral dissertations, writers must do that.
What is central to creative nonfiction, because of its subjective stance, is how much the reader trusts the writer to make good choices about what to leave in and omit. Intent to tell the truth really matters. If you leave out that you have four brothers, you are omitting an essential truth. Call that fiction. But if you say, "I always wanted to be an only child," and then forget about your brothers, fine. You've created a tension between what you want and what is and the piece will be better for it.
Intent also affects exaggeration. Writers need to signal when they are exaggerating, and many do so by humor. Russell Baker in Growing Up, for example, describes being interviewed for the job of paperboy and portrays the interviewer as a menacing CEO of the corporate world. Well, to a nine-year-old, that's what he was: larger-than-life scary. The reader gets that, or should; the world from a kid's perspective.
What do you look for when you read creative nonfiction? Are there certain literary devices or mechanics that separate good creative nonfiction from great creative nonfiction?
The first thing that draws me in is voice. Does it have authenticity, energy, and a compelling way of looking at the world? As a reader, I often know in a paragraph or two, if the writer's voice works for me. As a writer, however, I may not find the right voice until many pages in. And sometimes, as in my last book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, it took eight years or more to find it. So I say to my creative nonfiction students: if your voice is stiff, or whiny, or too angry early on, don't give up. It often takes many drafts over time, especially with psychologically-loaded material, to find the right voice for a particular story.
In "Thoughts from a Queen Sized Bed," what made you think to publish a book about being married to your husband for forty years?
I had published about twelve personal essays about my life with Stu and the kids when I reread Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I balked at "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I also balked at the way the media was portraying long marriages. Either they were like "The Brady Bunch" (resolving all problems quickly and sensibly) or like the couples in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" (stuck in a living hell). My marriage, and my friends' marriages that managed to last for many years, were much more complex. No one captured the ups and downs of years of sharing a bed, so I thought if I could fill in the missing pieces (about 150 more pages), I might have a book. And that's what happened.
What kind of strain, if any, did this place on your marriage?
The book was a good thing, actually. When I wrote about how our getting sick together helped to restore what had become a shaky marriage, I let my husband read early drafts. He often disagreed with my take, but our disagreements became our way to talk through that time and our life before it.
In other sections, he didn't have early input on drafts, but I did imagine his response-and that led to my self-imposed fairness rule: Whenever I called him a moron he could call me a moron. Whenever I portrayed a fight, he got to have his say. I empowered him through dialogue. That sense of empowerment seemed to be enough, and when he read the final manuscript before I sent it off, he said, "That's our marriage. You got it right on the page!" What a relief that was-since I still planned to live together.
Do you have any advice for other creative nonfiction writers who would like to write about their loved ones, but who may not want to hurt the subjects of their work? In other words, how do you balance the truth with the status quo?
Writing about family and friends is always tricky and how to handle it must be decided on in a case-by-case basis. Some writers wait until after their loved one dies. Some call the story fiction and hope for the best. Some risk anger and even broken relationships because the need to tell the true story is so powerful. Two tips, whatever the final decision: 1) Write first, and then decide what to do. 2) Capture the whole personality and avoid the stick figure that is more caricature than real person. Real people are full of contradictions and omitting them offends people, and rightly so. As Annie Dillard says, "Writing a family is an art, but not a martial arr." In other words, revenge is a bad reason for writing.
At what point in your life were you inspired to chronicle the WWII experience of a small German village-the village in which your father grew up-in your book "Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village"?
I wasn't interested in the village when I was a kid. I was allergic to it, actually. I was born in the U.S. three years after my family fled the Nazis and kept thinking that world was not my world. I was American, period. I avoided knowing more until, halfway through my life, I saw a Torah from the village that had been rescued on Kristallnacht-not by the Jews, but by their Christian neighbors. That story was an echo of what my father used to tell me when I was growing up in Queens: that in this German village before Hitler "everyone got along." Was this village special? That's what I kept wondering. And who were these people who saved the Torah? I went on a twelve year quest on three continents to find out, reentering my father's old world through the memories of both the Jews who fled and their Christian neighbors, still in the village today.
What are you working on now? What can we expect from you next?
I may have a book of essays, we'll see. I have quite a few pieces that combine memoir with history and politics, including the politics of writing creative nonfiction. If I write three or four more essays that work--ones that move beyond the "I" of memoir and into the world the "I" moves in-I might call it When History Gets Personal. First-person narratives can be a powerful way to put a human face on public issues; I want to explore that more fully.
322 Review is a journal that publishes provocative emerging and established artists. Operated by Rowan University graduate students enrolled in the Master of Arts in Writing Program, 322 Review is aggressively seeking the best fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, mixed genre, and mixed media works of visual art.
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