The following is by Mimi Schwartz, award-winning author of numerous books including When History is Personal (March 2018). Her essays have been widely anthologized, and ten of them have been listed as Notables in the Best American Series. This piece will also be featured in the Spring 2018 issue of the UNP newsletter, i.e. available in May.
Why I Write
In my new book, When History Is Personal, I write about the day my husband died. It took me six years to finish this essay, and when I did, a member of a hospital ethics board (not the hospital where Stu died) read it, passed out copies to fellow members, and invited me to talk about the end-of-life issues in “Lessons from a Last Day.” Thirty doctors, social workers, nurses, and hospice care attendants showed up, and such a lively discussion ensued about improving death with dignity that I went home thinking, Maybe writing our story will make a difference.
So that is one reason I write creative nonfiction: to make a difference—be it for individual readers or an ethics board. Personal narrative, I’ve found, often stirs empathy and social understanding in ways that journalism and academic nonfiction cannot. Perhaps it is because I am only claiming one small truth—this is what happened to me—not a universal truth, which often puts off people with opposing views. They decide, I don’t agree with that! and stop reading, and in these polarized days, we all must keep reading.
I also write to bear witness. As Patricia Hampl warns in her excellent essay “Memory and Imagination”: “If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past, someone else will do it for us. That is a scary political fact.” That is why I wrote about the three days when I discovered democracy as a juror in a Trenton courtroom (“Close Call”); and the four years when my family lived in Glen Acres, New Jersey’s first planned integrated community (“A Trunk of Surprise”); and the afternoon I spent with an Israeli Jew and Israeli Arab, drinking tea and eating dates as the two men—both seventy, both recently retired—shared their stories of a shared land (“Echo from across the Road”). All are in When History Is Personal, which tells twenty-five stories that connect my experiences with the larger story of history and politics that shaped them.
Often I write to solve an anomaly or answer a question. When I reread Anna Karenina, I bristled at its opening line: “All happy families are alike”; I thought, Not my experience—or that of other long-marrieds I know. The result was Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, about the highs and lows, tears and laughter, of sharing a bed with one guy over the long haul. And when I heard the unexpected story of Christians saving a Jewish Torah on Kristallnacht in my father’s village, I needed to find out why they did it. That quest became Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village, which took twelve years of research and eating lots of linzertorte in many kitchens and living rooms of once-good neighbors scattered on three continents, until I understood the pressures on decency in Nazi times—and what that means today for us, as neighbors.
Finally, I write to make sense of my life, trying to capture its confusions and epiphanies—along with the spider, fat and black, that keeps spinning its web outside my window. Its intricate threads span the three-foot glass—and it held up even during yesterday’s downpour (which knocked down a branch of my neighbor’s tree). Just now a white moth got away, loosening its wings just as the charging spider appeared out of nowhere. Was it the power of fear or some damaged thread I cannot see? I keep on wondering, off and now on the page, what does it mean?