Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: The Ethics of Writing True

Mimi Schwartz bio pictureWhat do I owe the people I write about? This concern is ongoing, whether I’m writing about family as in my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, or about strangers I meet, as in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village.

Actually, I’m sometimes more concerned for strangers than for those I live with every day. Family can get mad at me. They can challenge my sense of truth. They can sue to keep me honest. Fortunately, none have—partly because, except for my sister, they are reasonable if I am reasonable; partly because I keep two caveats in my head while writing. One is Annie Dillard’s advice: “Writing memoir is an art, but not a martial art!” The other is from Kim Barnes after she discovered that, despite their battle scenes, her father, much to her surprise, liked her memoir In the Wilderness:

One thing that we always assume, wrongly, is that if we write about people honestly they will resent it and become angry. If you come at it for the right reasons and you treat people as you would your fictional characters—you know, you don’t allow them to be static—if you treat them with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.

Both authors’ advice, however, was not enough help in the kitchens and living rooms of the Christians and Jews I met and interviewed about my father’s German village. Everyone was gracious; many served me homemade linzertorte. But unlike my family, I knew very little about them, and so had no context for processing what they were telling me about their memories and lives. Plus I had a built-in bias: these were Germans and I was Jewish, a child born in the US to parents who fled their country in the 1930s, so when they said, “Everyone got along before Hitler,” my struggles with fairness became part of the story. Finally, they were old people, unsophisticated, who thought I was only gathering the objective facts of their lives. And no matter how often I tried to explain narrative nonfiction, they did not understand that I was going to recreate them fully on the page, as I experienced what they said, thought, and did before, during, and after Nazi times.

One big question: Do I use real names? I had their written permission so I could—but should I? These people, as it turned out, were neither heroes nor villains, so were names ethically necessary or a bad idea? With my family, I had no choice; my husband Stu was my husband Stu. But in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, I could follow the tradition of other writers of nonfiction books about small villages—and use pseudonyms.

In the end, like Carlo Levi’s Christ Stops at Eboli and Lawrence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, I changed names. First, it universalized the story so people in other German villages couldn’t let themselves off the hook, saying, “Oh, that was X. We are Y.” Just like if you write “an Ivy League school,” Harvard can’t say, “Oh, that’s Princeton, not us!”  Second, and most important, the names were not essential to my story. Whether the postman was Herr Stolle or Herr Stoner had no consequence; he is still the young man in Hitler’s army who spent his retirement years researching the history of the village Jews.  His life is complicated, and as Kim Barnes advises, my challenge was to honor that complexity.

Since then, when I write nonfiction, I’m comfortable with this rule of thumb:  If people are neither famous nor infamous, they deserve privacy whenever possible. At the very least, they should not be hurt or embarrassed without good reason. I always let the reader know: sometimes with initials; sometimes with a “Let’s call her….” ‘ sometimes with a footnote, such as, “I’ve changed the name and some identifying details to honor requests for individual privacy.”

This rule has served me well. Friends continue meet for lunch, strangers still offer me linzertorte or the equivalent, and I feel I am writing true.

Guest Post, Mimi Schwartz: Second Act

It’s never too late to be what you might have been – George Eliot

Mimi SchwartzWhen I was fifteen, I saw South Pacific and, imagining my name in lights, I signed up to audition for Play Pro, my high school drama club. But before my name was called, I chickened out, fleeing to the bathroom. My best friend, performing Juliet’s balcony speech, was just too good.

That was that, I thought—until a friend, fifty years later, asked me to join OnStage, a group of closet actors, all over 55, who met weekly with a director named Adam.[1] “We learn theater techniques and do documentary theater,” she said. Which meant gathering stories from the community about senior memories and experience and performing them at libraries, schools, senior centers, hospitals— “whoever wants us.”

I’d just retired from fulltime teaching and this sounded like fun, something different —with “scripts” more like stories you tell over lunch or hear on a bus. What do I have to lose? I thought. The pressure of youth was off.

Every Wednesday afternoon, at the Community Room, I do theater games like becoming a watermelon to my partner’s grapefruit, each of us conversing with our one word –“Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!” “Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!”—saying them loud and soft,  sexy and timid,  fierce and giggly. A whole range of emotions, just like that.

I like morphing into someone else, sometimes younger, sometimes older—all is possible.  I like moving my body on stage, feeling braver than I did at fifteen. And I like how audiences connect to our stories as if we were telling theirs.

Take the large, wild-haired grandmother at the Metuchen Library, who came to see “You Win Some, You Lose Some” –-about everything from losing your false teeth on the subway to dating after 60, to end-of-life decisions. Afterwards, in a lively post-show discussion, she told everyone: “The beach week story is just what happened!” She pointed to me (I had played the grandmother). “Like you, I didn’t want to go to beach week again. Like you, I told my daughter that the bed too uncomfortable. And then she, too, dialed my grandson.” I tried to explain it isn’t really my story, but she ignored me, “How can we say no, right?” She delighted in having her story validated, and I delighted in her delight.

A week later, on a roll, we enter an assisted living/nursing home, our first. Wheelchairs, maybe thirty of them, are lined up. Some residents are sleeping; most are just staring straight ahead. No one except the aides seems to interact with anyone else, and talk is about rearranging wheelchairs. Please God, don’t let me land here!  we whisper to each other as a squat, indifferent man hurries our group into a cluttered room beyond “the theater space,” really the cafeteria. A guy is mopping the floor, something easy to slip on if it doesn’t dry fast.

No post-show discussion, we decide quickly. These people don’t talk; they don’t smile. It is too risky. The floor hasn’t quite dried, but we start anyway–with the refrigerator buzzing and the loudspeaker interrupting every few minutes. Some people keep sleeping (Are they drugged?), but others smile and nod, especially about stories of love, marriage, and sex. Lines like “I learned that a second marriage can be better than the first” get a big whoop.

Forty minutes later we take our bows and head towards the glass front doors as if lingering is contagious. I edge past the wheelchairs waiting to roll back down the long corridor, and that’s when four people take my hand, grip it, saying thank you for coming.  Their silence was not a given, their isolation not inevitable. They want to be reached, need to be reached, and we…I…  fled too quickly—as I did when my grandmother was in a place like this.  I couldn’t conjure up her elegance and what her magic cookies tasted like—and that scared me. I was nineteen.

Suddenly I realize our mistake. We should come back here for a post-show something, despite the sleepers and the silence—for those who gripped my hand or might, you never know. Theater can do that, erase the self of now enough to become who we might be—or once were.

We’d have to ask our director Adam to help, by using his magic to unlock some of what he unlocked in us: that bit of risk that leads to a smile.

It’s worth a try. After all the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are fading with each passing year.

[1] Adam Immerwahr’s is Associate Artistic Director at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and Resident Director at Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey.

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