Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”
“Why of All the Stories I Can Tell…?” by Mimi Schwartz
Whenever I write about something I’ve written about before, I ask myself, “Why, of all the stories I can tell, am I mentioning this one again?” Will it lead to a discovery, maybe an epiphany or two? Or is the repetition just a crutch of convenience that will make readers who know my work say, “What, again?” The challenge is deciding which stories are worth reentering and which I need to let go.
Many retellings disappear by draft two; but two stories, both from childhood, keep slipping into my new work, uninvited—and stay put. They seem to be touchstones for defining myself, and keep leading to unexpected discoveries. One story, mentioned briefly in a 1993 essay, became the catalyst for a published book fifteen years later. The second, first told in a short story in 1981, reappears twice in my forthcoming essay collection, When History Is Personal[i], before landing in this essay—again with surprises.
In Story One, I am a small child, walking with my father on Sunday mornings in Forest Hills, New York, and in the 1993 essay, “Front Door on the Driveway,” I write:
Every weekend my dad, who needed to walk because of his heart, would go up and down the sidewalks of Forest Hills with me, telling me how the family had left Germany….[ii]
My father is referring to his village in the Schwarzwald, where Christians and Jews (half the village in his day) lived in harmony for generations before the Nazis took over.
On those sidewalks in Queens, my father introduced themes that I can’t let go: of migration, assimilation, and escape. And their corollaries: How to be an American? How to know when to leave? At the time, I didn’t realize how my father’s sidewalk stories seeped into me. My main concern, back then, was that my father couldn’t say “th. ” Mother and father came out ‘moder’ and ‘fader’, no matter how often I corrected him. That, along with serving “sproodle” and liverwurst to my friends, embarrassed me greatly as the first American in the family, born four years after they escaped Hitler’s Germany.
The liverwurst and the English lesson, like the story of our Sunday walks, reappeared six years later along with my father’s voice on those walks, insisting: “In my village, we all got along—before Hitler! ” That led to a new essay, “My Father Always Said,[iii]” which led to decade-long quest to find out if his words were really true. The result was my book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, about reentering my father’s boyhood world to learn how once-good neighbors remembered Nazi times, and lived with those memories sixty years later.
In Story Two, I am in summer camp, specifically at Split Rock Gorge, where once every summer, we kids would stand on the ledge and jump twenty feet into the river below. At age nine, ten, and eleven, I did it without aforethought. At age twelve, I looked down at the sharp rocks, realized I might hit them—and never jumped again. That story landed in the opening paragraph of a recent essay about memory:
We all have different versions of ourselves, depending on the story. There is one of me at camp, crying in the bunk bathroom at night so my bunkmates wouldn’t see me…. And there is the brave me who jumped off Split Rock Gorge four years straight, until at age twelve, the cowardly me stared too long at the rocks twenty feet below. [iv]
And again, a year later, in an essay about hiking in Croatia nine months after my husband Stu died. As I stood on giant boulders with crevices deep enough to disappear in
My legs refuse another step and I freeze, as I did at Split Rock Gorge, watching the water swirl over the rocks below. I had jumped so easily for four years, the bravest little camper, until at twelve, I saw the consequence of a misstep—and backed away, avoiding the edges of things ever since. And now they surround me….[v]
Months after the trip, back at home, I wrote: “I’ve been avoiding the edges of things ever since.” Words I had never said, never wrote, never realized until they appeared on the page, informing me as I kept writing that, “Gone are my sharp rocks of consequence,” as I moved forward into redefinitions of myself.
I was done with Split Rock Gorge, I thought, until, here it is again in this essay, side by side with my father’s tales on Sunday walks. And suddenly his bravery connects to my fear of jumping off the high ledge: that I was not brave enough to survive as he did, a worry I carried for half a century–until I crossed the Croatian crevices, boulder to boulder. Not that I jumped across; rather I crawled; then stooped; then cautiously stood, stepping painfully, again and again, towards confidence.
The poet Stephen Dunn says that it took him eleven years to complete his poem, “The Routine Things Around the House,” which is about the day he asked to see his mother’s breasts and she showed him. Two years later he published the poem in a journal—and to great acclaim; but for years he never included it in a book because, as he told me:
It didn’t feel truthful enough. In the first published version, I thought my mother’s legacy to me was that she made me feel comfortable with women. But something wasn’t right—until I realized her legacy was showing limits.
“Routine Things around the House” appears in Dunn’s new book of essays on poetry, Degrees of Fidelity. In fact, Dunn says it is the book’s centerpiece. So his waiting, combined with periodic efforts to retell the story until the words were right, paid off with the self-discovery and revisions that had eluded him.
I identify with Dunn’s experience—especially on emotionally loaded subjects. One, for me, is the day my husband Stu died. For five years I kept revisiting the unpublished versions of that day, feeling, as in Croatia, the fear of crevices into which I could disappear. Yet I had to keep trying, not just to jump over them, but to jump in.
When I wrote “jump in,” I made another discovery: how those crevices were my stages of grief—denial, anger, depression, acceptance—that I had to cross before finishing “Lessons from a Last Day.”[vi] My first drafts which began with sorrow and rants veered toward fiction (I told myself I was writing a short story, not an essay), and I began:
He walked into the room in his white coat, announced his name quickly. Dr. something with a K, and headed towards a white board above my chair. “Where’s the magic marker?” he asked, looking down at me as if I knew, paused, and then disappeared out the door. There was no handshake or “How are you doing, Buddy?” to my lover, lying in the bed with arm outstretched so the nurse could find his vein.
Until I veered again into creative nonfiction and the need to tell what really happened to our end-of-life illusions on that last day. I wanted others to know what we did not—and began again:
Stu’s living will is in his backpack when he checks into the little New England hospital near the lake house where we stay every summer. Not that we are worried. He’s had mild pneumonia twice before….
All those retellings, probably fifty drafts over the years, finally led to a truth I trusted for more than a passing day or month. In retrospect, the struggle feels worth it—especially now that end-of-life groups use the essay for discussion. But I’m very glad I kept writing new work while waiting for the discovery that felt right. Just in case….
[i] When History Is Personal. University of Nebraska Press – March 2018.
[ii] “Front Door on the Driveway.” Puerto del Sol – Summer 1993
[iii] “My Father Always Said.” Fourth Genre – Spring 1999.
[iv] “The Coronation of Bobby.” Creative Nonfiction – March 2016.
[v] “How the Light Gets In.” When History Is Personal – March 2018.
[vi] “Lessons from a Last Day.” Pangyrus – Spring 2018 (online); Fall 2018 (print edition).
Mimi Schwartz is the author of seven books, mostly recently, When History Is Personal, which includes many of the essays discussed here. Other books include the award-winning, Good Neighbors, Bad Times- Echoes of My Father’s German Village; Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and the widely acclaimed Writing True: the Art of Creative Nonfiction.
To pre-order When History Is Personal from the University of Nebraska Press, click here.