As occasionally happens, I cross paths with an author through a mutual writing friend – or in this case, a writing/blogging friend -- and recently met Ellen Cassedy via our mutual connection to Erika Dreifus. Ellen is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, recently published by University of Nebraska Press, a source of so much rich and wonderful nonfiction. Her memoir chronicles what began as a personal journey to Lithuania to poke around in her family's Jewish history. That took on a much larger and more urgent scope as she uncovered unexpected truths and dug further, simultaneously excavating ancestral stories and exploring how a country and culture moves on from an unthinkable past. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Please welcome Ellen Cassedy
Lately I have been pondering what I adore about my favorite memoirs. It is the balance of the personal and the universal, I’ve decided – an individual life rubbing up against the sweep of history. I love writing that offers me an intimate vantage point from which to learn about a larger world – another culture or another era.
Both as a reader and as a writer, I find that a memoir’s vibration between big and small is more than just a pleasure. It is also a political and a moral matter. When family stories are told in a larger context, we learn a fundamental truth: that human history is made not only by generals and kings, but by each and every one of us.
So, paradoxically, my advice to fellow memoir-writers goes in two opposite directions: 1) Come closer; and 2) Step back.
1) Come closer. Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs vivid scenes and vivid characters. A memoir sometimes needs to slow down and draw the reader in close – close enough to be right on the spot, minute by minute, soaking up all there is to see, hear, smell.
As I gathered material for We Are Here, my account of my journey into the land of my Jewish forebears, I kept a diary – a total of nine spiral notebooks, in which I scribbled down observations, impressions, and feelings. I also took nine rolls of film (remember rolls of film, before the digital age?)
Once I was at my desk, conjuring up the encounter with the old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died (and wanted me to be that Jew), I could tell my readers all about his green cap, his aluminum cane, and the blood-red gladioli that framed the door of his tin-roofed cottage.
Also like a work of fiction, memoirs require vivid characters whom the reader can cozy up to. With a first-person narrative, that means creating yourself as a character. As the reader’s guide through a difficult moral terrain, I had to work hard to make myself into a someone readers could feel close to. My character had to be just as sharp and memorable as Uncle Will, with his complex secret from his Holocaust past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman driving a Holocaust exhibit around the country in her pickup truck.
2) Step back. For a family story to become a book, detachment is vital. When I first sat down to write, what was on my mind were my own feelings: how agitated I felt when my uncle revealed his secret, how perplexed I felt when I learned about the old man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died.
But only when my own story came to illuminate something larger was it launched it on its way toward publication. By stepping back, I widened the lens, placing my family story within the broader context of a nation’s encounter with its “family secrets,” its Jewish past. My book became not only a personal journey but also an inquiry into how people in a country scarred by genocide were seeking to build a more tolerant future.
Detachment also helped me understand what did and did not belong in the manuscript. In writing my story, I found I was less a builder than a sculptor. I had to carve away what wasn’t needed. That meant even my discovery of my great-grandfather’s grave had to go. Deeply moving though it was, it didn’t advance what had become the real story.
(Don’t throw away those scraps that end up on the cutting-room floor, though. You may find a place for them in something else you write.)
It is the balance of big and small that makes me care about someone else’s family story. What about you? What makes you care?
Notes from Lisa: Ellen will be stopping by the blog periodically today and tomorrow to respond to your questions and comments. After, you can continue leaving comments until midnight on April 29 to be entered in a random drawing for a free signed copy of her book. (Must have a U.S. postal address.)