Monday, April 16, 2012

Guest blogger Ellen Cassedy: On writing about the up close and personal – and the universal – in nonfiction.

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.)

Ellen is also offering to share a copy of a handout she prepared for her panel at the recent AWP conference, entitled “Your Family Stories:  Ten Ways to Make Your Readers Care.” To request one, use this contact form.  You can read an excerpt from her memoir here.

6 comments: said...

I think you are right, feeling close to the narrator is important for me, if I am going to invest in a story.

I also like your idea of keeping the scraps for use in other works. The notion makes the the cutting seem less painful.

Julie Farrar said...

Wonderfully stated. There are some contemporary memories that I feel don't practice this. They don't find the universal because they seem too caught up in their own drama.

Ellen Cassedy said...

Thanks for commenting. I think every memoir writer finds the balance of the big and the small in her own way. It's helpful to me to hear how other writers are handling this important issue.

Karen Pickell said...

This post comes at a perfect time for me, as I am trying now to step back from my own family stories and figure out how to make them resonate with readers. Your ideas are very helpful. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Nancy Gerber said...

It is a challenge to write about people you know in a detached, objective way -- to send them out into the world as characters readers will respond to. The hardest character to create is my own, as the narrator.

Lisa Romeo said...

Congratulations, Julie! You are the winner of a signed copy of Ellen's book.
Please contact me with your postal address. Thanks for reading and commenting.