- Who Am I in This Story? Behind the Lines of "What's a Rally to Do?"
One of the strengths of creative nonfiction is its person-to-person feeling: as if writer and reader are friends.1 It works if the writer sounds authentic, wise—a persona with a voice worth listening to. I say "persona" because it is a constructed self, right for the occasion; it is one (or sometimes two) of our many selves that seems best suited to tell a particular story. Mostly, the choice is unconscious: a voice appears, a persona follows, and we are on a roll—except if the voice and persona are wrong. If we keep them anyway, we end up sounding stuffy, or self-centered, or self-pitying, or just annoying. Readers pull away, losing interest. If we abandon them, we vacillate between competing selves, trying to figure out whom to be until we haven't a clue—or get lucky.
It's a terrible process, as I discovered while writing "What's a Rally to Do?" (a.k.a. "My Essay from Hell"), an essay about the Harmony Rally at my college, prompted by five hundred anti-Semitic flyers that suddenly appeared on walls and kiosks. I began confidently, feeling sure of who I was, as I usually do in writing that goes beyond the first draft. But I was wrong. The right persona turned out to be the last thing I discovered in the essay. I'd keep thinking that I found it, followed by the misery of realizing that I hadn't, as I struggled to save an essay I was obsessed with—and knew wasn't working.
At first, I was the writing teacher who disliked platitudes, and yet I applauded every Jewish, Muslim, African American, Indian, and Asian student who stood up at the rally to say: We are all Americans who love peace . . . [End Page 125] We are all God's Children. . . . My vigorous clapping got me writing, but gradually my concern with platitudes began to feel shallow. The real story was becoming more about anti-Semitism, and starting with, "As a writer and writing teacher, I tell my students to avoid platitudes . . ." set up a persona who wasn't going to deliver.
Next I wrote as the child of Holocaust survivors, who had a fear of rallies and crowds out of control. I began with "I grew up on the story of how, in 1931, my German father went to a Hitler rally on a town square—and saved the family. . . ." I still like this opening and will use it elsewhere; but for this particular story, the persona made the problem personal, not political. Jewish paranoia rather than campus anti-Semitism would have been the focus.
In my final draft, I am an assimilated Jew who had never thought much about anti-Semitism until three friends I'd taught with for 22 years said they weren't going to the Harmony Rally. The flyers were "no big deal!" they said. I wrote: "As an American Jew—the child of German refugees—overt anti-Semitism was my parents' old world, not mine. There'd be an occasional remark maybe, but everyone gets that in multi-ethnic New Jersey. No big deal—until 500 anti-Semitic flyers . . ."
Finally, here was the persona I'd been looking for in eight months of drafts. I knew, because I didn't feel like a picky teacher or a Holocaust victim. I had turned into a (mostly) calm Jewish American who needed to speak her mind about an explosive topic on college campuses—and that felt exactly right.
Why had this persona been so elusive? I think it was the emotionally loaded territory I was in for the first time. I had never tackled a politically charged topic so close to home before. I had never publicly criticized my friends before. I had written about my father's German village in Nazi times, but never about anti-Semitism now, as a concerned Jew. I struggled against being that person (even as I write this, I keep switching back and forth between "concerned" and "assimilated" and "someone"), which is...