In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Who Am I in This Story? Behind the Lines of "What's a Rally to Do?"
  • Mimi Schwartz (bio)

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...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 125-127
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.