Local Author To Read at Labyrinth From “When History Is Personal”
By Anne Levin
Mimi Schwartz’s first memories of creative writing are from her early childhood, when she wrote and performed birthday poems for her German/Jewish immigrant family in Forest Hills, New York. Successive efforts included scripts for summer camp “color wars,” and having a story she wrote in fifth grade mimeographed and tacked onto the classroom bulletin board.
From these auspicious beginnings came a career as a published author and educator. Schwartz’s latest work, When History is Personal (University of Nebraska Press), is a series of stories about 25 key moments in her life. Some of them take place in Princeton, Schwartz’s home since the 1960s. She will read from the book at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, at Labyrinth Books.
“Nonfiction can be a voice. It can be interesting,” said Schwartz, in a recent telephone conversation. She was a professor in the writing program at Richard Stockton College for 25 years, and taught writing at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. “You can write to be interesting as well as to be accurate. I think memoirs should include the opposing points of view, and I try to do that in all my books. So you don’t just write from your own perspective without any awareness of what others are thinking.”
The stories in When History Is Personal take the reader from scenes of early childhood in Queens through marriage, motherhood, breast cancer, widowhood, grandchildren, and end-of-life issues. Stories touch on assimilation, anti-Semitism, racism, and feminism. The book is divided into four parts: “Family Haunts,” “In and Out My Front Door,” “Storyscapes,” and “Border Crossings.”
It is in “In and Out My Front Door” that Schwartz writes about the Princeton neighborhood Glen Acres, where she lived with her husband and children from 1966 to 1970; and Evelyn Place, the Princeton street where they moved and where she continues to live today. Glen Acres was one of two planned interracial communities built in New Jersey in 1957, and Schwartz has fond memories of her years there.
“It is a special community and that’s how I remembered it,” she said. “When the photo of children on the cover of the book was selected by the editors, they asked if I could get permissions to run it. These children are now grown and I wasn’t sure if I could find them all. I called up one of the fathers of the kids, and within 24 hours, I had everyone’s permission. It was tremendous validation, by email, of how I remembered everyone. It was quite a special moment.”
From late childhood until she finished graduate school, Schwartz’s creative voice “went underground,” she recalled. After she wrote a three-part series for the Princeton Packet while living with her family in Israel for a year, she began writing seriously. With a partner, she started a community writing program for kids after school, “to keep writing fun,” she said. “We both taught at Stuart for a few years. This was when you were taught in school to think before you write, and to outline. I don’t use that approach. This was a counter movement that started me on teaching.”
Schwartz has always encouraged students to find their voices. “You can write memoirs for many different audiences — for your children, your grandchildren, or others — and the further away they are from your experience, the more you have to tell,” she said. “If they don’t know you, you have to tell the story super well to make them want to keep going.”
Schwartz and her husband, Stu, met when she was 13 and they were married for 50 years. In “Lessons from a Last Day,” she writes about the 24 hours between when he was admitted to a small New England hospital with mild pneumonia and his unexpected death after being flown to a larger medical center.
“The whole first section is how I experienced it,” she said. “The second part was written over several years and it incorporates what doctors and lawyers have told me and talks about issues like living wills. So the story is both intensely personal, but again has these other voices adding to the conversation and making it more interesting.”
The awful memory was lessened somewhat when Schwartz was invited to speak at the University Medical Center of Princeton after someone from that hospital’s ethics board read the story. “I had a great conversation with doctors, administrators, hospitalists, and social workers. I felt like the essay made a difference,” she said. “Even though it wasn’t the same hospital. The issues are the same.”
Schwartz wants people to write their own stories, “if only for their own families,” she said. “But you have to write it well enough, or even your own family won’t read them.”