Finding Inspiration in Free Events at the Public Library

March 30, 2018 § 8 Comments

barbara krasnerBy Barbara Krasner

I drove to the Princeton Public Library through a heavy drip of snow for a lecture/workshop on writing about other people’s memories. The speaker was Ellen Friedman, author of The Seven: A Family Holocaust Story, a narrative based on oral interviews, travel, and archival research about her family’s migration east through the Soviet Union during World War II. I was prepared to take notes and participate in an interactive writing session.

But what I got, besides the $40 parking ticket since the meter I used apparently didn’t work, was a kick in the pants. As Dr. Friedman read from her first chapter, I was reminded of my great-uncle who also took a Soviet train east in 1939. He ended up in Uzbekistan-Bukhara and eventually, after the war, Palestine. Only he, and my maternal grandfather and one brother who came to America before the war, survived. I thought, too, about my paternal grandmother’s brother, Leib Zuckerkandel, who was sent to a Soviet labor camp from his home in Galicia, while his wife and daughters perished. Only Leib and my grandmother, who came to America in 1913, survived.

I took notes, but not about Dr. Friedman’s book. I made a list of actions to take: Contact Stan and Michael about the tenant registers—did they include my maternal grandfather’s shtetl? Contact Leib’s children to learn more about the labor camp and his memories. Contact anyone I’d been in touch with over the years who might have stories about our mutual ancestral Galician village. But could it also be that my reading of Noah Lederman’s The World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets, was reaching my brain at the same time?

I had insomnia. I spent hours combing for my grandmother’s potential relatives. I had no idea Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandel of Vienna. I knew from a conversation with Leib’s widow, Rose, that we were distantly related to these fin-de-siècle salon Zuckerkandels, originally from Hungary. A new vitality emerged about the memoir of my grandmother I’m writing, that is, the grandmother I never knew because she died years before I was born. Do I have events of my discovery in the right order?

I was in my hometown a day later, an hour north of where I currently live. I wanted desperately to drive to where my father and his family lived behind the corner mom-and-pop store just to count the number of stairs of the stoop on the side of the building.

Within a 48-hour period, I learned the following:

  1. Always use quarters and not your credit card in Princeton parking meters.
  2. Attend as many free workshops and readings as possible, especially those at local libraries. They will introduce you to more writers, more writing styles, and they offer inspiration.
  3. Develop your own action plan as a result of attending these sessions.

Next up, reading Dr. Friedman’s book, reading Mimi Schwartz’s When History Is Personal, reading a self-published memoir about a town close to my grandmother’s, and participating in a free, two-part memoir workshop at the Princeton Library. My quarters are all lined up.


Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a PhD candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Smart SetSouth 85Poor YorickJewish Literary JournalMinerva Rising, and other publications. She teaches creative writing, composition, and history in New Jersey.



AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal []

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

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