Monday, October 14, 2019

This book won’t write itself!

Dear Dad,
I was always afraid of disappointing you and now, more than two years after your death, I’m paralyzed by it. 
I should be done with this book about your life by now and instead, I haven’t even begun. I wanted to write while you were still alive, but you were adamantly against that idea, insisting, “You can tell my story when I’m gone.” I don’t know if that was persistent wartime paranoia speaking, your familiar reluctance to draw attention to yourself, or simply the fact that you no longer had the energy to put behind your own voice. 
Always meticulously thorough and organized, you color-coded and systematically filed thousands of research documents, hundreds upon hundreds of pages of diaries, short stories, and journals, and even left behind the manuscripts of two full books – which you refused to publish. You left me notes (“Carol, if you want to tell my story, you’ll need this…”) and annotated sources, indicating that you wanted and expected me to tell your story. 
So why can’t I get started?
If I were a psychotherapist, I could possibly tell you why I haven’t yet begun to write. My best guess is that I’m terrified of being judged by you, even after you’re gone – just as you were terrified by being judged by your own father for the entire seventy-three years of your life after his death. And because my book is supposed to be about you and your father (and your mother and, well, world history), the paralysis is even more pronounced. 
People know that writing this book is my life’s work, now that I’m retired and now that you’re, well… gone. Some are anxiously waiting for me to announce, “I’m done!” But I’ve barely begun. 
Where do I even begin? 
Is this your mother’s story as a non-Jew whose sole existence protected her Jewish husband and mischling children during WWII, then died suddenly of a brain tumor in January, 1944, at which point all hell breaks loose for you, your siblings, and your father?

Is it the story of your father, the prominent Jewish art collector who somehow maintained his title as German consul to Portugal, and was probably the only one of thousands of Jews not deported from Chemnitz? The more I research, the more it looks like he might have had a protectorate! Is that the story?

Is it your story as a mischling (mixed-breed) during WWII, Dad? You wrote two books about your experiences, but refused to publish either one, insisting that they weren’t good enough and no one would really care, anyway. They are, and they would! Do I just edit and publish your books, allowing you to tell your own story when you’re gone, and leave it at that?

And I’ve had so many related experiences myself. Is this my own story, too? Do I tell of meeting Julia Essl in Vienna, the Provenance Researcher who had been tasked with the job of researching your father in order to help determine whether some of his art which had ended up at the Albertina Museum should be restituted to his heirs? Do I describe my own shock at seeing multiple thick binders on Julia’s shelves, each labeled “Carl Heumann,” realizing that Julia knew far more about your father than any living person? Do I describe Julia’s trip to the US to interview you, and the lasting friendship with her that endures to this day?

Do I tell of last year’s invitation from the mayor of Chemnitz and the director of the art museum there to attend the opening of the exhibit in honor of you and your father after you donated three of your father’s works back to the museum, insisting that “seventy years is enough!” when I balked that it was precisely those organizations that stripped your father of his position on the board due to his Jewishness? 

Is it my story, too? Do I somehow weave all this together? Am I a good enough writer to do that? 
My office bookshelf and cabinets are filled to the brim with more than enough research, more than enough information, more than enough documents, more that enough letters, to tell the whole story. In fact, I have so much… STUFF, that I am overwhelmed and paralyzed, unable to begin at all! 

I need help. I need the combination of book coach, writer/editor, project manager, and psychotherapist. Does such a person even exist?

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1 comment:

Margaret said...

Many books are written now chapter by chapter, with the emphasis on a different person's story in each chapter. Or should it be done chronologically? I think you need input from other writers before you start organizing because the skeleton of the book has to be in place before you can add the "flesh."

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