• Ellen Cassedy
  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE] Mistakes, Missing Links, and Other Wonderful Problems
[TIPS OF THE TRADE] Mistakes, Missing Links, and Other Wonderful Problems
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
September 2014
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
September 2014



I was carving a linoleum block at a summer art class. Everything was going great, but suddenly the knife slipped and I made a mistake. An unfixable mistake.


Ugh! Now the whole thing was ruined! 


Then my instructor hurried over with some words of wisdom-- words I’ve turned to again and again in my writing life. 


The mistake, the problem, doesn’t ruin the work of art, she said. In fact, addressing the problem is what art is all about. The problem is the art.


At the beginning of the project that became my book, We Are Here, I interviewed my uncle Will about his experiences in a Lithuanian ghetto during the Holocaust years. When my uncle revealed a shocking secret about his life in the ghetto, needless to say I was eager to learn more. The problem was, my uncle wasn’t eager to talk. Having told what he’d told, he was inclined to retreat back into the silence that had served him over the past sixty-some years.  


I could have pushed uncle for more.  But I could feel my various identities – niece, researcher, writer, member of a successor generation after the Holocaust, moral being – clashing inside me. 


Forcing my uncle to confront the past was a kind of aggression I decided I didn’t want to engage in. If leaving my uncle in peace meant I didn’t learn everything there was to learn, I decided, so be it. 


But without his cooperation, my story could not go forward. Or could it? 


As it turned out, my uncle’s reluctance sent me in another direction – in fact, in many different directions.


In pursuit of the story he chose not to tell me, I went looking for information in far-flung places, including archives, libraries, telephone calls, and kitchen tables on both sides of the Atlantic. What I learned there – the overlapping and sometimes conflicting truths I turned up – all became part of my narrative.


Sometimes I had to work with translators and interpreters. My interactions with these people often yielded fascinating experiences and vital information in themselves.


And my reflections on the moral dimensions of talking, or not talking, with my uncle became central to the thrust of the book. 


In other words, the obstacles to telling the tale turned out to enrich the work beyond measure. To be, in some ways, what the work was about.


My colleague Julija Sukys had a similar experience with her book. Epistolophilia is the story of Ona Šimaite, a Lithuanian librarian who rescued Jews from the ghetto. Šimaite was captured, tortured, and sent to a concentration camp. But try as she might, Julija couldn’t find out anything about this important part of Simaite’s life. 


Faced with this intractable problem, what could Julija do? 


“In the end,” Julija told me, “I decided not to try to fill Šimaitė’s silence, but to write around it, and give an image of how her camp experiences echoed throughout the rest of her life. I suppose you could say I tried to create a kind of chalk outline of her camp experience. The book traces the limits of that experience, but doesn’t try to fill in the void. I chose to respect her right to silence, and to consider silence itself as a subject worthy of contemplation.”


The “hole” in Julija’s research couldn’t be filled the way she’d hoped. But the literary strategies she invented to fill that hole made her book unique.


In our writing projects, most of us will never have at our fingertips every piece we’d like to have. Facts we ardently wish for will be beyond reach. Something will always be missing. Something won’t quite fit. 


Count on it: you’ll never know everything you need to know.  


But don’t despair. Those missing pieces may turn out to be very the heart of the matter. Instead of weakening your work, they might turn out to be exactly what makes it great.   


 * * *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.  Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly.  See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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