Writing Snapshots

Now that I have written and posted on my website more than fifty short prose pieces about aspects of life in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), everyday life as I experienced it in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I am eager to discuss the process of writing snapshots. How do I go about creating these vignettes, which are aimed chiefly at an English-speaking audience that knows very little or nothing whatever about the GDR?

Let me comment first on the snapshot topics. After obtaining my secret police file (Stasi-Akte) in 1999, I began making a list of topics I might want to write about; today there are 180 topics on that list. Many of them were added as I was working on my memoir, Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin (From Oberlin to East Berlin), which was published in April 2013. In almost every case, there are just a few key words that serve to trigger my memory of an experience, a person, a thing, an episode, a place—something I imagined I might eventually want to work up and develop into a short prose piece. Here are some examples: the Marlboro man, soap and bananas, antiques and artwork, bucket list, blue jeans, clothing and shoes, the inventor, Carlos and the cockroaches, resistance and solidarity, toilet paper. Those key words, some of which now have become the titles of snapshots, were the triggers for my memory and the creative process that eventually would produce vignettes.

What are the components of a typical snapshot and what do these short prose pieces have in common? One very important component is the provision of factual information about some aspect of life in East Germany, which is meant not only to educate the reader but also to help create a framework for my story. I always proceed on the assumption that most readers in the English-speaking world have never visited the GDR and probably know nothing at all about the communistic Germany that came into being after World War II and ceased to exist in 1989. It is a world that vanished suddenly and unexpectedly, and my objective with the vignettes is to partially recreate this bygone world by recounting some unusual things I experienced while travelling and living there. The GDR was a harsh dictatorship, an unforgiving police state where many people suffered all sorts of injustices as well as physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the secret police and state authorities. What took place in East Germany while it was under Soviet occupation and communist rule (1945 to 1989) cannot be permitted to be quietly swept under the carpet and conveniently forgotten with the passage of time. Indeed, this extraordinary chapter of German history must be chronicled painstakingly and preserved for future generations in various ways—via archives containing relevant documents such as secret police files, museum collections of art works and material objects, literary works, scholarly books, diaries, school books, memoirs and eye witness accounts, photographs, and films.

Many of my snapshots have what one might call “an unusual twist,” a turn of events that is unforeseen and unexpected. The vignette entitled “Resistance and Solidarity” provides a splendid example. This piece opens with a historical perspective on three divided nations in the post-World War II era—Germany (East and West), Vietnam (North and South), and Korea (North and South), then moves to the personal as I relate my own story. The focal point of this snapshot is an incident that occurred in my East Berlin apartment house in November 1977, when I took a stand on a political issue that affected every resident of that building. I refused to be bullied, as others had been, into making a “solidarity” contribution to benefit communist Vietnam. After my act of resistance became widely known, it dissolved a boundary (like east and west) between my neighbors and me and unexpectedly produced a sense of solidarity.

Here is another good example. The vignette entitled “Soap and Bananas” focuses on what I experienced as a guest of honor at a number of dinner parties in the GDR. Readers will see how ironic it is that, on the one hand, I “consumed” something that was for display only at such parties (fine soap) and, on the other hand, I declined to consume something procured with considerable difficulty and that was intended to be consumed with great appreciation (the bananas). These minor social infractions revealed that I was unaware of the East German code of conduct and led my hosts and their guests to conclude that I was what I claimed to be, a visiting scholar from America. I never suspected that my hosts and others at these parties doubted that I was “for real,” but they did. It was not the careful way I answered their questions or the information I gave them about my research and life in the US that persuaded them, but rather my obvious ignorance of East German culture. I used the precious soap and refused the offer of bananas (a rare treat in the GDR) for dessert.

One of my readers, a former colleague who has read and commented on most of my snapshots, had the following to say about “Soap and Bananas.” “It is ‘funny’ that using fine soap and not eating bananas proved an unwitting means to dispel suspicion! But even more than that, this story was touching. The same themes I’ve seen in other snapshots return here and recombine in a slightly different way—friendship, generosity, art and literature (and in this snapshot, celebrity) in a society suffering scarcity, monotony, suspicion.”

Before concluding, I want to make a few comments on the subject of memory. All of the snapshots rely to a certain extent on my memory, which is at best a fickle friend and therefore not always a reliable source of information. But composing these stories is an amazing process that involves imagination as well as memory. As I sit at my computer and write about things I remember clearly, more memories press to the surface. It is as if I have peeled away a layer or two of an onion, and then more layers emerge. After all, the human brain keeps some memories in deep storage, that we know. Not everything can be on or near the surface, ready for instant recall. But one can recall so much more than one ever imagined during the actual process of writing; it is amazing how the mind works! As my friend Carl Dawson asserts in his masterful transatlantic memoir, Living Backwards: “Memories may fade or even die. Memories also endure as nothing else can, focusing the past and sustaining the present.”(Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia, 1995), 220. I am going to conclude this piece by sharing an observation an unusually perceptive reader made about my memoir: “This project about a seminal point in your intellectual and emotional development has been a conduit to the past that extends to the person you are today. It has given your friends—and I imagine will give countless other readers—much pleasure as well as much to consider.”