I began writing easily with this beginning:
"I live on a cul-de-sac in Princeton, New Jersey, in an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revival) built in 1903 by the president of Evelyn College that is no more. Evelyn College was supposed to be the sister school of Princeton University down the street but was closed for 'moral turpitude' and/or for influenza before World War I. Either way, it is now a two-family house instead of the girls' college meant to be like Radcliffe was to Harvard."
A few pages in, I went to the Princeton Historical Society and got great stuff on Evelyn College. And on George Washington, who stayed five houses away on his way to crossing the Delaware River. And on Albert Einstein, who in the 1930s gathered with friends in the corner house for discussions. I quickly filled six pages.
But on the top of page 7, I started cleaning closets (two days). And revising my website (four days). And inviting friends for a long weekend. Only after the last load of sheets and towels was put away did I reread my six pages and confirm what I suspected: They didn't work. I sounded dull and felt stuck in a structure that had me discussing every house in the neighborhood. The prospect bored me. In short, I was in the no man's land between nonfiction that gives information and memoir that re-creates personal experience and I was overwhelmed by the former. The "I" had been pushed aside.
My natural inclination when stuck, aside from procrastinating, is to keep rewriting the beginning. I'm like a battering ram who figures eventually the front door will open or fall down.
"I live in Princeton, New Jersey, in a cul-de-sac of five houses. Mine is No. 4, an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revival) that was built by the president of what was Evelyn College . . . .
Twenty versions later, I was still shifting words around. So I decided to abandon the front door for the side windows. I opened a file called "Notes on Evelyn Place" and a lower-case heading soon appeared: "white picket fence." It was followed by a few paragraphs on how I never got used to this fence on the corner, built 20 years after we moved in. Or to losing the giant oak after the town laid water pipes under its roots. Or to nonstop growth of our out-of-control holly trees that killed the grass in our side yard
Under another heading, "No Going Gently," I wrote about the old woman in No. 1 Evelyn Place, who, at 93, committed suicide rather than go to a nursing home. And under another, "Pack Rats," I wrote about me and my husband trying to clean out two shelves of one bookcase, so our children wouldn't hate us if we died before we moved out.
How are these random fragments connected? I had no idea. These were "notes" after all; logic and coherence didn't count. Nor did I ask myself "How do these serve the larger story?" or "Is this boring or accurate?" I filled three pages single-spaced in a few hours, and the next day under "More Notes on Evelyn Place" I filled three more.
When I reread these entries later, there was the voice I'd been missing. And there were possibilities for a structure not organized by house, or chronology, or famous historic figures, but by objects like a picket fence and bookcase. History was still central, but I had moved in beside her: getting older, maybe moving out of my house, maybe not. And in 10 or 20 years -- this was the discovery that sideswiped me -- I will become part of neighborhood history, like it or not, and most likely won't make the archives of the Princeton Historical Society.
I'm not finished with my essay yet, but I am on page 12 and see an end around page 14. There may be more discoveries -- I hope so -- but right now my new beginning feels right:
"I live in an old white house on Evelyn Place that still has a button on the wall next to the kitchen to call the servants. I press it now and then, hoping someone from the past will appear, but so far we'd only had written messages: 'Helen was here, 1922,' scrawled under three layers of wallpaper we stripped off the dining room wall when we moved in . . . ."
The facts about the defunct Evelyn College, its president who built our house, the cul-de-sac, Princeton, Einstein, George Washington, they all appear, but only after my two main characters -- me and history -- came to be in balance, working well together as they must do when history gets personal.
Schwartz is the author of, most recently, "Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village."