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Selected Interviews

AWP WRITER'S CHRONICLE. October/November 2010, (43:2).

An Interview with Michael Steinberg

by Faye Rapoport DesPres 
October/November 2010

Michael Steinberg is the founding editor of the award-winning literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2004, ForeWord Magazine named his memoir, Still Pitching, the Small/Independent Press Memoir of the Year. Steinberg’s other books include Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs from Michigan, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction (now in its fifth edition), and Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching (the latter two with Robert Root). He also co-authored The Writer’s Way: A Process-to-Product Approach to Writing, and a play titled I’m Almost Famous, which was staged at the Apollo Theater in Chicago. 
Steinberg is a recipient of the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize, a Roberts Writing award, and the Harness Racing Writers of America Prize for Feature Writing. His essays and memoirs have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and cited several times in Best American Essays. Steinberg has served as a guest writer at numerous colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as at international writers’ conferences including the Prague Summer Program, the Paris Writers’ Conference, the Kachemak Bay/Alaska Writers’ Conference, and the Geneva Writers’ Conference. Currently, he is the Writer-in-Residence at the Solstice/Pine Manor College low-residency MFA program.

Faye Rapoport DesPres: You are best known in the literary world for your contributions to creative nonfiction, or, as your journal calls it, the “fourth genre.” Before you published essays and Still Pitching, however, you wrote poetry, fiction, and also several stage plays. As a student of the essay form myself, I’m curious to know how personal essays and memoirs became your main interest.

Michael Steinberg: That’s easy—I chose the genre because I’m a failed poet and a failed fiction writer. Seriously, there are several reasons why this genre appeals to me. I taught the personal essay for twenty years in all my composition courses, and made it a point to write along with my students. Originally, I did that because I wanted to be better able to teach the form from the inside out, but after a while I got hooked on writing essays. I found I was far less awkward and anxious when writing essays than I was with poetry, fiction, or playwriting. 
The essay is a reflective, analytic form that suits my temperament and disposition. I’m a big self-analyzer. I turn things over and over in my mind; I second-guess myself and brood about things. In a social context, this quality comes out as talking too much and going over old ground—so say my students and friends. But in writing, it makes me seem ruminative and meditative, much nobler qualities I think. 
Also, I find I have to be self-referential before I can reach for larger connections. That’s not an apology, just a fact of my disposition. I need to internalize something before I can conceptualize or connect to it either emotionally or intellectually. It’s how I learn and how I teach. There’s a Shaw quote I like: “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.” I always begin with the self. It’s my process—how I figure things out. 
I’m also drawn to the genre’s intimacy and informality. In the early ’90s, I entered a personal essay in a national writing contest because the contest guidelines described the essay as “familiar” and “informal.” That description seemed to fit what I had been writing at the time. 
You’re blessed when you find the form that matches your sensibilities, and the sooner that happens, the better. For me, that form is the essay/memoir. I agree with David Shields when he says, “Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.” Writing in any genre is hard enough. Finding the form that is right for you is the best advice I can give to any would-be writer.

DesPres: What influence did writing in the other genres have on your work in creative nonfiction?

Steinberg: Writing and studying multiple forms meant everything to my development as an essayist/memoirist. Writing fiction gave me a keener sense of narrative, plot, character development, and scenes. As a playwright, I learned how to craft pointed, dramatic scenes where the conflict emerged through dialogue, not through narrative. Reading and writing poetry, especially lyric poetry, freed up my imagination, gave me a better ear for rhythm and language, and improved my facility with image and metaphor. Writing literary journalism and personal/cultural criticism taught me how to combine observation, reportage, and research with a strong narrative presence and, in some cases, a more intimate voice.

DesPres: In an online Q and A with the Emerging Writer’s Network, Greg Michaelson, the co-editor of Unbridled Books, asked what you see as “the defining differences between writing fiction and creative nonfiction, either in terms of craft or the author’s temperament, purpose or approach to the subject.” He noted, “the material you explore in your memoir, Still Pitching, has all the elements to make for successful fiction.” Do you agree?

Steinberg: I take that as a compliment. Too often, fiction writers accuse creative nonfiction writers of poaching on their territory. I don’t see it that way at all. I think we should all be borrowing from one another, expanding our toolkits. From reading good first-person fiction and trying to write it, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of creating myself as a complex, three-dimensional character—a persona, if you will. Reading good literary fiction also has made me more aware of how to use story as part of an evolving structure. But I don’t think of plot or story in the same way as a true fiction writer does. Good memoirists use the circumstances of one’s life (the story) as a catalyst for exploration and discovery. The important “story” is the writer’s inner struggle to come to terms with something he/she couldn’t understand any other way. “And for that,” Vivian Gornick says, “an imagination is required.”

I’m also drawn to the genre’s intimacy and informality.… You’re blessed when you find the form that matches your sensibilities, and the sooner that happens, 
the better. For me, that form is the essay/memoir.

DesPres: Speaking of imagination, isn’t that what critics of memoir are concerned about—that memoirists should stick to the facts and not invent, make things up, or otherwise embellish the narrative? Aren’t those tactics the province of fiction, poetry, and drama?

Steinberg: Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not just about making things up—that’s invention. Depending on how you use it, imagination can be an analytical tool. David Malouf, the fine fiction writer, says, “Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside—emotions, events, and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page.”

For example, in my memoir Still Pitching I needed to re-imagine my childhood in order to better understand it. This was the only way I could express and articulate what it felt like to be that kid growing up in New York at that particular time in history (the ’50s). In order to understand your past—in my case, childhood—you have to be able to imagine that past and the person you once were. And that’s pretty much how I wrote the book. I visualized/imagined the story as I went along, and I kept following what I saw. The fact that the story was taken from real events, people, and situations was incidental. In truth, the known events and situations were my biggest obstacles to navigate.

DesPres: Known events and situations were your biggest obstacles as a memoirist? That sounds counterintuitive. Can you give me an example?

Steinberg: The difference between crafting a memoir as a literary work and writing it just the way you remember it depends on the permission the writer gives him/herself to imagine and rearrange the chronology of events. We do this not to cheat or write a more interesting story, but to help us better understand what it is we’re trying to say. For example, there’s a dramatic scene in Still Pitching that takes place in a coach’s office. I describe the scene in very specific sense detail. Almost five decades later, when I’m writing the book, how accurate is my memory of that encounter? I do recall that the coach asked me to be the assistant football manager, a demeaning job which boils down to being a glorified water boy and stretcher bearer, when all the while I was thinking he was going to invite me to baseball tryouts. I vaguely remember what his office looked like, and I vividly recall what it smelled like. But who knows if the specific items I described—the football helmets, shoulder pads, jerseys, and cleats—were arranged on the shelves in just the way I described them? And I don’t remember if the coach called me out of class on the first day of school or if this happened sometime during the first or second week. Or maybe I initiated the visit on my own. And of course, I had to reconstruct some of the dialogue. 
But I did not invent the scenario. I unquestionably did meet with him. And I do remember he was standing in the middle of that tiny room wearing only a jock strap, socks, and a baseball hat. Who could forget that image? Well then, did I see and hear all this on one particular afternoon? And would it have made a difference if I had? What’s authentic here is the numbing despair and humiliation I felt at that moment. And in order for me to recreate that feeling, I had to imagine what it felt like. And for as long as I write (and tell) the story of that encounter, I’ll continue to claim that this is the way I remember it.

DesPres: As a writer, how do you see the relationship, then, between memory and imagination?

Steinberg: Pam Houston says, “I won’t tell you the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it.” We know memory is an unreliable narrator. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. In my memoir, I wasn’t trying for a literal rendering of my childhood. I was trying to reflect on what it felt like to be me growing up in New York in the ’50s. To accomplish that, I needed to get inside the mind and heart of the narrator as a young boy. In other words, I had to imagine (as opposed to remember or invent) things like: what did that boy think and how did he feel about all the things that were happening to him? What drove him to put up with the all the humiliation, especially from his coaches? What were his yearnings, longings, fears, hesitations? How did he cope with failure and disappointment? Where did his resilience and determination come from? Those were all things I could access through imagination and sense memory. 
I also had to imagine myself as the main character in my own story. The whole time I was writing the book, I thought of myself as an adult narrator looking back on an earlier version of himself. Once I’d found that boy’s story, I had to solve the technical problems—where to begin, where to end, how to connect things like the main character’s identification with the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers and his own struggles to become a good pitcher. 
I like Marge Piercy’s take on all this. She says, “What distinguishes (literary writing) above all from the raw material, and what distinguishes it from journalism, is that inherent possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader. There is absolutely everything in great (literature) but a clear answer.” I’ve found that allowing oneself the permission to use the imagination is the hardest thing to teach would-be nonfiction writers. In fact, giving myself that same permission was the toughest challenge I faced in writing my memoir.

DesPres: Is use of the imagination, then, what you believe constitutes the “creative” in creative nonfiction?

Steinberg: In part, yes. But for me, the “creative” in creative nonfiction is more about how the writer shapes the work. The known story is the nonfiction part. I know my story. But what I don’t know is how to write it and what it means. 
When we write creative nonfiction, we’re using our lives as raw material or as catalysts to help us, as Annie Dillard says, “fashion a text.” If a memoir is crafted with careful attention to language, detail, and form, it’s striving to become a literary work rather than a direct confession or retelling of one’s own personal story. Whether a piece of creative nonfiction succeeds or fails has a great deal to do with the writer’s skill and ability to shape his or her experience into a satisfying artistic whole.

DesPres: What structural challenges did you come up against while writing Still Pitching?

Steinberg: I originally wanted to find out how being a high school pitcher, specifically a closer, helped shape me into a mid-life writer. I also wanted to see if I could explain to myself why I turned out to be first a writing teacher and then a mid-life writer and not a salesman like my father or a pharmacist like my grandfather, or a physician like my uncle.
Three years into the book, I had a sprawling manuscript that was over 100,000 words and covered some forty plus years—more autobiography than memoir. I knew I was trying to cover way too much ground. But I didn’t know how to restructure it. Plus, I already had a contract and pub date. 
It took my wise, patient editor to explain it to me. We were meeting one afternoon about nine months before the manuscript was due. She walked me through that dramatic scene I mentioned earlier, where the narrator is describing what it feels like to be humiliated by his high school coach. “Write the whole book with the same focus and intensity as this scene has,” she said. “Do what you tell your students to do. Write vertical.” The segment she chose was from my adolescence. Of the 300 pages of my original manuscript, only fifty had been given over to childhood and adolescence. What adult male hasn’t been shaped in some formative way by his childhood and adolescence? 
That’s what it took for me to rethink the book’s structure. In less than a week, I’d cut the original 100,000 words, including all the young adult and adult stuff, down to the 25,000-word segment that was about my childhood and adolescence. I knew that’s where I needed to go. I wound up focusing the memoir on the role baseball played in shaping my childhood and adolescent identity. This version covered a ten-year period: from the time I discovered baseball at age eight, through age eighteen when I graduated from high school. 
Once I knew what the structural boundaries were, I wrote the book in six months, three months ahead of my original pub date. And wouldn’t you know it, when Still Pitching came out, whoever wrote the jacket copy noted that the memoir was about how being a baseball pitcher in his youth helped make Michael Steinberg into a writer, which of course was my original intent.

DesPres: We’ve talked quite a bit about imagination and memory. Now can you speak more to the purely “nonfiction” aspect of creative nonfiction?

Steinberg: The notion that memoirists rely exclusively on memory and imagination to craft their narratives is a persistent misconception. Let’s agree on this much. Memoirs are set in real time and in real places, and they include real people and real events. Whatever else we think of the form, none of us would be inclined to trust a writer who fabricated those things. It goes without saying that the memoirist’s credibility, like the journalist’s, rests in part on those things that can be verified, even fact checked. To my mind, that’s the “nonfiction” part. 
Let me illustrate again by referring to Still Pitching. Here are some verifiable facts: during the post war years of 1947–1958, one, and more frequently two of the three New York teams—the Yankees, the Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers—played in and won the World Series. That’s how the term “Subway Series” was coined. And if you were a young boy growing up in New York during that time, you couldn’t avoid baseball whether you liked the sport or not. 
Those ten years were also the setting for my own coming of age, and like most adolescents I wanted to fit in, to find a place where I belonged. But I also wanted to distinguish myself by pursuing something at which I could excel. As it turns out, becoming a baseball pitcher was that something. That inner struggle is the central narrative of the work, the personal story. But the memoir, I knew, needed a larger context. So I set it between two major cultural-historical events: 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break the major league color barrier, and 1957, when the Dodgers and Giants left New York for California. Their departure, to be sure, marked the end of my and a lot of other baseball mavens’ childhoods. But in a larger sense, it was also the beginning of major league expansion. And for me and many others of my generation, this still serves as a marker for our growing awareness of a number of other significant changes in the larger culture.

DesPres: What role did research play in writing Still Pitching?

Steinberg: Before, during, and even after I worked on the memoir, I spent hundreds of hours reading baseball and general period histories about New York. I also looked at microfiche, videos, and newspaper and magazine clips about the city in the ’50s, and about baseball in New York during that period. There were other cultural and historical events, other forces, other people—entertainers, politicians, writers, and so on—who came to bear on the personal story I was telling. To get the names, places, situations, and dates right, I needed to research all of that as well. I also talked to and interviewed friends, acquaintances, teachers, family members, sports writers, and baseball historians who lived during that same time. 
Once again, all of this brings us back to structure. The narrator’s personal story evolves out of memory and imagination (the “creative”), and the research and reportage (the “nonfiction”) are the necessary raw materials the writer must organize and craft into a coherent narrative. This is, in the end, what all literary writers—memoirists, poets, and fiction writers—must do.

DesPres: Your childhood, I’m sure, wasn’t dominated only by baseball. How did you decide this memoir would be about baseball and not family or other adolescent struggles? And what part did baseball play in all this?

Steinberg: Right, I had a family, I went to school, I had friends and enemies, and of course the normal adolescent confusions most of us experienced. But my dominant obsession was to be a baseball pitcher. Back then, baseball was a big piece of my sense of who I was. I studied it, practiced, watched countless Dodger games, and read everything about the game I could get my hands on. It got to the point where I knew more about baseball than just about anything else. So in the writing, baseball became not the subject but the lens the adult narrator looks through in order help him better understand everything else in his childhood world. Moreover, baseball becomes the catalyst, the occasion for the narrator’s exploration of who he was as a kid and who he inevitably became.

DesPres: Still Pitching appears, on a basic level, to be about how a boy with mediocre athletic skills who, despite obstacles, including resistance from his coaches, successfully pursued his dream to become a high school relief pitcher. In what ways does the story of Michael Steinberg, the high school baseball pitcher, mirror the story of Michael Steinberg, the writer?

Steinberg: In writing the book, I discovered something I should have anticipated and didn’t—the old “art imitates life” idea. I found that writing the book was as difficult and humbling, as exhilarating and discouraging as the struggle to make myself into a good baseball pitcher. In other words, it took the same kind of resilience, passion, and force of will, as well as the ability to fend off constant bouts of fear and self doubt—you know, the voice in your head that whispers, “Who will care about any of this? Whatever made you think you could write this book in the first place?” The loss of confidence and the struggle to regain it is something everyone, not just writers, must contend with.

DesPres: Just as your baseball career in some ways paralleled your journey to become a writer, your teaching career has played a big role in your writing life. In fact you co-wrote a book titled Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching. The book’s basic premise is that to effectively teach writing, a teacher should experience writing. How do your teaching and your writing play off each other?

Steinberg: I taught composition for over three decades. By the mid-’80s, the teacher-as-writer movement was beginning to flourish. So, in all my undergrad writing workshops, I wrote and shared my drafts with students. In a manner of speaking, you could say this was a big part of my writing apprenticeship. I learned that writing, in its various forms, is often a slow, indirect, meandering, even circular process. In my composition workshops, my students and I learned to work like writers. They generated their writing mostly on class time, and from scratch. So did I. As their drafts evolved, they received feedback by exchanging those works-in-progress with others in the class. 
Teaching writing as a process, and writing along with my students, helped me discover that en route to finding out what it was I wanted or needed to write, I’d invariably encounter dead ends and make new discoveries, both of which, most likely, altered my original planning. I’ve also learned that writing anything—from the most academic or workaday assignments, to the more expressive, exploratory forms—demands multiple drafts and ongoing revisions. Consequently, over time I’ve figured out that before I can find anything worth exploring, I often have to tolerate my own worst writing.

But even if I wasn’t a writing teacher, even if I had no teaching philosophy to speak of, common sense and experience tell me that when we demystify the writing process, when we make writing a more transparent activity, a lot of anxieties, doubts, and fears tend to dissolve. Creative writing workshops, I believe, could benefit by paying more attention to the process approach. But that’s another discussion for another time. 
Given that rationale, Those Who Do, Can grew out of a series of weeklong summer conferences that Bob Root and I co-directed for K-College English teachers. Each July, for seven consecutive summers, we all came together to write in a number of genres—essays, poetry, fiction, and nature writing, among others. At the heart of the workshops was the expectation that both the participants and instructors would spend the majority of their time writing and sharing their work with one another. 
My session was centered on the personal essay. In that workshop, I began writing a series of personal essays/memoirs, many of which turned out to be about growing up with baseball in New York in the ’50s. After each summer workshop ended, I found myself feeling cranky and irritable. Except for that one week when I wrote with the rest of my group, I never had much chance to get back to my own writing. In 1993, we stopped running the workshop, and by then I’d written and published several of the baseball pieces, all of which I’d started there. That’s when the itch to pursue my own writing became more insistent. And that’s also when I began thinking about spending more time writing and less time teaching.

DesPres: You are the founding editor of Fourth Genre, one of three most prominent literary journals of creative nonfiction. Does your journal espouse a specific philosophy of the genre?

Steinberg: We look at creative nonfiction as a form of literature, the same way we view good fiction, poetry, and drama. Consequently, the kinds of things we publish tend to be driven more often than not by an expressive, exploratory impulse. Some writers describe it as an itch or a nagging feeling they can’t quite express any other way. Others call it a need to know. 
The kind of work we’re looking for is more closely related to the spirit of Montaigne’s work than it is to certain forms of journalism and scholarly articles. The majority of essays and memoirs you’re likely to see in Fourth Genre are more exploratory, intimate, and personal than they are grounded in subjects or topics. If you look at the journal, you’ll find a lot of pieces that reflect the digressions, meanderings, mediations, ruminations, and speculations that characterize a singular, idiosyncratic mind at work and at play.

DesPres: What specifically distinguishes your journal from the other two?

Steinberg: Lee Gutkind, the editor of Creative Nonfiction, is an immersion journalist. He looks at the form as journalism with a literary bent; by this I mean inclusive of the use of techniques mainly borrowed from the novel—scenes, dialogue, a story-line or plot, setting, and overarching themes. Though he admits personal essays and memoirs into the journal, he believes the genre should be firmly anchored in factual information, in what he calls “objective truth,” and he stresses that the two most significant aspects of creative or literary nonfiction are reportage and research—artfully written and shaped, of course. 
The editors of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative believe that “intimate reporting and facts matter, and that the questions one asks about true stories are the ones that help us understand their significance for our lives.” 
My philosophy is closer to that of memoirist Mary Clearman Blew’s when she writes, “The boundaries of creative nonfiction are as fluid as water.” I mean the term “fourth genre” to be inclusive in the sense that it’s one of four literary genres and it’s also a most versatile and elastic form. Simply put, the best memoirists and essayists use language as elegantly and precisely as good poets, they narrate story and create scenes and physical settings in the tradition of the best fiction, and they use pointed dialogue to the same ends and effects as dramatists (and fiction writers) do.

DesPres: Fourth Genre publishes ideas and debates on these topics as well, correct?

Steinberg: Yes. One of our main objectives is to foster a writer-to-reader conversation on and about this still-evolving form we call creative nonfiction. In that way, we see ourselves as a kind of resource for writers, readers, and teachers. In addition to providing emerging writers with a showcase for their work, we also see the journal as a vehicle for teaching and learning. As our subtitle Explorations in Nonfiction suggests, we present a variety of different perspectives on the genre itself as well as on current genre issues. To this end we’ve interviewed a broad range of writers, from personal essayists like Phillip Lopate, Scott Russell Sanders, and Thomas Lynch (also a fine poet), to memoirists like Vivian Gornick, Kim Barnes, and Rebecca McClanahan, to literary journalists and cultural critics like Adam Hochschild and Eduardo Galeano. We have a segment called “Comments on the Form,” where practicing writers talk about why they’re drawn to this genre, how they write it, and what things they’d like to see happen in the future. We also ask the cover photographers to write personal essays on/about their creative process. And we run full-length reviews of current books, as well as Reader-to-Reader capsule book reviews, which we see as a kind of ongoing bibliography of work that’s been done over the last few decades.

DesPres: What do you foresee for the genre’s future?

Steinberg: Even though the essay’s literary roots go all the way back to Montaigne, creative nonfiction is still thought of as a kind of hybrid, bastard genre. But in the past ten years, many young writers have been schooled in the genre’s history, craft, and theory. So I don’t think this genre will disappear from the literary spectrum. The work of the writers and journal editors (and not the prescriptions of literary critics) is continually expanding the boundaries, as well as shaping and informing the discussion about creative nonfiction. 
For myself, I’d like to see contemporary creative nonfiction evolve into a more openly reflective (rather than strictly a fact or subject-based) genre. By this I mean the kind of writing that springs from Montaigne’s original intention when he said, “It is about myself{e} I write.” Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, I don’t mean this to be an endorsement of narcissistic writing. Quite the contrary. Often, the impulse to write personal essays and memoirs is much like the impulse that produces certain forms of lyric poetry or first-person fiction. A good number of personal essayists and memoirists are writing not so much to confess or tell their story, but to explore and discover what poets and fiction writers describe as finding out “what we didn’t know we knew.” 
Right now, creative nonfiction is a hotly debated genre. In fact, I believe we’re in the middle of the first serious genre conversation since the advent of the novel in the 18th century. The novel, when new, was thought of as a “popular” genre, which means that many critics and writers looked upon it as a less-than-legitimate literary form. In a similar way, the memoir has become the most controversial literary form of our time. Some of the arguments we’re having today are, in fact, every bit as polarizing as were the contentious quarrels about the novel back then.
As an editor, teacher, and writer, I welcome the opportunity to be an advocate for creative nonfiction and the chance to voice my opinion in what I believe is the most significant literary discussion we’ve engaged in over the last three centuries.


from Still Pitching: A Memoir
by Michael Steinberg

Early September, my first day of high school. Baseball tryouts are in February, so I figure I have plenty of time to worry about Coach Kerchman. In homeroom though, Mrs. Klinger hands me a note, “Be at my office 3 o’clock sharp.” It’s signed by Mr. K. The rest of the day was a blur. Kerchman’s “office” was located across from the boiler room, deep in the bowels of the ancient brick building. To get there, you had to walk past the showers and through the boy’s locker room. I opened the stairwell door and inhaled the steam rising up from the shower. Above the hum and buzz of locker room banter, I heard the clackety-clack-clack of aluminum cleats hitting the cement floor. An entire bank of lockers was reserved for the varsity football studs. I’d seen them around school and at the State Diner jock table. But here, in their domain, they had an undeniable aura. As far back as grade school, this was an exclusive, prestigious clique I’d dreamed of someday belonging to. And though football wasn’t my sport, varsity baseball offered many of the same privileges.

With great anxiety, I knocked on Kerchman’s door. “It’s open,” rasped a deep, gravely voice. The room, a ten-foot-square box, was a glorified cubbyhole, smelling of Wintergreen, Merthiolate, and stale sweat socks. The chipped cement floor was coated with dust and rotted-out orange peels; and on all four sides, make-shift-two-by-four equipment bays overflow with old scuffed helmets, broken shoulder pads, torn jerseys and pants, muddy cleats, and deflated footballs, all randomly piled on top of one another. Mr. K stood under a bare light bulb wearing a baseball hat, white socks, and a jock strap. He was holding his sweatpants and chewing a plug of tobacco. “You’re Steinberg, right?” He pronounced my name, “Stein-berg,” slowly, enunciating and stretching both syllables out. “I don’t beat around the bush, Stein-berg, You’re here for one reason and one reason only. Because a little birdie told me you were a reliable kid. What I’m looking for, Stein-berg, is an assistant football manager. And I’m willing to take a chance on you.“ I wanted to run out of the room and find a place to cry. Assistant managers were glorified water boys; they did all the “shit work,” everything from being stretcher-bearers to hauling the heavy equipment.  He sensed my disappointment and waited a beat while I composed myself.
“The same little birdie told me you’re a pitcher,” he muttered while slipping into his sweatpants. Another tense beat. Finally, he said, “At tryouts, you’ll get your chance to show me what you’ve got.”  To make certain there was no misunderstanding between us, he added, “Just like everyone else.” Then he said. “So what’s it gonna’ be, Stein-berg?”
It had all happened too fast. I couldn’t think straight. In a hesitant, trembling voice, I told him I’d think about it and let him know tomorrow.

Reprinted with permission of Michigan State University Press from Still Pitching: A Memoir, by Michael Steinberg (2004).



By Robert Root


Fourth Genre Vol 12 No. 2/ Fall 2010

In the beginning, the term "the fourth genre" arose as a way of insinuating creative nonfiction into the spectrum of literary writing. Introduction to literature courses routinely focused on poetry, fiction, and drama, as did the anthologies used in them; creative writing programs centered on poetry, fiction, and, less frequently, drama, and at least one of the textbooks used for those courses identified literature as having only three genres. The term "fourth genre" then was coined to imply that literature included more than three genres, though creative nonfiction itself was more often taught in composition/rhetoric and journalism, and first used to title The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, an anthology that gathered essays, memoirs, literary journalism, and personal cultural criticism as well as articles about the craft of creative nonfiction. The anthology grew out of material that Michael Steinberg and I were using in courses he taught at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University, and I taught at Central Michigan University. While that volume was passing slowly through the publishing process, Mike had the opportunity to become the founding editor of a new journal devoted entirely to nonfiction, which he titled Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. At the time, the only literary journal devoted entirely to the genre was the pioneering Creative Nonfiction, launched in 1993. Fourth Genre's first issue was published in spring 1999; the third nonfiction journal, River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, began in fall 1999, and awareness of the genre expanded quickly in the literary community. In the last two or three decades, an increasing number of creative writing programs have added creative nonfiction or literary nonfiction to their offerings, and several programs are either devoted entirely to that single genre or give it equal footing with one or two other genres. Literary journals, which in the past only published essays about literature—critical articles on fiction or poetry—now frequently publish essays as literature: sharing issues with work in other genres. Publishing houses have been releasing an increasing number of creative nonfiction works and launching creative nonfiction series, and noteworthy awards and prizes for nonfiction have been established. Some significant portion of the credit for the legitimization of literary nonfiction must be given to the primary journals devoted to them, a point of particular pride for Mike Steinberg. In the past ten years, essays first published in Fourth Genre have won a number of Pushcart Prizes and been reprinted in anthologies or cited in annual collections of the best American nonfiction writing. The journal was recognized with an Utne Reader Writing Excellence Award and Travel Writers of America Society Award.

As an essayist and a memoirist himself, Steinberg's work has been widely published and recognized with a variety of awards. His memoir "Trading Off " won the 1994 Missouri Review Editor's Prize, and he also won the Harness Racing Writers of America's Award for feature writing. His first book-length work ofcreative nonfiction, Still Pitching, won the 2004 ForeWord Magazine Award for Small/Independent Press Memoir of the Year. In addition to The Fourth Genre, now in its fifth edition, he coedited Those Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching—A Sourcebook; edited Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs from Michigan; and coauthored a play, I'm Almost Famous, and a textbook, The Writer's Way: A Process to Product Approach to Writing. A frequent presenter on nonfiction at national conferences, and a visiting writer at numerous colleges and writing programs as far flung as the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Alaska and the Prague Summer Program in the Czech Republic, he is a professor emeritus at Michigan State University and currently writer-in-residence at the Solstice Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. When he's not traveling, he divides his time between his home in Lansing, Michigan, and his cottage on the Leelanau Peninsula overlooking Grand Traverse Bay. With the publication of Fourth Genre 11.1 in spring 2009, Mike stepped down from active editing of the journal. This interview was conducted by telephone in July 2009.

ROOT: Tell me something about the origins of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. How did it come into being?

STEINBERG: In 1997, I was teaching a graduate writing course called "American Lives" in the American Studies Department. Back then, the English Department didn't recognize creative nonfiction as a legitimate literary genre. Laura Luptowski, one of the adult students in the class, happened at the time to be the journals editor at the Michigan State University Press. I didn't pay much attention to her title because I had no idea that the Press published anything but scholarly journals. It turns out that Laura had been doing some research into literary journals, and she had learned that the only magazine of literary/creative nonfiction was Lee Gutkind's journal, Creative Nonfiction. When the class was over, Laura approached me about the possibility of drafting a proposal that was designed to get start-up money for a journal of literary nonfiction that the MSU Press would subsequently publish. This all happened around the same time that the first edition of our anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, was about to be published. So I thought it would be a good idea to consider piggybacking the anthology's title and call this new journal Fourth Genre. One thing led to another, and the College of Arts and Letters funded the proposal. They granted the MSU Press and me three years of seed money to start up this journal, after which Fourth Genre had to become self-sufficient in order to continue on. I'd never edited a journal before. So I figured I was in for a three-year adventure. That was 12 years ago, and we're still in print.

ROOT: What were you hoping to accomplish with the journal?

STEINBERG: At first, I wanted it to be an alternative to Lee Gutkind's philosophy, which, briefly stated, is that creative nonfiction is primarily a spinoff of the New Journalism of the '60s. I had a different take on the genre. Like the anthology the two of us had edited, I wanted Fourth Genre to be a journal of literary nonfiction, with the emphasis on the "literary" part. From the beginning, I wanted us to be comprehensive and inclusive. I also wanted us to extend the genre's boundaries to include a variety of forms, from memoir to lyrical essays to personal/cultural criticism and literary journalism. That's why I thought it was so appropriate when Marc Sheehan, one of our associate editors, suggested the subtitle, Explorations in Nonfiction. Back then, there was a lot of discussion brewing about the genre, and being the editor of Fourth Genre gave me an inadvertent platform for my own ideas. In addition to being a sourcebook on the genre, I saw Fourth Genre as a text that could be used in creative writing and advanced composition classrooms. Once again taking my cues from our anthology, in addition to the essays and memoirs we accepted, we also included interviews, roundtables on genre and teaching issues, comments on the form, full-length reviews of current books, and a Reader-to-Reader capsule book-review section, which served as a kind of bibliography of older works. I think we accomplished all those goals. In our first ten years, Fourth Genre did indeed evolve into a valuable resource for writers, students, and teachers of creative nonfiction.

ROOT: What was your role at the journal over the first ten years of publication?

STEINBERG: For the first three and a half years, I was the sole editor. The original editorial board of manuscript readers consisted of Bob Root, Mimi Schwartz, Sue Silverman, and Marc Sheehan. Bob doubled as the Interviews and Roundtables editor, Mimi created and was in charge of the Reader-to-Reader section, and Marc was the Book Reviews editor. So far as manuscript submissions were concerned, I was of the mind that the most experienced and knowledgeable writers on the staff should be the final readers. So, I screened all the manuscripts that came in and passed the strongest ones on to Bob, Mimi, Sue, and Marc, and after they read the submissions, they sent back reader reports with specific suggestions for what pieces we should and should not consider publishing. In time, we added Maureen Stanton, a prize-winning nonfiction writer, and Marcia Aldrich (now Fourth Genre's new editor) to be additional editorial-board readers. And when Marc Sheehan stepped down, I invited Jocelyn Bartkevicius (now the editor of the Florida Review) to be the Book Reviews editor. All six are very prominent writers, teachers, editors, and spokespersons for the genre. During those ten formative years, that editorial staff was one of Fourth Genre's major and most unique assets. I don't know of any journal that has had this many prominent, knowledgeable people on its staff. When we discussed submission, we didn't always agree. That's just the nature of the beast. But everyone's opinion was considered. Over time, we were somewhat instrumental in helping to launch several careers, and at the same time, we turned down some excellent pieces that went on to win Pushcart Prizes and other honors. But we always published quality work. Until David Cooper came on board in 2001, my role was to oversee the journal's artistic side. And for that entire time, I saw our process as a creative collaboration, a stimulating give-and-take between a group of very talented, dedicated, informed human beings.

ROOT: How do you think the journal changed over the years from that beginning?

STEINBERG: While I was trying to think of what I was going to say to you, I reread my "Editor's Notes" from the first issue. In those notes, I talked about the genre as an inclusive, expansive, and evolving form. I also said that the roots of contemporary creative nonfiction were bound up with the personal essay, as opposed, say, to literary journalism. I don't think that debate is ever going to go away. Nor should it. From the start, our view of the genre as a literary form—and I mean literary in the same way as I would if I were describing good poetry or fiction—has become recognized in a way I never imagined it would be.

So, how did the journal change over the past ten years? I think it's evolved partly in response to the variety of diverse submissions we've received over the years. Right about the time we started up the journal, the conversation about creative nonfiction began to gain momentum. And in a short period of time, we became a pretty well-regarded journal. Consequently, we received more and more submissions that were pushing at the genre's boundaries: lyric essays, short shorts, segmented pieces, and so on. And some writers were braiding essays with memoir, or memoir with cultural criticism or literary journalism. As more poets and fiction writers began to write creative nonfiction, they brought different strategies and approaches to the genre. And as MFA programs began to proliferate, especially low-residency programs where entire faculties were composed of practicing writers, we at Fourth Genre began seeing work by younger writers who began their careers as nonfictionists. It wasn't always this way. For the first two or three issues, I called on well-known writers and colleagues from all genres to send me work. But gradually, as a body of nonfiction writers began to develop, we became 100 percent submission-driven. Today, for the most part, the writers we publish have been formally schooled in the genre, both its conventions and its idiosyncrasies. You can see that knowledge and savvy in all the best submissions. Today, we're not getting as many straightforward chronological narratives as we used to. And so, as the genre has changed, I'd say the work we've published has changed as well. So in a way, I suppose we've had a hand in helping shape the genre's evolution. As a founding editor, naturally I find that very gratifying.

ROOT: Did the submission process change, not only in numbers but also in its nature?

STEINBERG: Each year, the numbers increase dramatically. For the first six years, we had two reading periods. But as the volume of submissions increased, we began reading only once, from mid-August to December 1. We also added a reading period for our annual Editors' Prize. And that's what we're still doing.

As I said before, during my first four years I was the screener. And I made my decisions in consultation with the editorial board readers. After David Cooper became coeditor, we screened the manuscripts together. I instituted that procedure because I believe that serious writers, no matter how young or experienced, deserve to be read and evaluated by the people who make the final manuscript decisions. I also felt that we owed the less established and more promising writers some informed feedback on work we didn't accept but that still showed a lot of promise. That's the teacher in me talking. Short personal notes from the readers are a way of showing respect for the writing. It's also a way of encouraging emerging writers and at the same time letting them know that their work received careful scrutiny from experienced teachers and practicing writers. But sheer volume, I'm afraid, is making it harder and harder for us to pay that kind of close attention.


ROOT: The journal publishes—what would you say?—about 20 to 24 essays or memoirs a year in the two issues, in addition to reviews and interviews, and so on.

STEINBERG: Like most literary journals, we probably publish 2 or 3 percent of the submissions we receive. In the beginning, we had more leeway on page limits, so we sometimes ran as many as 15 to 18 essays and memoirs in each issue. But that's since changed. Now, on average, we publish about 12 or 13 per issue. Which means that we have to be somewhat more selective with our acceptances. The tradeoff would be to cut back on the other sections—interviews, round tables, book reviews, and comments on the form. But David and I both agreed that we didn't want to give up any of those features. Not only do they add a teaching component to the journal, they also contribute new ideas and perspectives to the ongoing conversation about the genre. This is, in part, what distinguishes us from other journals of literary nonfiction.

ROOT: What are the challenges of keeping a journal like this going?

STEINBERG: It's an understatement to say that staffing, promoting, and publishing a quality journal like this, especially in today's climate of cuts and very tight budgets, is a challenge. Our editorial staff is composed of well-known writers who've generously volunteered to read manuscripts and/or oversee departments like interviews, book reviews, and comments on the form. In addition, we have a group of student interns who receive course credit in exchange for doing the daily nuts-and-bolt jobs that keep us functioning—including handling the hundreds of monthly manuscripts we receive. While our staff is in charge of the journal's editorial content, the MSU Press is responsible for publishing Fourth Genre, in addition to eight academic journals. Under very demanding circumstances, Fourth Genre's editors and the staff at the MSU Press have, over the years, debated, compromised, and worked closely together to keep a distinctive, attractively designed literary journal like Fourth Genre in existence. To my mind, that's a significant achievement in its own right.

ROOT: The idea of an online presence is changing virtually everything. I saw in the news recently that the Ann Arbor News went out as a print publication and will now have only a reduced online presence. The Rocky Mountain News, which had been around since the beginning of Colorado, also folded, and its people have been hoping to start an online alternative. That's a major change.

STEINBERG: I know of a good journal that's only accepting submissions online.

Their policy is that if you don't hear from us in three months, we didn't accept your work. It's efficient and probably even necessary. And in some ways, I think they're ahead of the curve. Still, it seems to me that something personal is lost in that exchange. Then, there's Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, zines—that whole universe. All are indications of the direction that, over time, probably every literary journal is going to have to consider. Let's face it, whether we like it or not, we're part of the digital age now. And it means we have to rethink what we do and how we do it. I'm probably already a dinosaur, because for me, this has always been first and foremost a human enterprise. Yet, at the same time, we have to do whatever it takes to keep literature, which is our little corner of the world, alive.

ROOT: One convenient aspect of all that is something like Project Muse, which both Fourth Genre and River Teeth and a number of other journals are on, because there you actually can readily access archives. In the past you used to hope to find things in libraries, which couldn't  afford to keep all these journals going and had a very limited number of them available.

STEINBERG: Because of our presence on Project Muse, we get thousands of hits from people in every different academic field looking for pieces that relate to the courses they teach, and so, parts of the journal reach readers who never would have found us in print. I, of course, have mixed feelings about this. But whatever's going to keep literary work out there, in whatever shape or form, we have to go with it. We don't have anything to say about it anyway.

ROOT: Let me ask you: Over the ten years that you were editor, what are the things that struck you as the most significant things that happened with Fourth Genre? Or the most significant essays or memoirs? The things that when you look back, you say, "Oh I'm glad we published that."

STEINBERG: Obviously, I'm proud of all the Pushcarts and awards we've won. We were the first creative nonfiction journal to win a Pushcart. That was for "Toward Humility," Bret Lott's 2001 personal essay. It's been reprinted in so many other places that it's become its own advocate. I'm also very gratified that many teaching and literary anthologies have reprinted our essays and memoirs, and that we've received wide recognition from annuals like Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing, Best American Travel Writing, as well as from trade magazines like Utne Reader, to mention just a few. I also think the three nonfiction journals—us, River Teeth, and Creative Nonfiction—have had a great deal to do with the evolution and emergence of this genre over the past 15 years. Personally, Fourth Genre has provided me with a forum for my ideas about the genre. In the beginning I just wanted to have a voice in this conversation—in my own classroom and in my own university, which, like many institutions, didn't acknowledge creative nonfiction as a legitimate literary genre. Subsequently, the genre has come to the forefront of a literary conversation the likes of which I couldn't have imagined when I first started the journal. When Frank McCourt died, I thought about where the genre was in 1996, when Angela's Ashes came out, and how far we've come since then—even to the extent where the media takes us to task for things like the James Frey flap. But the impressive amount of literature and discussion about the literature indicates that literary nonfiction has grown in stature and importance both as a literary and popular genre. To my mind, the discussions and debates about creative nonfiction have created a literary conversation that we haven't seen since the advent of the novel in the eighteenth century. As a result, I've gotten opportunities to teach and speak in this country as well as abroad. Being associated with the journal, and having a voice in this conversation, to say the least, has been very rewarding.

ROOT: I've forgotten the specific piece, but I remember someone telling me that she wrote a particular essay because something we'd published in Fourth. Genre opened her up to the possibilities of the form by doing something she never realized anyone could do. One of the reasons to teach writing with examples from other writers is to show people what can be done, and I think that does have an eff ect on our students. But what's the eff ect on an editor, reading all the stuff that you've read? Is there any sort of carryover into your own writing?

STEINBERG: It's important for me to remember and to emphasize that I was a writing teacher and a writer before I became an editor. So witnessing the growth of the genre and the journal has been a revelation and an education for me. Even after ten years, when I was still reading submissions, the best manuscripts I came across continued to inspire and to remind me of just what it takes to write with passion and point. I also like to think that the work we've published has helped not just me, but other writers to find their niche. I wrote an essay a while ago titled "A Voice in the Choir." In it I said that through this genre, many writers, including myself, have found a place for our writing. And as I tell my MFA students, editing the journal has changed the way I read, write, and teach. I now look at pieces of writing from the point of view of how they were written. Consequently, I ask myself and my students to be alert to specific matters of craft strategies, techniques, and procedures other writers utilize that can apply specifically to our own works in progress.

ROOT: Where do you see creative nonfiction going at the moment?

STEINBERG: Nonfiction writers are now crossing genres with increasing regularity; that is, borrowing strategies and techniques from practicing fiction writers and poets. To my mind, that alters the writing landscape in more positive ways, making the writing richer and more multidimensional. That kind of cross-pollination is what Fourth Genre has always advocated. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the roots and tradition we come from. As the subtitle of Fourth Genre, Explorations in Nonfiction, indicates, many works of contemporary creative nonfiction grow out of an expressive, exploratory impulse—closer in origin perhaps to the impulse that produces some forms of lyric poetry. By exploration and discovery, I mean the kind of writing that springs from Montaigne's original intent when he said of the personal essay, "it is myself that I portray." Before everyone's off to the races on that one, let me qualify it. I don't mean this to be an endorsement of narcissistic writing. Quite the contrary. Scott Russell Sanders describes the essayist and essay as "the singular first person." And God knows, in times like these, we desperately need to hear "the singular first person," the individual human voice. In addition, many serious personal essayists and memoirists aren't writing to confess or disclose or even simply to tell their stories. They're trying to explore and hopefully discover what poets and fiction writers have always described as finding out "what we didn't know we knew." I also believe there's a legitimate place for the imagination in this genre. Contrary to what we've been taught, as fiction writer David Malouf says, "Imagination doesn't simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside, emotions, events and experiences that you haven't actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you've got them onto the page." For example, in my memoir Still Pitching, I needed to reimagine my childhood in order to better understand it. It was the only way I could express and articulate what it felt like to be that confused kid growing up in New York City at that particular historical moment (the 1950s). In order to comprehend your past—in my case, childhood—you have to be able to imagine that past and the person you once were. And that's pretty much how I wrote the book. I visualized/imagined the story (as opposed to making it up) as I went along. And I kept following the writing where it was leading me. Certainly, memory plays a significant part here. Pam Houston once said, "I'm not going to tell you the story the way it happened. I can only tell it the way I remember it." Still, we all know that memory alone is an unreliable narrator. So, my long-winded answer to your question is that creative nonfiction, thankfully, is still evolving. Despite the many disagreements over what's true and what's invented, no rules as yet have been set in stone. And I like the idea that this is still very much a writer's (as opposed to, say, a critic's) exchange.

ROOT: Now that you don't have to read hundreds of submissions a year . . .

STEINBERG: It's given me more time to write. But sometimes I miss the sensation of discovering something by a writer I never heard of and thinking, "We've just got to publish this."

ROOT: You're working on a book called Extra Innings, right? A kind of sequel to Still Pitching.

STEINBERG: Now it's called Staying in the Game. It is a sequel, of sorts.

ROOT: Are there any diff erences, do you feel, in how you're composing this or how you're dealing with this than when you did the first book?

STEINBERG: In my late 50s, when I started the first book, I told myself that I didn't want to write a coming-of-age memoir. I was too old for that. But as I got deeper into it, I began to realize that the coming-of-age part was something I had to write. Before I could understand what made this young boy (the surrogate "I") into a writer, I needed to find out who and what his major influences were when he was growing up. Something similar is happening with this new memoir. Originally, I wanted to write about how the narrator (the "I") evolved into an elder, particularly one who became a mentor for other would-be writers. But before I could comprehend that, I discovered that I first needed to examine his turbulent young adult and middle years. In the first book, I'm literally a late-middle-age narrator imagining himself as a child; in this one, I'm an older narrator looking back on the years from age 25 to 45. Still Pitching was about how being an athlete, a baseball pitcher, gave a self-conscious, insecure young boy a feeling of confidence and a sense of himself that he couldn't have acquired any other way. But Staying in the Game is about how continuing to play baseball passionately into middle age hindered the narrator's teaching and writing lives, and at the same time, almost cost him his marriage. Both memoirs use the lens of baseball to examine a larger human story. But this one presents a much diff erent challenge. Here, the narrator is asking himself why he feels compelled to keep playing ball into his 40s, instead of paying more attention to his marriage and career. What were the benefits? What were the risks? Was this simply a case of arrested development? Or, was there anything of value in his decision that might have prepared him for the next phase of his life? In writing this book, I'm coming to realize something I was thinking but couldn't articulate when I finished Still Pitching: that writing a book—"fashioning a text," as Annie Dillard calls it—is a way of making sense of a life. But it's not the same thing as living that life. One of the hardest things to understand and explain to aspiring writers is that by using the raw materials of your life to craft a book, you're solving the problems of making a text. And that's a much diff erent kind of struggle than solving real-life problems.

ROOT: Many writers say you really learn how to write each book as you're writing it. There's not a lot of carryover.

STEINBERG: True. Every time I start something new, even a short piece, I don't know how to craft it until/unless I find the persona/voice that fits this particular narrative. When Vivian Gornick writes about discovering a "point of view [that] could only emerge from a narrator who was me and at the same time not me," she's expressing one of the more interesting paradoxes that all nonfiction writers face. She also says she finds "a narrator on the page who was telling the story that I alone, in my everyday person, would not have been able to tell." Decisions about persona and voice are the first challenge I encounter when I begin a new piece. The other is to follow where the writing (not the story) is leading me. The writer of autobiography knows his/her story pretty intimately. But sometimes that story is the enemy of the text. What I don't know about my story is how to write it and what it means. As Gornick again says, "[In memoir] what's important is not what happened to the writer. What matters is the larger sense that the writer makes of what happened. And for this an imagination is required." In my opinion, that's where some of the real challenges in this genre lie. And it's what continues to keep me at the dance.



Still Pitching: An Interview with Memoirist Michael Steinberg. The Gihon River Review, Fall, 2010, Vol 15, pp 38-39.


Metro Times "My Life, According to Me. Former MSU Prof Touts the 'Fourth Genre'" 12/22/2004

Metro Times.


A virtual conversation with Michael Steinberg
Interviewer: Donna Lee Brien, Queensland University of Technology
Queensland University Interview.