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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog # 81 Using the "Smart Voice" in Personal Essays and Memoir by Michael Steinberg

Blog # 81 Using the "Smart Voice" in Personal Essays and Memoir by Michael Steinberg

 

Note:

I've adapted this craft essay from a panel talk I gave at the AWP national convention a few weeks ago. The panel's title was "How To Talk About Yourself in Nonfiction." The essay is about how to selectively employ the "inner story" when writing personal essays and memoirs."

MJS

 

                                               1

Even thinking has—or is—a story. The right voice can reveal what it's like to be thinking. This is memoir's great task really: the revelation of consciousness.

                                                                                          --Patricia Hampl

 

 

Ten years ago when I was the editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre, many of the submissions we received were from writers who could narrate the external events of their personal stories with great clarity and precision. And the same is true today for the majority of MFA students whose work I read.

 

As an editor and a teacher, what I didn't see then, and still don't see frequently enough, is what I'd call "internal" narratives.

 

By this I mean that a lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the "inner narrative", the story, that is, of their thinking.

 

In short, what writer and editor Martha Nichols call the "smart voice."

 

The comment, in fact, I found and still find myself often making to aspiring writers goes something like this: "the main thing that's missing in this piece, I tell them, "is your story".

 

I'm not talking about self-absorbed, strictly confessional work; the story I'm looking for is what's going on inside the narrator's mind as he/she struggles to find shape and meaning in the writing.

 

The problem in the works I've mentioned is that, at some point, usually toward the end of the piece, I often find what feels like an unearned epiphany. That's because, I believe, the writer hasn't provided the reader with a sense of the how the evolution of that narrator's thoughts, feelings, and emotions evolved.

 

Often these works emerge from a sequence of events rather than from some deep confusion or uncertainty. As a memoirist myself, I've been guilty of the same thing. One of the reasons why, I think, is that the work is still a rough, still evolving draft. In other words, writer has shaped his/her piece too soon—a draft that isn't yet fully thought out. 

   

                                                         2

        

The essayist gives you his thoughts and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them

                                                                                              --Alexander Smith 

 

One of the qualities that distinguish a skillfully rendered personal essay (or a memoir) from other literary forms is that, throughout the narrative, the writer's thoughts and feelings are inherently transparent.

 

Consequently, readers are able to track the evolution of that writer's thinking.

   

"Memoir, like fiction, Sue William Silverman maintains, "tells a story, one that needs an over-riding struggle and conflict. What does the narrator want? What is she struggling toward? Something also must be at stake. What are her inner struggles? Her longings, her fears."

 

Silverman is right. The reader in me badly wants to understand, even identify with, another human being's struggles. But without access to those internal battles... to the narrator's "longings and/or fears," it's difficult, at least for this reader, to enter the narrative.

 

In order then, for readers to gain access to the narrator's thoughts, that narrator has to let us in on how and what he/she's thinking and feeling. In addition, we need to know how long has this conflict been percolating, incubating. 

 

I also concur with the late critic/memoirist Alfred Kazin when he says that "an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts" Kazin says, "but the experience we get of the writer's thought; not the self, but the self thinking."

 

As a result, the connections between writer and reader (that is, between one human being and another) depend on our knowing how, when, and why narrators reveals their thoughts and feelings.

 

This, then, is a necessary, even essential part of writing authentic personal narratives. And it is of course, a matter of strategy and approach.

 

                                                     3

 

{An essay} allows you to ramble in a way that reflects the mind at work...in an essay, the track of a person's thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.

                                                                                           --Phillip Lopate

          

In the late Judith Kitchen's craft essay, "The End," Kitchen writes, "The building of a process of thought is what interests the reader.... The intimacy of the essay," Kitchen goes on to say is that, "it's a sharing of thought. We look as much for how an author approaches a subject as for the subject itself."

 

Kitchen then adds some useful advice:

 

"Here are five things," she says that "my students deny themselves as their stories draw to a close:

       

     --retrospection: a looking back, an

        assessment

     --intrusion: a stepping in, a commentary

     --meditation/rumination: a thinking

        through and around, finding a

        perspective.

     --introspection: a self-examination,

        honest  appraisal, and discovery

     --imagination: (as distinct from invention

        or making things up) which allows for

        alternatives, projections, juxtapositions, 

        whatever could provide a larger frame.

       

These are things that, as Kitchen's says, her students "deny themselves." And, that's an accurate, and I think a very generous way to phrase it.

 

I'll add the following to her list:

   

     --reflection: thinking things out, searching

        for meaning.

     --speculation: playing "what if. ''

     --self-interrogation: asking the hard

        questions about yourself, the ones you

        don't always want to know the answers to

     --projection: the unconscious ascription

        of a feeling, thought, or impulse to

        someone else.

     --digression: allowing the mind to wander

        away from the subject {some of my

        richest discoveries, I've found, are in

        those digressions}. 

     --confession: not for the sake of itself, but 

        only as it serves the larger narrative.

  

To conclude:

 

No matter what the catalyst might be, the mind and imagination never stop analyzing, asking why, and posing "what if" questions.

 

Aspiring and experienced writers then, should continue to probe their questions, uncertainties, and confusions more deeply; interrogate their thinking more rigorously; extend their ruminations and reflections outward; and, in the process continue to search for ways to find shape and meaning in those deliberations.

    

Let's also agree then, that, by nature and disposition all thinking human beings are reactive creatures. That is, we're always responding internally. In any situation or encounter, we probably couldn't get through thirty seconds without experiencing most or all of the reactions I've mentioned.

 

And that's the kind of thinking/feeling narrators I'd like to see more of in the personal essays and memoirs I teach, read, and write.

 

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Blog #80 By Hand, By Heart by Guest Blogger Melissa A. Goldthwaite

Blog # 80 By Hand, By Heart by Guest Blogger, Melissa A. Goldthwaite

 

Note:

 

* When I first saw Melissa Goldthwaite's essay last spring in the Kentucky English Bulletin, I knew I wanted to reprint it on my blog. It's about the value of writing handwritten responses to student work--an important human connection that's well worth preserving.

 

MJS


I remember the handwriting of every teacher I've ever loved from elementary school to graduate school: fluid or crabbed, spidery or squiggly, loopy or angular. The slanted script of one middle-aged professor mirrored the way she walked: head pushed forward, bent toward the future. Another teacher's printed scratch was as messy as his hair, as untucked as his shirt. I can picture my teachers' penmanship as easily as I can see their faces. I know the work of their hands by heart.

 

Throughout more than a quarter century of school, I looked forward to the days papers were returned. Unlike many classmates, who flipped to the back page to glance at the grade, I always tucked the paper in a folder, put it in my book bag, and waited until I was in a quiet place, door closed, and I could read and reread each comment. I did the same when letters came in the mail.

 

I remember few of the substantive comments from these teachers. What I remember are the odd terms and the emotional tenor: the single exclamation point when I used "allowed" instead of "aloud"; the words "We'll see" next to a thesis statement (I recall how pleased I was to find in the comments a note about how I'd convinced this initially skeptical reader); the five messy stars and words "This poem is a barn burner!"; the penciled smiley faces and "boy howdy!" The exclamation point next to an error communicated the same message as a cross-out and correction, but it made the point differently. "Boy howdy" and "barn burner" were phrases I'd never heard, but I understood that I'd done something well by the bigger letters, the exclamation points, the stars or smiley faces.

 

Years ago, when I read a Washington Post article claim that "with most states adopting new national standards that don't require such instruction, cursive could soon be eliminated from most public schools," I didn't think first about the many historical documents—from the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence—written in script. I thought of my teachers—and my students. I thought of various slants and loops and scratches. I thought of cross-outs and white-outs and the grayed litter of erasures. I called to mind the script and print and faces of the people whose writing had shaped my own and those whose writing I seek to shape.

 

I thought of the conversations I have with my students' writing, the interaction in margins. Sometimes, it's painful. There are days when I labor for something positive to say before listing areas that need work. Sometimes, it's exhilarating—stars and wows and yes! Sometimes: tears—tears of exhaustion, tears from being moved by an image so perfect I will remember it for years.

 

Responding to student writing is the most time-consuming part of my job. I spend hours most days bent over my desk or dining room table, or sometimes (back aching from the task) slightly reclining in a zero gravity chair, papers in my lap. Hand writing comments (not to mention the time spent waiting for Wite-Out to dry when I fix my own errors) is anything but efficient.

 

I often listen to my colleagues and other teachers talk about ways of making responding to student writing more efficient. Many digitally record their comments, praising apps such as JING, which allows them to make audio or video comments. They tell me it's a time saver and allows students to hear their tone. It's more personal, they tell me. I believe them, but I have never tried the app. Others praise rubrics: the ease of simple checkmarks in boxes. Other colleagues, who exclusively respond on computers or tablets, tell me how much time they save by cutting and pasting. I believe them.

 

Yet I don't want a cut-and-paste relationship with my students. I want to respond to each person as an individual. Of course, I do sometimes write the same instruction in the margins. Yet in those cases, the writing instructs me. If I write a similar comment eight times in a stack of twenty papers, I am reminded there's something I need to do a better job of teaching.

 

I realize how old fashioned I must sound. But I'm no Luddite. I compose on both laptop and desktop computers, sometimes while walking on a treadmill; I respond to student emails on my iPhone and iPad; I listen to audio books on my phone; I keep both paper and electronic calendars; I return calls on my Apple Watch, always reminded of Maxwell Smart on his shoe phone or the Jetsons on their video phones as I ask Siri to make the call and I speak to the screen on my wrist. I embrace many technologies. But I wish to do so mindfully, to weigh what is gained and what is lost when I choose one technology over another.

 

There are certainly gains to moving to digital comments: online responses can save paper; typed or recorded responses prevent students from having to decipher handwriting; video and audio responses allow students to hear the teacher's tone; some teachers may write more in-depth end comments electronically.

 

My own responses to student work increasingly take a hybrid form. For some students, I write marginal comments in blue ink and a long typed end comment. For others, I type a letter and sign my initials at the end. If cursive is no longer taught in many schools, I imagine there are some students who cannot understand my handwritten comments, so even my handwriting has become hybrid: somewhere between printing and cursive. I'm making the shift, even as I resist it.

 

I still handwrite sympathy cards to students and colleagues who have lost a loved one. I also teach a course in epistolary writing in which students read poems, memoirs, stories, and essays composed as letters. I bring in greeting cards, stationary, and postcards, inviting students to write to their loved ones. On National Writing Day, I asked my creative nonfiction students to write tiny personal essays on postcards and send them out. One student reported, "When my mother got the postcard, she called me in tears." For many students, these handwritten notes are a literacy they've never encountered. I have to teach students where to put the address, where to place the stamp.

 

Recently, I invited one of my former teachers, Bill Roorbach, to do a reading and class visit at Saint Joseph's University, where I teach. He drove eight or nine hours from Maine to Pennsylvania. Before he came to class, we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As I stood over sketchbooks and ephemera in display cases, Bill took photos of art on his phone, texting the pictures to his artist wife, Juliet. He didn't have to sketch what he saw, describe it in words, put it in the mail, wait several days for it to arrive, wait for a response. Juliet responded immediately. Such immediate exchanges made possible by technology can strengthen relationships as much as a letter. Still, I want the letters, handwritten.

 

In the Asian Art gallery, I stared at pages from the Qur'an, an intricate illuminated manuscript. I remembered the day I handed back papers and one young woman held a page of my handwritten comments up to the light. "Wow," she said, "your writing is beautiful. It looks like Arabic script." I wish.

 

In my office, just before he visited my class, Bill picked up an enormous volume—over 1,000 pages—of Sylvia Plath's letters.

 

"There's a Plath exhibit now at the National Portrait Gallery," I said, pulling out my phone. I showed him photos from the exhibit: letters—both handwritten and typed, Plath's typewriter, self portraits she'd painted, her girl scout uniform, typed drafts of poems with handwritten corrections, sketches, and her actual ponytail from when she was an adolescent.

 

He turned the hefty volume over and said, "There won't be books like this published much longer. People don't write letters anymore." He paused and looked up. "Well, you do."

 

I showed him The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, facsimiles of her handwritten poetry. I also have the typed versions; her writing can be hard to decode. The experience of reading Dickinson's handwritten poetry is utterly different from reading the same poems typed. The editor of these volumes, R. W. Franklin explains that Dickinson's "poems resist translation into the conventions of print. Formal features like her unusual punctuation and capitalization, line and stanza divisions, and display of alternate readings are a source of continuing critical concern" (ix). I sit with her poems far longer while trying to decipher her handwriting, noticing how she often didn't fully cross a lowercase "t" or seeing how the marks editors often translate as full, strong dashes are barely larger than periods, tiny marks on the page. I feel the poems differently when I read the facsimile. I'm relieved to have both versions.

 

Bill read to my class that afternoon, using my copy of his memoir Temple Stream. The book was bursting with colorful Post-it flags, marked with my handwritten comments in purple Sharpie. He'd taken a picture of the book earlier. After class, a couple students asked him to sign their books. One student, who'd purchased an electronic copy of the book, asked the author to sign his laptop.

 

At my kitchen table later that day, I asked Bill to sign copies of his latest collection of short stories for my friends, the ones to whom I still write handwritten letters. He drew a big heart on each title page, marked a line through his typed name, signed his name, wrote individual inscriptions—each slightly different. Seeing his handwriting brought me back to the first class I took from him in 1996, a creative nonfiction workshop. I learned to write scenes in that class. I can still see it: "More scene!" a spray of words like graffiti across a brick wall of type.

 

Works Cited

 

Dickinson, Emily. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin vol. 1, The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981.

 

Shapiro, T. Rees. "Cursive Handwriting is Disappearing from Public Schools." The Washington Post, April 4, 2013, Washington Post.

 

* This essay was originally published in the Spring, 2018 issue of the Kentucky English Bulletin

 

Melissa A. Goldthwaite, professor of English, teaches rhetorical theory and creative writing (poetry, creative nonfiction, food writing, nature writing) at Saint Joseph's University. Her books include The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, editions five, six, and seven (with Cheryl Glenn); Surveying the Literary Landscapes of Terry Tempest Williams (co-edited with Kate Chandler); The Norton Pocket Book of Writing by Students; The Norton Reader, thirteenth and fourteenth editions (with Peterson, et al.); Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal (co-edited with Jennifer Cognard-Black), The Little Norton Reader: 50 Essays from the First Fifty Years; and Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. Goldthwaite's work has also been published in journals such as College English, Reader, and Writing on the Edge and in numerous books. She earned her MFA in creative writing (1997) and her PhD. (2001) from The Ohio State University.

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Blog # 79 The Action Figures Collection by Guest Blogger Joan Frank

Note:

 

Joan Frank is one of our finest, most prolific writers of fiction and literary nonfiction. And her essay The Action Figures Collection is an homage to those writers whose "graciousness and kindness… seems shockingly to…. transcend…. even the street-level grime of the writing life—the thousand-and-one frustrations and jealousies, the scraping and scrabbling…"

 

It is indeed something that all of us who struggle with our writing need to be reminded of.

 

* I've also just learned that Joan Frank's latest essay collection Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place has won this year's River Teeth Prize for Nonfiction. The University of New Mexico Press will publish the book next year.

 

MJS

 

Blog # 79 The Action Figures Collection by Gues Blogger Joan Frank

 

In an essay for American Theater magazine, playwright Craig Lucas ("Prelude to a Kiss") described finding himself, some years ago, in the middle of a kind of personal renaissance, having just received a wonderful award.

 

Lucas had been given the Greenfield Prize. That meant a $30,000 stipend and a writing residence at a place called the Hermitage, in Englewood, Florida. His life, he cheerfully admitted, was a mess at the time: his marriage done, his work dead-ended. Though he'd overcome alcoholism and addiction, he wasn't sure, at 60, "what kind of character I wanted to play in my third act."

 

The retreat and cash prize gave him what every writer craves: time, space, financial stability. He could sort himself out and make new work. In what feels like a report or evaluation of this windfall experience, his essay tries to convey "the one big surprising thing I learned in my year of reading, contemplation and conversations with the Hermitage staff and fellow artists."

 

I re-read his essay several times, struggling to summarize for myself that "one big surprising thing." I sensed that Lucas wrote the piece in a heightened state. That is to say, he was quite high—a recognizable art colony high, that supremely fertile, alert, all-pores-open period when the very air seems to vibrate and the imagination with it. During that time, delicious possibilities rise to the surface like glistening golden carp, promising to coalesce into something brilliant (if we can just string together the words to finesse the job).

 

Lucas was high on the exquisite freedom and peace of a solitude that's supported and protected by like-minded others, un-impinged-upon by interruptions and demands. He felt he was glimpsing, during that high, What It All Means, and he tries in this essay to tell us:

 

"Self-knowledge ... Trust in others, time, process ... Humility and gratitude [are key] in gaining mastery ... I can't afford the luxuries of self-pity and resentment, privileging me and my work over others."

 

Bad reviews, he adds, "are like weather ... a permanent condition of being an artist." (Lucas had been receiving unfavorable notices for the work that followed "Prelude.") In fact, he declared, bad reviews have freed him "to write what I might otherwise have feared to say."

 

"Art models freedom," he notes, "but you must choose it—and keep choosing it."

 

That got my attention.

 

"We are what we do, not what we say, feel, or intend," he adds. (Italics are mine.)

 

Lucas sensed that the constant trick of making art is to resist being dragged under by "gossip and schadenfreude." Act in aggressive opposition to those reflexes, he suggests. Better art will follow.

 

When I read this essay, it both touched and bothered me. I understood its circumstances and admired its earnestness. Lucas's urgency, surely hard-earned, was inspiring. Yet from experience I know how that foamy, effervescent high in artistic retreat (with all its passionate revelations) can evaporate as we return to the daily, as we resume trying to fit writing into the interstices of life—ducking the slings and arrows.

 

I also recognize that art that matters—rather, art that winds up mattering, since time is the only real arbiter of that—can come from awful people. The books we write are not us, finally—for better and occasionally for worse.

 

But lately I've begun to suspect that Lucas may be onto something—something almost chemical—about "contributing to the common good" and "acting in opposition" to mean or petty reflexes.

 

Believe me, I'm the last person I'd expect to hear saying this.

 

After more time in the life than I like to concede, I've only recently started to figure out (slow learner) that my crabby, covetous fretting hasn't done much to help my work's success. My work has helped my work's success (combined with a near-rabid determination to send it out to as many pairs of eyes as may be willing to glance at it). Increasingly, in fact, my habitually gloomy attitude strikes me as stale, boring, cumbersome, and—most interestingly—completely irrelevant. Of no use at all.

 

At the same time, we've all noticed over the years that there are writers out there whose generosity and kindness are so notorious as to form a legendary piece of their identities. That is, their graciousness seems to so shockingly transcend (even disprove) the street-level grit and grime of the writing life—the thousand-and-one frustrations and jealousies, the scraping and scrabbling—that we remember them for it.

 

You've doubtless met some of the people I'm talking about. The encounter always feels astonishing. They look you in the eye. They offer clear, sensible words of encouragement, and they appear to mean it. They follow through with the help they pledged or the favor you requested. They cheer for you when good things happen for your work. And they seem to manage all this without visible strain, guilt-mongering, or similar complexities—whatever else they may be doing—year after year.

 

In short, their integrity seems real.

 

Lucas grasped that this mind-set (and behavior) works as an antidote to almost everything that can bring us down about the writing life—everything that can make us waste precious time questioning ourselves, and it.

 

Therefore, I want to be like those writers. Or at least bear them in mind, talismanically.

 

Something along the lines of a bumpersticker: What would (name inserted here) do?

 

What if it helped us, as artists, to keep a sort of private roll-call of these exemplars in the backs of our minds—like a collection of those action figures we used to play with as kids, hopping them around on furniture, giving them voices (though of course the mortal models for these figures have well-established voices), telling stories with them?

 

The writers I'm thinking of are in no way, let me hasten to add, Pollyannas. They know the game; they've seen all the cycles. They've wished for the same things we've wished for, that the life parses out so grudgingly: recognition, critical approval, a bit of money. They've even encountered rejection--imagine!

 

So when I propose this, I don't mean to candy-coat the difficulties and random weirdnesses of the life. Also, I do not imagine I can fool the universe into thinking I'm a nice person. The universe is certainly smarter than that―and being a nice person, as noted earlier, doesn't automatically make good art. (Jane Smiley quipped recently, in a list of writing tips, that "you cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.")

 

What I have in mind is re-routing a reflex. Even if those stellar models have been faking it all this time, something gets sparked by that. Function follows form, to a stupendous degree. We are what we do. So whether inside or outside of the haven of an artistic retreat, no matter how my curmudgeon instincts protest, I'll try more, in days ahead, to hold in mind the words and deeds of my action figures collection.

 

I, too, am curious about how that third act turns out.

 

*Joan Frank www.joanfrank.org is the author of eight books of literary fiction and a book of collected essays. Her forthcoming collection, WHERE YOU'RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS, won the 2018 Mary McCarthy Prize for Fiction. Her last novel, ALL THE NEWS I NEED, won the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction. Her book of essays, BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO: A WRITING LIFE, won the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award. She lives in the North Bay Area of California.

 

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Blog # 78 The Book Proposal and the Elephant by Guest Blogger Maureen Stanton

Blog # 78 The Book Proposal and the Elephant

Note:

This is an adaptation of my presentation at Nonfiction Now 2018 in Phoenix, AZ, on a panel called, “Pitching It: The Pros and Cons, Ins and Outs of the Nonfiction Book Proposal.” I’d assembled the panel because, since I first sold a proposal in 2009, I’d been asked many times by fellow writers for advice, or to share my proposal. Back in 2009 when I was crafting my first proposal, I’d found little detailed information, and few models. There was a mystique to the process, as if it were carefully guarded insider information. Now, there are many book proposal guides online--including a template called “The Eazy Schmeazy Nonfiction Book Proposal Template”-- but still, few offer specific details. (The “Eazy-Schmeazy” part is the template; the hard part is filling the blanks with your book idea in a way that will inspire an editor to offer you a contact.) So in the spirit of demystifying the nonfiction book proposal process, I wanted to share some of my experiences.

*
I’ve sold two book proposals, the first for a work of literary journalism, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting (Penguin, 2012) and the second for a memoir, Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2019). But failure was the reason I decided to try to sell a book by proposal in the first place. I had already written two books—a memoir (not the one mentioned above), and a collection of essays, and though each had been finalist in a national contest, and my essays had won awards, I could not sell either manuscript. The memoir went out with two different agents, and I sent the essay collection to nonfiction contests and to many independent and small presses. The process of writing and attempting to publish these two manuscripts represented over a decade of my life. With my next book idea, I thought--maybe I should see if I can sell the idea before I spend years writing a book that will never see the light of day.

A friend had generously shared a copy of her successful proposal, so using that model I drafted a proposal for my book idea—an immersion journalism work that takes readers behind-the-scenes in the subculture of flea markets and antiques (which I called Everything Rich and Strange, but which the publisher ultimately called Killer Stuff and Tons of Money). My then-agent took the proposal out and got a few nibbles, but no offers. Afterward, he stopped returning my phone calls and emails, so I officially broke up with him. After four years of work on the flea market book, I had to decide whether I should stick with this project, or move on to something else. In my heart I knew I had a good story, one that hadn’t been told from an immersion perspective, in a literary style. So I kept writing.

Meanwhile, I sent the proposal to a few other agents. One said I didn’t have a book, just a long article. Another said it needed a different structure—like “boy meets bottle” or “the history of glass” – my focal character collected antique glass and ceramics. I’d quit my first career at 35 to write, and lived on a subsistence income, and had no health insurance for a decade before I’d found a teaching job. At 49, I’d started to think that maybe I didn’t have to be a writer. Maybe my writing life was not meant to be. I was entertaining thoughts of joining the Peace Corps, and had downloaded the application. I’d always wanted to do that, and I discovered that they accept older people.

One day I heard myself giving advice to a student about a memoir. Start in medias res, I’d said; start with a compelling emblematic anecdote. Saying those words triggered an aha moment in me; I realized that I hadn’t taken my own advice in my proposal. I changed the beginning, or the “hook,” and sent the revised proposal—with only the first two paragraphs changed--to another agent. She loved the proposal, sent it out, and within a few weeks I had several offers, and then a contract. (And I missed my opportunity to join the Peace Corps.)

I believe that much of the success of the proposal was the new hook. Below is the original opening of the proposal, followed by the revised opening. Side by side, it’s clear which hook is more compelling:

First Version 2007 (Didn’t sell)

Why would a man spend $464,500 on a single table, basically pieces of wood nailed together (a William and Mary dressing table, c. 1730 from Salem, Massachusetts)? Why would a woman who admittedly never made it to church services instead “religiously” wake at dawn to comb the flea market every Sunday? If you overheard a man say, “I got weak in the knees when I saw that,” would you imagine he was speaking of an 18th century bottle that once held bitters? Why do fifteen million viewers tune in every week–and have done so for eleven years running--to watch people parade junk from their attic on Antiques Roadshow? Why do flea markets persist across cultures and across time? The Bermondsey flea market in London opened in the 13th century and is still operating eight-hundred years later.

Second Version 2009 (Sold)

Curt Avery tiptoes through his own backyard, ducking beneath the kitchen window so that his wife, Linda, doesn’t seem him carrying under his arm--like a recalcitrant child --a three-foot-long, custom-forged tin lobster-ship weathervane. Like an inverse-thief, he is smuggling valuable objects into his house. Antique weathervanes are suddenly a “hot” category–Polo Ralph Lauren executive, Jerry Lauren, just bought a five-foot-tall American Indian weathervane at Sotheby’s for over five million dollars. Avery tucks the oxidized green, slightly dented weathervane inside the door of his basement–there is no other room now that boxes fill the entire space floor to ceiling, an impenetrable mass of stuff. Years ago, there was a pool table in this room, and place for the kids to play. Now, you open the door and are faced with a wall of cardboard boxes.

While I was ecstatic to have a book contract, this anecdote about the hook is also a caveat about selling the “sizzle,” as marketing gurus say. During the process of shopping the proposal, editors I spoke with asked me about the focal character’s marriage, if that storyline would “play through the book,” or if the hoarding would be a story line. The opening, while more dynamic, tilted the angle of the book. I had to walk a fine line when talking to editors because these were not major themes of the book; I didn’t want to invade the privacy of my focal character, or tell stories for which he hadn’t given me permission. He was the guide through this subculture, but the book was not a biography, per se.

Selling a glimpse of a book through a proposal, in that case, meant that my vision for the whole book did not align exactly with the acquiring editor’s vision. My editor wanted a Friday Night Lights type book, full of drama and a strong narrative arc. I wanted a book like Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, more of a tour d’horizon of a subculture. My editor had asked to see the first third of the book when I’d written it, but I was afraid he would discourage the direction in which I was taking the narrative. I worried that disapproving comments from him would block my writing, or weaken my faith in my vision, so I didn’t show him any pages until I’d completed a draft, until I’d laid out my vision entirely on the page.

This strategy, though necessary to my writing, excluded him from the process, and as a result, I think it dampened his enthusiasm for the book. After the first draft, we had a tug of war about the amount of “research bits” between the scenic moments. He wanted zero; I wanted a lot. In the end, we struck the right balance, and the book is better for my editor’s influence and wisdom. But selling the idea on proposal had helped to create a somewhat fraught process. A proposal offers a partial glimpse of a book, and so it can be like that Buddhist parable about three blind men describing an elephant; after touching one part of the beast—trunk, flank, or tail--each man had a wildly different idea of the “elephant.”

I’m not complaining, just cautioning. I’m thrilled to have secured contracts from proposals, and to know my hard work would result in published books (though I still hope my first two manuscripts will be published someday). The bottom line is that the book proposal represents your vision for your book, and that’s something to honor.


Maureen Stanton is the author of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider’s Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques, and Collecting (Penguin Press, 2012), winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2019). Her essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, such as Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, New England Review, Florida Review, and have received the Iowa Review award, the American Literary Review award, the Thomas Hruska award from Passages North, and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing at the UMass Lowell. Her work can be sampled at: Maureenstantonwriter

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Blog #77 How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book by Steven Church, Guest Blogger

Blog # 77

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book*

Note:

This was written for a panel at the 2015 NonfictionNow Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona titled, "Hydra-Headed Memoirs and Well-Connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-Length Nonfiction Thing." As an introduction, I mentioned that I'd written this after, first, hearing yet again that my own "book-length nonfiction thing," was too fragmented and associative and didn't have a unifying narrative line; and, second, after thinking a lot about the challenges of teaching in an MFA program, where we focus on teaching students how to write great essays and then, in their last year, expect them to submit an entire unified "book-length nonfiction thing," but we offer very little instruction on how to actually do that, how to turn that "bag" of essays into a unified book or memoir.

--Steven Church

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book

Step 1: Learn to bake, from scratch, a couple of really good cupcakes—perfect little cakes that share the same basic form and thematic structure of a larger cake, the complete idea for which hasn’t actually formed completely in your head yet, but which exists just beneath the surface of your waking thoughts. Start small. If necessary, pay a lot of money to take some classes and spend two or three years studying how to make a really delicious cupcake from bakers who have made a lot of cupcakes. Learn to appreciate the cupcakes of your peers. Begin to develop a critical appreciation for “cupcakeness.” Teach Freshmen how to make bland, mostly flavorless cupcakes, and spend countless hours assessing the quality of these cupcakes. Mention in casual conversation at parties or to your undergraduate students, that Montaigne was the father of cupcakes.

Step 2: Share your small successful cupcakes with other people who are learning to make cupcakes. Enter them in cupcake contests and post pictures of them on social media. Test your cupcakes against public opinion, subject them to criticism, and make sure they hold up well under scrutiny. Don’t get too excited about the relative success of your cupcakes, but enjoy the feeling of acceptance, and ignore the few people who don’t like your cupcakes. Keep working to perfect your own unique recipe, what some people will call your cupcake, “voice.”

Step 3: Decide that, due to the relative success of your cupcakes, you’d like to make a whole cake, a real cake that a lot of people could eat, something popular with cake-lovers who can afford to buy an entire cake and do so, regularly--perhaps the kind of cake-lovers who host a popular TV show or write cake reviews and organize entire clubs dedicated to cake-loving. Commit to this idea of a whole cake and, when that idea terrifies you, reproduce those small, successful cupcakes again and again, editing out any mistakes and responding to the smallest criticisms from your audience. Make sure those cupcakes are absolutely perfect. Then hide them away in small cupcake cabinets where nobody will eat them.

Step 4: Stay up late. Wake up early. Work on new recipes. Try different flavors. Look admiringly at your cupcakes. Stare at them. Move them around on a plate. Try unique arrangements of your tiny cakes. Stack them up, or spread them out randomly on the table. Put two different cupcakes next to each other, playing around with the juxtaposition of their flavors, because juxtaposition is cool. Take the frosting from one cupcake and put it on another one. Cut a couple of them in half and throw away everything but a suggestive fragment of the original cupcake. But eventually you’ll have to resist the urge to revise your cupcakes further. You’ll have to ignore the nagging thought that, perhaps, you actually enjoy collections of cupcakes as much or more than whole cakes. Don’t listen to the voice in your head telling you that whole cakes are overrated, even if David Shields says, “Cupcakes are dead. Long live the anti-cupcake.” Put your cupcakes back in the container. Leave them there and focus, instead, on teaching other people how to make really great cupcakes.

Step 5: Wait a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or until it’s summer and you have some time to work on this idea of a cake you have. Then pick up your cupcakes again, peel off the wrappers, and hold them in your hands. Marvel at their completeness, their perfect melding of form and function, their manifestation of your refined idea of “cupcakeness.” Post something on Facebook or Twitter about “cupcakeness.” Draw a picture of the larger, whole cake you want to make and tape it to the wall above your desk. Pay other people to talk to you about your idea for a cake. Attend conferences and panels where other cake-makers talk about their successful whole cakes. Taste other cakes that seem similar to the one you want to make, but don’t eat too much or you’ll just decide that your cake has already been made and what’s the point anyway.

Step 6: Take all of your cupcakes—all the different flavors--and cram them together into a big pile of crumbly cake and frosting. Step back. Look at the mess you’ve made. Try not to weep. Instead, using your hands, try to mold the crumbled individual cupcakes into something that resembles a whole cake, but which will actually more closely resembles something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, you must cling to the belief that the cupcakes are like clay and that you can just break them apart and re-shape them into a full-size cake, into something that other smart, professional cake-lovers can look at and say, “Yes. That is a cake,” so you keep squeezing the mess of cupcakes, pressing it into different forms and shapes; but nothing seems to work, and it keeps falling apart in your hands. Sometimes you think maybe you have enough material to make two whole cakes, so you try that for a while until your hands are sticky and everything is all mixed up. This doesn’t work either, but you keep doing it for a few months or a few years; and when other people ask what you’re working on, you tell them, “Oh, you know. Just this cake,” and when they ask what kind of cake, you say, “It’s kind of hard to describe.”

Step 7: Wash your hands, rinse, and repeat.

*This essay has been previously published by Assay and Brevity.

Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: on Work, Fear, and Fatherhood. He edited the recently released anthology of essays, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School and he is a founding editor of The Normal School: a Literary Magazine. He coordinates the MFA Program at Fresno State
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Blog # 76 The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past by Michael Steinberg

Blog # 76 The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past by Michael Steinberg

Note: This month’s piece, “The Role of Imagination in Interpreting/Understanding the Past” is taken from a talk I gave last week at the NonfictionNOW conference in Phoenix. It was part of a panel called “Alternate Histories". MJS

I

…at its finest, nonfiction possesses enormous imaginative reach, transporting us beyond mere testimony or reportage.--Blake Morrison


The first statement from our panel’s proposal is about memoir and interpretations of the past. It pecifically states, “imaginative interpretations better help us understand the past.”

And the example I’ll use is Leap, Terry Tempest Williams memoir/work of cultural criticism, a book that examines Hieronimous Bosch’s painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” and analyzes the author’s Mormon past.

Leap is the kind of personal memoir and literary exploration that chronicles the evolution of the author’s growth of understanding as she confronts and interprets events, acts, and artifacts in the personal, historical, and/or cultural past.

More specifically, in Leap, a spiritual memoir/work of personal cultural criticsm, Williams offers us an extended meditation on passion, faith, and imagination--a meditation that comes out of an almost out-of-body experience she underwent at the El Prado museum in Madrid when she first viewed Hieronymus Bosch's medieval triptych, “The Garden of Delights.”. (See Figure 1 at the left)

Williams explores and examines the painting with intense curiosity, perception, and imagination; and in the process discovers parallels between the artist's prophecies and her own personal experiences as a Mormon and a naturalist.

The painting’s three panels depict vibrant, complex, images of paradise, hell, and earthly delights. Bosch’s painting becomes the catalyst for Williams’s book length meditation on her childhood and the questioning of her Mormon faith, as well as for her reflections on her marriage and her career as a natural history writer.

Poet/memoirist Mark Doty, claims that “Leap’s spiritual, intellectual, and emotional journey”… allows Williams “to examine, at the deepest level, her own Mormon upbringing as well as opening the reader’s eyes to the beauties of the natural world.”

Another commentator on the book writes, “the title, Leap, can even be seen as a metaphor for the leap of faith and imagination that Williams employs to understand and make better sense of her inner (and outer) worlds through art and nature.”

I mention both because later on in Leap, Williams writes,


"This is my living faith, a faith of verbs: to question, explore, experiment, experience, walk, run, dance, play, eat, love, dare, taste, touch, smell, listen, argue, speak, write, read, draw, provoke, emote, scream, sin, repent, cry, kneel, pray, bow, rise, stand, look, laugh, cajole, create, confront, confound, walk back, walk forward, circle, hide, and seek."


It’s a powerful, emotional, statement about writing, about life and love, and about the imagination and the intellect. And it’s also a example, as I said earlier, of how “imaginative interpretations” can change the way we think about the matters we explore by altering our perceptions and understanding of them.

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It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living--V.S. Pritchard

A second statement from the panel’s proposal is, “In this panel, we we’ll consider how creative nonfiction can treat the past as both contingent and knowable through imaginative interventions and innovations in form.”

Contingent” means “subject to chance,” “accidental,” “dependent upon.” And as Bob Root writes, “It suggests that through our nonfiction writing we can come to understand that what happened in the past was not as inevitable as it seemed; and that our feelings about situations, people, and events--and our comprehension of them--might also be subject to change.”

In addition to the writing however, I believe that the shaping of a given work is, at least in part, what makes the contingencies of the past “knowable.” And for that, I’ll cite Joni Tevis’s The Wet Collection.

One commentator writes, “Using models as like Joseph Cornell’s box constructions, crazy quilts, and specimen displays, Joni Tevis places fragments in relationship to each other in order to puzzle out lost histories, particularly those of women.”

And another maintains, The Wet Collection is “{s}omewhere between prose poems and historical nonfiction.”

In this essay/memoir collection of lyric prose, the pieces range from Tevis’s concerns with women’s history and the Bible, to her own family history, matters of geology and marginal forms of art.

What’s additionally impressive is Tevis’s arrangement of an eclectic mix of thoughts, stories and facts as a way of exploring the past--as well as, I’ll add, the present and future.

Though the book is wide-ranging and deliberately fragmented, the collection is a collage of interconnected thoughts, ideas, reflections and projections.

It’s a book, in other words, that works as an aesthetic whole, By which I mean that it produces a unified impression of a curious, playful, and probing mind and imagination at work.

When she talks about the contingencies of the past,Tevis, just as Williams does in Leap, makes the past knowable both through the writing and through the way she arranges and shapes the pieces in the book.

As a third commentator on The Wet Collection writes, “Reading this book is like taking a guided tour of an eclectic museum with an imaginative storytelling docent."

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We must acquiesce to our gift to transform our {past} experience into meaning and value --Patricia Hampl

Transform is, I believe, the operative word here. And Patricia Hampl, I suspect, is using it to describe how in literary memoir, and in other forms of creative nonfiction, the way we use our imagination does indeed change our perceptions, interpretations, and understanding of the past.

When writing about the past, often the catalyst is some sort of personal situation or event. But it has to go beyond that. Which, once again, s where the imagination comes in.

Whatever experience the narrator might have had, whatever it might be that the narrator has to say about him/herself, those stories need to be transformed into something that's meaningful beyond the self’s personal experience. Once a given situation or an event, or possibly even a relationship, has been transformed, at some point then, it stops being about the “I” .

Which is true, I believe, for Leap and The Wet Collection. Where Williams uses a medieval triptych as the catalyst for reflection, projection, and meditation on/about her own past history, Tevis's lyric ruminations on objects, artifacts, and events from the past grow from the way in which she shapes her individual essay/memoirs, in addition to how she arranges the those pieces in the collection.

Let me conclude then, with this quote from the fine fiction writer David Maloof, who 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."

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Blog# 75 Her Wedding Ring: The Key to Interpreting Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life" by Marion Winik

Note: *This month guest in Marion Winik, the well-known NPR commentator.

” Lu Chi writes in his classic The Art of Writing, “the whole mountain glistens.” Likewise, a single detail can reveal the meaning and mystery of a scene, an essay, or a book.

The above quote was taken from a panel talk given at the AWP convention in Washington DC two years ago. Marion Winik’s beautifully crafted, incisive craft essay was originally part of that panel whose title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction.”

MJS

* Marion Winik’s latest book is The Baltimore Book of the Dead, was just released by Counterpoint.


Blog # 75 Her Wedding Ring: The Key to Interpreting Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life”
by Marion Winik

Cheryl Strayed published her essay “The Love of My Life,” in the Sun in 2002. It was then selected by Anne Fadiman for Best American Essays, then it became the basis of the memoir of her journey on the Pacific Coast Trail, Wild – though the hike gets just a few sentences in the original piece. And while the memoir encompasses the period of promiscuity Strayed went through after her mother’s death, the essay gives a much more intense version of that experience, transgressive and raw, with harsh, profane language much softened in the bestseller version.

And here’s something interesting. Despite the expanded length of the narrative, there’s a little piece of the story that’s disappeared: the story of Strayed’s losing her mother’s wedding ring.

Yet Strayed’s mother’s wedding ring is the vein of jade, the gorgeous central detail, in “The Love of My Life” – it appears early on, and becomes the focal point at the ending, though I would argue that when Strayed wrote this essay, she didn’t fully comprehend its role.

Here’s the first line of “The Love of My Life.” “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” Flirting with an unappealing sounding man in a Minneapolis café, “I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.”

Right away, she begins fiddling with her rings. She is wearing two of them, her own and her mother’s, which she put on at her mother’s deathbed.

Now the two rings are side by side – her connection to her husband and her connection to her mother are contiguous. And in fact, the essay is about how the emotions and obligations of these two relationships spilled into each other, and how for several years of her life, she behaved in a way that betrayed them both.

In the next few paragraphs, she leaves the café with this older man, despite the fact that she feels might be a murderer, and goes to a parking lot behind the building, where he presses her against a brick wall and instead of kissing her bites her mouth so hard she screams. “You lying cunt,” he says, and flings her away from him.

“I stood, unmoving, stunned. The inside of my mouth began to bleed softly. Tears filled my eyes. I want my mother, I thought. My mother is dead. I thought this every hour of every day for a very long time: I want my mother. My mother is dead.”

And with that, she says, was the beginning: the beginning of her life as a slut.

The next part of the essay describes her involvement and debasement with men she referred to by titles: the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Technically Still a Virgin Mexican Teenager, the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer, the Quietly Perverse Poet, the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider, the Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy, later Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin. Most of these people were men, she explains; some were women.

Attempting to clarify how this came about, she explained that she was not able to enjoy sex with her husband after her mother’s diagnosis. In the middle of intercourse she would start sobbing uncontrollably, while begging him to keep going. “But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He loved me. Which was mysteriously, unfortunately, precisely the problem.

“I wanted my mother.

“We aren’t supposed to want our mothers that way, with the pining intensity of sexual love, but I did, and if I couldn’t have her, I couldn’t have anything. Most of all I couldn’t have pleasure, not even for a moment. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality.”

And, apparently, the converse is also true – to experience sexual debasement is to affirm it.

Eventually, she confesses what she’s been doing to her husband and they separate. He starts seeing other women. Cheryl starts doing heroin, gets pregnant, has an abortion. By now three years have gone by. She is 25. By this point in her life, she says, “I had intended to have a title of my own: The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer. I wasn’t anywhere close. I was a pile of shit.”

She and Mark file for divorce, and she begins planning her “long walk.” One thousand, six hundred and thirty-eight miles, to be exact. Alone.

Right before she begins her journey, she takes off her own wedding ring and puts it in a box and moves her mother’s wedding ring from her right hand to her left. Then that night, on the way to the trailhead, she pulls over and sleeps in the back of her truck beside a river.

“In the morning, I decided I would perform something like a baptism to initiate this new part of my life. I took my clothes off and plunged in.”
When she gets out of the water, the ring is gone.
“I leaned forward and put my hands into the water and held them flat and open beneath the surface. ... I was no longer married to Mark. I was no longer married to my mother.

“I was no longer married to my mother. I couldn’t believe that this thought had never occurred to me before: that it was her I’d been faithful to all along, and that I couldn’t be faithful any longer.”

So she’s reiterating what she said in the beginning -- faithfulness to her mother consisted of having sex without pleasure, of acting out her grief as self-destruction.
Here’s the final passage of the essay.


"IF THIS WERE fiction, what would happen next is that the woman would stand up and get into her truck and drive away. It wouldn’t matter that the woman had lost her mother’s wedding ring, even though it was gone to her forever, because the loss would mean something else entirely: that what was gone now was actually her sorrow and the shackles of grief that had held her down. And in this loss she would see, and the reader would know, that the woman had been in error all along. That, indeed, the love she’d had for her mother was too much love, really; too much love and also too much sorrow. She would realize this and get on with her life. There would be what happened in the story and also everything it stood for: the river, representing life’s constant changing; the tiny blue flowers, beauty; the spring air, rebirth. All of these symbols would collide and mean that the woman was actually lucky to have lost the ring, and not just to have lost it, but to have loved it, to have ached for it, and to have had it taken from her forever. The story would end, and you would know that she was the better for it. That she was wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, most of all, finally starting down her path to glory.

But this isn’t fiction and losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not ok. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to."

I have always thought there was something wrong with this passage, that she’s giving fiction a bad rap. She says that if the story were fiction, losing the ring would symbolize a passage or a release. But in all honesty, in real life it does that, too. It is a passage, it is a release, and she IS wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, as we all know, starting down her path to glory, to the identity she always intended.

But it’s not because she lost the ring – it’s because she told the story of losing the ring.

The only difference between the fictional version she’s mocking and the real version of what happened is the little blue flowers and the spring air. Perhaps it didn’t free her from pain right then and there, but it freed her from the idea of using her body to express pain.

I think it’s significant that she has now taken off BOTH rings, her husband’s and her mothers, and that taking off both of them was necessary to escape the merger of the two relationships that made her think of her mother as her lover and her wife, which she expressed in her life as a slut. She may say the symbols aren’t colliding – I say they are.

When she drives away from the ring in the river, she is driving away from the tyranny of her love for her mother – and driving toward becoming a writer, a reality in which you do ultimately bear the very truth you say you cannot bear.

The transition from using self-destruction and alienated sex as a means of grieving, to becoming a person who tells a story about that, a person who gives her mother her ring and even her marriage a second life on the page – that is the epiphany that gave us Cheryl Strayed, The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer.

In 2006 Strayed published Torch, a novelized version of her mother’s death. Wild followed five years later. In the memoir, this incident – the loss of the ring at the beginning of the hike -- has disappeared.

Maybe this is because it’s done its job.



Marion Winik is the author of The Baltimore Book of the Dead, new from Counterpoint, a sequel to The Glen Rock Book of the Dead (2008). A longtime contributor to All Things Considered, she is the author of First Comes Love, Highs in the Low Fifties, and seven other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com has received the "Best Column" and "Best Humorist" awards from Baltimore Magazine, and her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Sun and many other publications. She is the host of The Weekly Reader radio show and podcast, based at the Baltimore NPR affiliate. She reviews books for Newsday, People, and Kirkus Review and is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. More info at marionwinik.com.  Read More 

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Blog # 74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview with Michael Steinberg

Blog #74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview

Note:

This month’s blog is an interview I did for Writers in the Trenches.
Writers in the Trenches is a series of interviews with a variety of writers across the genres. You can find this interview and others on writer Faye Rapoport’s blog, Musings on Writers, Writing, Literature, the Writer’s Life
Fayerapoportdespres.com

MJS


1) Writers in the Trenches:
As the founding editor of the prominent literary journal Fourth Genre, an award-winning essayist, and a teacher in both formal and informal settings, you have played a significant role in the advancement of creative nonfiction as a modern American literary genre. How has the genre evolved since you entered the scene?

MS:
The genre has evolved and expanded greatly since I started the journal in 1999. For the first five-seven years, the majority of our submissions were personal narratives—some segmented, but mostly chronological. And we also ran a handful of lyric essays. Other pieces we accepted were examples of good literary/investigative journalism; strong pieces of personal/cultural criticism. For the most part though, we were reading and publishing Montaignian personal essays and stand-alone literary memoirs.

If you look at a copy of the journal today, you’ll find a different literary landscape. We are, I believe, in the midst of a paradigm shift, one that’s very similar to what we’ve been seeing in the other fine arts--music, visual art, theater, and dance. Representative works of creative nonfiction would include examples of mixed media, graphic; and video essays; cross genre and hybrid/interactive forms, in addition to essays on/about gender, ethnicity, and identity, as well as pieces on/about political, social, and cultural issues and works of scholarship, ethnography, and research. That’s quite a dramatic shift.

2.) Your memoir, Still Pitching, is far more than a baseball story. Many readers are surprised at how much they enjoy the book even if they're not baseball fans. Now, interestingly, you're working on a book that explores that connection between baseball and writing. Can you summarize what you've discovered about that connection in a paragraph or two?

--I make no claims for baseball being a metaphor for life, for writing, or for anything else, really. My speculation is that being a relief pitcher, a closer, for some fifteen years, and then a player/manager for a fast pitch softball team for fifteen others, taught me the value of perseverance, resilience, discipline and determination, among other things (like how to handle the kinds of disappointments that are a part of anyone’s writing life). These qualities, as well as my having both an analytical and imaginative bent, have served me well as a writer—in my case, a writer of personal essays and literary memoirs.

3.) Your personal essay "Chin Music," which was chosen as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2010, is one of my favorite essays to teach to undergraduates. From the setting to the voice, from the nested structure to the careful balance between scene and reflection, "Chin Music" is rich in literary technique. How long did it take you to write that essay?

--“Chin Music” took some five plus years to complete. In its first incarnation, the entire piece was composed of one long scene that now forms the middle section. It was a description of a confrontation between a young narrator and an anti-Semitic baseball coach.

In real life, the scene might have lasted maybe 30 seconds or a minute; but in early drafts, it was some ten pages long. To increase the tension and immediacy of the scene, the narrator uses only the present tense. Yet, on its own, the piece was no more than one long scene. I knew it needed a frame (a prologue and an epilogue), and a larger point of some sort. So I put the piece away for while.

Over a period of years, I went back to it. And each time, I tried a different frame. But none of them, I could tell, were the right fit. Then a little later on, I had a classroom confrontation with a difficult student. And at some point, I lost my composure As a result, he embarrassed me (and rightly so) in front of my own class. Of course, I was disappointed in myself; but still, I walked away from that encounter knowing that I’d finally found the frame that the piece needed. And once I knew that much, it took me only a couple of hours to write the prologue and epilogue. At the same time, I was also able to connect the new transitions to that long middle scene.

4.) The popular textbook Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited by you and Robert Root, went through six editions. How has creative nonfiction evolved since the initial publication of that text?

Note--I answered this in question one. You might want to combine the anthology and journal by simply mentioning that the anthology came out in 1998 and the journal’s first issue was a year and a half later, in 1999.

5.) I love the title of your most recent collection: Greatest Hits and Some That Weren't. Which ones "weren't," and why?

--The collection’s title has since changed. Now it’s Living in Michigan Dreaming Manhattan.

But here’s the answer to your question:
To my mind, the greatest hits were the personal essay/memoirs that were chosen as Notables in BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, along with a piece that was chosen for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and a couple of others that had won smaller awards and/or were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The remaining essay/memoirs, “Those that Weren’t,” were works I’d published that didn’t achieve anything more than publication. Which, honestly, for the likes of me, is recognition enough.

6.) One of the things you've often talked about is your satisfaction, as a writer, with being a "voice in the choir." This interview series is for writers in the trenches who struggle to stay inspired, keep writing, and avoid giving in to discouragement. What do you say to discouraged writers who feel as if they will never find "success?"

--This question connects nicely with the last line of my reply to the previous one. Anyone who continues to write knows that rejection and disappointment come with the territory. In fact, both are givens. To expand on that notion a bit, I’m going to cite a quote from the playwright/essayist, David Mamet.

Above my writing desk, Mamet’s quote reads:

"If you intend to follow the truth in yourself--to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity--you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And, if you persevere, the Theater, which you are learning to serve will grace you, now and then, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know."

Where Mamet has written “the Theater,” I’ve substituted “the writing life.” And I take his words “persevere,” “discipline,” and “simplicity” to mean the truth that emerges from one’s most honest and unequivocal writing. And that’s is the kind of success that means the most to me.

#

Founding editor of Fourth Genre, Michael Steinberg has written and co-authored seven books and a stage play. Still Pitching won the 2003 ForeWord Magazine Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is in a sixth edition. He’s a writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor College MFA program. Read More 

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Blog # 73. Re-thinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl's "Memory and Imagination" by Michael Steinberg

Note:

“Re-thinking Literary Memoir “ was originally a panel talk I did at the 2017 AWP convention in Washington DC. The panel’s title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction. It was about how “the perfect, telling detail” illuminates works of literary nonfiction." In my craft essay, I 've extended “the perfect, telling detail” to include selected passages and scenes.

MJS


Blog # 73. Rethinking the Literary Memoir: Some Notes on Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination” by Michael Steinberg

Memoir isn’t for reminiscence; it’s for exploration. - Patricia Hampl

Some years ago as part of my preparation for an upcoming memoir workshop, I was rereading Patricia Hampl’s “Memory and Imagination,” a marvelous personal/critical essay I’d first encountered some twenty-five years ago. The original essay was published at just about the same time as the literary memoir was starting to receive more attention.

Back then I remember being struck by Hampl’s inventive approach to composing a literary memoir. And even more so in my current rereading of the essay.

Early on in “Memory and Imagination,” Hampl is discussing the early draft of a short piece, an essay/memoir that, according to her, wasn’t working. She begins by depicting, in very specific detail, a scene from the draft about her first piano lesson.

At the end of the scene–which Hampl describes as “a moment”–she asks herself why she’d remembered that particular incident (the piano lesson) and not other, more vivid, and possibly. more dramatic, childhood stories. She then tells us, “When I reread what I had written just after I finished it, I realized that I’d told a number of lies.”

In my rereading, this is where I became even more curious to find out where Hampl’s essay was headed.

As she reflects on that disclosure, Hampl also questions why she had invented the details of that piano lesson, an incident she says she had no recollection of. Next, she tells us that up until she’d written about that “moment,” she had believed that memoir was “a transcription, a faithful, accurate, rendition of a period or incident” from her past.

I have to admit that back when I started to teach and write memoir, I too believed something similar. And so did my students.

For many years in my memoir workshops, a majority of the autobiographical works, both by experienced and aspiring writers, were, for the most part, straightforward, chronological pieces-- narratives that attempted to reproduce the facts and literal events of a given story. And when I was editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre, a good number of well-written, even compelling memoirs, that missed the cut, were also chronological and fact-based narratives; works that didn’t dig deep enough and/or go beyond the telling of a given story’s situations and events.

I was thinking about those things as I was reading the next few pages of “Memory and Imagination.” And here is where Hampl began to interrogate her own reasons for writing about the piano lesson. “I must admit,” she says, “that I invented that scene.

But why?” she asks herself–before answering, “Two whys; why did I invent? And then, if a memoirist must invent rather than transcribe, why do I–why should anybody–write memoir at all?”

Hampl’s question stopped me in my tracks. Because as he goes on to say, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know. I write in order to find out what I know.”

To which she adds: “That’s why I’m a strong advocate of the first draft. And why it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what a first draft really is.”

This is the moment in my rereading of “Memory and Imagination” when I seriously began to re-examine my approach to teaching (and writing) memoir.

By “first draft,” Hampl is referring once again to the piano lesson–the scene she’d just described as “invention and lies.” This discovery she tells us, subsequently became the catalyst for her next draft, which she explains, is “an entirely different piece altogether.”

Which of course in retrospect now makes perfect sense.

Hampl goes on to say, “No, it isn’t the lies themselves that makes the piano memoir a first draft...” before adding that, “the real trouble is that the piece hasn’t yet found its subject; it isn’t about what it wants to be about…. what it wants, not what I want.”

Right then, I understood something I’d been feeling for a long time both about my students’ and my own work–something I’d been unable to articulate or pin down.

“The difference,” Hampl maintains, “has to do with the relation a memoirist–any writer, in fact–has to unconscious or half-known intentions or impulses…”

When I’d first read “Memory and Imagination,” I was neither experienced nor savvy enough to make the connection between the works my students were producing and the short piano lesson fragment Hampl was struggling with.

But, some twenty-plus years later, I now understand it. Because in my rereading of her essay, it became clear that Hampl’s disclosure about lying isn’t meant to give students permission to make things up.

Quite the contrary. In addition to expanding their thinking on/about memoir, Hampl is encouraging aspiring memoirists to make fuller use of their imaginations.

A few paragraphs later, Hampl writes, “We must acquiesce to our gift to transform our experience into meaning and value…” before adding, “You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.”

“Transform” is the operative word here. And to emphasize it, Hampl ends the segment of “Memory and Imagination” by telling us that, “True memoir is an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”

That last line segues to a more expansive, complex, and philosophical discussion on/about memoir’s range and scope. In the second half of the essay then, Hampl turns her attention to explaining and illustrating memoir’s potential to focus on important human concerns, as well as to engage with larger historical, social, cultural issues.

It seems to me that my sense of memoir as a legitimate form of literature might well have been altered, maybe even have been shaped, by what Hampl had written years ago in “Memory and Imagination.”

And for a long time afterward, those not-yet fully-understood insights continued to inform a good deal of what I’ve learned both about writing and teaching. Now, after rereading the essay, many of those beliefs have been clarified and confirmed.

I say this because shortly after I’d finished “Memory and Imagination,” I could see more clearly what had been missing from both my students’ work and from the “almost’s” we’d turned down at Fourth Genre. Those chronological memoirs I’d been reading were, in effect, first drafts; drafts, in other words, that had been shaped too soon; works, as Hampl had suggested, that haven’t yet “transformed…experience into meaning and value.”

While the overall question of “why write memoir” was what guided my re-reading of “Memory and Imagination,” I could also see that the essay was helping to remind me how important it is for us to learn more about what it means to read like a writer; to read a work from the inside-out; to read, that is, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how and why selected details, scenes, and images serve the writer’s intent, while at the same time contributing to that work’s overall shape and design.

This is, I believe, what Annie Dillard is getting at when she talks what it means to “fashion a text.”

And this is, after all, what all of us--teaching memoirists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers--aspire to accomplish in our own works, at the same time as we’re encouraging our students to do the same.

Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction has written, co-authored and/or edited six books and a stage play. In 2003/04, Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/Independent Press Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is now in a sixth edition. His latest book is Living In Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan: Selected Essays and Memoirs 1990-2015

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#72 “Why Would She Write About That?” by Suzanne Strempek Shea

Introductory Note:

Patricia Hampl once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “You give me your story, I get mine.”

This month’s guest, Suzanne Strempek Shea, a very fine fiction writer, journalist, and memoirist, picks up on Hampl's notion by using an anecdote from a grade school writing assignment as the catalyst for an essay about finding narratives we're passionate about as well as the importance of connecting readers to those narratives.

In the body of her piece, “Why Would She Write About That?” “Suzanne says, “As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride.”

MJS

#72 "Why Would She Wrtie About That?" by Suzanne Strempek Shea

“Get out your tablets.”

Upon that direction, kids nowadays reach for the ever-present iPad. But in 1970, during seventh-grade English class at my Western Massachusetts parochial school, tablet was nunspeak for those ruled pads of paper with that black-and-white faux-marble cover. The word also meant it was time to write. We’d lift the hinged lids of wooden school desks so old they included a well for ink, and at which many of our parents sat when they’d been our ages. We’d retrieve our tablets, and sharpened pencils, and would begin to write. Once done, we’d be invited stand at what Sister Lucentia called the lectern, and would share our work.


Lectern was in our vocabulary thanks to Sister, but of course we wouldn’t have used the term “work” for our creations, that being where our fathers went off to each morning, dressed in Dickies and carrying lunch in a brown paper bag. We’d also not have used “share,” unless being guilted into relinquishing an extra section of Almond Joy to a classmate, but never as in “Oh, when you shared your work, I was incredibly moved.” So let’s just say that anybody in class brave enough walked to the lectern to read the resulting essay, getting it out of the way before Sister forced every one of us up there in her usual gruff by-the-surname manner.

Seventh grade marked both the first essay I remember writing, and, at that lectern, giving my first public reading. Sure, for an entire year already, I’d been publisher (and reporter and illustrator and designer and distributor) of The Nutty News, a newspaper I created for my parents every Saturday night while they went out polka dancing. So I was published -“Circulation 1”, as noted on the masthead of the copy I left for my parents at the back door, as if the paperboy had been by. But nobody ever had heard me read until the September day I was propelled to the lectern by a freak storm of unusual confidence in both my ability to stand in front of 30 kids, and in what I had written in my tablet.

The assignment had been the usual “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” I wrote of a family camping trip in Vermont during which I spent a sunny afternoon floating on my back down a stretch of the tree-lined West River. Despite all the stuff my family has held onto over the years (Anyone for the foot-long braid chopped off my head when I craved a mod style during the Nutty News era?), the tablet somehow isn’t in the archives, so I can’t quote. But I do recall describing the rocks in the water, and the effort of dodging them, the joy of lingering in the deep pool at the end of the faster stretch, and hiking back up the shady access road to do it all again. I don’t recall the prose as extremely descriptive, or there being any action beyond the floating and noticing, then the trek up to start another round of it. There certainly was no arc to the story, no realization or resolution, no reaching out to anyone beyond me. Yet the piece felt like something real, a sensation as fresh as the river. Standing up there, I was proud, something we weren’t supposed to be about anything at all, other than, say, being a member of the One True Church.

My vocations had never wavered from horse trainer and artist, so I can’t say this was the moment I knew of my eventual career destiny. But there indeed was something happening as I lifted my eyes from the lines of Bic-blue to the rows of scarlet woolen blazers before me, and to the raised hand of Tad Nowacki, who never, ever raised his hand except to request what usually would be a lengthy visit to the lavatory (another of Sister’s words).

“You want to be next, Nowacki?” Sister sneered, surprised as the rest of us at the possibility.

“Nah. I just want to say it’s no big deal.”

“What?”

“It’s no big deal what she wrote. I float down the Swift every weekend. On an old door. It’s no big deal. Why would she write about that?”

All the kids laughed.

Maybe you were expecting that in a childhood memory of creativity offered to the maws of the masses, and while it did spark an embarrassed blush that by the time I got back to my seat matched my blazer, it’s not what, 48 years later, makes this experience stick in my mind. Neither does the image of gangly Nowacki and his door swirling down our village’s not-so-swift Swift River. It’s that while Sister Lucentia might have made us write essays, via his questions, the kid who usually was staring out the window ended up teaching me something vital about writing: it’s essential for a writer to see a subject as a big deal, and to write it so it might become vital to others. Let me add that though he taught me that then, I caught on fully only through decades of trial and error.

I could have an idea, but was it one that excited me? That question was key. I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, and have freelanced for the past 23, and not every story I’ve been assigned has made me run joyously to the interview or research. But if I were assigned something up my alley, or – better - if my editor okayed a story I’d pitched because I was wildly interested in it: nirvana. As I tell students now, usually while looking down at a classroom’s gray industrial carpeting, “If I assign you 5,000 words on gray industrial carpeting, and it’s really not your thing, it’s probably going to take you forever to write something even halfway decent. But if gray industrial carpeting is what you love most in this world, you’ll have the piece delivered in about three minutes, and it’ll be great.” Maine writer Lewis Robinson often repeats sage advice he received along these lines: “Write what you can’t shut up about.” And I often repeat Lewis Robinson. If the story idea ignites something in you – excitement, joy, horror, disgust – anything on the high end of the emotion scale – I’m betting you’re going to do a fine job on it. So Tad Nowacki was right on there. The reader wants to share your perspective that the subject is a big deal. But it’s not enough that the piece thrills you alone.

Think of the poor parent proffering a pic of their new and rather run-of-the-mill infant. They’re so in love and are looking at you with hope-filled eyes, asking “Isn’t she the most gorgeous thing?” You see the parent’s besottedness, but you don’t get why. As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride. We need to connect with our readers, and to do so organically, skipping that whole hitting them over the head part. We should ask the question that stymied Tad Nowacki: “Why would she write about that?” If the answer is because you really love pierogi or politics, that’s not enough. If you’re putting a story out there, it’s out there for others to read. So part of the deal is that if there’s something about your idea that shockingly powers you to the metaphorical lectern that is publication of any kind, you’ve gotta leave readers with a doggie bag.

As the literary bumper sticker says, just because it happened to you (or to someone or something else), doesn’t make “it” a story. It’s writing-cliché, but it’s true: the personal must be universal. My float down the river made Tad shrug, maybe because it was my point of view, and one particular place. What if I’d thought to widen it to imagine myself as just one of many kids enjoying that summer pastime, in Vermont, back home in Massachusetts, and wherever else there were rivers to enjoy? It’s totally possible that Tad still might not have felt connected, that maybe he was just a jerk. But making the personal big-deal universal, and solidly illustrating why the story needs to exist can save it from the linty environs of the navel-gazing category. The universal needs to be employed so regularly that you should feel compelled to fund its 401K. It’s at work in my essay about growing up one floor above my maternal grandparents, which gets into plenty of the personal but also looks at the riches resulting from daily contact with another generation, especially with one that began life in another country and for whom emigration was crucial to survival. It’s there in my book about an Irish guidance counselor who began a medical clinic in Malawi in memory of a late son, a story that offers the specifics of her journey but includes those of others who ultimately gave months and years to working there, others who underlined that we all have something to give, wherever we are. In a magazine piece about a draft horse sanctuary, I detailed the backstories of the herd’s members and the effort’s founder, which I feel could mirror those of any beings involved in any circle of rescue and renewal. In my most personal piece of writing, a book on my radiation treatment for breast cancer, I certainly ventured down the various emotional rivers on which I was floating, but heard from strangers that ever-universal honesty made that intimate trip resonate, that I wasn’t alone in wanting to head back to the store to return with the “gift” of cancer, and in having no cheery life lesson I wished as a tattoo.

And I tried to do the same in this piece, which ends as I hold forth a doggie bag I hope will have you pondering what you want to bring to the lectern that is the journal page, the computer screen, the book series. Whatever the project, I urge you to head off at the pass any Tad Nowackis by choosing a subject for which you have passion, and by making room for others as you consider how to write it. Then you can stand proud, the only hands raised belonging to readers genuinely engaged and affected. And that, indeed, is a big deal.

*Tad Nowacki is a pseudonym.
*Suzanne Strempek Shea is not. Learn more about her at suzannestempekshea.com.

Suzanne Strempek Shea began writing fiction in her spare time while working as a reporter at The Springfield (Massachusetts) Newspapers in the early 1990s. She since has published twelve books, including novels, memoirs, biographies and an anthology. Her freelance journalism, creative nonfiction and fiction has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Irish Times, Yankee, Golf World, Down East, The Bark, Organic Style and ESPN the Magazine. She was a regular contributor to Obit magazine. Suzanne is a member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing and is writer-in-residence and director of the creative writing program at Bay Path University. Previously, she taught in the MFA program at Emerson College and in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. She has also taught at the Curlew Writers Conferences in Howth and Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne leads the annual summer writing seminar in Dingle offered through Bay Path University’s MFA program in nonfiction. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, the writer Tommy Shea, and their two dogs, Otis and Dot.


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