Mary Elizabeth Pope, Guest Blogger


Michael Steinberg

Diagram of the Wheel. See Blog No. 10

Bio Note

Michael Steinberg is the founding editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
Steinberg has written, co-written and edited five books and a stage play. In addition, his essays and memoirs have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies.
In 2004, Foreword Magazine chose Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir of the Year. And, the Association of American University Presses listed it in “Books Selected for School Libraries.”
Other titles include, Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From Michigan—a finalist for the 2000 Forward Magazine Independent Press Anthology of the Year and the 2000 Great Lakes Book Sellers Award; and an anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/​on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited with Robert Root, now in its sixth edition.

He has also been a guest writer and teacher at many colleges and universities, as well as at several national and international writers’ conferences, including the Prague Summer Writing Program, the Paris Writers’ Conference, The Kachemak Bay/​Alaska Writers’ Conference, the Geneva Writers’ Conference, and the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, among several others.
Currently, he's writer-in-residence at the Solstice/​Pine Manor low-residency MFA program.


CONTESTS: LITERARY JOURNALS AND BOOKS

Literary Journals

Solstice Creative Nonfiction Prize Solstice.

Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize Fourth Genre.

Missouri Review Editor's Prize Missouri Review.

New Letters, Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize New Letters.

Crab Orchard Review John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize Crab Orchard.

"Talking Writing", a fine online journal for writers is running a contest prize for fiction and nonfiction. For more information, go to Talking Writing.

BOOKS

River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize River Teeth.

Breadloaf/​Bakeless Contest Breadloaf.

AWP Award Series AWP.

MIKE'S SELECTED CRAFT ESSAYS AND INTERVIEWS

CRAFT ESSAYS

"The Person to Whom Things Happened. Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives". Prime Number Journal . Prime Number.

"Memory, Fact, Imagination, Research: Memoir's Hybrid Personality". Solstice Lit Mag. Solstice.

"Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays". From: Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 5:1, Spring, 2001. Fourth Genre.

"The Multiple Selves Within: Crafting Narrative Personae in Literary Memoir". TriQuarterly.

INTERVIEWS:

Association of Writers and Writing Programs AWP.

Fourth Genre Journal Vol. 12, No. 2/​Fall 2010. Scroll down to the end of AWP Interview. Fourth Genre.



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

Teaching (Yourself) What You Know - Guest Blogger, Mary Elizabeth Pope

August 16, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note:

Mike Steinberg's craft essay, Planning For Surprise: Writing and Teaching the Personal Essay was published by Triquarterly

Another craft essay, One Story, Two Narrators: Reflection’s Role In Writing and Teaching Personal Narratives appears in the current issue of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices appears Solstice

Earlier and much different versions of both pieces appeared on my blog # 3, Finding
the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction and # 19 and 20, Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Literary Nonfiction. You can find both in the Archives
blog

INTRO--TEACHING (YOURSELF) WHAT YOU KNOW - GUEST BLOGGER, MARY ELIZABETH POPE

I've known Mary Beth Pope for many years. She's a first rate personal essayist/memoirist and a passionate, dedicated teacher. Using her own experience as a teacher and writer, in this piece, Mary Beth talks about and illustrates how important it is for students, especially beginning or inexperienced writers, to overcome their fear of disclosing their embarrassments and human flaws and instead to look at those confusions and uncertainties as rich materials for crafting their personal essays and memoirs.

MJS

Blog # 33
TEACHING (YOURSELF) WHAT YOU KNOW--MARY ELIZABETH POPE

Recently, a colleague who knows about my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder gave me Wendy McClure’s memoir “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie,.” As a child I had read the Little House series with a fervor bordering on delusion. I didn’t just love Laura Ingalls Wilder at the age of ten. I thought I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. So when I opened Wendy McClure’s memoir, I laughed out loud at the opening line, which reads: “I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we travelled to Indian Territory, where Pa built another house, out on the high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?”

Right! I laughed. Oh, wow! This was completely true of me too. I had tried to sit as still as I could in church every Sunday because I knew that “Ma” would demand no less. I had secretly hoped that when I fished with my father in the Chippewa River, I’d get leeches like Laura did in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I even sent a post card to my aunt and uncle in Rhode Island saying that I’d gone “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” that afternoon, at which point a call was placed to my parents in Michigan, asking if I was okay. How funny, I thought, that someone else had experienced these books the same way I had.

Then I stopped laughing and got jealous, the kind of jealous only writers really know, I think, when they realize they’d had a great subject right under their nose all along and never even considered it worthwhile until someone else pounced on it successfully. I mean, that was MY childhood delusion Wendy McClure was writing about. And she did it in such a smart way, too, taking on all the politically problematic elements of the “going West” trajectory of the books, which ten-year-old girls don’t necessarily pick up on, but I had, after my graduate work in postcolonial studies. In fact, in a discussion in one of my graduate classes I’d even brought up the moment in The Long Winter in which Pa dresses up and performs in (yikes, I know) blackface. So what, I wondered, had prevented me from realizing that I could have written a book about the Little House on the Prairie series?

As a teacher of creative nonfiction, I know how to walk my 18-22 year-old-students through their own lives, identifying the subject-worthy elements they may have overlooked, especially when they tell me they are too young for anything to have “happened” to them yet. I have them make lists, do bubble charts, write about their hobbies and obsessions, no matter how small they may seem. And in general, I’m usually successful at getting them to find a subject that both they and their audience will find interesting.

So how is it that I could miss a subject that loomed so large in my childhood?

In thinking this over, I’ve realized that there are three primary barriers that prevent even seasoned writers from recognizing a topic as subject-worthy, and in my own case, it doesn’t matter that, first of all, I know what they are, and second, that I teach other people to overcome these barriers every day as a teacher. They’re still difficult barriers for me to overcome, still the reason I miss things, which makes them all the more important to drag out in the open and remind myself (and you, since you’re reading this) that you have to move past these things in order to access your best work.

The first of these barriers is embarrassment. Now, I talk about embarrassment with my students as a fertile subject for writing. But the truth is, as a human being myself, even if there are things I’m willing to talk about that embarrass me, there are other things, both new and old, that I’m just not willing to face. And if I am honest, the truth is that I’ve always been kind of embarrassed by my obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, because that story about the postcard I sent my relatives about “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” has come to feature prominently in my parents’ narrative about realizing their daughter was strange. It was the kind of story I’ve shared only with my husband, a handful of other Laura Ingalls Wilder fans I’d met in graduate school, and the one friend who gave me The Wilder Life. These were the people who already knew about my insomnia, my shut-in tendencies, my awful ungenerous germ phobia, and the fact that, despite my academic credentials, I have never missed an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor in eighteen seasons, even though I know it’s a really, really, really terrible show and violates every feminist impulse I have. (more…)

On Mentors and Mentoring

July 9, 2014

Tags: creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Blog # 32

On Mentors and Mentoring

Author’s Note/Disclaimer:

This post, a tribute to a pioneer/mentor woven into a short essay about my personal writing/teaching history, is a departure of sorts from what you’ve previously seen on this blog.

Recently, a friend asked me to write an essay for her blog, an essay on mentors and mentoring--something that’s been on my mind ever since I posted “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” by Donald Murray (see Blog # 30 below). In that post, I mentioned how in the 70’s and 80’s Murray became my writing/teaching mentor. What I didn’t talk about was the contribution he made to the literary genre we’re now calling “Creative Nonfiction,” and how, as a result of his work, I became instrumental in the genre’s emergence and evolution.
MJS

A version of this essay appears on www.overmyshoulderfoundation.org
Dawn Caroll's Over My Shoulder website on/about mentors and mentoring. You can find it under Mentors Come When You're Ready For them, 7/14

A Writer Teaches Writing

1
We encounter our best and most influential mentors, I believe, when we’re ready to receive them. In my case, it happened shortly after I began teaching freshman composition. Back then, in the late 60’s, all comp teachers were required to plan their courses according to an outmoded, prescriptive, syllabus, a syllabus that required teachers to assign their writing students a series of what we used to call “papers:” among them, a narrative, a descriptive essay, an argument, an expository essay, a piece of literary analysis, and a final term paper based solely on library research. This method had been in place since the late nineteenth century. It was, to say the least, a narrow, wrong-headed view of what writing is all about. But back then, there was no other option.

Around that same time, I happened to come across a book, A Writer Teaches Writing, by a Donald Murray, someone, who I’d never heard of. In the book Murray was, in effect, advocating an inside/out approach to composing. I was immediately drawn to his philosophy. And it kick-started what would over time become my transformation from writing teacher to teaching writer.

Murray was one of the first writing teachers in this country to suggest that the teaching of writing (and literature) had been, for far too long, the exclusive territory of professional critics, researchers, and literature teachers--many of whom might admire writing and literature, but who themselves did not write.

We didn’t know it back then, but this was the beginning of what would evolve into both the writing process and teacher-as-writer movements, which, from the late 60’s to the early 90’s changed the way that introductory college writing was taught in this and in several other countries.

In addition, it’s my belief that Murray’s work sparked a renewed interest in the teaching of the personal essay, which, to my mind, helped foster the rise of what we’re now calling creative/literary nonfiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Murray’s ideas make as much sense to me now as they did back then. An aspiring writer myself, ever since I was a college freshman, I’d believed that learning to write in prescriptive forms had hindered my own growth as a writer.

I didn’t want to pass that approach on to my own students, so, with Murray’s thoughts in mind, I converted my writing classes into workshops; and, as he suggested, I began writing personal essays-- like those I was requiring from my students. (more…)

Guest Blogger: Desirae Matherly. Surprise and Subtext

June 10, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note: Our guest writer this month is Desirae Matherly. Shortly after I started up Fourth Genre (1999), I first read , and then published, Desirae's work . Back then, we didn't have a name to describe the lyrical, poetic essays that Desirae and a few other writers were sending us. Today, I consider her to be one of our very best writers of the subgenre we're now calling the "lyric essay."

MJS

Blog No. 31

Surprise and Subtext

There are two kinds of surprises I’ve found in the essay, both as a writer and teacher. To begin, there is the matter of finding something to write about. I’ve noticed that so much has changed from the days when I was a student writing for a workshop, to the present, when I work only if I’m inclined to. A more recent development in my writing life has been the solicitation. Being asked to write is an instant motivator. Rarely do I know when I first agree to give a reading or write an essay, what I’m going to write about. But as my deadline approaches, I become attuned to my personal experiences in ways I am normally not aware of. Conversations with friends, thoughts while driving or walking, and my reactions to the media I consume are mined for material. Everything could potentially make its way into an essay, and I am always reminded that all subjects are indeed connected, ala Montaigne.

The “aha” moment is perhaps the most exciting part of the writing process, when the originating idea for an essay presents itself. Usually I’m not in a position to write when that moment comes. I’m hiking in the woods, or commuting to and from campus where I teach. Or I’m in the throes of a discussion with a friend and have to snag spare moments to jot my thoughts down on a napkin or in a notebook if I’m sufficiently prepared to do so. Or I grab my phone and record a voice memo or compose an email to myself. Any writer can relate to the surprise of a fresh idea, or of a solution to a problem that comes at an unexpected juncture between experience and reflection.

When we, as teachers of writing, ask our students to write, we are asking them to find that process by which they are surprised by the urge to write. It’s slightly synthetic, and in the past, when I’ve asked students about the “occasion” behind particular essays, the reason I’ve been given sometimes flounders into, “I had to write something for class.” I’m not ruling out the possibility that sometimes any of us, our student writers included, sit down behind our computer screens and free associate our way into new essays. But aren’t those essays surprising too?

I’ve also noticed that whatever leads us into writing an essay may not be the ultimate subject or theme we work to resolve, once we are into the thick of the process. This leads me to that other surprise I often encounter when essaying; the matter of subtext, which for me is synonymous with the deeper reason behind a piece of writing. It is the repressed anxiety, the epiphany of realization, or the grim mortal insight that underlies whatever surface story we relate. Subtext can be the dirty secret we wish we could keep with ourselves, or it might be the anger we struggle to remove from our lives, only to discover it again unexpectedly when exploring a memory or digressing into a seemingly unrelated theme. (more…)

The Three Stupidest Things I've Done as a Writer by Donald Murray

April 28, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History

Blog # 30

Note: Ever since I turned 60, I’ve been thinking about mentors. That’s mostly because, for the last several years, I’ve been a mentor myself. As I’ve often told my students, I never would have become a writer, much less a teaching writer, had it not been for the support and encouragement of one of my own mentors, Donald Murray. Partly as a result of his generosity of spirit and his willingness to share his knowledge, not just with me, but with literally hundreds of others, I’d hoped that someday I’d get the chance to do for others what he did for me.

I think that turning 60 became a marker for me. Perhaps that’s because for many years Don wrote a Boston Globe weekly column “Over Sixty,” on/about practical matters of writing and teaching writing.

I could go on, but I’d much rather have you read some of Don’s pieces.

Those who visit this blog know that its main concerns are specific matters of genre and craft. But the short essay I chose for this entry “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” offers, for the most part, practical advice and wisdom on/about the writing life and what it means to be a working writer.

He passed away eight years ago, but among his eleven books and several poetry collections, Murray’s nine books about writing/teaching are still relevant to all of us who work at this game. In the coming months, along with my own craft essays, I’ll post other short pieces Don wrote. For those who want to know more about his life and work, click on Donald Murray (in yellow) below.

Donald Murray

MJS

Guest Post: The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer
by Donald Murray

1. I believed there was an aesthetic genre hierarchy:

1. Poetry
2. Literary fiction
3. Essay of literary criticism
4. Drama
5. Popular fiction
6. Screenwriting
7. Essay of personal experience
8. Journalism.

At age 77 I realized I am a storyteller who must tell the stories life has given me. The genre must come from the story to be told not the literary ambition of the writer.

2. Not finished drafts of books that could have been published because of lack of faith or deadline.

3. Took seriously the criticism or destructive praise of those who wanted me to write their poems, stories or books not my own.

The three smartest things I’ve done as a writer.

1. Tried to follow the advice of Horace -- nulla dies sine linea {Never a day without a line}– and counted words.
2. Assigned specific tasks to my subconscious which kept writing
during the 22 and1/2 hours I was away from the writing desk.
3. Established deadlines, then met them by breaking long projects
into brief, achievable daily tasks. (more…)

Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical "I"

March 24, 2014

Tags: creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History

Note: Contest Announcement:

Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices announces its 5th annual CONTEST.
$1,000 Fiction Prize; also the $500 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize. Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry; and our $500 Nonfiction Prize, donated by Michael Steinberg. Finalists are also offered publication. Solsticelitmag, a Best of the Net publication, promotes its writers in the present and post-publication. Reading fee: $18.00. Deadline: extended to April 19th. www.solsticelitmag.org

This is a very fine online lit journal. The nonfiction prize is well worth looking into. Richard Hoffman, who wrote a recent post (#28) will judge.

MJS

Blog # 29

This post is a reworking of a panel presentation I gave last month at AWP in Seattle. The panel’s title is: The I Or The Eye: The Narrator's Role in Nonfiction

Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical “I”

Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town is a carefully crafted, artfully written book that, for the most part, is about her investigation of a murder that was committed several years ago in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a place the author describes as “an enchanted New England ghost town.”

It’s a convincing, eminently readable story. But what drew me more deeply into the book was the narrator’s curiosity and fascination with the mythology and history of this small New England village. And it’s that pull, that attraction, I believe, that influenced (either consciously or unconsciously) the way in which the author set up her narrative.

For the most part, Dogtown is a combination of immersion journalism and cultural criticism along with some very spare, but important personal remarks and observations, most of which East intermittently weaves into the early parts of the narrative. These pointed disclosures explain some of the reasons why the author felt compelled first to visit and then to write about Dogtown. And to my mind, East’s interest in this place convinced me that she would be a most reliable and companionable guide.

That said, after the first sixty-five pages, the personal disclosures all but disappear from the narrative. And the writer/teacher in me naturally wanted to know why. Later on, when I had a chance to talk to Elyssa, about this, she told me “what makes Dogtown distinct is utterly elusive and I only wanted to be in the book to further illuminate this feeling; to help the reader live this sensation on the page with me.”

Her comments triggered some thoughts that had been nagging at me for quite some time. Why, I’ve been wondering, do some writers place their narrators at center-stage (in other words, as the “I”) while others locate their narrators on the periphery, or off-stage—as reporters, witnesses and/or observers (the E-Y-E)?

Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.
---David Shields

The literary nonfiction that’s most fascinating to me lately is, like Dogtown, a mix of investigation, research, and personal narrative. Four books immediately come to mind; Katy Butler’s, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Kristin Iverson’s, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Rebecca Mead’s biography/memoir My Life in Middlemarch, and Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire.

While I’d love to write the kinds of narratives that, like those authors, marry the personal with larger cultural, historical events and issues, more often than not, my narrators, are variations of the “I,” the persona, that is, who’s at the center of the narrative.

Poet William Stafford comments (inadvertently) on this dilemma when he says, “I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now…”

To which I’ll add my belief that the narrators and narratives and we choose are related, at least in part, to matters of disposition, temperament, and sensibility. As well to the specific ways in which we view the world.

Over time, I’ve come to accept that my sensibility is a lot closer to that of a personal essayist/memoirist than it is to a literary journalist or cultural critic. And so, he majority of my narrators fit the kind of persona that Montaigne describes in Essais when he says "It is about myself{e} I write."

Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, let me qualify it. This isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic and/or confessional writing. Quite the contrary. It's closer in spirit to what essayist Scott Russell Sanders refers to as "the singular first person." And in times like these--where the messages we listen to and read are often generic slogans and hash tags, like, “I’m Luvin’ it, “Let’s Go Places,” and What’s in Your Wallet?,“ we especially need to listen to “the singular first person;” the individual human voice more.

Subject in an essay…becomes not the target so much as the sight, the lens through which you see the world
--Steven Church

The majority of my personal essays and memoirs tend to revolve around two “subjects;” baseball is one, and the other is my congenital sense of feeling like a displaced New Yorker in the Midwest. (more…)

Guest Blogger: Richard Hoffman. More Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir

March 3, 2014

Tags: creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History

Blog No. 28

Guest blogger Richard Hoffman is one of our most prolific, accomplished, and versatile authors. He writes fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction with equal dexterity and skill. And in addition to being an astute commentator on/about literary nonfiction, Richard is among the most gifted, accomplished teacher/mentors I’ve had the privilege to work with. MJS

MORE NOTES TOWARD AN ESSAY ON MEMOIR

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his one prose work, Rainier Maria Rilke regrets that no one any longer has an individual death -- "One dies the death that belongs to the disease one has," he writes. Well, we've done this with our lives now, at least those lives recounted in memoir, and marketed via publishers' cumbersome sub-titles. Title, colon: A Memoir of X & Y; My Struggle with X; My Escape from X; My Life with X. How can we find the humanity so abundantly and variously evident in worthwhile books if we consign them to one or another cubby-hole like this? You can no more judge a book by its subtitle than its cover, though people seem to do both. So we read about experience that we think may shed light on our own because we have an event or an illness or a place or a trauma in common with the author, when what we truly have in common is our humanity and, ironically, we might learn more about that from a work that at first seems far from our usual concerns or our own chancy autobiographies up until now.

No matter the particulars of the life recounted, the memoirs I love are grounded in grief. "Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?" Well, everything, I would answer Yeats. Everything remains to say. It is all a celebration and a mourning of what vanishes. Grief, I have long believed, proves we are all one blood, one and the same creature, despite our beautiful and deadly differences. When they came upon Abel, inanimate, unresponsive, gone, Eve and Adam uttered a wail of shock and incomprehension that has never ended, and they became, in that moment, the parents of the human race.

*
Human beings, by definition, look for meaning in their experience. They look to their cultures to provide the categories of discourse that they may use to find meaning. From pull-down menus to the complexities of one’s mother tongue, the making of meaning is thus mediated by precedent and permission. Every memoir is such a precedent and permission for someone.

*
It’s paradoxical that when I sit somewhere and write, whether it’s by a stream, in a library nook, in a cafe, on a park bench, I am completely and utterly unaware of my surroundings, taken up as I am with what I’m writing (which may be about another kind of place entirely) so that when I close my notebook I seem not to have been there at all, but thereafter, whenever I look at what I wrote there the whole place will suddenly be present to me, in detail, including memories of smells and sounds. I might be led to the conclusion that the part of me that entrances itself with looking for words is in fact the oldest self I have, or from another vantage, the youngest, the child who first came to awareness and looked for words for what he saw, this paradox partaking of that quality of childhood that lets the world etch itself completely in memory while the mind’s attention seems wholly taken up with something else.

*
If I’m not reading, if I haven’t had adequate time to read, I can’t write, or write well, at any rate; I feel like a blindfolded man trying to paint.

*
It’s important, from time to time, to reaffirm the primacy of experience over words. We spend the majority of our time in a language web, its patterns defining our humanity, its contours and quality, but we are creatures first, always a bit feral, like cats hunting in a housing project.

*
Writing takes me so long because 90% of what I think is not what I think. It is cleverness, other people’s thoughts, advertisements, platitudes, prejudices, rhymes.

*
Childhood is an autumn forest of memories both deciduous and evergreen. Discreet remembrances change in relation to others which are also changing but at a different pace. The maples, for example, are dramatic and impassioned against a background of amber. A stand of beech is already gray and feathery. And the smell of a wood fire, elusive on the shifting breeze, reaches you again and again, always, it seems, from a different direction. All the while you hear the chunk, chunk of the woodcutter’s axe, and knowing him no friend to your remembering, and recognizing him as the very woodcutter of the stories, you tell of the growth of each tree, both the green and the yellowing. You tell of as much of the forest as you can while you still have time. (more…)

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the "Real" Truth?

February 11, 2014

Tags: creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History

Blog # 27

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

Note: The title of my previous post, # 26, is The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir,” but I see that I’ve only talked about the role of imagination, mostly as it relates to the “truth.” So, this post will be about the relationship between memory and “truth.” If you haven’t read # 26, it might help to take a look at it prior to reading this one.

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

1
When we housed memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we took the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously. {and yet} We act astonished, even dismayed, when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts…
--Patricia Hampl

At a writer’s conference several years ago, I read a segment from “Trading Off,” a personal essay/memoir about a turbulent relationship between my adolescent self and a hard-ass high school baseball coach.

During the Q and A, people asked the usual questions: “Did it really happen the way you wrote it?” “Did your coach actually do those perverse things? And the one that almost always comes up: “If you were only thirteen, how can you remember exactly what was said in that scene in the coach’s office? (see #26 for a segment of the scene).

All of these raise some still-being-debated matters about the reliability of memory. For instance; in a reputedly “honest,” “truthful” memoir, doesn’t the writer have to stick to the literal facts of the story? What should memoirists do when they can’t remember the details of an important incident, situation, and/or conversation? Can they embellish and/or invent? And if so, to what end?

2
What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters
--Vivian Gornick

Seasoned memoirists know that their memories don’t always govern the narratives they write. In my own case, memories mainly serve as catalysts for exploration and discovery--specifically, for finding meaning and shaping a narrative. As a teacher and memoirist then, my advice to aspiring memoirists is to write the whole story first, just the way they remember it. Stretch it out; include all the specifics, names, and situations; write down every memory that comes to mind. In other words, make a mess.

Once they’ve done that, they have, in effect, produced a working draft; often a sprawling, cluttered, even incoherent, narrative. In some instances the draft runs much longer than the writer had initially expected. Which, to most experienced memoirists, is exactly what a first draft is for.

I've found that inexperienced writers--undergraduates and adult MFA’s alike--too often believe that those drafts are finished works. So when I tell them that what they’ve written is raw material for a possible, and still undiscovered narrative, many seem puzzled, and perplexed. Some are even offended. “But it’s all true; that’s the way it really happened,” they’ll argue. And so, it's understandable that they’re surprised and disappointed to learn that there’s still a lot more writing and revising left to do.

3
Your memory of your past becomes your past
--Stephen Dunn

Memory, we know, is elusive, tricky, and often inaccurate; in other words, an unreliable resource. For one, there’s the shifting nature of memory itself. A while back my wife and I were watching slides of a European trip we’d taken some thirty-plus years ago. In addition to disputing our different versions of what it felt like to have visited St. Peter’s or the Louvre, or Chartres Cathedral, we were also in disagreement about whom we were with. Were they traveling companions or people that just happened to be part of our tour? Did we visit each place on a single trip? Or, was it two different trips? We don’t remember what our itinerary was; or, even the angle of the sun at the moment we took the slides.

If you’re still skeptical, here are some other things to consider. Language by its very nature rearranges and distorts human experience. And that’s principally true as it concerns memory. For example, after I’d written the memoir about my old coach, that version became more vivid, more real to me than the actual events and memories it was originally based on.

How then, do these concerns bear on how we think about and how we compose our memoirs? (more…)

The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

January 5, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History

Blog # 26

The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

My apologies for not posting this sooner. Holiday chaos.

Preface
In response to my last post (#25), “Tracking The Narrator’s Thoughts”, I received a thought-provoking comment from Stuart Rose, a reader. Paraphrased it reads

“… I puzzle over just how we can track our thinking on the page. It's a challenge to artfully insert our explicit thoughts into a narrative…. {but}there are only so many explicit, stand-alone statements we can make without losing the reader. Weaving our thinking into the fabric of concrete and narrative details seems to be vital. Much of the thinking has to be mingled with the story.”

Stuart’s comments eventually became a catalyst for my own thinking. Here’s an excerpt from my reply to him

“…. We’re reactive creatures, it’s true. And so, making our narrator’s thoughts and reactions more transparent (and seamless) is a big challenge… As memoirists we can only speculate. …about what our narrators might think and feel in a given moment or situation; which, in effect, means that crafting the story of a narrator's thinking is an act of imagination.”

Once again, this raises the tired, but still unresolved issue of what's “true” in memoir and what's been fabricated. The insistence that memoirists should stick to the facts and not invent, make things up, or otherwise embellish the narrative, is still something a lot of critics get all bent out of shape about. Those tactics, they claim, are the province of fiction and poetry.

Agree or not, clearly we memoirists need to think more conscientiously about the ways in which we use imagination (and memory) in our own narratives.


The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir
1
What distinguishes {literary writing}. …from journalism, is that inherent {in a literary text} is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.
--Eudora Welty

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not exclusively about making things up. That’s “invention.” And to my mind, there’s an important distinction to be made between the two. Fiction writer David Malouf makes that case when he 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.”

Malouf is describing the difference between telling or recreating a story the way it happened--if that’s even possible--and transforming that story into (for us nonfiction writers) a fully rendered, fully imagined, memoir. And that transformation is an important part of what writing a literary memoir is all about.

2
I won’t tell you the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it.
--Pam Houstton

In effect, Pam Houston is implying that memory is an unreliable narrator. Hard for any of us to disagree on that one. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. Yet, while being unreliable, I believe that memory is not necessarily untruthful.

Let me explain. (more…)

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives

November 21, 2013

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History

Blog # 25

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives
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

Recently, at a writer’s conference, I was conducting a manuscript critique with a former (adult) student, a very fine writer and someone I’ve known for many years. She’d submitted a chapter from the middle of a memoir-in- progress.

In her abstract she writes,"When Kennedy was assassinated, I had a moment of clarity where I saw that no one is ever safe and secure one hundred percent in this world, no matter who they are, and the most important thing is to remain whole, literally and figuratively... That was a turning point in my life when my perception of “safety” changed forever. "

Having read that abstract in advance, I knew what her intent was. And in the chapter’s next-to-last paragraph, she writes about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; specifically how, when she was younger, the event effected her.

As compelling, as strong as the writing was, however, it left me with the feeling that something was missing. When I reread the chapter, I searched for but couldn’t find anything in the previous pages that foreshadowed this end-of-chapter revelation. For the most part, the first two thirds was about the narrator’s childhood and her adolescent struggles to overcome a congenital disability.

The problem, I discovered, was that I never really got an overall sense of the how the narrator’s inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions led her to what, on a second reading, seemed more like an epiphany than an emerging discovery. As a teacher and editor, I’ve been privy to these kinds of omissions before. Usually, they occur in rough drafts. And often they emerge from a carefully constructed sequence of events rather than evolving from some deep inner confusion or uncertainty. As a practicing memoirist myself, I’ve been guilty many times of the same oversights.

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 memoir from other literary forms is that throughout the narrative the "I's" thoughts and feelings are inherently transparent. Consequently, readers ought be able to track the evolution of the narrator’s thinking. In works of literary/creative nonfiction, it comes with the territory.

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

The narrator of the chapter we're discussing does indeed suggest that something important is at stake. “That day {Kennedy's assassination},” she writes, “ I....knew for sure, that nothing and no one could protect me… because nobody, not even the most famous, important and guarded among us, were ever one hundred percent free from harm…Anyone at any time was liable to lose their balance, fall hard, and be swallowed up.”

It's a significant, powerful discovery, to be sure. And as I said above, the writing is compelling and skillfully wrought. Consequently, the reader in me badly wants to identify with and/or understand the impact of that discovery. To be more specific, I believe that what's been omitted from this segment is what Sue Silverman calls the narrator's “inner struggles... her longings, her fears.” In order then, for readers to enter the writer's thoughts, the narrator has to let us in on how, in retrospect, she's arrived at this life changing insight. Has it been percolating, or incubating, maybe even rattling around inside for a long time?

3
“…{In} an essay” Phillip Lopate writes, “the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.” I agree with Lopate. And so I advised the chapter’s author to allow herself more permission to make her internal thoughts and feelings more apparent, more evident. And I also made a mental note to do the same thing with a piece I was currently writing.

And I 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.”

I’ll add a final thought to the mix. In this genre, the subject or the events are less important than the writer’s internal struggle to make sense out of some pressing question, confusing experience, and/or perplexing situation. As a result, the connections between writer and reader (that is, between one human being and another) depend on our knowing how, where, and why the narrator locates and reveals his/her most urgent thoughts and feelings.

This is of course a matter of strategy and approach. But, I believe, it's a necessary, even an essential part of writing authentic personal narratives.







Guest Blogger: Renée E. D'Aoust. Water the Rocks: A Few Writing Ideas to Unblock Your Heart

October 22, 2013

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Blog # 24

Note: Renée E. D’Aoust will be our guest blogger for this next post.

Renée is a versatile, multitalented writer whose first book Body of a Dancer is a passionate yet clear-eyed memoir about her experiences as a modern dancer during the nineties when she studied at the Martha Graham Center in New York.

Her essay/post below, Water the Rocks: A Few Writing Ideas to Unblock Your Heart, is about a more mundane concern, one that all of us have experienced at one time or another; writer’s block.

MJS

1
At our northern Idaho house, I’ve surrounded the hosta plants and Siberian Bugloss with red rocks from Montana’s Hungry Horse River. (Please set aside your concern regarding the ethics of my stealing river rocks and transporting them across state lines.) My distraction: I like to water rocks. Red rocks, gray rocks, black rocks, striped rocks, flat, small, jagged, and big.

Distraction with a hose. The green hose is a dragon’s mouth; the water, its language. I pour language over the pillars of my life. The problem expands. When sitting down to write, I become distracted. Instead of writing what I need to write, I write what I don’t need to write. Arguably, rocks don’t need watering. Plants do. Arguably, the new book needs to get written. More emails don’t need to be written. (Sorry email pals.) Oh, phooey. Does the world even need one more book? I get up, leave my desk, walk outside, pick up the hose, and water my rocks. I am dragon. Strong. I return to my desk.

Then I sit down to the new page, and I want to do everything but write the page. Take a bath. Bathe the dachshund. Walk the dachshund. Grade student papers. Prune some trees. Eat some chocolate. Water those rocks! They are dehydrated, I think. They miss the river. They need water. I pick up my dragon hose.

Distraction is familiar to all writers, and management of distraction is a skill all writers master. But what happens when distraction leads to anarchy, and the new page stays blank for months? What then?

Put as a question: how did I stop watering the rocks and return to the blank page of my new project? A memoir about trees and loss. A woman in the woods with a saw.

I’m a writer who has never looked kindly on writer’s block. To my chagrin, I thought writers who confessed to such frozen moments in their creative careers were weak, spineless specimens. Who wants to read words from a writer with no vertebrae? Although if a coelacanth wrote something called The Long Swim: Memoir of an Old Fish, I’d read it. Then I became a weak, spineless creature. No backbone. I wasn’t wise like a coelacanth, which can hide at the depths. I wasn’t strong like my imaginary dragon. I was a kleptomaniac: I had stolen rocks.

After the pages of my book project stayed white for months, and longer, closer to a year, or more, I cannot confess the length of painful time, well, I had to own the label: I have writer’s block. You have to accept that something is wrong and name it before you can move forward, right?

I tricked myself into thinking I was not stuck. Oh no, not me. I was writing book reviews, wasn’t I?! I was writing posts for the Women Owning Woodlands website, wasn’t I?! I was writing dance reviews, wasn’t I?! I was writing, for goodness sakes. But, really, I was turning in on myself, picking at my skin, eating lots of chocolate, and taking dachshund Tootsie on more walks than she needed or wanted. Oh, yes, I was watering those rocks. Faithfully.

I’d published my first book, Body of a Dancer, and as my brother put it, succinctly, in the way of siblings, “Basically, you pursued your dance dreams, and when you didn’t succeed at dance, you wrote a book about your failure, and that means you turned adversity into something lasting. Into art.” I liked thinking about those hard modern dance years in New York City. The struggle was all. I didn’t eat any chocolate then. (more…)

SELECTED WORKS

Memoir
“My favorite book of the year. An astonishing look at the pains of growing up.”
--Dan Smith, WVTF Virginia, Public Radio
Collection/Anthology
“Wherever readers look, they’ll find a different essay, a different voice, a different Michigan.”
-- Crab Orchard Review
Anthology of/on Creative Nonfiction
“Offers the most thorough and teachable introduction available to this exciting genre.”
--John Boe, Editor, Writing on the Edge
Stage Play
"An evening of energy, hot music, laughs and sheer entertainment." Lansing State Journal
Teaching/Writing
"Root and Steinberg will be on the shelf near my desk that holds the most important books about the teaching of writing." -Donald Murray, A Writer Teaches Writing and Write to Learn
Literary Journal
"Fourth Genre is the Paris Review of nonfiction journals." Newpages.com
Writing/Teaching Text
The Writer’s Way is the best book I’ve found yet for teaching first quarter Freshmen their first English writing sequence….” Dr. Sheila Coghill, Moorhead State University.

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