Melanie Brooks, Guest Interview

Michael Steinberg

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.


RECOMMENDED CONTESTS: LITERARY JOURNALS AND BOOK PRIZES

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--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#44 Part 2, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers (Part 2) by Karen Babine

November 25, 2015

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Writer's Block

Introductory Note: I've gotten a good deal of response to the first part of Karen Babine's contribution, "Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers." This is the second of four installments. If you missed the first one, it appears right below this one. I'll post the third installment on December 2, one week from today; and the final one on December 9.

Below is my original introduction to the piece:

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The second segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS

ARTICULATION: ON USING THE ESSAY TO TEACH PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS TO FIRST-YEAR WRITERS (PART 2) by Karen Babine

ARTICULATION III

When I was a sophomore at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota, I took a literature class in Minnesota Writers, taught by Dr. Joan Kopperud. Despite having grown up in Minnesota, despite being an English major, despite being the student that pestered my high school English teachers, I had no knowledge of the writing of my state. I had no idea that the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature was a Minnesotan. But the larger moment was first reading Paul Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild in that class, an essayist who was teaching in our English department at the time, and first questioning you can write about Minnesota? and you can write true things about northern Minnesota? and being told a resounding Yes! Seeing that Gruchow not only could write about northern Minnesota—where I was from—but also publish it and win the Minnesota Book Award for it did more for my own writing than any other moment of my writing development. When I started teaching, that moment, attached to sitting in a classroom on the third floor of Grose Hall, and timidly knocking on Paul Gruchow’s office door to have him sign my book, still remains a strong sensory memory.

Translating that moment to my students means finding readings that easily move on the continuum of reading and writing, from Literature to models, from the moment of reading something brand new on a page to writing something brand new, to give students the permission they need—that I needed as a writer—to write about their local places. The readings for the first two weeks of my English 150 semester combine Paul Gruchow’s 1995 Minnesota Book Award-winning collection Grass Roots: The Universe of Home with contemporary examples of the essay. Instead of Montaigne himself, I assign Patrick Madden’s essay “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” to introduce the idea that the world is full of writing topics and often the best topics are small in size, that there is more to an essay than my students’ own narrow definitions.

Madden writes, “I learned that essays were not stories, did not focus on great adventures or recoveries, were not extraordinary in their subject matter at all. Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights” (4). When I was a college sophomore, taking a nonfiction class and learning about essays, the important moment was being given permission to write about my grandmother’s famous Swedish rice pudding was an incredible moment, complicating that particular memory with fears over losing my family’s history.

And Alexander Smith, in his 1865 “On the Writing of Essays,” gives that most-important permission about what one can write about:

“The essay-writer has no lack of subject-matter. He has the day that is passing over his head; and, if unsatisfied with that, he has the world’s six thousand years to depasture his gay or serious humour upon. I idle away my time here, and I am finding new subjects every hour. Everything I see or hear is an essay in bud. The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one need only be the world’s amanuensis.”

All I have to do, as an essayist, and in the larger sense, as a college student, is pay attention. We can write about anything.

TOWARDS A PEDAGOGY OF THE ESSAY

Teaching students how to articulate what matters comes in the written form itself, not simply in the pedagogical framework. On the first day of class, I ask my students to define an essay. The five-paragraph-essay, they tell me. Topic sentences. Research. Citations. What we’ll do in here is a different type of essay, I tell them. While English 150 is a composition class, not a creative writing class (though I consider composition to be equally as creative as nonfiction, fiction, or poetry), the essay provides a bridge between various parts of the writing brain necessary to provide an exciting inquiry into a topic, inquiry that is the foundation of Rhetoric as Inquiry. The essay engages both the right and left brains; the essay does not neglect the writer’s craft, and it remembers that language is important, that language is the greatest weapon students possess. When we read Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau, we discuss the sentence-level brilliance of Tredinnick believing that one must cleave to this landscape. What does to cleave mean? I ask. Even at this late point in the semester, my students are loathe to look up words they don’t know (something they are eager, yes, eager to do after we start The Blue Plateau and consider this particular moment). To cleave means both to bind and to sever, which is exactly the verb that Tredinnick wants here, because he means that to belong to this place, one must do both. The complication and layers that the language provides is something that cannot happen any other way.

Yet the Essay also requires the left-brained activity to establish the relevance to readers, to analyze and articulate why the writer’s ideas should matter to someone other than the writer. My students feel connected to their home, to places that have personal meaning, but the challenge in their own writing is how to make that relevant to other people, so that other people can understand what makes that place important.

This necessity provides an excellent bridge between the personal writing that students may or may not have experience with, the diary-type writings, and teaching them to think outside themselves, as is difficult for this entitled generation of Millenials. If we teachers assign canned essays, that will naturally be what our students turn in. But our students have plenty of perspective, plenty of lived experience in the world that makes what they have to say extremely valuable. The first true requirement of a first-year writing classroom—from both the teacher’s perspective as well as the student’s perspective—is to trust the writing. Push where necessary, but trust the writing. But Bishop points out “That we don’t see students as authors says more about us as teachers, I believe, than it says about students as thinkers” (268). If we as teachers expect more from students, if we give them the freedom to choose the form that their essay most naturally takes, we will not only see an improvement in writing ability, but engagement with the texts as well.

This, I have found, is one of the most difficult things about teaching essays: good essays do incorporate outside context and context comes from many different places (including different parts of the writer’s mind), but requiring research of students that fulfills the department’s Aims and Scopes often causes students to forget everything they already know about writing, simply because they have been taught to fear research, taught to fear citations. Robert Root writes of the “anonymous researcher persona expected of academic writers. Think then what a disengagement the demand for an anonymous, impersonal, universally interchangeable persona invites in our students. It’s tough enough learning to write like ourselves without pretending to be someone else, someone we don’t know, someone better educated and thirty years older” (253). By asking students to conduct research—something they consider a chore and completely divorced from creativity and curiosity—I’ve inadvertently put them back into feeling like their own ideas do not matter. They simply cannot understand—yet—that a research paper and an essay are not mutually exclusive. At this point, they still believe that research is solely confined to the type of writing they have been taught to hate.

If, as W. Scott Olsen advocates in his introductory nonfiction classes at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, an Essay is “the witnessed development of an idea,” that means that even a beginning student, one who has never written an essay like this before, can write an excellent essay, because the only thing to hold an essay back is the lack of movement of the writer’s mind on the page. Natalie Kusz, at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, says that “the fact that the thing happened is not the subject of the piece; what you know now as a result of what happened is the subject of the piece.” An essay cannot simply be a narrative, a story, an anecdote, because everyone has stories and nobody cares about yours—so you, as the writer, have to make them care. We use the terms narrative, exposition, and high exposition to identify these elements that create meaning for the reader. Finding the larger idea in the subject matter is the writer’s job.

My students often say that they hate writing. But they don’t, not really. They hate being told what to write and a formula for writing that allows for absolutely no connection to the materials or their own lives and ideas, forms that eliminate any type of creativity they bring to the process. This type of writing emphasizes that the student’s own creativity is subordinate to the research that teachers often require. In the last several years, I have heard more than once that my students were taught in high school that for every thought or idea they had, they needed to find a source to back it up. In this scenario, there are no original ideas—and they certainly do not originate from the students. As a result, the shift from high school to college writing often involves an un-teaching of certain values, particularly in research. This is why the Essay is so valuable in teaching introductory students, especially in courses that focus on place-consciousness. (more…)

#44 Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers by Karen Babine

November 17, 2015

Tags: Craft Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Teaching Writing, Personal Narratives, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Persona, Voice, Structure/Shape, Family History, Writer's Block

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The first segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.

MJS

# 44
ARTICULATION: ON USING THE ESSAY TO TEACH PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS TO FIRST-YEAR WRITERS ByKaren Babine

Part 1

ARTICULATION I

On 23 August 2011, the day that a 5.9 earthquake rattled the East Coast, toppled spires and cracked walls at the National Cathedral, I walk into my first class of the fall semester to a bright-eyed group of English 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry) students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Quake-free, for now. It is 2011, after all, nearly two hundred years to the day after the New Madrid Earthquakes made the Mississippi run backwards, shaking a land not used to being shaken.

I say: our class will focus on place and location this semester.
“What is place?” they ask me.
I say: location is a spot on a map; place is context, everything you bring to that location.
I say: you’re living in a flyover state—what does that mean?
I say: you’re living on the outer rings of the most active seismic zone outside of California—how does that change your view of Nebraska, given the earthquake on the East Coast today?

Some weeks later, we read Tom Coakley’s essay “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars,” published first in Fourth Genre and listed as a Notable in the 2011 Best American Essays. Coakley had recently moved from Nebraska to Washington, DC, to work at the Pentagon, and as I was preparing to teach this essay I asked him about the earthquake and Hurricane Irene. It hadn’t bothered him much, he said, but while the West Coast was mocking the East Coast’s reaction to the earthquake, the last time the earth had moved like that at the Pentagon, a plane had crashed into the outer rings of the building.
This is place.

ARTICULATION II: DEFINITIONS AND MOTIVATIONS

It is true that discussions of how the essay can best be used in composition classes is not a new one, but among various critics, the consensus seems to be based in what I consider to be a erroneous definition and use of the term essay and the conversation seems to be the realm of compositionists, not creative writers, who have an equal stake in the discussion. This collapsing of various subgenres of nonfiction is exceptionally problematic for me as a creative writer in a composition classroom, considering that the essay is a form, not a genre, and represents more than the definition of “to try.”

THE FRAMEWORK OF PLACE-CONSCIOUSNESS IN THIS PLACE:

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the English Department’s Aims and Scopes lay the framework for the three composition classes it offers: 101 (Rhetoric as Reading), 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry), and 151 (Rhetoric as Argument). Because the Aims and Scopes are broad enough to allow for any pedagogy an instructor chooses, the framework provided by place-conscious pedagogy is an excellent starting point for first-year writers. Additionally, the written requirements are also broad enough to allow exceptionally different interpretations of what can constitute those Writing Projects. The freedom allowed the graduate teaching assistants and lecturers most often assigned these classes results in a very rich body of departmental offerings.

Wendy Bishop, in “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition,” works towards a theory and pedagogy that combines nonfiction and composition, because they share similar goals. Other writers have discussed similar meldings; as I have mentioned, this is not a new discussion. But her questioning looms larger than form: what is important here is that she places the responsibility of creativity, curiosity, and inquiry in the hands of teachers—where it should initially be—and wonders not simply at the forms of the written work, but also at the classrooms that best foster the type of learning teachers want. She wonders,

"How do we teach the pleasures of essay writing and the civic possibilities of prose literatures? How do we create courses that allow writers to define interesting topics of reflection, and how do we create classroom cultures within which the essay needs to be written? We treat the student essayist as we treat ourselves, as essayists and authors of creative nonfiction (271)."

For me, the answer is to combine a pedagogy that requires an active engagement with the students’ own grounded experience with a written form that requires active engagement with the students’ own lived experience. It is through this pedagogical framework, though, that the essay—as a form—functions best, because it provides the opportunity for personal motivation of the student, taking what they know, valuing it, and asking them to take it a step further, back to the place they come from. Robert Root sees this type of motivation as an essential element of nonfiction (and by extension, the writing classroom): “Nonfiction is not simply an option of style or format or attitude; it’s a perspective on the world, and its texts are composed by writers animated by the nonfiction motive” (6) and this distinction is important in a composition classroom, between form and style, purpose and result. He continues,

"Without the nonfiction motive, writers get no internal checks and balances on their own honesty, no incentive to investigate, explore, observe, compare witnesses, and analyze all the evidence, no commitment to comprehend or to extend that comprehension to readers. […] How we approach what we write makes a great difference in what results…a student’s motive in writing is to clear a hurdle or fulfill a requirement or complete an assignment or master a skill rather than to acquire and express knowledge or to share insight and information. The results are often detached, disengaged, insincere. If, among working writers, writing really matters, why wouldn’t “motive” be essential to apprentice writing or novice writing? (7)."

For me, place-conscious pedagogy is a natural choice to facilitate both, and so this particular English 150 course is designed around a theme of Home and Away, a lens through which we develop a way of looking at what surrounds us, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. We explore the ideas of quest, how movement and stasis can lead us to a greater understanding of where we are and who we are—and we use the Essay form to do so. (more…)

BOOKS

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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