Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
April 20, 2016
*Note: Grist: The Journal For Writers Spring 2016 ProForma writing contest (all genres) offers a $ 750 prize for the winner. Guidelines at
* Note: The literary journal Sport Literate posted an interview I did with Bill Meiners, the editor--on/about creative nonfiction. In it, I discussed some matters of genre and craft that might interest readers of this blog. If you'd like to take a look, you can find it at Sport Literate Interview.
Blog No. 48 NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: HOW “PLACE” SHAPES OUR LITERARY IDENTITIES
By Michael Steinberg
In the last few months I've posted several recent entries on/about the role of “Place” in our teaching (see Archives : # 41-45, Karen Babine’s On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, and # 47, Robin
Mc Carthy’s What I’ve Come So Far to Tell Them). To extend that dialogue to our writing, here are some of my thoughts on/about how “Place” shapes not only our writing but also our literary identities.
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: HOW PLACE SHAPES OUR LITERARY IDENTITIES
To a large extent, memoir is about exploring the past as it bears on our current sense of who we are. In my case, what, drives most of my memoirs is a nagging curiosity to try to figure out how that confused kid from New York, that kid whose preoccupation with baseball evolved into an obsession; that kid, an English major who flunked the writing placement test in college; how did he become a literature and writing teacher, then a mid life memoirist? Who and what were his shaping influences?
To examine those questions more fully, I’ve written about my family, my most influential teachers, my mentors, and my coaches—all of whom, I know, had some influence on the teacher/writer I’ve become. But when I took inventory of my autobiographical writings, the one constant in all of those pieces was the presence of New York City.
A while back, economic circumstances forced a former writing colleague who’d moved from her native Michigan to Manhattan only to have to move back to Michigan. I knew she loved living in the city, so I was wondering how the unplanned move home had affected her writing. And it got me to thinking.
From the time I was a kid, I’d always wanted to become a writer. But growing up in New York at the same time as when the Beat writers—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and later, Burrows--were all the rage. And frankly, that was very intimidating to the likes of me. My life style and writing weren’t nearly as rebellious and risky as theirs were. And so right away I believed that if I didn't live on the edge, like they did, it meant that I didn't have the disposition or temperament to become a writer. And that feeling was reinforced by the fact that the stories and poems I was submitting to my high school and later on, college, literary magazines were being repeatedly rejected.
In retrospect, I can see that it took more than three decades for that self-deprecating attitude to change. And the change evolved in a very unexpected way. I can say that now because I believe that moving to Michigan had a good deal (paradoxically) to do with that shift.
I recall how disorienting it was to always be feeling like a transplanted New Yorker in the Midwest. So, much so, that for my first two decades in Michigan, I escaped to Manhattan every chance I got. And for almost three-plus decades, I seriously considered moving back there.
Like Woody Allen, who claims that he’s “at two with nature,” from the time I moved to Michigan—to attend graduate school--I felt like a displaced New Yorker. To me, the Midwest was a different culture, an alien landscape. It's something I've written a good deal about over the last twenty-five years.
In one of those pieces though, “Living in Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan,” I dug more deeply into that New York-Michigan love/hate relationship. And what I discovered probably should have come as no surprise.
For the twenty-five years that I lived in New York, I’d entertained dreams, as I’ve said, of becoming a writer. But in addition to having been intimidated by the Beats, in college I convinced myself that my writing could never measure up neither to that of the writers I most admired in my college lit classes—writers like, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner--nor to those writers I was reading on my own; Roth, Updike, Malamud, Bellow, to name a few. This self-deprecating attitude pretty much convinced me that the closest I’d get to being a writer was to become a literature teacher--clearly, a surrogate, maybe even a default career. And an identity, I confess, I never fully embraced.
In graduate school, that decision continually troubled me. And so did my self-created persona; the defensive, displaced New Yorker. Largely as a way of overcompensating for both, I exaggerated and overplayed the out-of-place New Yorker role. Which, of course made it even more difficult for me to make peace with my surroundings, and, I might add, to co-exist very easily with several of my midwestern colleagues.
And who could blame them? My attitude and behavior had confirmed their initial perception of me as an effete, condescending, “New Yawker.”
Two midlife cornea transplants forced me to take a step back and do some re-evaluating. It was my first brush with my own mortality. If I was ever going to write, I knew it had better be right then. So despite my long-standing fears and self-doubts, that’s what I began to do.
Most of my early writings, I could see, were nostalgic sketches about my childhood and adolescent years. In all of these undeveloped works though, I discovered that New York was much, much, more than a backdrop or stage for those pieces. It was a rich, formidable force and presence; in some ways a dominant character in those personal narratives.
After the transplants, it began to trouble me that even though I’d lived in Michigan for some-five years, I still saw myself as a displaced New Yorker. I did the majority of my kvetching about that fact to Bob Root, a colleague who I’d collaborated with on two anthologies, Apparently, Bob gotten pretty tired of listening to me. Instead, he suggested that we co-edit still another anthology--this one, he said, would be composed of work by writers who either lived. or, at some time had lived in Michigan.
Once we got the project going, Bob conveniently dropped out. Deliberately, as I would later find out. But the ploy obviously did work. Because I came away from the project with a renewed sense of the state’s beauty, its cultural heritage, and especially, its rich literary history. I also came away with a deep appreciation for the passion that all of the writers brought to the anthology. Along with Bob Root, they’d inadvertently helped me discover a different Michigan from the one I’d been living in.
I should mention here, that around this same time, I’d bought a cottage in northern Michigan—a place I’d planned to use as a writing retreat.
My contribution to the collection that Bob originally proposed was the piece I mentioned earlier, “Living In Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan.” As a way of rendering (and explaining) that midlife reversal, I’ll quote some passages from the end of that piece.
”In my early fifties, just before the I bought the cottage and just before I had the first cornea transplant, my wife, Carole, and I met with Ken Klegon, a financial advisor, to discuss the possibilities of early retirement. In the back of my mind, I was actively entertaining the notion of moving back to New York.
When he finished itemizing our debts, Ken gave us two pieces of advice. One was to pay off our credit cards. Reasonable enough, I thought. But what followed wasn’t quite as easy to swallow.
‘You’re going to have to cut back on those trips to New York.’ he said. And while I was chewing that one over, Ken added, ‘Mike, you’re always complaining about not having enough time to write. I suggest that instead of going to NY, you get your ass up to the cottage and well… write.’
How, I wondered, would I ever manage to give up those trips? Ever since we’d moved here, those New York excursions were a lifeline, my way of reconnecting with my old roots, of reaffirming my sense of who I was.
I whined and kvetched some more. But in the end, I did just what Ken had asked. And seven years later, I was able to take an early retirement. When I got out, I was finishing up two books, neither of which, I’m sure, would have been written had I not had the cornea transplants, had I not built the cottage, and had I not taken my financial advisor’s advice to heart (I’d like to mention here that in college Ken Klegon was an English major).
And just as Ken had predicted, coming up north to write did indeed help temper my feelings of displacement. Yet, I was still worried that I wrote and daydreamed too frequently about my old life in New York.
Other writers, I know, have experienced a similar sense of dislocation. In her anthology, Leaving New York, Kathleen Norris writes that ‘ Willa Cather experienced her best writing years in Greenwich Village from 1912 to 1927, when the most celebrated of her Nebraska novels were published. To do fictional justice to Nebraska,’ Norris says, ‘apparently, [Cather] found it necessary to remain in New York.’ And ex-New Yorker, Leslie Brody, says in her memoir, Red Star Sister, ‘I had to leave New York in order to preserve its poetry.’
This has caused me to speculate. I’m thinking here of something that one of my Michigan coffee klatch cronies once told me. ‘New York,’ he said, ‘is that old girl friend you hope won’t show up one day and, God forbid, start hitting on you. Because just like you, she’ll be middle-aged, and not the young girl you remember.’
And when I’m thinking clearly, I am aware that locales, places, inevitably, do change. Especially a shape shifting, evolving city like New York. Part of Manhattan’s DNA, is, after all, that it’s always reinventing and redefining itself. And I’m not unaware that people can also change. Myself included.
“ I’ve lived in New York, in Michigan, and in an imaginary New York. Let’s say I did move back to the city; would I then become nostalgic for my not so glamorous life in East Lansing?
At some level then, I realize that this is about learning to accept the life I have, not the one I fancy. Case in point. A while back, a writer-friend was chiding me about this same conundrum.
‘Haven’t you ever had a fantasy about living in a more glamorous place?’ I asked him.
‘Sure. I’d love to have a pied-a-terre in Paris, a place I could go to whenever I wanted a taste of that life.’
‘ What’s stopping you?’
‘ Well, if I did it’ he said, ‘then it wouldn’t be a fantasy anymore, would it?’ ”
“ I’m at my northern Michigan cottage, standing in our living room. I look at the bookcase to my left, and see the shelves that are reserved for my writing. In that long moment, it occurs to me that my mid-life memories of New York are not unlike my early dreams of becoming a writer. And now, some thirty-plus years later, I am a writer; but I’m living in Michigan, where all of that writing got done, and not in New York.
For decades, the New York of memory and imagination has represented an excitement and wonder, the opportunity to be caught up in the whirlwind of a more stimulating, sometimes more enchanting, existence. At the same time my equally self-invented Michigan landscape offers a more grounded, meditative state of being. At different moments, in different moods and phases, I’m alternately drawn to one or the other, sometimes, simultaneously, to both.”