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

Blog # 62. “Love How You Handled My Indecent Exposure Trial, but I’d Never Wear a Pink Shirt to Court.” : On Including/Changing Real Names in Memoirs by Michael Steinberg

August 28, 2017

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

August 28, 2017

Blog #62 “Love How You Handled My Indecent Exposure Trial, but I’d Never Wear a Pink Shirt to Court.” : On Including/Changing Real Names in Memoirs

Michael Steinberg

Note: The last two essays, # 60, and 61, “I Didn’t Ask to be in Your Memoir,” by Richard Hoffman and “ What’s in a Name, Really,” by Mimi Schwartz were converted AWP (Washington DC) panel talks about how and why memoirists decide to use and/or change real names in their works. Both Richard and Mimi had very specific ethical and moral reasons/rationales that guided their decisions. My piece, # 62, is also from that same panel. I must admit though, that my own reasons for including and/or changing names are not quite as consistent or certain as are Richard’s or Mimi’s. But, like them, I believe that this is an important concern, one that all mindful memoirists must wrestle with.

MJS

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Often after reading from a memoir, I’ll get audience questions like: when you’re writing about personal relationships, especially about family members, how do you decide whether to use real or made up names? And do you ever create composite characters?

In response to similar questions, here are some of author Maggie Nelson’s thoughts.


"It’s important that you say everything you need to say first. All the concerns about who’s going to feel affected can come a very far distance down the line when you’ve actually decided what your book is going to contain. Often you need to write out all kinds of crazy stuff so that at the end you’ve got it out of your system. If I didn’t burn through that, then I wouldn’t know what was next, what was underneath."


Good advice, as I learned years ago when I was struggling with that issue in my first memoir, Still Pitching.

My original intent was to write about the various roles that baseball had played (no pun intended) in my development as a teacher and writer. And so, during the early stages I included everything I could recall. The rough draft naturally was a sprawling mess; and it covered far too much time--several decades, in fact.

It was only many drafts later that I discovered the memoir I finally ended up writing. The book, to my initial surprise, covered some ten years of my childhood/ adolescence. And it didn’t turn out to be about writing or teaching.

The narrative, for the most part, focused on a turbulent relationship between myself, the young narrator, and a hard-ass, punitive, high school baseball coach--a Jew, who, for a time, I thought might have been an anti-Semite.

It was a coming-of-age memoir, something, that I never imagined I’d write. Because, in my early fifties--when I began to work on it--I’d already convinced myself that I wanted to write an “adult” memoir.

As it turned out though, all those rough drafts—the major cuts and revisions--led to the realization that this coming-of-age narrative was the memoir I needed to write, not the one I thought I’d wanted to write. Just as Maggie Nelson had suggested, if I didn’t burn through all of that material, I’m sure I wouldn’t have discovered what was “underneath.” Because it was only after I’d written everything out, that I found the memoir’s narrative center and time frame, what Nelson refers to as “the moment of reckoning when you know what you want to do.”

That's when I knew it was time to decide which names to keep, which to change, and which to turn into composite characters. These were, of course, the names of all the people who didn’t ask to be in my book.

Still I postponed that decision until just after I’d signed a contract. Until then, I left all the real names in because they helped me to visualize specific encounters and to recall singular characteristics and specific details--some of which, I thought, I might need to make use of in the memoir.

It was only after I realized that the book would be published (and that some people in it might actually read it), did I seriously start to think about which names I’d keep and which ones I’d change.

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Though I didn’t make any of those decisions for frivolous reasons, even today I can’t claim that my reasons for including and/or changing names were the result of a firm rationale or even a consciously ethical or moral purpose.

Here then, are a few selected scenarios that illustrate how those decisions came about.

Like a lot of coming-of-age memoirs, the narrative had to include the young narrator’s relationships with those people that had a deep and lasting influence on him--both positive and negative. That is: specific family members, teachers, coaches, his closest friends, a few adolescent girlfriends; and, as it turned out, some classmates he had an active dislike for.

Choosing to keep in the real names of family members was easy. I’d written nothing accusatory or negative about them. In fact, I credit my grandfather (my mother’s father) as being a powerful, positive, influence throughout my childhood/adolescence. I also kept the names of those teachers who I thought had inspired me to keep writing. And I didn’t change the names of my closest childhood/adolescent friends.

I did, however, make-up names for a few teen-age girls who appeared in a couple of pretty awkward sex scenes. And I changed the name of an arrogant, adversarial, high school teammate--a rival who deliberately harassed and subverted me for the years when we both pitched for the high school team. He was an irritating, sometimes maddening obstacle; but I changed his name because, on the off chance that he might ever read or hear about the book, I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing just how much he got under my skin.

Many years later, at a high school reunion, someone I’d also disliked intensely as a kid
--and whose name I changed—made it a point to track me down. And in an angry, accusatory tone, he asked me why I’d hated him so much.

In the book I’d made it clear that back then, I’d resented him for ignoring me and for deliberately excluding me (or so I believed at the time) from the pickup basketball games he hosted at his backyard court. But now, some thirty-five years later, my reasons for disliking him seemed petty and insignificant. So I figured I’d take the high ground. I told him that he was a composite character (not true), one of three neighborhood guys who had backyard basketball courts, and who all thought I wasn’t good enough to play. I could tell right away that he didn’t buy my explanation. Nor did he feel any less anger toward me. Before I'd even finished my explanation, he made up a phony excuse and just pivoted and walked away. But, damn it, he’d asked me hadn’t he? And I think I let him off pretty easily, don’t you?

Why then, you might be wondering, didn’t I change the name of my perverse, mean-spirited, high school coach? It’s true; Coach Kerchman, a Jew himself, had pushed me harder than the other Jewish players. I can still recall how painful and small his public humiliations made me feel.

Sill, I remain ambivalent about him. Was he deliberately punishing me? Or, was he raising the bar, trying in his strangely cruel way to help an insecure kid become a more a more confident, competitive pitcher?

Another reason I didn’t change his name is because everyone at the high school knew (and feared) him. Whatever name I might have made up, they’d have recognized him anyway.

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If my own reasons for changing/not changing names had no real consistency or moral purpose, neither then did most of the responses I received from readers--especially those readers that knew the coach.

When the book came out, they were split when it came to my portrayal of him. What I’d originally (and naively) expected was a version of: “What a jackass, what a mean -spirited bastard. Why did you let him intimidate and humiliate you ?”

And yes, several who’d once played for him and/or knew him by reputation, did indeed respond that way. But what surprised me was that the majority who knew Kerchman saw him as a coach who’d used a “tough love” approach to motivate an average athlete to get the most out of his limited abilities.

A more unexpected surprise though, was coach Kerchman’s own response. In a letter to the local newspaper, he wrote


"I am writing this letter to let all of Rockaway know that I have bought Mike Steinberg's book, 'Still Pitching.' I have also introduced this book to my children Karen and Barbara, both students at Far Rockaway High School. They loved the book and Mike did a great job."


Well, I thought at the time, maybe it was a good thing to keep his real name in, right?

And few paragraphs later, he added


"In his book, {Mike} placed me in Europe freeing some of the Jewish people at Auschwitz. I served in China/Burma/India (CBI) flying the hump (the Himalayas) as all aerial engineers."


Touché. Still the same old coach. And I deserved it too. Lazy fact checking on my part.

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A final note: When a reader of Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner’s blog, Cocktails With Bill and Dave, raised the question of using real or made up names in his memoir, Bill or Dave--I’m not certain which--wrote,


"I find that people loved the stuff I was most afraid to say about them, and took offense at the most minor, surprising things. ‘Love how you handled my indecent exposure trial, but I’d never wear a pink shirt to court.’ "

So, so, true. Because in his letter, Kerchman also wrote,

"….. my name is spelled Kerchman, not Kirschman, If Steinberg was in one of my World History classes, I showed them a map of the Baltic Sea, with the Kerch Strait, Kerch Peninsula and the city of Kerch. My father came from there as an eight year old with his uncle, and at Ellis Island they gave him the name Kerchman. He had no other identification."


Just for the record, in the book I spelled his name correctly, “Kerchman.” So you can draw your own conclusions about that one.

And finally, as I also discovered at the high school reunion, the people I encountered who were most disappointed, most upset, were those that I’d left out of the book. And they made certain to let me know it too. Big time.

So, go figure?




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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