Figure 1. The Garden of Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

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

November 19, 2018

Tags: Craft of 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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside, emotions, events and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page."

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BOOKS

e.g. Fiction, History, Magazine Articles, etc. goes here
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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