Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
October 16, 2016
Blog # 53
Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,
Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger
In January1999, the inaugural issue of issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, the literary journal I founded, came out. Some three months later, Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman, both at Ashland University, founded River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. These were the second and third literary journals devoted exclusively to the genre we’re now calling creative nonfiction. In fact, Creative Nonfiction Lee Gutkind’s journal preceded both Fourth Genre and River Teeth by some four years. And today, all three journals are still actively engaged in helping to shape an ongoing, evolving conversation about the genre.
Back in 1999, neither Joe or I could have predicted just how diverse and inclusive the genre would become. Nor could we have imagined just how many first-rate literary writers not only have made the form their own, but also have expanded its scope and possibilities.
When I was a graduate student, and during the early years of my teaching career, with few exceptions (The Paris Review comes to mind) the editors of many literary journals were as often or not, scholar/teachers and/or literary critics.
Which is not the case with many of our very best contemporary literary journals. For the past twenty-plus years, a good number of editors are first and foremost teaching writers. And to my mind, one of the very best writer/editor/teachers is Joe Mackall, who also to my great delight agreed to be this month’s guest blogger.
Joe’s bio note below gives us just a small sample of the fine books he’s written. But if you look further, you’ll find the many, many workshops and talks he’s presented as well as the impressive number of essays on/about matters of genre and craft—many of which, including this month's post, ”Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,” ,are of great value to those of us who write and teach this form.
This month I’m delighted to feature Joe’s The piece first appeared in Assay’s special conference issue. The piece is from a recent Nonfiction Now panel on structure and shape—an important part, maybe the most important part, of what we do. It's something we’ve discussed in previous posts. And something we'll continue to talk more about in forthcoming posts.
For a look at all five of those essays go to
Assay Journal and take a look at Hydra-Headed Memoirs & Well-Connected Essays.
Blog #53 Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers, Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger
Whenever I’ve spent too much time wondering if what I’m writing is an essay or memoir or literary nonfiction or anything else really, bad things start to happen. First I’ll stare at the screen as if it’s a divine oracle, and what I need to do is wait patiently for the answers to all my writing problems. When that fails, I gaze out my office window, watching the squirrels, wondering how they all stay so damn busy.
But on bad days before I can move my fingers on the keyboard, my rat brain kicks in. The rats fill my mind with unpretty thoughts. They sound something like this: Oh, my god, maybe I’ve said all there is to say about the passing of time in one ten-page essay, too many writers far better than I have exhausted the terrain of family and ancestors and descendants, maybe I’m writing a collection of essays, oh, my god, the only thing worse than a memoir on how becoming a grandparent has upended my life is a collection of essays about how becoming a grandparent has upended my life. Won’t reading essays about some bald-ass middle-aged white guy becoming a grandfather be a lot like looking at pictures of an acquaintance’s grandkids? Oh, they’re so cute. Oh, he has your nose. Oh, what does she call you? Oh, who gives a shit? Maybe I can use the biggest lie in nonfiction publishing to my advantage: It’s a memoir in essays. Sure, nobody would see through that sophisticated masquerade. Maybe there’s no point in writing at all. Who’s going to be reading books in ten years anyway? Goddamn Kindle. Screens everywhere you look. iPad this. But then, just as I’m about to break down and weep, out of the dark and dank alleys populated by the rodents, the sad, disillusioned, yet kindly and often wise priest who lives in my brain turns a light on. The rats scurry, vanish. And then I hear his sonorous voice: Just write what you need to write, my son, goddamnit. It’s all about that. It always has been.
I’m beginning to believe that the worst thing about writing is publishing, or at the very least publishing too soon. Even giving a reading from a book not yet finished can be damaging, at least for me. The book I’m working on now I’m calling personal nonfiction in an attempt to stop trying to wrest essay from memoir or condense as yet unrealized sections of memoir into essays. The problem arises when I’ve tried to excerpt some of the manuscript for a reading or for publication.
At that point, I’ve tended to force the issue, fashioning essays out of what was longer and less defined material. Now I have four pieces, two have been published and two have been read in public. All four seem “complete,” as if I’ve said everything I’ve needed to say about the subjects of those similar but separate pieces. This is where I found myself a few months ago. For all my work, I could not write anything else on my book. An imaginary brain priest can only do so much. I had the four “complete” pieces at the beginning of the book and then a mass of writhing, squirming half-baked thoughts for the next two hundred pages.
So I did what every sensible nonfiction writer would do: I started work on a novel. But this didn’t solve the problem. All the unanswered questions of my nonfiction book were still unanswered. All the dread and anxiety that overtook me upon becoming a grandparent did not go away. I needed to get back to my book. I needed to move myself toward understanding, but I still could not get past the fact of these published sections.
I know the old whiskey priest is right. He and I share a working-class background. We know not a single bricklayer, for example, ever looked at a problem with a wall and said: That’s going to be too much work to fix. I’ll just have five-foot ceilings in this house. I love those other walls I’ve built. Those walls say it all. People will be sitting down reading their Kindles anyway, so what’s the point of an eight-foot ceiling. No, a bricklayer would solve the problem. She’d tear down the whole damn wall and start over if that’s what it took. Bricklayers do not truck in rats. That’s the nature of craft. "
I’ve been so busy entangling myself in the terms of art that I’ve ignored the work of craft. So I got to work. I’ll offer a couple of paragraphs from one of my “published-too- soon-essays” to give an idea of the subject matter and my attempt to get back to what Sonya Huber has called" a book-length nonfiction thing."
“I can’t exist more than a few days without seeing my granddaughters. My whole way of being wavers in their presence. My dark disposition begins to lighten up. I’ve figured out some of it. After a quarter century of loving all the same people, I’ve fallen in love with somebody new. I’ve loved my children all of their lives and my wife every day for nearly thirty years, but now there’s new love. Perhaps my heart’s tectonic shifts have shaken my psychic geography. I have two new people to love, two new people to see the world through, to share life with, to worry about, to fear for in a time when I sometimes can’t recognize my own country and when the world’s people appear easily connected electronically and so dangerously disconnected in just about every other conceivable way."
“I often feel as though I’m moving toward the edge of a foreign
land, the plains of an emotional dystopia. I know it’s connected in ways I don’t fully understand to life as a grandfather and as a man in his fifties, life as an American in a country increasingly polarized, fracked, outsourced, droned, downsized, gunned down, teetering on the dream-edge of itself. As a writer, editor, a full, tenured professor, I have work I love and am still young and coherent enough to do. I also know what’s out there waiting for me: impotence, probably; incontinence, likely; senior moments, and then, surely, no moments at all. I have a great family, a wife I cherish, three loving children, two wondrous granddaughters. My father’s alive and well and lives a couple miles from me. My granddaughters too live only minutes away. Yet just beyond all this peace and love I perceive the vague existence of foreboding or surrender or something I’ve not allowed myself to imagine. I’m gazing through paradise and seeing into the shadow of the fall.”
What I’m going to try in order to break out of my essay/memoir/literary nonfiction funk is reach into the shadow life of the words in these paragraphs. For example, how much of my anguish stems from my “dark disposition”? I need to pull out that thread and stretch it across the bolt of the bigger story. I also need to free write on the nature of familial love. What specifically is it about the world that I now fear? If it’s not a better place than it was in what ways am I implicated? What about this changing America? Is it changing or am I just getting older? How the hell did going to a movie become dangerous? If this doesn’t work, I’ll start teasing out words whose larger meanings seem to resonate. Words like “foreboding,” “surrender,” “paradise,” “the fall.” I’ll begin asking questions of my own material. Did my own grandparents feel any of this? How has grandparenting changed? What about the role of grandparents through time and in other cultures? Is anybody else as messed up as I am about this, or does everybody just whip out smart phones and finger-push faces of tiny strangers in front of people who don’t care?
Once I start taking on all of these ideas, start doing the necessary work of unpacking these essays, I can get back to the book-length thing. It will be a mess, but it will be mess worth the work.
And then just when I start to think I may just be ok after all, I recall this paragraph:
“I realize my reaction to becoming a grandfather is not typical, perhaps not even normal. A few confessions: I resisted getting new carpet in our library because my granddaughters had crawled upon the old. I’ve let Ellie, the oldest, cover every inch of my bald pate with Strawberry Shortcake stickers. I mourned the day she stopped watching the Wonder Pets. I still miss Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too. I’ve tucked a small blanket into my belt and, having been transformed into a princess by Ellie, danced around our living room, spinning until dizzy, my blanket billowing around me like a jeweled ball gown on a hippo prancing and pretty in a field of poppy.”
Joe Mackall is the author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish and The Last Street Before Cleveland. Co-editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He teaches at Ashland University.