Mary Elizabeth Pope, Guest Blogger


Michael Steinberg

Diagram of the Wheel. See Blog No. 10

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.


CONTESTS: LITERARY JOURNALS AND BOOKS

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

The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

April 17, 2012

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Craft of Writing

Blog Entry No. 1 See Archive
ABOUT THIS BLOG.

For links to other blogs and literary journals, see "Quick Links" in the right column just below "Selected Single Works." For a list of writing contests and a few of my craft essays and interviews, see the left column, just below my bio note.

WELCOME.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE BLOG'S PURPOSE AND INTENT.

As a personal essayist/memoirist, the founding editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and a long-time writing teacher/workshop leader, I’ve been part of a twenty-plus year conversation on/about this genre, a literary genre that's evolved and expanded in ways I could have never imagined two decades ago.

During that period, I’ve been asked to field literally hundreds of questions about the writing, editing, and teaching of creative nonfiction. So, I’ve decided to launch this blog, partly to extend the genre conversation and partly as a way of passing on some of what I’ve learned.

Over time, I’ve found that the most helpful suggestions I’ve gotten from veteran teachers and writers were, for the most part, related to genre issues and/or matters of craft. And so every ten days-two weeks, I’ll respond to a subject/topic from a list of recurring questions about the genre—questions that have come up at MFA workshops, public workshop visits, talks, and writers’ conferences. (SEE #1 BELOW) And in between those postings, I’ll offer brief opinions and comments about controversial genre issues, as well as recommended books and articles that have caught my attention.

Feel free then, to respond to whatever concerns interest you. And if you have questions, by all means, include them. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start our own dialogue about both the craft and the current state of the genre.

CREATIVE NONFICTION: SOME PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS AND OPINIONS.

Contemporary creative nonfiction -- the fourth genre -- is an elastic, expansive literary form. The broad spectrum of which includes the personal essay, literary memoir, literary journalism, and some forms of first person cultural criticism.

To be sure, there are many differing approaches to the genre. But two, in particular, stand out.

Some writers, editors, and teachers see creative nonfiction largely as literary journalism—that is, artfully rendered, carefully documented research and reportage of true-life stories, often about larger subjects. Others, myself included, view the genre as more openly expressive and exploratory, a notion that goes back to Montaigne’s original intent when he wrote, “It is about myself{e} I write.”

Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, it isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic writing. Quite the opposite. Often, the impulse to write personal essays and memoirs is much like the impulse that produces certain forms of lyric poetry and prose. By this I mean that a good number of personal essayists and memoirists are writing not so much to confess or tell their story, but to discover and explore what many poets and fiction writers describe as finding out “what we didn't know we knew."

That journey of discovery is an inner voyage. And since many essayists are by nature, reflective, contemplative types, the personal essay is an ideal vehicle for their interior explorations, which, more times than not, spring from the writer’s need to make sense out of some nagging question, elusive idea, confusing experience, or perplexing situation.

Consequently, readers should expect to encounter a narrator in the act of thinking things out on the page, while at the same time, trying to find some shape and meaning in those thoughts.


#1 THE HYBRID FORMS OF LITERARY/CREATIVE NONFICTION

After a craft talk at a recent MFA residency, someone in the audience asked, “What can I learn from reading the kind of creative nonfiction that’s so different in style and approach from the writing I do?”

She went on to say, “I’m thinking of the number of experimental and abstract pieces I’ve been seeing. They aren’t at all like the {more traditional} personal essays that I write and am most familiar with.“

Her question puts me in mind of something David James Duncan, wrote,

"Admirers of nailed down definitions and tidy categories may not like to hear it, but all writers and readers are full time imaginers, all prose is imaginative, and fiction and nonfiction are just two anarchic shades of ink swirling around in the same mysterious well. Those of us who would tell a story can only dip in our pens. We can never claim full certainty as to which shade of ink we’re using."

Duncan’s claim is similar to what Patricia Hampl, one of our finest memoirists, said when she described literary/creative nonfiction as a "mongrel" or "hybrid" genre.

I agree with Duncan and Hampl. During the ten years that I co-edited the literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (1998-2008), the genre grew more expansive and diverse, which, in turn, opened up opportunities for writers to create more experimental and riskier works.

Consequently, as the genre continues to change and grow, it encourages us—writers, editors, and teachers alike--to rethink our preconceptions of what creative nonfiction is. In other words, it expands our boundaries and creates new possibilities, such as, the short prose pieces that use language and form in most unexpected ways; essays and memoirs that combine personal narrative with analysis, research, and reportage; and some forms of personal journalism and cultural criticism (Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, and Alyssa East’s Dogtown, for example), where the “I” isn’t at the center of the narrative, yet the writer’s presence and point of view clearly inform the narrative.

We’re also seeing more segmented and disjunctive pieces, as well as an increase in lyric (and lyrical) essays, some of which take the sorts of imaginative and linguistic leaps that the best lyric poetry does. Add to that, the appearance of graphic memoirs and video essays, as well as personal essay/reviews, some of which originally appeared in online blogs.

This is a more eclectic body of work than the more traditional personal essays and memoirs that I chose for the first few issues of Fourth Genre, the journal, or the selections that Bob Root and I picked for the first edition of our anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1998-1999).

“So, ok,” you’re thinking, what does all this have to do with the original question, the one that asks,” what can I learn from writing that’s so different from the work I do?” To which I say, that as a writer you’re always trying to discover the form/shape that’ll best suit your intent. And the more tools and resources writers have at hand, the more varied and compelling the work is likely to be.

If, as I believe, contemporary creative nonfiction is a spin-off from the personal essay, no matter what form the writing takes, lyric, graphic, and/or narrative, its hallmark is that it allows us access to the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and observations, as well as to his/her yearnings and confusions, exhilarations and fears--in short; the qualities that make us human.

Which is, after all, what characterizes the most enduring writing in all four literary genres.

Comments

  1. February 15, 2012 2:43 PM EST
    I am so glad that you've started a blog! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on creative nonfiction and the writing process.
    - Faye Rapoport DesPres
  2. April 19, 2012 2:23 PM EDT
    Thanks for writing this blog! It will help me keep my finger on the pulse of creative nonfiction. I love reading all types of CNF. I learn something new from each story -- even if it's only that I will never write a story like that or that I will never be able to write a story like that.
    - Angela Fostr
  3. April 19, 2012 4:01 PM EDT
    Wonderful blog, Mike. Thanks for writing about this topic, which is close to my heart. Brenda
    - Brenda Serotte
  4. April 19, 2012 8:01 PM EDT
    Mike, great blog. What a fantastic opportunity to learn from you over and over again. See you soon. Cindy Zelman
    - Cindy Zelman
  5. April 19, 2012 10:54 PM EDT
    Thanks for this, Mike. I look forward to following your new blog!
    - Elizabeth Langosy
  6. April 21, 2012 11:36 AM EDT
    Congratulations on starting this blog, Mike. As a writer of both nonfiction and fiction, I appreciate the quote about how writers of both genres are just two shades of ink swirling around the same mysterious well. Looking forward to following this!

    - Mary Beth Pope
  7. April 21, 2012 12:13 PM EDT
    Thank you for starting this wonderful blog! What I love about creative nonfiction is that it seems to force us back to a pre-genre understanding of words and stories. Thinking about ancient texts, they can appear as hybrids to a contemporary eye even if they are anthologized as "essays" or "poems" or "stories" now. So often we find an unapologetic blend of history, journal-writing, the lyric impulse, prayer, and polemic. Even our strict notions of verb tense and voice have evolved across time, and across languages, contributing (at times) to a false sense of safety in the categories. CNF allows us to remember that liminal spaces can be mined and explored, that the subjunctive voice is no less real than what we call reportage.
    - Jo Scott-Coe
  8. April 21, 2012 1:18 PM EDT
    Great blog, Mike. Great way to share your wisdom and expertise. I'll visit regularly.
    - Maureen Stanton
  9. April 23, 2012 2:21 PM EDT
    I love the way your blog is just like having a conversation with you; conversations with you are enlightening and fascinating. I'm thrilled you've started this project and look forward to all your posts! Also, I love this, "Often, the impulse to write personal essays and memoirs is much like the impulse that produces certain forms of lyric poetry and prose." That fits so well! Your fan, Renee
    - Renee E. D'Aoust
  10. April 30, 2012 9:36 AM EDT
    Great post. Love to find the champions of CNF online alive and bloggin'!
    - Brendan O'Meara, twitter.com/brendanomeara
  11. April 30, 2012 11:51 AM EDT
    Welcome to the blog world Michael!
    I don't see a way to "follow" your blog. You might want to see if your web person can add that. Thanks!
    Brenda
    - Brenda Miller
  12. April 30, 2012 12:06 PM EDT
    Love reading these blogs about writing, and especially creative nonfiction, and this is a good one.

    But something to consider. I wrote about this recently on my author blog. Love to read some thoughts...


    Reading so many blogs, notes, Facebook posts, literary reviews, and articles in journals and newspapers on the subject of creative nonfiction and memoir, and I have come to this conclusion: DUMP THE LABELS.

    It seems the only reason we have labels in the art of writing is to categorize work for the sake of an editor and the shelves of a book store (brick-and-mortar or virtual), but in reality, it doesn't really matter, does it? Oh sure, we want the reader to "know" what he/she is getting, but I wonder if that really matters anymore. Good reading comes from good writing, and labeling what genre it is just doesn't seem relevant in today's world.

    Memoir crosses the boundaries of journalism, fiction craft, and personal anecdotes. Creative nonfiction has elements of fiction writing, memoir, essay, journalism, and scene sketches. Fiction, as it always has been, many times (even if just partly) coming from personal experience that somehow enhances, exploits, makes bigger, becomes more poignant in order to create an imagined story. But all of it - every bit of it - comes from one place - the human experience. The lines are so blurred now, does it matter what silo we drop our stories into?

    I can't tell you the times I have written a piece - be it memoir, essay, fiction, journalism - and the reader or and editor asks me -- IS THAT TRUE? That question arises no matter what the genre. Sometimes I say "yes" - sometimes I say "partly" - sometimes I say "well, a little" - sometimes I say "I think so, but it's MY truth. Others may think differently." So, if the question is always the same - IS THAT TRUE? DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? - why put a label on it. The reader's reaction is the same.

    Dump the labels and write; write what is in your heart, what is relevant, emotional, passionate, telling, engaging, compelling. Drop the categories and tell the good story, one that resonates over and over again, true or not.

    David


    This is for David Berner

    As a writer, i largely agree with you about the labels. And yes, I've had to deal with the kinds of "did this really happen?" kinds of questions you're talking about. I've even written a few essays about that kerfuffle. I also agree that we should be writing the best, most passionate work we can. When I was an editor of a journal of literary nonfiction though, I'm afraidI might have beee part of the problem. When you get hundreds of submissions, including poems and short stories, it sometimes makes you wonder if those people even care about their writing or know how they're presenting themselves as writers. I've got no answers, but If you go to the March 8th issue of Brevity (you can find the link at the top of the right column), there's a pretty heated debate on/about some of the issues you've raised. The title of the piece is AWP 2012 Dear John, I'm Afraid it's Over... Some, but not all of the replies to the piece address themselves, if indirectly, to the concerns you've raised in your post.

    Mike Steinberg
    - David W. Berner
  13. April 30, 2012 10:23 PM EDT
    Michael,glad you've started this blog. Maybe I missed it, but I would love it if I could get your blog postings automatically via RSS feed. Might that be possible? I look forward to future posts. Thanks.
    - Joanne Lozar Glenn
  14. May 1, 2012 1:29 PM EDT
    This seems like a wonderful venue for exploring a genre that, as you so deftly put it in your post, is rooted in the impulse and need to explore.

    I especially love the following passage from your post:

    "...as a writer you're always trying to discover the form/shape that'll best suit your intent. And the more tools and resources writers have at hand, the more varied and compelling the work is likely to be.

    If, as I believe, contemporary creative nonfiction is a spin-off from the personal essay, no matter what form the writing takes, lyric, graphic, and/or narrative, its hallmark is that it allows us access to the narrator's thoughts, feelings, and observations, as well as to his/her yearnings and confusions, exhilarations and fears--in short; the qualities that make us human.
    Which is, after all, what characterizes the most enduring writing in all four literary genres."
    - Ioanna Opidee
  15. May 1, 2012 1:29 PM EDT
    This seems like a wonderful venue for exploring a genre that, as you so deftly put it in your post, is rooted in the impulse and need to explore.

    I especially love the following passage from your post:

    "...as a writer you're always trying to discover the form/shape that'll best suit your intent. And the more tools and resources writers have at hand, the more varied and compelling the work is likely to be.

    If, as I believe, contemporary creative nonfiction is a spin-off from the personal essay, no matter what form the writing takes, lyric, graphic, and/or narrative, its hallmark is that it allows us access to the narrator's thoughts, feelings, and observations, as well as to his/her yearnings and confusions, exhilarations and fears--in short; the qualities that make us human.
    Which is, after all, what characterizes the most enduring writing in all four literary genres."
    - Ioanna Opidee

SELECTED WORKS

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.

Quick Links