Maureen Stanton, Guest Blogger (photo by Heather Perry)

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.


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.


River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize River Teeth.

Breadloaf/​Bakeless Contest Breadloaf.

AWP Award Series AWP.



"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.


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

Finding the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction

May 29, 2012

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

Blog Entry No. 3

Prefatory note: This is the first of a few postings on/about the narrator as a created persona in personal essays and memoirs.

…the genuine essayist . . . . thinks his way through the essay—and so comes out where perhaps he did not wish to . . . . He uses the essay as an open form—as a way of thinking things out for himself, as a way of discovering what he thinks.
--Alfred Kazin

The comment I find myself making most frequently to my MFA students is that “the main thing missing in this piece is your story.” A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the ‘inner story’; that is, the story of their thinking.

Here’s a personal example. A while ago, I wrote an essay/memoir called “Trading Off.” It was about a four-year struggle the narrator, a Jewish boy, had with a high school coach who might or might not have been anti-Semitic. While I was writing it, I was trying to recall the shame I felt and the terrible humiliation I allowed myself to put up with—which is, as the narrator discovers, the price he’d paid for wanting to play baseball for this punitive coach.

At readings, whenever I introduce the piece as a baseball memoir, I make it a point to watch the expressions on the faces of several women in the audience. Some roll their eyes, some cross their arms, some even grimace. To them, it’s another baseball story, about a kid’s bad experience with a mean-spirited coach—the kind of jock story their boyfriends or husbands may have told them over and over again.

Not always, but often enough, by the time I’ve finished reading, their body language has changed. Some, men and women alike, have figured out that the piece isn’t really about baseball. The more interesting and important story is what it’s like to be in the mind of the narrator as he agonizes over how badly he wants to pitch for this team, while at the same time questioning his decision to put up with his coach’s cruel tactics.

He repeatedly asks himself, “why am I doing this to myself?” Indeed, why is he doing it? And how much humiliation is he willing to put up with in order to make the team? Quite a bit, it seems. That’s why I titled the essay “Trading Off.”

Often, during the question-and-answer period, or after the reading, some of the same women who’d initially resisted the piece will come up and tell me their own stories about humiliating experiences they’ve had with similar gatekeepers: a punitive ballet teacher, an abusive parent, cruel childhood friends, and so on.

That’s exactly the kind of response I hope for. I don’t want the reader to come away from the reading thinking that it’s another “poor, poor, pitiful me” story. I want her/him to feel the humiliation and shame that the narrator felt, as well as to understand that the young narrator chose. to make this tradeoff in order to prove myself to his hard-ass coach.

But, I doubt that readers—especially skeptical ones—would have been able to make that personal connection had I omitted the internal struggle and written only the literal “here’s what happened” story.

When I teach creative nonfiction, I’m always urging students to go beyond and/or to probe beneath the literal story. And so, I nudge them, as well as myself, to examine (in retrospect) why they’re telling this particular story, why now, and why it matters enough to write about?

I also advise writers to think about personal essays and memoir as having two stories. The story of the experience itself, including the facts and remembered sequence of events. But most importantly, the story of their thinking. Which is; what do those facts and events mean? What I’m really asking is: How do you, the writer, interpret the story of your own experience?

Literary nonfiction then, can have more than one persona and one voice. Sometimes it must. The persona that tells the surface story, and another, more reflective character, often the adult “I,” that comments, digresses, analyzes, and speculates on/about the story’s meaning. In other words, a narrative persona that looks to find a human connection or larger meaning in his/her personal experience.

The mind never stops searching for connections and asking questions. And that’s the thinking/feeling self I’d like to see more of in the personal narratives I read.


  1. June 8, 2012 8:33 PM EDT
    Thanks for this reminder that without the inner story, the outer story is, well, just the facts. I've posted a Blogtalk article about this post on my site,
    - Amber Lea Starfire
  2. June 9, 2012 12:48 PM EDT
    This is the same distinction Vivian Gornick discusses in "The Situation and the Story." Thank you for this excellent reminder.
    - Liane
  3. June 11, 2012 4:20 PM EDT
    One way I try to explain the distinction between these two voices is by providing students with a journey essay like Jo Ann Beard's "Out There" and asking them to separate the personal story from the physical descriptions of the trip--sometimes she's talking about being on the road, sometimes she's relating the back story of her marriage falling apart. I find if they can understand the distinction here, they can see it in their own writing, or figure out which part they need to work on. I also tell them to steal from the formula for short stories provided by Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD if they need to, which is Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending. Action introduces/develops "What Happened" and then Background and Development allows them to be more reflective and introduce the personal voice, so that when they return to Climax and Ending, they're better equipped to merge both kinds of voices. My hope is that they'll naturally begin to move more fluidly between their "what happened" voice and their personal voice and write in a less structured way, but at least it's a place for them to start.
    - Mary Beth


e.g. Fiction, History, Magazine Articles, etc. goes here
“My favorite book of the year. An astonishing look at the pains of growing up.”
--Dan Smith, WVTF Virginia, Public Radio
“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
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Literary Journal
"Fourth Genre is the Paris Review of nonfiction journals."
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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