Melissa A. Goldthwaite, guest blogger. Photo credit - Howard Dinin

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

The Role of Persona in Crafting Personal Narratives

June 13, 2012

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

Blog Entry No. 4

In The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, Carl Klaus maintains ‘the persona in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.”

I agree in spirit. Where we differ slightly is, that to me, the narrator isn’t so much a made-up self but several different selves from which the writer selects the one (or ones) that best serves his/her intent.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes,

"Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being
a narrator is fashioned…This narrator becomes a persona…Its
tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentence,
what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to
serve the subject."

That last phrase, “to serve the subject,” points out the difference, I believe, between a writer who’s literally trying to recreate the specifics of a real-life experience and one who’s searching for a persona that best suits the story being told. Moreover, it’s a way of differentiating between a straightforward telling of a life story and shaping the raw materials of a life into a literary work.

To that end, I’ll cite some unplanned discoveries I made while writing my memoir, Still Pitching.

During the book’s early stages, I realized that, by necessity, the memoir, demanded not one, not two, but three interconnected narrative personae; the author, who writer Bill Roorbach calls, “the writer at the desk;” the adult narrator, the author’s stand-in; and, the adolescent “I,” a younger version of the adult. For all intents and purposes, that younger persona is the memoir’s central narrator. And his purpose, I should add, is, as Vivian Gornick said, “to serve the subject.”

A major impetus for writing Still Pitching was a nagging, later-life itch to explore, with the hope of better understanding the early influences that helped shape a bookish, baseball-obsessed kid into a mid-life writer. But an equally insistent need was my desire to craft the memoir into an aesthetically convincing text. And that of course begins with the choice of narrators.

As a memoirist, I believe that you can’t truly understand a character, especially one who’s a surrogate self, unless you can fully imagine (not invent, not make-up) who that kid was and how he views himself.

How, for example, does his mind and imagination work? What are his deepest yearnings, passions, fears? How does he cope with disillusion, disappointment and even failure?

To accomplish this, the adult narrator must provide readers with access to the young boy’s inner life. In other words, he has to be able to render that young boy as a three-dimensional self.

Shortly after Still Pitching came out, I received an email from Tom Watson, a former student. "I admire the guts it took to bare your soul as you did” Tom wrote.

His comments reminded me again of just how difficult it is to teach even my most advanced MFA students the distinction between crafting their narrators as appropriate personae in opposition to claiming that the “I”, the central narrator, is “the real-life me” and the events “really did happen that way.”

In reply, I wrote to Tom (I’m paraphrasing here) that I didn't really feel like I was baring my soul. As the adult narrator looking back on a younger version of himself, I was trying to get inside that adolescent boy’s head and imagine, speculate on what he might be thinking and feeling. And while I was writing the memoir, I told Tom, I thought of myself first as the author, “the writer at the desk,” and then the adult narrator looking back on (and inhabiting) an earlier version of himself.

At the end of my reply, I added that, I wasn't aiming for a literal rendering of my adolescence. I was trying to imagine and reflect on what it must have felt like to be that young boy, that driven, would-be-pitcher growing up in NY in the 50's.

Consequently, I understand what writer Pam Houston means when she says, “I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.”

In my case, I remember it in the context of urgently wanting to write about that young boy’s struggles and at the same time make some larger sense out of those internal conflicts And that’s a much different undertaking from writing a memoir simply because it happened.

Imagining narrators as multiple selves then, helps writers of narrative nonfiction to transform/ transpose the raw materials of a life into carefully constructed, aesthetically satisfying (hopefully) memoirs.

And isn’t that what all good literary writing—fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction-- is attempting to achieve?

Comments

  1. June 14, 2012 12:25 PM EDT
    I read your Persona discussion wearing both my therapist and writer hat. As of late, I've been aware of how the discussion about persona and the sense of multiple parts (rather than selves) is similar to "parts" theory in Richard Simon's Internal Family Systems (IFS) model.I totally agree with your perspective re: what part or parts we pull up to narrate a particular situation. How else to tell the story of your adolescent self than to allow the voice of that part, perhaps dormant for many years, to emerge and tell it as it is felt. The adult self becomes the bystander, reflecting and weaving that sense of the self over time. As I write, I am more and more aware of the question of what part of myself is "up" and propelling the narrative. I find it helpful to try to identify and be more conscious of the interior thrust. The how and why and timing seems important to the shape of the writing. Thanks, Mike, for staying with this topic. It's complex and very intriguing.
    - Faye Snider
  2. June 19, 2012 4:14 AM EDT
    A wonderful and interesting comment by Faye Snider to a wonderful and interesting post, Mike.

    I really appreciate these thoughts: "I agree in spirit. Where we differ slightly is, that to me, the narrator isn’t so much a made-up self but several different selves from which the writer selects the one (or ones) that best serves his/her intent." Great way to think of the narrator (self).
    - Renee E. D'Aoust

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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