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

Melody Lines and Riffs: How I Found the Structural (Organizing) Principle for the Memoir, Still Pitching

November 2, 2012

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

Blog Entry No. 10

Note: This is the second of a two-part posting on/about finding the structure in a memoir-in-progress. Since it’s a continuation of the preceding entry, those that haven’t read #9 would benefit by looking it over before reading this one.

Before beginning this discussion, I also want to mention that I've separated myself, the writer, from the adult narrator who's looking back on a younger version of himself.

1
* We shape {a piece of literary writing] in order to let it go; the process of crafting the [work], of trying to get everything from line to sonic texture to each individual word just right involves standing back and gaining a greater degree of distance from what we've said. A good [literary work] may begin in self-expression, but it ends as art, which means it isn't really for the writer anymore but for the reader who steps into and makes the experience of the poem her or his own. Therein lies the marvel: The [writer’s] little limited life becomes larger because readers enter into it.
--Mark Doty

One reason you write a memoir is to try to find out which people and events helped shape you into the person you’ve become. In composing Still Pitching, my intent was to craft an emotionally honest narrative about what it felt like to be that kid narrator growing up at that particular time in that particular place. But it was also an inquiry into what it all meant.

After deciding to focus only on the ten year period (1947-1957) of the young narrator’s childhood/adolescence, I (the writer) began by brainstorming what turned out to be a long (some 150 pages), meandering, free association composed of notes and impressions from the young boy's childhood and adolescence. That scattered draft included things like family, school, his early love of books and writing, his sense of being an outsider, his obsession with baseball and his identification with the Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 50’s--in addition to his social life, friends, rivals, cliques, the mysteries of girls and sex, and some general impressions of New York in he 50’s.

When I went back over that shapeless mass of sentences, phrases and paragraphs, I underlined all the events, situations, and people that came up frequently enough to catch my attention. I found that three of the young narrator's baseball coaches kept appearing every few dozen pages. I hadn't thought about them in decades. Why now, at this point in my life, I wondered? So I decided to explore that question and see where it might lead me.

Next, I printed out only those segments and passages that referred to the young boy's struggles with those three coaches. When I reread those pages, one coach kept coming up regularly. So, I pulled those pages (some 10,000 plus words) and laid them out side-by-side on a long table.

I could see that most of the writing was, in one way or another, about the young boy's turbulent relationship with one Jack Kerchman, a gatekeeper of a coach. There were, I could see, enough raw materials here for a stand-alone essay, a piece that would focus on the boy's four-year struggles with coach Kerchman. But that push-pull relationship wasn’t enough, I knew, to build an entire childhood memoir on.

Since I’d decided to write the memoir from the point of view of the adult narrator looking back on a younger version of himself, I first had to revisit those original shapeless free associations. In all this material, I discovered what amounted to three interconnected stories that would, I decided, run concurrently throughout the narrative.

The first one is the young narrator’s coming of age—that is, the confusions of dealing with family, school, and a social life. The second is about his identification with the 1950’s Brooklyn Dodgers, a team of perennial also-rans and underachievers. The narrator saw their struggles as synonymous with his own. But the heart of the memoir is the young boy’s disturbing relationship with Jack Kerchman, the coach that stood between him and his urgent need to make the high school baseball team. And part of that struggle was proving himself to this perverse, hard-ass, coach.

To my mind, those three intertwined stories constituted the raw materials I had to work with. What they had in common was that each was connected, in one way or another, to the young narrator’s preoccupation with baseball. The challenge then, was to figure out how to weave them into a seamless, coherent narrative that a future reader could enter.
11
A memoir’s narrative can only be about only one thing. But the one thing (not to be confused with a subject or topic) has to encompass and include other related aspects of a life. It’s the old notion of the universe in a grain of sand. To better help you understand the strategies that would finally shape this narrative, take a look at the diagram of the wheel on the upper left side bar--above my photo.

Here's one way to look at it. Think for a moment about how experienced jazz musicians compose and play their music. They begin with the melody line. In the diagram, the memoir’s melody line is “baseball.” I placed baseball at the center of the wheel because it, in effect, functions as the narrative’s structural (organizing) principle.

Jazz players also routinely riff off of the melody line (in the diagram, the riffs—the spokes of the wheel--include three coaches, including coach Kerchman, the young narrator's love of reading and writing, school, cliques, girls, the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York city in the 1950’s, etc).

The riffs seem at first to be digressions. But the savvy jazz player (and writer) know that these digressions are variations that spring from the “melody line.” The trick, for the jazz player (and the writer), is to find his/her way back to the melody line before beginning the next riff. And if the jazz player and writer are adept and skillful enough, the riffs/variations/digressions will appear to be, in the memoirist’s case, organically woven into the narrative.

The impulse to write the memoir then, wasn’t to focus on baseball itself; but to see if I, the writer, could make some sense out of the ways in which my childhood shaped my identity. At the same time, I also wanted to connect with others who saw their own coming-of-age stories as a formative influence. To that end, baseball--both playing and watching the sport--became the lens through which the adult narrator could examine his childhood.
#
* What Mark Doty says in the epigraph ( see above) applies, I believe, to both poetry and prose. Therefore, each time he uses “poet” or “poetry” I’ve substituted “literary writing,” “literary writer,” and/or simply “writer.”

End note:
Anyone who would like to share his/her struggles with finding the shape of a book--a collection or a memoir--or even a stand-alone piece--please send it in. I think it would help a lot of other writers to hear about different strategies and approaches.

Comments

  1. November 16, 2012 10:00 AM EST
    Michael,

    Your wheel diagram is the perfect planning tool to translate an abstract process into one more concrete and sequential.I plan to list your blog on my course syllabus as required reading for my students. I think it's a great opportunity for them to understand that the difficulties of writing are shared even by those who love to write.

    Joe

    Joe
    - Joe Hemrick

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.

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