Joan Frank, Guest Blogger

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

Blog # 36. Tribute to Judith Kitchen and Excerpt from her Essay, "Mending Wall"

January 24, 2015

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Autobiographical Writing, Memoir, Personal Essay, Literary Journalism, Teaching Writing, Structure/Shape, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note: After a long, courageous struggle with cancer, Judith Kitchen, essayist, poet, literary critic, and teacher died in early November at the age of 73. I’d like to dedicate this post to her.

I’ll begin with some short email excerpts I sent to her husband, Stan Sanvel Rubin. Stan, a first-rate poet and critic in his own right, along with Judith co-founded the Pacific Lutheran/RainierWriting Workshop, one of our finest low residency MFA programs, a program that Stan directed for 10 years.

In my note, I wrote the following “I've always admired Judith's remarkable, versatile writings as well as her vitality, passion, and dedication to teaching. In the mid-90's, when creative nonfiction was just beginning to emerge as a legitimate literary genre, Judith was one of the first people who wrote, taught, and could speak with authority on/about what we’ve come to describe as ‘creative nonfiction.

I've been recommending and using her anthologies, In Short, In Brief, and Brief Takes in my undergraduate and MFA workshops since the first one came out in 1996. And it goes without saying that today, some eighteen plus years later, I consider Judith to be a pioneer and a highly regarded writer/spokesperson for the genre.”

In his reply, Stan said ‘Yes, she was an early innovator in creative nonfiction/lyric essay-- and, as you suggest, was a unique forerunner in developing a critical language to discuss it as a genre with its own purposes and dignity. She stood staunchly for the creative exploration of truth as an important task and challenge.’

Like most of the writers, teachers, and students whose lives Judith touched, I'll miss her vitality, sense of humor, directness, and her fierce honesty. May her life and work serve as an inspiration for those of us who knew her, as well as for the current and future writer/teachers who'll be encountering her work, hopefully, for many years to come.”

As a lead-in to her piece, “Mending Wall,” on/about the lyric essay (see below) I’d like to quote from an artistic statement that appears on Judith’s website Judith Kitchen

“I don't know where to draw the lines between my thinking life and my art, between one aspect of my being and another. I have published a novel, books of poetry, essays, and criticism. I regularly review the work of others; I have edited three anthologies. I teach; I write. That feels as essential as saying I am right-handed, or that I wear glasses. That I take great joy in my grandsons, I walk on the beach, I secretly sing. My books are perhaps my best statement. They announce my propensity to experiment within a genre, to push at its boundaries as well as to honor its traditions. They testify to my interest in the work of others, my ongoing curiosity about and admiration for what other writers can achieve. They go out on the limb with opinion, and they dare to speak their minds.”

Many readers of this blog, I'm sure, are familiar with Judith's work; others will encounter her writing for the first time. Below, are selected excerpts from *"Mending Wall."

" …It took more than a quarter of a century for me to discover that, yes, you could simply put your feet on the desk and think on the page. You could let your thoughts float out—in their incomplete sentences, their sinuous meanderings—and maybe, sometimes, they would find a way to coalesce and become a larger thought, a meaning. So that’s what I’m doing here: thinking my way toward what I suspect a lyric essay is, or should be, can, or should do.

Thinking my way into the lyric part of the definition, because the essay part is easier, more down-to-earth….like a poem, the lyric essay must not only mean, but be. It is a way of seeing the world. A hybrid--a cross between poetry and nonfiction--it must, as Rene Char said of the poet, “leave traces of [its] passage, not proof,” letting mystery into the knowing. Or the knowing to incorporate its mystery. And part of that knowing is through sound—the whisper of soft consonants, the repetition of an elongated vowel that squeaks its way across the page, the chipping away of k-k-k-k, the assonance and consonance of thought attuned to language. The internal rhyme of the mind….So that is what I hunger for in the lyric essay—the author's way of inhabiting his or her own mind…{to} the world at large.

This past year, I attended a reading of “lyric essays,” and nothing I heard was, to my mind, lyric. My ears did not quicken. My heart did not skip. What I heard was philosophical meditation, truncated memoir, slipshod research, and just-plain-discursive opinion. A wall of words. But not a lyric essay among them. The term had been minted (brilliantly, it seems to me) by Deborah Tall, then almost immediately undermined. Not all essays are lyric. Repeat. Not all essays are lyric. Not even all short essays are lyric. Some are merely short. Or plainly truncated. Or purely meditative. Or simply speculative. Or. Or. Or. But not lyric. Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.

That said, I believe there must also be some allegiance to the nonfiction aspect of the essay. The run-of-the-mill, workaday nature of reality. Of fact. The job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, and play the intuitive and the intrinsic, but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of, not up. The lyre, not the liar.

First, let’s deal with the difference between a lyrical essay and a lyric essay. Any essay may be lyrical, as long as it pays attention to the sound of its language, or the sweep of its cadences. But a lyrical essay is often using its lyrics to serve a different end. A lyric essay, however, functions as a lyric. Can be held in the mind—must, in fact, be held in the mind—intact. It means as an entity. It swallows you, the way a poem swallows you, until you reside inside it. Try to take it apart and you spin out of control. It is held together by the glue of absence, the mortar of melody, the threnody of unspent inspiration. Like a Latin declension: inspire, inspirit, inspiration. Inspire: breathe in, (formerly) breathe life into. Something there is that animates the lyric essay. Something that doesn't love a wall.

The music of the lyric essay? Maybe it’s a music of language: “And so I reached out and there was the great, wet fruit of his nose, the velvet bone of his enormous face”—Stephen Kuusisto, Eavesdropping.

Maybe it’s a music of structure: “Brown made Americans mind¬ful of tunnels inside their bodies, about which they did not speak; about their ties to nature, about which they did not speak; about their ties to one another, about which they did not speak”—Richard Rodriguez, Brown.

Maybe it’s a music of silence, of what is not, or cannot be, said: “It can’t be found outside, this green—not exactly, though it wants to be, in a way that haunts the edges of almost knowing. It is not the green of pear-tree leaves nor the green of rhododendron; not even the green-gray of certain aromatic sages that can make you weep for a smell lost from childhood; not even the triple-dark green of a trout stream under cloud cover”—Marjorie Sandor, The Night Gardener.

Maybe it’s not melodious, but at least it knows its own temperament, its timbre: “When the kids had gone to school and her husband to work, she would sometimes sit in the living room holding tightly to the arms of the chair feeling afraid and think, Maybe it is the woodwork getting me down”—Abigail Thomas, Safekeeping.

Maybe it’s the grace note of white space—a gap, or a suspension

Maybe it’s the music of the spheres--the sense that even though we don’t know everything down to the last quark, there is some scientifically magical design in the way things keep spinning and work together to make up our explosive, expanding universe. The knowledge that light from some dead star will reach our eyes sometime ten years from now. As Albert Goldbarth says, “Go know.”

So, does any of this say anything about the lyric essay? Probably not, or not in any way that has a vehicle with which to say it. A rocketship. A cable car. A handcart. On the other hand, I want to read the words of those authors I’ve quoted. H.D. said she would like to dance with Ezra Pound just for what he might say—I’d read them not for what they might say, but for the way they would dance. The way their hand might rest confidently at my waist, and their words brush my ear, just a tickle of thought. The way they would hold me lightly and, with one sure touch, send me twirling out, then, just as lightly, draw me back in.

I’d read for that lyric moment when I could inhale their very way of occupying mind space, for that time when, somewhere before words, science and art speak the same language and I can catch them both with their feet on the desk and the coffee offering up its distinct aroma of anticipation."

*For those who’d like to read the full version of “Mending Wall,” the essay first appeared in The Seneca Review 37:2 (Fall 2007) 45-49. It was reprinted in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, Pearson, 5th and 6th editions

Bio note:
Judith Kitchen is the author of six books: Perennials (poetry, Anhinga Press); Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford (criticism, Oregon State Univ. Press); Only the Dance (essays, Univ. of S. Carolina); Distance and Direction (essays, Coffee House Press), Half in Shade, a book of nonfiction which was published by Coffee House Press in Spring 2012, and The Circus Train, published by Ovenbird Books in 2014. In addition, she has edited or co-edited four collections of nonfiction: In Short, In Brief, and Short Takes, all (W. W. Norton) and, with Ted Kooser, an anthology, The Poets Guide to the Birds (Anhinga Press). Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including recent essays in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Great River Review, and The Georgia Review.


  1. January 26, 2015 11:57 AM EST
    The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, ed. Prentiss and Wilkens, has a great piece by JK, "Gone A-Sailing:A Voyage to the Edge of Nonfiction (In Which I Follow My Own Exercise For Writing About a Photograph)." A fascinating essay in its own right, as well an inspiring "exercise." Been trying to find an online copy to send to our local writing group.

    Thanks for posting your own poignant comments and JK's insightful quotes re lyric essays, Mike.
    - Tom McGohey
  2. January 26, 2015 1:07 PM EST
    Such a beautiful dedication and tribute to Judith Kitchen, Michael. Thank you for sharing this. And Kitchen's words do, indeed, help me enter the particular "mind space" of the lyric essay - the difference between "lyre and liar" - and the explanation of our urgent need for poetic beauty in prose.

    So wonderful.

    Thank you.
    - Renee E. D'Aoust
  3. January 27, 2015 11:20 AM EST
    A lovely tribute. Thank you.
    - Ana Maria Spagna
  4. January 27, 2015 4:02 PM EST
    Thanks Ana Maria,

    I'm a big admirer of your work. In fact, in "one Story, Two Narrators" an essay on/about reflection in memoir, I quoted an excerpt of your that I think came from from a talk you gave at at Ashland a while back.

    Here's the quote. I use it as well in any craft talks I give about reflection in memoir.

    "Memoir, at the very least, does two things: tells a story from the past and tries to make sense of the past. Storytelling is the showing part of the equation since it requires you to use familiar tools—dialogue, character description, setting description—to create scenes. Reflection, or trying to make sense of the past, is something entirely different, something largely unique to memoir. It requires ruminating on the page, thinking aloud, sifting through thoughts and feelings from your own unique point of view. Reflection, in other words, is the telling part."
    --Ana Maria Spagna
    All best,
    - Michael Steinberg
  5. January 28, 2015 10:19 AM EST
    Nice to see this tribute get a well-deserved share at Brevity.
    - Tom McGohey
  6. January 31, 2015 11:00 AM EST
    Thanks, Mike. It's an honor to have you use that quote. Yes, from the River Teeth conference. I've been a fan of yours for a long time as well, for all the contributions you've made to CNF -- from Fourth Genre through those keen insights about the "unreliable narrator" in Boston. Now, I'll be using this tribute with my students next week. I hope our paths will cross one day. With gratitude and admiration.
    - Ana Maria
  7. February 3, 2015 2:52 PM EST
    Clearly, one of the traits of the lyric essay is its existentiality: the more we try and define it, the harder it becomes to define. Judith knew this. Thanks for remembering her Mike. TL
    - Thomas Larson
  8. June 3, 2015 7:36 AM EDT
    Very interesting essay. I wish I had that gift to write like that. If someone is just like me, in case you need it
    - Kate Bennet
  9. September 23, 2015 3:00 AM EDT
    AS I understood from your great essay Judith Kitchen was really great writer. She was a teacher for lots of writers. I'll read her written works and tell mt friends from custom essay canada to read them,too. Thank you.
    - April maybell


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