Mimi Schwartz, 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.


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

#39 On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about "the Tough Stuff" by Jessica Handler

May 22, 2015

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note: This month’s guest is Jessica Handler. I’m pleased and delighted to have her work appear on this blog. I first met Jessica in 2005, when she was in my Writers in Paradise memoir workshop in St. Petersberg, Florida. Jessica, along with Tracy Crow, and Margaret MacGuiness, had just gotten their MFA from Queens College. And they were so well informed about literary memoir that it was like having three co-teachers in the room. When the workshop ended, it was clear to me that any or perhaps all three would go on to write first-rate literary books.

Jessica’s sensitive and perceptive memoir, Invisible Sisters, was published four years later, in 2009. The narrative is about how, following the death of her two sisters, the writer came to terms with her grief. It's a powerful literary memoir. Jessica hasn't stopped there. She has continued, with great energy and deep commitment, to write, teach, and lecture. Fittingly, her craft essay, “On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs About ‘the Tough Stuff'"--is adapted from her recent book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins/Griffin, 2013.)

I believe that Jessica’s thoughts, opinions, and perceptions will provide additional guidance on/about the various strategies and approaches that memoirists utilize in order to create literary work out of their deepest sufferings and losses. It’s a subject that informs Meredith Hall’s piece (blog # 38). And because this is a matter I’ve also written about (see blog # 34 and 35), I decided that this was a good time to run Jessica's piece.

MJS

On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about “the Tough Stuff.”
By Jessica Handler

A few years ago, I was talking to friend at a party about the ending he had just written for his film. His protagonist, a little boy, meets his masked hero at last, but he’s sorely disappointed. The hero isn’t the idol he had convinced himself he would find, and after working for almost the entire plot to have his troublesome nerdiness redeemed by proximity to his hero, the little boy is at a loss.

“So that’s not really the end,” the screenwriter said.

“Yes,” I said to the screenwriter. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” he agreed.

And together we said, “yes, and…”.

We were getting at a truth that’s common to all good writing; that the ending isn’t the moment when the author runs out of writing steam. A satisfying ending begins with that moment of “yes, and” in the plot. In my friend’s screenplay, the ending isn’t that the boy finds his hero, but that the boy begins to change on his own as a result of his efforts to meet his hero. For a memoirist, the ending has something to do with how she or has changed and moved forward in life?

The ‘yes and’ for my memoir, Invisible Sisters, is that, yes my sisters died and I learned to find my voice without them. For a writer, the idea of ‘yes, and’ marks the place on in the story where the renewal for the protagonist – the author- starts to become clear.

Another way to phrase this could be “yes, but,” although I prefer “and.”
“And” has a more positive, forward-moving feeling; not a contradiction, but a continuation. The very existence of a memoir proves that the author survived to tell the tale. A well-made ending is a new beginning; in a memoir about loss, it’s that place on the page when author, and later, reader, is satisfied that the protagonist telling the story can make it from here. A good ending fulfills an implicit promise made in the beginning, whether it’s to tell how the survival occurred, or how the author has grown as a result of the loss.

But no writer or reader wants a sparkling, disingenuous ending that wipes the slate clean of that life-changing sorrow. A generic story with the emotional authority of a smiley-face sticker would not only be false, but a grave injustice to the true story. (more…)

Blog # 38, Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs

April 17, 2015

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note: This month's guest is Meredith Hall, who, to my mind is one of our finest literary memoirists. Her emotionally powerful, beautifully rendered memoir, Without a Map, is one of the few literary books to be both a critical success as well as a New York Times best seller. Meredith's craft essay below was originally part of a recent AWP panel entitled, Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.

MJS

Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs
-Meredith Hall

When I give readings of my memoir, an audience member invariably comments, “This must have been such a catharsis for you! Writing this must have been so therapeutic for you! It must have felt so good to get this all out!” My response is always something like this: We cannot write memoir as catharsis, or for its therapeutic effects. Before we are writers, we are human beings living a life. Before we write, we must have worked our way to the deepest parts of our experience. All artists are guides. We are entrusted with walking one step ahead of our readers into the depths. It cannot be our first scouting. We must live inside the inquiry of past events honestly and courageously before we ever offer ourselves as guides. We do not need to be wise. But we do need to have understandings and insights sufficient to ask the most difficult questions. Without that process, which can take years before we are ready for the role of guide, we face two problems: we are writing for ourselves and not our readers; and we are not yet ready to make story of our pasts. It is this idea I would like to explore today: We all come to understanding through story. If we cannot yet control that vital line of communication, we are not yet ready to write our book.

The most dangerous territory for us when we write about intimate events is in exposition—when we say what happened and why and what we think and believe and understand. The problem is that expository writing—this summarizing and explaining and examining—tends to be our go-to place when we write. It is writing that arises from our memory, from our thinking and our feeling about memory. It is intuitive and automatic. And it is satisfying to the writer because we get to set up our story, complete with its history and place and context. We get to explain exactly what happened, and best of all, we get to say how that all felt, and what we now understand about it.

But I am going to suggest that choosing instead the strategy of using “the camera” causes us to rely on the scenes we carry in memory. If we imagine ourselves filmmakers, we find our tool box filled with the specific and demanding tools of the craft of rendering story. But we also earn great freedom from our struggle to make meaning.

We are all adept at watching a film: It opens with a scene—perhaps a young man and woman are leaning against a kitchen counter. We watch them and listen to their small conversation carefully, working at building an understanding of who they are and why we should care. And then the camera lens closes, and reopens—but now we are in a car. We don’t flinch at this. We are absolutely ready for this shift in scene, character, emotional mood. We recognize the driver—the husband we have met. The passenger is an elderly woman. This is his mother, we realize, and they are covering some old emotional territory between them. Then the camera lens closes, and reopens—and we are at a large family gathering. We are ready for this next scene. We are gathering clues. The wife is here, and the husband. There is a lot of laughter. But the camera lens watches the face of the wife, and so we do, too. Why is her expression so tight? What threatens or diminishes her here? There is another burst of laughter, they sit to their meal, and the camera lens closes.

And so the filmmaker constructs, scene by scene by careful scene, her story. And the amazing and beautiful fact is that we “get it” when a good film closes! The “camera” allows us to understand what happened, what motivated the characters, and how we might feel about the story. What an exhilarating art form! The writer can rely on the filmmaker’s camera. But luckily, we are also able to step in periodically and provide our own understandings, to reflect. To offer ourselves as guides, leading our readers to understandings and questions earned through time.

What happens when we don’t trust the camera? Imagine this: We pay our money and sit down in a theater and the film starts. But instead of that man and woman leaning against their kitchen counter, we see the filmmaker, sitting in a chair against a white field, looking directly at us. Instead of a series of scenes to convey the story, he tells us all about the story—he introduces the characters and he describes them and their physical environments and their backgrounds, the history of each character and their interactions. He summarizes—because without the tools of the camera, the ability to make scenes, he has no other option than to summarize. And then he tells us what it all means, because he has no other tool to convey meaning. There our storyteller sits, facing us, earnestly telling us ---everything.

Which film would you rather watch? And the larger question, which film leads you to a deeper and more personal understanding of this story? (more…)

# 34 Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into Literary Works . Part 1

November 8, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

11/8/14

Note/Update

Because of deadlines and commitments (life-its-own-self, right?) for almost three months I haven't posted anything new on the blog--until today.

In addition to the post below, I've listed links to some very fine sites on/about the essay--Assay, The Humble Essayist, Modern Times, Quotidiana, The Essay Review, and Diagram (See Quick Links below right)

# 34 Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into Literary Works

This is Part One of a Two Part post. I’ll post Part Two during the first week of December.

1
Prologue
When I was a beginning writer, I attended a summer writer’s conference workshop where one of the students, an undistinguished writer, so I thought at the time, presented a draft about how on a camping trip he was hit by lightening. Unlike his other work, this draft was vivid, compelling and filled with evocative details and specifics, all of which clearly described how terrifying this near death incident was. So much so that you could almost feel his confusions and fears.

The workshop leader, a somewhat acerbic writer, saw this as a teaching moment. He said something to the effect of “…you should all hope that you’ll get hit by lightning some day.” At the time, I was irritated by what seemed to be such a flip, mean spirited, response. I even thought that he was being deliberately perverse. Most of the others in the class had, as I recall, similar reactions.

That goes to show you how much I knew about writing (and teaching) back then. Now, some twenty years later, I think I understand what he was trying to teach us--about writing.

As writers (and teachers) of autobiographical works, we know that our own as well as our students’ most compelling work can (potentially) emerge from the impulse to stare down and write about our most fearsome ghosts and demons. In workshop we refer those demons and ghosts as “hot buttons.”

“Hot buttons” can range from serious misfortunes--traumas like abuse, incest, life threatening illnesses, major disabilities, and devastating losses (like the death of a child, partner, close friend, and/or parent)--to less foreboding, but still deeply painful moments of humiliation, shame, and regret.

But just as writing about emotionally upsetting experiences can generate some very powerful, absorbing work, it can also produce straightforward personal narratives that consist largely of direct confessions and disclosures.

I’ve found that when my students write about deeply unsettling misfortunes, the writing (at least at first) tends to read like a litany of “here’s what happened to me” grievances. And the group’s collective responses are almost always sympathetic with the writer’s difficulties.

It’s a humane impulse, to be sure. Given the fragile nature of the content, those kinds of responses--and understandably so--are honest expressions of compassion and concern. As a result though, sometimes the class turns into a group therapy session. Which creates a dilemma for the workshop leader and students alike.

I say this because those responses—as empathetic as they might be--aren’t really dealing with the writing itself. In that setting, the group, it seems, rarely offers the kinds of specific suggestions--approaches and strategies--that can help the writer think about how to shape his/her thoughts and feelings into the kind of a fully dimensional, well crafted narrative that most of us—novices and experienced writers alike—are (or should be) hopeful of producing.

As writers and writing teachers then, we have to keep reminding ourselves that writing about a life is a very different undertaking than living a life. And this disparity, it seems, is an ongoing problem that many of my students—undergraduate and graduate alike--have to wrestle with.

How then can we create a workshop environment in which, without sacrificing our humanity, we’re still helping fellow writers and would-be-writers to find shape and meaning in their adversities and misfortunes? (more…)

#33 Teaching (Yourself) What You Know - Guest Blogger, Mary Elizabeth Pope

August 16, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note:

A reprint of Mike Steinberg's blog essay (#26 in the Archives), The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction appears on Faye Rapport's blog,
The Roles of Memory...

You can also read an expanded version of this essay in the Solstice Literary Magazine
The Roles of Memory...


Another craft essay, Planning For Surprise: Writing and Teaching the Personal Essay was published by TriQuarterly Triquarterly

Also, One Story, Two Narrators: Reflection’s Role In Writing and Teaching Personal Narratives appears in the current issue of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices appears in One Story, Two Narrators:.......

Earlier and much different versions of both pieces appeared on my blog (# 3), Finding
the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction and # 19 and 20, Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Literary Nonfiction. You can find both in the Archives
blog



08/16/2014
INTRO--TEACHING (YOURSELF) WHAT YOU KNOW - GUEST BLOGGER, MARY ELIZABETH POPE

I've known Mary Beth Pope for many years. She's a first rate personal essayist/memoirist and a passionate, dedicated teacher. Using her own experience as a teacher and writer, in this piece, Mary Beth talks about and illustrates how important it is for students, especially beginning or inexperienced writers, to overcome their fear of disclosing their embarrassments and human flaws and instead to look at those confusions and uncertainties as rich materials for crafting their personal essays and memoirs.

MJS

Blog # 33
TEACHING (YOURSELF) WHAT YOU KNOW--MARY ELIZABETH POPE

Recently, a colleague who knows about my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder gave me Wendy McClure’s memoir “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie,.” As a child I had read the Little House series with a fervor bordering on delusion. I didn’t just love Laura Ingalls Wilder at the age of ten. I thought I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. So when I opened Wendy McClure’s memoir, I laughed out loud at the opening line, which reads: “I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we travelled to Indian Territory, where Pa built another house, out on the high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?”

Right! I laughed. Oh, wow! This was completely true of me too. I had tried to sit as still as I could in church every Sunday because I knew that “Ma” would demand no less. I had secretly hoped that when I fished with my father in the Chippewa River, I’d get leeches like Laura did in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I even sent a post card to my aunt and uncle in Rhode Island saying that I’d gone “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” that afternoon, at which point a call was placed to my parents in Michigan, asking if I was okay. How funny, I thought, that someone else had experienced these books the same way I had.

Then I stopped laughing and got jealous, the kind of jealous only writers really know, I think, when they realize they’d had a great subject right under their nose all along and never even considered it worthwhile until someone else pounced on it successfully. I mean, that was MY childhood delusion Wendy McClure was writing about. And she did it in such a smart way, too, taking on all the politically problematic elements of the “going West” trajectory of the books, which ten-year-old girls don’t necessarily pick up on, but I had, after my graduate work in postcolonial studies. In fact, in a discussion in one of my graduate classes I’d even brought up the moment in The Long Winter in which Pa dresses up and performs in (yikes, I know) blackface. So what, I wondered, had prevented me from realizing that I could have written a book about the Little House on the Prairie series?

As a teacher of creative nonfiction, I know how to walk my 18-22 year-old-students through their own lives, identifying the subject-worthy elements they may have overlooked, especially when they tell me they are too young for anything to have “happened” to them yet. I have them make lists, do bubble charts, write about their hobbies and obsessions, no matter how small they may seem. And in general, I’m usually successful at getting them to find a subject that both they and their audience will find interesting.

So how is it that I could miss a subject that loomed so large in my childhood?

In thinking this over, I’ve realized that there are three primary barriers that prevent even seasoned writers from recognizing a topic as subject-worthy, and in my own case, it doesn’t matter that, first of all, I know what they are, and second, that I teach other people to overcome these barriers every day as a teacher. They’re still difficult barriers for me to overcome, still the reason I miss things, which makes them all the more important to drag out in the open and remind myself (and you, since you’re reading this) that you have to move past these things in order to access your best work.

The first of these barriers is embarrassment. Now, I talk about embarrassment with my students as a fertile subject for writing. But the truth is, as a human being myself, even if there are things I’m willing to talk about that embarrass me, there are other things, both new and old, that I’m just not willing to face. And if I am honest, the truth is that I’ve always been kind of embarrassed by my obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, because that story about the postcard I sent my relatives about “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” has come to feature prominently in my parents’ narrative about realizing their daughter was strange. It was the kind of story I’ve shared only with my husband, a handful of other Laura Ingalls Wilder fans I’d met in graduate school, and the one friend who gave me The Wilder Life. These were the people who already knew about my insomnia, my shut-in tendencies, my awful ungenerous germ phobia, and the fact that, despite my academic credentials, I have never missed an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor in eighteen seasons, even though I know it’s a really, really, really terrible show and violates every feminist impulse I have. (more…)

# 32 On Mentors and Mentoring

July 9, 2014

Tags: creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Blog # 32

On Mentors and Mentoring

Author’s Note/Disclaimer:

This post, a tribute to a pioneer/mentor woven into a short essay about my personal writing/teaching history, is a departure of sorts from what you’ve previously seen on this blog.

Recently, a friend asked me to write an essay for her blog, an essay on mentors and mentoring--something that’s been on my mind ever since I posted “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” by Donald Murray (see Blog # 30 below). In that post, I mentioned how in the 70’s and 80’s Murray became my writing/teaching mentor. What I didn’t talk about was the contribution he made to the literary genre we’re now calling “Creative Nonfiction,” and how, as a result of his work, I became instrumental in the genre’s emergence and evolution.
MJS

A version of this essay appears on www.overmyshoulderfoundation.org
Dawn Caroll's Over My Shoulder website on/about mentors and mentoring. You can find it under Mentors Come When You're Ready For them, 7/14

A Writer Teaches Writing

1
We encounter our best and most influential mentors, I believe, when we’re ready to receive them. In my case, it happened shortly after I began teaching freshman composition. Back then, in the late 60’s, all comp teachers were required to plan their courses according to an outmoded, prescriptive, syllabus, a syllabus that required teachers to assign their writing students a series of what we used to call “papers:” among them, a narrative, a descriptive essay, an argument, an expository essay, a piece of literary analysis, and a final term paper based solely on library research. This method had been in place since the late nineteenth century. It was, to say the least, a narrow, wrong-headed view of what writing is all about. But back then, there was no other option.

Around that same time, I happened to come across a book, A Writer Teaches Writing, by a Donald Murray, someone, who I’d never heard of. In the book Murray was, in effect, advocating an inside/out approach to composing. I was immediately drawn to his philosophy. And it kick-started what would over time become my transformation from writing teacher to teaching writer.

Murray was one of the first writing teachers in this country to suggest that the teaching of writing (and literature) had been, for far too long, the exclusive territory of professional critics, researchers, and literature teachers--many of whom might admire writing and literature, but who themselves did not write.

We didn’t know it back then, but this was the beginning of what would evolve into both the writing process and teacher-as-writer movements, which, from the late 60’s to the early 90’s changed the way that introductory college writing was taught in this and in several other countries.

In addition, it’s my belief that Murray’s work sparked a renewed interest in the teaching of the personal essay, which, to my mind, helped foster the rise of what we’re now calling creative/literary nonfiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Murray’s ideas make as much sense to me now as they did back then. An aspiring writer myself, ever since I was a college freshman, I’d believed that learning to write in prescriptive forms had hindered my own growth as a writer.

I didn’t want to pass that approach on to my own students, so, with Murray’s thoughts in mind, I converted my writing classes into workshops; and, as he suggested, I began writing personal essays-- like those I was requiring from my students. (more…)

# 31 Guest Blogger: Desirae Matherly. Surprise and Subtext

June 10, 2014

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Note: Our guest writer this month is Desirae Matherly. Shortly after I started up Fourth Genre (1999), I first read , and then published, Desirae's work . Back then, we didn't have a name to describe the lyrical, poetic essays that Desirae and a few other writers were sending us. Today, I consider her to be one of our very best writers of the subgenre we're now calling the "lyric essay."

MJS

Blog No. 31

Surprise and Subtext

There are two kinds of surprises I’ve found in the essay, both as a writer and teacher. To begin, there is the matter of finding something to write about. I’ve noticed that so much has changed from the days when I was a student writing for a workshop, to the present, when I work only if I’m inclined to. A more recent development in my writing life has been the solicitation. Being asked to write is an instant motivator. Rarely do I know when I first agree to give a reading or write an essay, what I’m going to write about. But as my deadline approaches, I become attuned to my personal experiences in ways I am normally not aware of. Conversations with friends, thoughts while driving or walking, and my reactions to the media I consume are mined for material. Everything could potentially make its way into an essay, and I am always reminded that all subjects are indeed connected, ala Montaigne.

The “aha” moment is perhaps the most exciting part of the writing process, when the originating idea for an essay presents itself. Usually I’m not in a position to write when that moment comes. I’m hiking in the woods, or commuting to and from campus where I teach. Or I’m in the throes of a discussion with a friend and have to snag spare moments to jot my thoughts down on a napkin or in a notebook if I’m sufficiently prepared to do so. Or I grab my phone and record a voice memo or compose an email to myself. Any writer can relate to the surprise of a fresh idea, or of a solution to a problem that comes at an unexpected juncture between experience and reflection.

When we, as teachers of writing, ask our students to write, we are asking them to find that process by which they are surprised by the urge to write. It’s slightly synthetic, and in the past, when I’ve asked students about the “occasion” behind particular essays, the reason I’ve been given sometimes flounders into, “I had to write something for class.” I’m not ruling out the possibility that sometimes any of us, our student writers included, sit down behind our computer screens and free associate our way into new essays. But aren’t those essays surprising too?

I’ve also noticed that whatever leads us into writing an essay may not be the ultimate subject or theme we work to resolve, once we are into the thick of the process. This leads me to that other surprise I often encounter when essaying; the matter of subtext, which for me is synonymous with the deeper reason behind a piece of writing. It is the repressed anxiety, the epiphany of realization, or the grim mortal insight that underlies whatever surface story we relate. Subtext can be the dirty secret we wish we could keep with ourselves, or it might be the anger we struggle to remove from our lives, only to discover it again unexpectedly when exploring a memory or digressing into a seemingly unrelated theme. (more…)

# 30, The Three Stupidest Things I've Done as a Writer by Donald Murray

April 28, 2014

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

Blog # 30

Note: Ever since I turned 60, I’ve been thinking about mentors. That’s mostly because, for the last several years, I’ve been a mentor myself. As I’ve often told my students, I never would have become a writer, much less a teaching writer, had it not been for the support and encouragement of one of my own mentors, Donald Murray. Partly as a result of his generosity of spirit and his willingness to share his knowledge, not just with me, but with literally hundreds of others, I’d hoped that someday I’d get the chance to do for others what he did for me.

I think that turning 60 became a marker for me. Perhaps that’s because for many years Don wrote a Boston Globe weekly column “Over Sixty,” on/about practical matters of writing and teaching writing.

I could go on, but I’d much rather have you read some of Don’s pieces.

Those who visit this blog know that its main concerns are specific matters of genre and craft. But the short essay I chose for this entry “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” offers, for the most part, practical advice and wisdom on/about the writing life and what it means to be a working writer.

He passed away eight years ago, but among his eleven books and several poetry collections, Murray’s nine books about writing/teaching are still relevant to all of us who work at this game. In the coming months, along with my own craft essays, I’ll post other short pieces Don wrote. For those who want to know more about his life and work, click on Donald Murray (in yellow) below.

Donald Murray

MJS

Guest Post: The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer
by Donald Murray

1. I believed there was an aesthetic genre hierarchy:

1. Poetry
2. Literary fiction
3. Essay of literary criticism
4. Drama
5. Popular fiction
6. Screenwriting
7. Essay of personal experience
8. Journalism.

At age 77 I realized I am a storyteller who must tell the stories life has given me. The genre must come from the story to be told not the literary ambition of the writer.

2. Not finished drafts of books that could have been published because of lack of faith or deadline.

3. Took seriously the criticism or destructive praise of those who wanted me to write their poems, stories or books not my own.

The three smartest things I’ve done as a writer.

1. Tried to follow the advice of Horace -- nulla dies sine linea {Never a day without a line}– and counted words.
2. Assigned specific tasks to my subconscious which kept writing
during the 22 and1/2 hours I was away from the writing desk.
3. Established deadlines, then met them by breaking long projects
into brief, achievable daily tasks. (more…)

# 29 Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical "I"

March 24, 2014

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

Note: Contest Announcement:

Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices announces its 5th annual CONTEST.
$1,000 Fiction Prize; also the $500 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize. Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry; and our $500 Nonfiction Prize, donated by Michael Steinberg. Finalists are also offered publication. Solsticelitmag, a Best of the Net publication, promotes its writers in the present and post-publication. Reading fee: $18.00. Deadline: extended to April 19th. www.solsticelitmag.org

This is a very fine online lit journal. The nonfiction prize is well worth looking into. Richard Hoffman, who wrote a recent post (#28) will judge.

MJS

Blog # 29

This post is a reworking of a panel presentation I gave last month at AWP in Seattle. The panel’s title is: The I Or The Eye: The Narrator's Role in Nonfiction

Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical “I”

Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town is a carefully crafted, artfully written book that, for the most part, is about her investigation of a murder that was committed several years ago in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a place the author describes as “an enchanted New England ghost town.”

It’s a convincing, eminently readable story. But what drew me more deeply into the book was the narrator’s curiosity and fascination with the mythology and history of this small New England village. And it’s that pull, that attraction, I believe, that influenced (either consciously or unconsciously) the way in which the author set up her narrative.

For the most part, Dogtown is a combination of immersion journalism and cultural criticism along with some very spare, but important personal remarks and observations, most of which East intermittently weaves into the early parts of the narrative. These pointed disclosures explain some of the reasons why the author felt compelled first to visit and then to write about Dogtown. And to my mind, East’s interest in this place convinced me that she would be a most reliable and companionable guide.

That said, after the first sixty-five pages, the personal disclosures all but disappear from the narrative. And the writer/teacher in me naturally wanted to know why. Later on, when I had a chance to talk to Elyssa, about this, she told me “what makes Dogtown distinct is utterly elusive and I only wanted to be in the book to further illuminate this feeling; to help the reader live this sensation on the page with me.”

Her comments triggered some thoughts that had been nagging at me for quite some time. Why, I’ve been wondering, do some writers place their narrators at center-stage (in other words, as the “I”) while others locate their narrators on the periphery, or off-stage—as reporters, witnesses and/or observers (the E-Y-E)?

Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.
---David Shields

The literary nonfiction that’s most fascinating to me lately is, like Dogtown, a mix of investigation, research, and personal narrative. Four books immediately come to mind; Katy Butler’s, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Kristin Iverson’s, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Rebecca Mead’s biography/memoir My Life in Middlemarch, and Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire.

While I’d love to write the kinds of narratives that, like those authors, marry the personal with larger cultural, historical events and issues, more often than not, my narrators, are variations of the “I,” the persona, that is, who’s at the center of the narrative.

Poet William Stafford comments (inadvertently) on this dilemma when he says, “I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now…”

To which I’ll add my belief that the narrators and narratives and we choose are related, at least in part, to matters of disposition, temperament, and sensibility. As well to the specific ways in which we view the world.

Over time, I’ve come to accept that my sensibility is a lot closer to that of a personal essayist/memoirist than it is to a literary journalist or cultural critic. And so, he majority of my narrators fit the kind of persona that Montaigne describes in Essais when he says "It is about myself{e} I write."

Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, let me qualify it. This isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic and/or confessional writing. Quite the contrary. It's closer in spirit to what essayist Scott Russell Sanders refers to as "the singular first person." And in times like these--where the messages we listen to and read are often generic slogans and hash tags, like, “I’m Luvin’ it, “Let’s Go Places,” and What’s in Your Wallet?,“ we especially need to listen to “the singular first person;” the individual human voice more.

Subject in an essay…becomes not the target so much as the sight, the lens through which you see the world
--Steven Church

The majority of my personal essays and memoirs tend to revolve around two “subjects;” baseball is one, and the other is my congenital sense of feeling like a displaced New Yorker in the Midwest. (more…)

Guest Blogger: Richard Hoffman. More Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir

March 3, 2014

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

Blog No. 28

Guest blogger Richard Hoffman is one of our most prolific, accomplished, and versatile authors. He writes fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction with equal dexterity and skill. And in addition to being an astute commentator on/about literary nonfiction, Richard is among the most gifted, accomplished teacher/mentors I’ve had the privilege to work with. MJS

MORE NOTES TOWARD AN ESSAY ON MEMOIR

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his one prose work, Rainier Maria Rilke regrets that no one any longer has an individual death -- "One dies the death that belongs to the disease one has," he writes. Well, we've done this with our lives now, at least those lives recounted in memoir, and marketed via publishers' cumbersome sub-titles. Title, colon: A Memoir of X & Y; My Struggle with X; My Escape from X; My Life with X. How can we find the humanity so abundantly and variously evident in worthwhile books if we consign them to one or another cubby-hole like this? You can no more judge a book by its subtitle than its cover, though people seem to do both. So we read about experience that we think may shed light on our own because we have an event or an illness or a place or a trauma in common with the author, when what we truly have in common is our humanity and, ironically, we might learn more about that from a work that at first seems far from our usual concerns or our own chancy autobiographies up until now.

No matter the particulars of the life recounted, the memoirs I love are grounded in grief. "Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?" Well, everything, I would answer Yeats. Everything remains to say. It is all a celebration and a mourning of what vanishes. Grief, I have long believed, proves we are all one blood, one and the same creature, despite our beautiful and deadly differences. When they came upon Abel, inanimate, unresponsive, gone, Eve and Adam uttered a wail of shock and incomprehension that has never ended, and they became, in that moment, the parents of the human race.

*
Human beings, by definition, look for meaning in their experience. They look to their cultures to provide the categories of discourse that they may use to find meaning. From pull-down menus to the complexities of one’s mother tongue, the making of meaning is thus mediated by precedent and permission. Every memoir is such a precedent and permission for someone.

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It’s paradoxical that when I sit somewhere and write, whether it’s by a stream, in a library nook, in a cafe, on a park bench, I am completely and utterly unaware of my surroundings, taken up as I am with what I’m writing (which may be about another kind of place entirely) so that when I close my notebook I seem not to have been there at all, but thereafter, whenever I look at what I wrote there the whole place will suddenly be present to me, in detail, including memories of smells and sounds. I might be led to the conclusion that the part of me that entrances itself with looking for words is in fact the oldest self I have, or from another vantage, the youngest, the child who first came to awareness and looked for words for what he saw, this paradox partaking of that quality of childhood that lets the world etch itself completely in memory while the mind’s attention seems wholly taken up with something else.

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If I’m not reading, if I haven’t had adequate time to read, I can’t write, or write well, at any rate; I feel like a blindfolded man trying to paint.

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It’s important, from time to time, to reaffirm the primacy of experience over words. We spend the majority of our time in a language web, its patterns defining our humanity, its contours and quality, but we are creatures first, always a bit feral, like cats hunting in a housing project.

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Writing takes me so long because 90% of what I think is not what I think. It is cleverness, other people’s thoughts, advertisements, platitudes, prejudices, rhymes.

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Childhood is an autumn forest of memories both deciduous and evergreen. Discreet remembrances change in relation to others which are also changing but at a different pace. The maples, for example, are dramatic and impassioned against a background of amber. A stand of beech is already gray and feathery. And the smell of a wood fire, elusive on the shifting breeze, reaches you again and again, always, it seems, from a different direction. All the while you hear the chunk, chunk of the woodcutter’s axe, and knowing him no friend to your remembering, and recognizing him as the very woodcutter of the stories, you tell of the growth of each tree, both the green and the yellowing. You tell of as much of the forest as you can while you still have time. (more…)

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the "Real" Truth?

February 11, 2014

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

Blog # 27

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

Note: The title of my previous post, # 26, is The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir,” but I see that I’ve only talked about the role of imagination, mostly as it relates to the “truth.” So, this post will be about the relationship between memory and “truth.” If you haven’t read # 26, it might help to take a look at it prior to reading this one.

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

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When we housed memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we took the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously. {and yet} We act astonished, even dismayed, when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts…
--Patricia Hampl

At a writer’s conference several years ago, I read a segment from “Trading Off,” a personal essay/memoir about a turbulent relationship between my adolescent self and a hard-ass high school baseball coach.

During the Q and A, people asked the usual questions: “Did it really happen the way you wrote it?” “Did your coach actually do those perverse things? And the one that almost always comes up: “If you were only thirteen, how can you remember exactly what was said in that scene in the coach’s office? (see #26 for a segment of the scene).

All of these raise some still-being-debated matters about the reliability of memory. For instance; in a reputedly “honest,” “truthful” memoir, doesn’t the writer have to stick to the literal facts of the story? What should memoirists do when they can’t remember the details of an important incident, situation, and/or conversation? Can they embellish and/or invent? And if so, to what end?

2
What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters
--Vivian Gornick

Seasoned memoirists know that their memories don’t always govern the narratives they write. In my own case, memories mainly serve as catalysts for exploration and discovery--specifically, for finding meaning and shaping a narrative. As a teacher and memoirist then, my advice to aspiring memoirists is to write the whole story first, just the way they remember it. Stretch it out; include all the specifics, names, and situations; write down every memory that comes to mind. In other words, make a mess.

Once they’ve done that, they have, in effect, produced a working draft; often a sprawling, cluttered, even incoherent, narrative. In some instances the draft runs much longer than the writer had initially expected. Which, to most experienced memoirists, is exactly what a first draft is for.

I've found that inexperienced writers--undergraduates and adult MFA’s alike--too often believe that those drafts are finished works. So when I tell them that what they’ve written is raw material for a possible, and still undiscovered narrative, many seem puzzled, and perplexed. Some are even offended. “But it’s all true; that’s the way it really happened,” they’ll argue. And so, it's understandable that they’re surprised and disappointed to learn that there’s still a lot more writing and revising left to do.

3
Your memory of your past becomes your past
--Stephen Dunn

Memory, we know, is elusive, tricky, and often inaccurate; in other words, an unreliable resource. For one, there’s the shifting nature of memory itself. A while back my wife and I were watching slides of a European trip we’d taken some thirty-plus years ago. In addition to disputing our different versions of what it felt like to have visited St. Peter’s or the Louvre, or Chartres Cathedral, we were also in disagreement about whom we were with. Were they traveling companions or people that just happened to be part of our tour? Did we visit each place on a single trip? Or, was it two different trips? We don’t remember what our itinerary was; or, even the angle of the sun at the moment we took the slides.

If you’re still skeptical, here are some other things to consider. Language by its very nature rearranges and distorts human experience. And that’s principally true as it concerns memory. For example, after I’d written the memoir about my old coach, that version became more vivid, more real to me than the actual events and memories it was originally based on.

How then, do these concerns bear on how we think about and how we compose our memoirs? (more…)

The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

January 5, 2014

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

Blog # 26

The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir

My apologies for not posting this sooner. Holiday chaos.

Preface
In response to my last post (#25), “Tracking The Narrator’s Thoughts”, I received a thought-provoking comment from Stuart Rose, a reader. Paraphrased it reads

“… I puzzle over just how we can track our thinking on the page. It's a challenge to artfully insert our explicit thoughts into a narrative…. {but}there are only so many explicit, stand-alone statements we can make without losing the reader. Weaving our thinking into the fabric of concrete and narrative details seems to be vital. Much of the thinking has to be mingled with the story.”

Stuart’s comments eventually became a catalyst for my own thinking. Here’s an excerpt from my reply to him

“…. We’re reactive creatures, it’s true. And so, making our narrator’s thoughts and reactions more transparent (and seamless) is a big challenge… As memoirists we can only speculate. …about what our narrators might think and feel in a given moment or situation; which, in effect, means that crafting the story of a narrator's thinking is an act of imagination.”

Once again, this raises the tired, but still unresolved issue of what's “true” in memoir and what's been fabricated. The insistence that memoirists should stick to the facts and not invent, make things up, or otherwise embellish the narrative, is still something a lot of critics get all bent out of shape about. Those tactics, they claim, are the province of fiction and poetry.

Agree or not, clearly we memoirists need to think more conscientiously about the ways in which we use imagination (and memory) in our own narratives.


The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir
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What distinguishes {literary writing}. …from journalism, is that inherent {in a literary text} is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.
--Eudora Welty

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, imagination is not exclusively about making things up. That’s “invention.” And to my mind, there’s an important distinction to be made between the two. Fiction writer David Malouf makes that case when he says, “Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside—emotions, events, and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page.”

Malouf is describing the difference between telling or recreating a story the way it happened--if that’s even possible--and transforming that story into (for us nonfiction writers) a fully rendered, fully imagined, memoir. And that transformation is an important part of what writing a literary memoir is all about.

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I won’t tell you the story the way it happened. I’ll tell it the way I remember it.
--Pam Houstton

In effect, Pam Houston is implying that memory is an unreliable narrator. Hard for any of us to disagree on that one. We also know that imagination alters, even rearranges, the way we remember things. Yet, while being unreliable, I believe that memory is not necessarily untruthful.

Let me explain. (more…)

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives

November 21, 2013

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

Blog # 25

Tracking the Narrator's Thoughts: An Approach to Writing Personal Narratives
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Even thinking has—or is—a story. The right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking. This is memoir’s great task really: the revelation of consciousness.
--Patricia Hampl

Recently, at a writer’s conference, I was conducting a manuscript critique with a former (adult) student, a very fine writer and someone I’ve known for many years. She’d submitted a chapter from the middle of a memoir-in- progress.

In her abstract she writes,"When Kennedy was assassinated, I had a moment of clarity where I saw that no one is ever safe and secure one hundred percent in this world, no matter who they are, and the most important thing is to remain whole, literally and figuratively... That was a turning point in my life when my perception of “safety” changed forever. "

Having read that abstract in advance, I knew what her intent was. And in the chapter’s next-to-last paragraph, she writes about the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; specifically how, when she was younger, the event effected her.

As compelling, as strong as the writing was, however, it left me with the feeling that something was missing. When I reread the chapter, I searched for but couldn’t find anything in the previous pages that foreshadowed this end-of-chapter revelation. For the most part, the first two thirds was about the narrator’s childhood and her adolescent struggles to overcome a congenital disability.

The problem, I discovered, was that I never really got an overall sense of the how the narrator’s inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions led her to what, on a second reading, seemed more like an epiphany than an emerging discovery. As a teacher and editor, I’ve been privy to these kinds of omissions before. Usually, they occur in rough drafts. And often they emerge from a carefully constructed sequence of events rather than evolving from some deep inner confusion or uncertainty. As a practicing memoirist myself, I’ve been guilty many times of the same oversights.

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The essayist gives you his thoughts and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them
--Alexander Smith

One of the qualities that distinguish a skillfully rendered personal essay or memoir from other literary forms is that throughout the narrative the "I's" thoughts and feelings are inherently transparent. Consequently, readers ought be able to track the evolution of the narrator’s thinking. In works of literary/creative nonfiction, it comes with the territory.

“Memoir, like fiction, writer Sue William Silverman maintains, “tells a story which needs an over-riding struggle and conflict. What does the author want? What is she struggling toward? Something also must be at stake. What are her inner struggles? Her longings, her fears."

The narrator of the chapter we're discussing does indeed suggest that something important is at stake. “That day {Kennedy's assassination},” she writes, “ I....knew for sure, that nothing and no one could protect me… because nobody, not even the most famous, important and guarded among us, were ever one hundred percent free from harm…Anyone at any time was liable to lose their balance, fall hard, and be swallowed up.”

It's a significant, powerful discovery, to be sure. And as I said above, the writing is compelling and skillfully wrought. Consequently, the reader in me badly wants to identify with and/or understand the impact of that discovery. To be more specific, I believe that what's been omitted from this segment is what Sue Silverman calls the narrator's “inner struggles... her longings, her fears.” In order then, for readers to enter the writer's thoughts, the narrator has to let us in on how, in retrospect, she's arrived at this life changing insight. Has it been percolating, or incubating, maybe even rattling around inside for a long time?

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“…{In} an essay” Phillip Lopate writes, “the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.” I agree with Lopate. And so I advised the chapter’s author to allow herself more permission to make her internal thoughts and feelings more apparent, more evident. And I also made a mental note to do the same thing with a piece I was currently writing.

And I concur with the late critic/memoirist Alfred Kazin when he says that “an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts” Kazin says, “but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.”

I’ll add a final thought to the mix. In this genre, the subject or the events are less important than the writer’s internal struggle to make sense out of some pressing question, confusing experience, and/or perplexing situation. As a result, the connections between writer and reader (that is, between one human being and another) depend on our knowing how, where, and why the narrator locates and reveals his/her most urgent thoughts and feelings.

This is of course a matter of strategy and approach. But, I believe, it's a necessary, even an essential part of writing authentic personal narratives.







Guest Blogger: Renée E. D'Aoust. Water the Rocks: A Few Writing Ideas to Unblock Your Heart

October 22, 2013

Tags: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Teaching Writing, Structure, Craft of Writing, Family History, Writer's Block

Blog # 24

Note: Renée E. D’Aoust will be our guest blogger for this next post.

Renée is a versatile, multitalented writer whose first book Body of a Dancer is a passionate yet clear-eyed memoir about her experiences as a modern dancer during the nineties when she studied at the Martha Graham Center in New York.

Her essay/post below, Water the Rocks: A Few Writing Ideas to Unblock Your Heart, is about a more mundane concern, one that all of us have experienced at one time or another; writer’s block.

MJS

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At our northern Idaho house, I’ve surrounded the hosta plants and Siberian Bugloss with red rocks from Montana’s Hungry Horse River. (Please set aside your concern regarding the ethics of my stealing river rocks and transporting them across state lines.) My distraction: I like to water rocks. Red rocks, gray rocks, black rocks, striped rocks, flat, small, jagged, and big.

Distraction with a hose. The green hose is a dragon’s mouth; the water, its language. I pour language over the pillars of my life. The problem expands. When sitting down to write, I become distracted. Instead of writing what I need to write, I write what I don’t need to write. Arguably, rocks don’t need watering. Plants do. Arguably, the new book needs to get written. More emails don’t need to be written. (Sorry email pals.) Oh, phooey. Does the world even need one more book? I get up, leave my desk, walk outside, pick up the hose, and water my rocks. I am dragon. Strong. I return to my desk.

Then I sit down to the new page, and I want to do everything but write the page. Take a bath. Bathe the dachshund. Walk the dachshund. Grade student papers. Prune some trees. Eat some chocolate. Water those rocks! They are dehydrated, I think. They miss the river. They need water. I pick up my dragon hose.

Distraction is familiar to all writers, and management of distraction is a skill all writers master. But what happens when distraction leads to anarchy, and the new page stays blank for months? What then?

Put as a question: how did I stop watering the rocks and return to the blank page of my new project? A memoir about trees and loss. A woman in the woods with a saw.

I’m a writer who has never looked kindly on writer’s block. To my chagrin, I thought writers who confessed to such frozen moments in their creative careers were weak, spineless specimens. Who wants to read words from a writer with no vertebrae? Although if a coelacanth wrote something called The Long Swim: Memoir of an Old Fish, I’d read it. Then I became a weak, spineless creature. No backbone. I wasn’t wise like a coelacanth, which can hide at the depths. I wasn’t strong like my imaginary dragon. I was a kleptomaniac: I had stolen rocks.

After the pages of my book project stayed white for months, and longer, closer to a year, or more, I cannot confess the length of painful time, well, I had to own the label: I have writer’s block. You have to accept that something is wrong and name it before you can move forward, right?

I tricked myself into thinking I was not stuck. Oh no, not me. I was writing book reviews, wasn’t I?! I was writing posts for the Women Owning Woodlands website, wasn’t I?! I was writing dance reviews, wasn’t I?! I was writing, for goodness sakes. But, really, I was turning in on myself, picking at my skin, eating lots of chocolate, and taking dachshund Tootsie on more walks than she needed or wanted. Oh, yes, I was watering those rocks. Faithfully.

I’d published my first book, Body of a Dancer, and as my brother put it, succinctly, in the way of siblings, “Basically, you pursued your dance dreams, and when you didn’t succeed at dance, you wrote a book about your failure, and that means you turned adversity into something lasting. Into art.” I liked thinking about those hard modern dance years in New York City. The struggle was all. I didn’t eat any chocolate then. (more…)

Guest Blogger: Faye Rapoport DesPres: What Does This Have to Do with Writing?

September 22, 2013

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

Blog 23

Note: Faye Rapoport DesPres’ guest blog started out as a group of interrelated feelings, confusions, thoughts and emotions, and before evolving into a fully rendered inquiry I read it on May 9 when it first appeared in the Superstition Review. And I was so taken with it I asked Faye if I could reprint it on my blog, and she graciously said yes.
MJS

What Does This Have to Do With Writing by Faye Rapoport DesPres

Ten days ago two explosive devices were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am sitting at the same desk where I worked last Friday during the daylong manhunt that led to the arrest of the second suspect in the bombings. The first had been killed in a late-night gunfight just three miles from the house I share with my husband. I learned of the events when I turned on my computer at 5:30 the next morning and saw the news headlines. Usually I try to write in the early hours, but I was unable to write after that. At six, my neighbor Mary called to tell me that her husband had heard a disturbance in the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep. Did I know that we were supposed to stay home and lock the doors?

My husband woke next and I told him what had happened. His cell phone beeped with a text message announcing that the mental health clinic where he works was closed. In fact, all businesses in the area were closed. We double-checked the locks on our doors, opened the window blinds just enough to let in a little sunlight, and spent the entire day inside the house.

You might ask: What does this have to do with writing?

It’s been ten days since the bombings and I can’t seem to shake the effects of what happened. This is not surprising; everyone in Boston seems to know someone who was affected by last week’s events. An old friend of mine had just left the finish line a few minutes before the blasts; she saw the explosions from her office nearby. A receptionist who greeted me last Saturday at a local business told me that her uncle, a police officer, arrived in Watertown just after the gunfight. The woman who took my blood at the doctor’s office on Monday said that she knew people working in area hospitals who would be haunted all their lives by what they’d seen and heard. Paul Martin, a Paralympic athlete who has run the Boston Marathon numerous times and whose memoir, One Man’s Leg, was the first book I edited, sent an email saying that his college friend had lost a leg at the finish line. And a few minutes ago I felt my body stiffen when a helicopter flew over our house. Two helicopters flew low over our neighborhood last Friday, just before the second suspect was apprehended. I realized later that one of those helicopters must have been carrying the thermal imaging equipment that located the suspect beneath the tarp that covered the boat where he was hiding.

No, I haven’t shaken any of this yet.

But what does this have to do with writing?

It is the haunted feeling that I have right now, the same feeling I have had for the last ten days, that compels me to write personal essays. It is a shaken feeling, or a curious feeling, or a constant reliving whether conscious or not, an inability to let go of an event, a memory, or even just a thought. The event might have occurred yesterday, or it might have occurred thirty years ago. But on some level I have not been able to shake it. And so, eventually, I write about it.

The best teaching writers I've worked with often tell me that writing personal essays is, at its heart, a form of inquiry. You start with the intention of revisiting a memory, re-telling an event, or relating an observation, but really you are searching for what it all means. Your goal is to find, as essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick would say, the story behind the situation. The process is never as simple as you think, at least for me it isn’t. But in the end, if you stick stubbornly with your subject and explore it with all your guts, you learn what is behind your need to write about it – and it’s not always what you expect. (more…)

Guest Blogger: Mimi Schwartz: Halfway Through a Story

August 27, 2013

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

Note: Lately I’ve invited selected writer/teachers to fill in for me while I’m recuperating from hip replacement surgery. My current guest, Mimi Schwartz, is a highly regarded writer, teacher, and scholar who has worked in this genre for much of her professional life. Mimi and I have been colleagues and friends ever since we began teaching freshman composition back in the 70’s. It goes without saying that she’s one of the teaching writers whose work I most admire.

Moreover, along with Bob Root, the late Wendy Bishop, and Lad Tobin, Mimi Schwartz was one of the earliest practitioners to use elements of creative writing in her composition classes. That, along with the 1980's teacher-as-writer movement, are responsible, at least in part, for some of the more innovative approaches we're now seeing in the teaching and writing of creative nonfiction.
MJS

Blog No. 22

Halfway Through a Story by Mimi Schwartz

I was on a roll. I knew my topic: living in a historic neighborhood. I knew my purpose: an opening for a collection I’d been publishing as stand alones over the years. All combined memoir with history or politics, including the politics of writing creative nonfiction. If this new essay worked as I hoped, I might just have a book I’d call When History Gets Personal.

I began writing easily with this beginning:

"I live on a cul-de-sac in Princeton, New Jersey an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revival), built in 1903 by the president of Evelyn College that is no more. Evelyn College was supposed to be the sister school of Princeton University down the street but was closed for ‘moral turpitude’ and/or for influenza before World War I. Either way, it is now a two-family house instead of a girls’ college meant to be what Radcliffe was to Harvard."

A few pages in, I went to the Princeton Historical Society and got great stuff on Evelyn College. And on George Washington, who stayed five houses away on his way to crossing the Delaware River. And on Albert Einstein who, in the 1930s, gathered in the corner house for discussions with friends. I quickly filled six pages.

But on the top of page 7, I started cleaning closets (two days). And revising my Web site (four days). And inviting friends for a long weekend. Only after the last load of sheets and towels was put away did I confirm what I already suspected: I had landed in the no man’s land between nonfiction that gives information and memoir that recreates personal experience and was overwhelmed by the information part. The “I” had been pushed aside by research and didn’t like being there.

My natural inclination when stuck is to keep rewriting the beginning. It is procrastination in the form of a battering ram that assumes the front door will open or fall down.

“I live in Princeton, New Jersey in a cul-de-sac of five houses. Mine is #4, an old white Colonial (actually Colonial Revivial) that was built by the president of what was Evelyn College….

“At the end of our street is what was a college, Evelyn Place, and we live in an old white Colonial that was built by its President in 1903.” (more…)

Guest Blogger, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way

August 6, 2013

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

Blog No. 21

Guest Blog: Finding My Way, by Patrick Madden

Pat Madden is a first rate writer, editor, and teacher, who, in my opinion, is also one of our foremost scholars on/about the evolution of the personal essay

Note: In the last two entries (# 19 and 20) I've written about how simply retelling a story the way you remember it differs in significant ways from following the unbidden discoveries and surprises that often appear when we're drafting our personal narratives. Pat Madden's essay, "Finding My Way," is another take on this notion. Instead of sticking to his predetermined plan, Pat elected to follow wherever the writing was taking him. As a result, he discovered a richer, more complex approach to composing the piece.

Finding My Way

So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.
— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”


One of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.

Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.

One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.

I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados. (more…)

Planning For Surprise (Part Two)

July 13, 2013

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

Note: This is Part Two of the long overdue June 3 entry, #19, Expecting the Unexpected, a post about importance of discovery and surprise in writing personal essays and memoirs. In that post, I left off at the point where I’d scrapped a 300-page draft of Still Pitching, a memoir that was becoming a long, chronologically driven linear story rather than a reflective, exploratory narrative. The arc of that draft begins in the narrator’s childhood and ends when he turns 50. Which, in my opinion was reason enough to stop and rethink what I was doing. Since I took so long to post this one, it might be a good idea to give #19 (6/3/13) a quick look before reading #20.

Blog No. 20

1 Planning For Surprise

It's a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. What keeps me sitting at my desk, hour after hour, year after year, is that I do not know something, and I must write in order to find my way to an understanding.
--Marcie Hershman

After the big cuts, I was left with some fifty pages on/about the narrator’s childhood and adolescence (ages 7-17). That was all the raw material I had to work with. With no over-arching plan in mind, I was, in effect, beginning over. And this time, literally in a state of not knowing.

The question/speculation that guided the new draft still was, “Is there some deep-seated connection between the narrator’s being a kid baseball pitcher and a mid-life memoirist?” And the answer still was unexamined, still unexplored.

I recalled what Patricia Hampl said to me a while back (a comment I’d mentioned in post # 19). “Knowing your story is the enemy of the developing narrative,” she said. At the time, it made sense, yet I wasn’t quite sure why.

Once I got the new draft going though, I slowly began to figure out what Hampl was driving at. Yes, all of us do know our own stories. But in my case, what I didn’t know was how to write it and what it meant. And when you think about it, isn’t that what we hope to discover through the writing?

Duh! Still another example, I’m afraid, of something I was regularly preaching to my students and neglecting to pay attention to in my own writing.

First, in rereading the remaining fifty pages, I discovered that a former baseball baseball kept reappearing every few pages. He was a gatekeeper I’d written about several years ago. But I hadn’t thought much about him since.

“Why him again?” I wrote in my notes, “and why now?”

Thinking about that coach tripped off other unexpected associations. When I reread the fifty pages a second time, I noticed an abundance of references to Jackie Robinson, as well as to the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and New York Giants, the teams I followed as a kid. Teams l'd also written about some time ago.

“Haven’t I already put that stuff to bed, as well?” I asked myself again. Well, apparently not.

That’s when the surprises began to appear; and sometimes in bunches. First, following a hunch, I set the narrative between the years from 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, until 1959, when the Dodgers and Giants moved their franchises to California. During those years, the three New York teams dominated the game, winning the World Series ten times in eleven years. And it wasn’t lost on me that those years also constituted a good piece of the young narrator’s childhood and the majority of his adolescence.

I wasn’t sure where all this was taking me, but the draft, it seemed, was leading me into uncharted territory. And so, I cautiously followed.

It’s my belief now, that had I not discarded the chronological narrative and confined the new narrative to childhood and adolescence, I wouldn’t have stumbled across the following associations and connections. (more…)

Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Personal Narratives (Part One of a Two-Part Post)

June 3, 2013

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

Note: Dzanc Books has recently published my memoir, Still Pitching as an ebook reprint. For those who are interested, you can find the ebook edition of
Still Pitching on Dzanc Books, Amazon, Kobo Books, and Barnes and Noble: Google Still Pitching: A Memoir A Nook Book-Barnes &Noble

Blog No. 19

Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Personal Narratives
(Part One of a Two-Part Post)

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Teaching Personal Essays and Memoirs

No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader
---Robert Frost

Lately, I’ve found that a number of well written personal essays and memoirs don’t succeed largely because the writers, especially the most inexperienced ones), try to force a predetermined--most often, chronological--narrative onto the page.

Many of these narratives fall into a predictable “this happened, then this, then this…” arrangement, a modus operandi which quickly becomes predictable and repetitious. When I ask writers why they’ve chosen this particular strategy, many respond with a version of “because that’s the way it happened.“

More often than not, a straight-forward chronological approach is a good fit for a subject that the writer already both knows something about and understands, like, say, a family story or a piece of reportage. Other narratives , we know, (mostly personal essays and memoirs), can begin with an uncertainty; that is, they grow out of a expressive, exploratory impulse, closer in intent to the feeling that produces lyric poetry, and, in some cases, poetic prose. These works, in other words, come from a sense of not knowing, where the narrative takes the writer into often unpredictable places.

In a Fourth Genre interview, essayist Scott Russell Sanders says,


"Too often students think of the essay as a vehicle for delivering chunks of information or prefabricated ideas. I want them to see the essay as a way of discovery. I push them to take risks on the page, to venture out from familiar territory into the blank places on those maps. {And so} I get my students thinking about puzzles, questions, confusions, what excites and bewilders them."


By ”familiar territory” Sanders is referring to writing that sticks too closely to already known facts and events. Whether it’s a chronological narrative or a lyric piece, in my own teaching I try to nudge my students to go beyond and/or get beneath the narrative’s surface, because, I’ve found, that’s where the richest surprises and discoveries lie.

While I’m not against using chronology as a structural principle, in my writing workshops I try to give student writers--no matter how young or old-- permission to use their lives and personal experience as raw material, catalysts for exploration and discovery.

As poet Stephen Dunn says, “your poem effectively begins at the first moment you’ve startled yourself. Throw everything away that proceeded that moment…”… Dunn adds, “mostly we begin our poems with our ordinary workaday minds, these minds burdened by the conventional. And if we’re lucky we discover something we didn’t know we knew {and/or} find phrasing that couldn’t have been available to us at the outset...”
What Dunn is saying about writing poems, applies, I believe, to personal essays and memoirs as well.

11
Writing Personal Essays and Memoirs

I do not sit down at my desk to put into {writing} what I think is already clear in my mind. I should have no incentive or need to write about it...We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand.
--C. Day Lewis

By nature and disposition, I’m an essayist/memoirist. So most of my personal narratives begin in confusion, in a state of not knowing. In other words, they (more…)

Family History Meets Memoir - Part 2, by guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

May 3, 2013

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

This post is Part 2 of a two part entry. See # 17 below for part 1.

This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir.

Note: Anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference

Blog No. 18

FAMILY HISTORY MEETS MEMOIR - Part 2 by Rebecca McClanahan

3. Re-enact history for your readers.

Reconstructed or imagined scenes can enliven your family history memoir, filling in the blanks that remain after the research is complete. Consider these possibilities:

• THE TELLING OF THE TALE: This type of scene grows out of an interview or conversation between you and another family member or informant. Whether you transcribe the conversation word for word or rely solely upon memory, your goal is to give the reader a sense of the storytelling moment itself. As in most effective monologue or dialogue scenes, the words spoken are often not as important as the manner in which they are delivered. As you write, include details such as pauses, voice inflections, repetitions and gestures. When you asked your uncle about his duty in the Vietnam War, did he look out the window, light another cigarette and change the subject? These clues are part of the telling of the tale, as are details about the interview environment. Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? When the phone rang, did your uncle ignore it, or jump up to answer it? Was your uncle’s ancient dog sleeping across his lap? Put the reader in the moment with you, any way you can.

• RECONSTRUCTED OR IMAGINED EVENTS: Just because you weren’t present at an event—for instance, your great-aunt’s 1904 wedding—doesn’t mean you can’t write a scene based on the research material you’ve gathered. Build on what you have, whether it’s a photograph of her wedding dress, a letter or newspaper clipping, the weather report from that January day (easily accessible from archival sources), pages from that year’s Sears catalog, or memories of your conversations with your great-aunt. Create the scene that might have been, should have been, or even—if you enter the territory of negative space—what could never have been. As you write, create as full a scene as you would for a fictional story. Describe the sights, sounds, smells and textures you encounter. Let us hear the voices of the characters, watch them move through the room. Just remember to supply navigation tools for the reader. Phrases such as “I imagine” or, “In my mind, the French doors open into a parlor,” alert the reader that you are moving into reconstructed or imagined scenes.

4. Draw upon your personal connection to the facts.

Ask yourself, “Why am I drawn to this subject at this particular time in my life?” Quite often, events in the author’s life trigger an interest—even an obsession—with family history. Perhaps you recently received a cancer diagnosis or gave birth to your first child, or your parents are entering an assisted-living center. Although the author’s life is not usually the central focus of a family history memoir, his story often intersects with those of the family members or ancestors in the spotlight.

If you decide that a current situation in your life relates to your family history, you can weave that situation into the larger narrative, as Terry Tempest Williams did in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. You can also create a double-strand text, alternating your present-tense story with your ancestors’ histories. Your personal story can even form the narrative timeline for the book, with family research details carefully selected to illuminate your own account.

Yet even if your personal story remains in the background, your stake in the proceedings should be clear, or, to paraphrase Rust Hills in his discussion of the peripheral narrator in fiction, you must be “the one moved by the action.” You are the reader’s guide through the text, and he will probably sense your personal connection through your selection and arrangement of research details, your voice and tone, and even the rhythm and sounds of your sentences. Here are more explicit methods for revealing your connection to the research: (more…)

Family History Meets Memoir - Part I, guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

April 16, 2013

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

This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir. This posting is Part I of a two part entry. Part II will be up during the first week of May.

Note: For anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference

Blog No. 17

Family History Meets Memoir - Part I

“So, you’re writing your family history,” people said when I mentioned the book I’d been working on for over a decade. “Not exactly,” I answered, not sure of what to say next. Although I’d been poring over hundreds of century-old ancestral letters and artifacts in my search to understand my family’s past, I knew I could not claim to be a historian or even a genealogist. I kept envisioning all the gravestones I’d left unturned, and the scraggly family tree with all the missing branches. No, I finally decided. I am definitely not writing a family history. What I’m writing is a family history memoir.

Here’s the difference: The primarily allegiance of a family historian is to the research itself—to gathering, organizing and recording as much information as possible. When you write a family history memoir, your primary allegiance is not to the research itself but to the larger story you discover through the research, a story that in some way connects to your own. This does not mean that research is not important, or that you play loose with the facts, but rather that you use the knowledge you’ve gained to create a text that is more than a “just the facts, ma’am” report, a text that might appeal to a broad audience of readers.

How do you do this? How do you use research to enrich your memoir and create an artful, lively text that combines your own story with the story of your family or ancestors? Some writers do little or no formal research, relying on their memories of past events or stories passed down. Others conduct extensive searches involving archival documents, site visits, interviews, library and online records, and other sources. But whether you have inherited trunk-loads of ancestral documents, as I did, or only a few family anecdotes, you can use that research to create an engaging memoir. Here are five principles and techniques that helped me while researching and writing The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change.

1. Organize your findings around your main character.

In a family history memoir, your main character can of course be a particular person—such as an ancestor or family member or even (in rare cases) you, the author—but it can also be any other central focus that drives your story. You may decide that your main “character” is actually a place, event, time period, relationship, physical object, image or recurring question. It could be 1930s Detroit, the 65-year marriage of your grandparents, the forest you played in as a child, the specter of alcoholism throughout generations, or, as in the case of my book The Tribal Knot, a physical artifact that embodies your memoir’s main themes. (more…)

Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator

March 4, 2013

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

Blog No. 15

This entry is an extension of entry 4, The Role of Persona in Crafting
Personal Narratives, June 13, 2012 (see Archives)
MJS

Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator

In Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, the two main characters are dueling, unreliable narrators. A deliberate choice of course by the author. Both are
self-centered narcissists who exaggerate their own strengths and exploit one another’s weaknesses; both are misleading and deceitful; both are unconscionable liars. Classic unreliable narrators, and believable ones at that. This is a big reason why the novel worked, for me, at least.

As a lifelong reader of fiction who borrows what he can from the good writers, I have no problem accepting the larger-than-life behavior of Flynn’s twin narrators. Their actions, abhorrent as they might be, demonize them and at the same time, humanize them.

As a writer, I’m a memoirist by trade; and according to certain readers, reviewers, critics, and media flaks, there simply is no place in the genre for unreliable narrators. Right, the James Frey/Oprah flap, false Holocaust memoirs, plagiarized journalism—you know, the usual suspects.

But, those aren’t literary works and that’s not the only way to look at this.

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...We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand --C.S. Lewis

Many works of creative nonfiction—especially the personal essay and the memoir-- grow out of an expressive, exploratory impulse--closer in intent perhaps to the impulse that produces some forms of lyric poetry and prose. (more…)

The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey by Robert Root,Guest Blogger

February 9, 2013

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

Bob Root is one of Creative Nonfiction's most prominent, well respected figures. His work has played an important role in the genre's current resurgence and evolution. Among his many books is the seminal anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1997-present). A member of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction's board of founding editors, Bob's contributions were instrumental in helping shape the journal's philosophy and point of view. In addition, he also served as the journal’s interviews and roundtable editor for twelve years. His bio note below will give you a sense of the scope and breadth of his work. Creative Nonfiction is richer and more expansive as a result of Bob Root's writing, teaching, research, and scholarship. We're fortunate to have The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey as our guest post for the next few weeks.
--MJS

The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey

I don’t really envy memoirists with a straightforward story to tell—“Here’s how it started; here’s what happened next; here’s how it ended”—but I appreciate the advantages of working with a clear narrative structure. For both Recovering Ruth and Following Isabella, the structure of earlier works determined the structures I built, even if I didn’t exactly write my portion of it as chronologically as they wrote theirs. It’s good to follow a straightforward path, the road most travelled; those of us without one can end up on a long and winding road, bushwhacking and breaking trail most of the way.

The subject of my memoir, Happenstance, wasn’t entirely one I’d ignored; decades earlier, writing essays for broadcast on my local public radio station in Michigan, I’d written a few vignettes. Most were inspired by boyhood memories triggered by recent adult events: confrontations with renovation in the hundred-year old house my wife and I had bought took me back to the dank cellar and stripped walls of my parent’s house; watching my children play reminded me of my neighborhood and my childhood friends; and so on. The radio scripts were three or four pages long, a few hundred words, written to sound conversational on the airwaves. Some of those vignettes showed up again when I encouraged composition students to write about their childhoods—the street map I modeled to help them reconnect with memory ignited my own memories; the guided imagery exercise leading them into their past places propelled me toward mine. One student’s story about his mother meeting his father because of a fly ball at a summer softball game haunted me: what if the batter had bunted or struck out? What kind of happenstance brought my own parents together?

Initially, having been led to my own family history by researching someone else’s, I began to research a family memoir. The material invited a chronological history but didn’t answer questions about my own parents and my own life; everything that surfaced seemed connected with everything else. I thought, why not at least write a book that would say something to my children about how their father turned out to be who he was? But then I plunged more deeply into genealogy. After months of research and drafting, when my wife asked how it was coming, I told her I’d almost gotten up to the birth of my grandfather. She said quietly, “You know, if this is going to be a memoir, you should probably be in it.” I loved all the research, but she was right—I wasn’t in the book I was writing to explain about me. (more…)

Part 2: How Do You Know When a Work is Finished

January 22, 2013

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

Blog No. 13

Note:
For those who want to read this entry, it would be useful to look first at #12 where I talk as an editor and teacher (in other words, a critical reader) about manuscripts that have been shaped too soon. And, I point out several signs that might indicate that a work is still unfinished--things like: the writer hasn’t yet discovered the central idea of the piece; beginnings and endings that don’t match up with the larger narrative; the voice and/or the persona aren’t in sync with the narrative; the writer’s trying to cover too much ground as opposed to probing more deeply beyond or beneath the narrative’s story line.

It would seem then, the overall problem is that the structure/shape somehow don’t quite mesh yet with the piece’s central intent.

In this entry (a bit longer than the others), I’ll speak as a writer and use examples from my own struggles with these problems, in hopes that readers will find some useful strategies they can adapt to their own work.
MJS
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Author Marcie Hershman writes,
"…writing a memoir is different from keeping a journal…. a memoir asks more from writers than the faithful recording of a daily chronology; it requires shape, pace, aim, and characters whose interactions come to reveal something important… {t}he writer's task is to serve the story: to elect from its many impulses and actions its strongest shape, to craft carefully the tension and rhythm of its prose…"

Years ago, I happened to see the Stanley Kubrick film, "Full Metal Jacket." In an early scene, a cruel D. I., mercilessly hazes and intimidates a frightened, unstable, recruit who retaliates unexpectedly by shooting and killing, first, the D. I. and next, himself. The scene immediately triggered a memory of a disturbing (though not as violent) incident in my adolescence; that is, a surprising (to me) confrontation that occurred between myself at age fourteen and a bigoted VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) summer league baseball coach, a man who was rumored to be an anti-Semite; a man who believed and acted on the notion that Jewish kids, like me, were too soft. (more…)

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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