Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
September 13, 2016
This teaching blog on/about issues of genre and craft is approaching its fifth year; and while all the contributing writers, myself included, choose to write about whatever concerns they might have on/about our teaching and writing, a basic concern is --one I've noticed that keeps coming coming up regularly--about narratives and narrators. For the most part, the larger issue is about how and why personal essayists, as well as writers of memoir, personal literary journalism, and personal/cultural criticism, decide what the right fit is between our narrator(s) and what it is we're writing.
This is a matter, I believe, that's shared by most of us who teach in the genre. In her essay below, Jessica Handler approaches it in a somewhat different way. In her essay below, she explains how, both in her own writing as well as in her teaching, she distinguishes between the "Eye" and "I," narrators that she refers to as "dual selves.""
# 52 Addressing the Dual Selves in the “Eye and the I”, Jessica Handler, Guest Blogger
If we accept the fact that in the memoir and the personal essay, the “I” pronoun represents the contemporary self, the self doing the writing and the ruminating, then for me, the “eye” is that same earlier self, the self who’s experiencing past events.
The “I” considers and makes coherent narrative of what the “eye” saw, and
for the duration of the time at the desk, the making of the art, these
dual selves have to co-exist. Sometimes that desk can be a crowded place.
I’d like to address this approach to the “Eye/I” in my own work. I’d also like to offer some examples of how/why it encouraged me to use the “Eye/I” as an area of exploration for student writers new to exploring the idea of the author’s self as both narrator/protagonist.
I teach undergraduate, graduate, and adult education classes; and I’m consistently surprised by the number of student writers at all levels who struggle with the freedom and responsibilities of using that “I” pronoun.
We’re socialized to be hyper-aware that the use of “I” and “me” are bragging, dominating a conversation, and calling undue attention to the self. But if we’re writing creative nonfiction, particularly essays and memoirs, whose story is it but mine, me, I? Of course there’s balance involved, but it’s the recognition of how to welcome and best use that working area within “freedom + responsibility” that I consider that area of exploration.
We are, as Joan Didion writes in her 1968 essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…”
I’m an experiential learner, which makes me particularly loyal to practicing experiential teaching. Writing my first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (2009), led to my first concrete engagement with the “Eye/I.”
So, the memoir: I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was thirty-two, I was the only one living. My younger sister Susie died of leukemia when she was eight and I was ten. Our youngest sister Sarah was born with a rare white cell disorder called Kostmann’s Syndrome, which is, in broad strokes, the opposite of leukemia. She died at 27. Our father was a civil rights attorney in Atlanta in the 60s, so we were as a family faced with the question of how to help others when we can’t help our own.
When I was an adolescent I’d begun writing my way into my story. It was a means of verifying for myself that I was present, alive, and living through an experience or a series of experiences. I wrote in journals, recording the most ordinary moments of my family’s life and mine. How my mom and I went to the grocery store. How my sister had brain surgery and my boyfriend made a stupid joke about it. I was. in fact. creating an “I” and “eye” without realizing it.
Other parts of our family’s chronicle existed in photographs, report cards and letters-- and outside of my own resources, in newspaper articles and libraries. As an adult writer, the availability of these items led me to physically, emotionally, and in many cases, sensually re-experience the “eye” that pure memory could not provide. Example #1 is that I kept so much of those ephemera.
Another example: when I was ten, not long after my sister Susie died, my father took my mother, my sister Sarah, and me – along with another family who were his best friends - on vacation to Jamaica. When I tell this story now, people sigh with delight imagining a family healing in a Caribbean paradise. In those days, Jamaica wasn't the tourist destination it is now, and even if it had been, none of us were ready for fun.
Thirty some years later, when I wrote about my family's trip, I kept seeing myself as a child, gagging over the ackee at our Jamaican breakfast table. My “eye” came back full force. That breakfast had tasted to me like burnt motor oil, it looked like runny eggs with big black spots, and it smelled like talcum power.
Was it really as bad as I remembered? I had been in an understandably
terrible frame of mind the summer I was ten, but simply writing about a
bad taste wasn’t a narrative, or even a scene. I wanted to test the difference
between the ten-year-old me (the “eye”) and the adult me (the “I”).
So I printed a recipe from the Internet, went to an international market,
bought canned ackee (there was none fresh where I live) and cooked a
facsimile of that breakfast. I ate it. And in that act, where I compared the
“eye” and the “I,” the writer me created an experience that I could write
about not only with some depth and conflict but also with the deliberate intent of making meaning and sense out of that experience– there’s that “I” on the page, claiming what’s true for her.
I’d say that doing the research is an experiential way of entering that possibility space, re-experiencing the “eye” through the lens of the “I.”
In order to create a narrative, sometimes, while I was cooking and eating, I wrote in double-entry notebooks. On one side of the line, notes about the facts—what, for example, I had in my hand– or in my mouth at the time. And when I was researching; I wrote notes on the other side, notes that described the questions, the emotional turmoil, the joys and surprises, I was feeling--along with the free associations that arose with each item. I also collected thousands of pages of medical records; I hunted down diaries and photos; and I revisited key locations.
The “eye” of me then and the “I” of me at the time of the writing were each
deeply affected, but differently--the “eye” by living this twenty year experience in real time; and the “I” by understanding that genuine, effective, and honorable writing about the experience would require a commitment to creating a narrative about the act of self examination.
That’s the experiential aspect of the “Eye/I.” And it’s also the permission I give both to myself and to my students.
In his essay, “Looking For My Family,” Ian Frazier explains that after his parents’ deaths, he catalogued their papers and the detritus of two lifetimes; neckties, purses, postcards, into what he called “The Mom and Dad Museum.” His method in crafting “Family” was to “look for artifact that suggested narrative.”
Writers of personal essays and memoirs can take something useful from Frazier’s approach. It’s his way of acknowledging that the passage of time is less about nostalgia and, in this particular case, more of an opportunity to create friction within a plot.
“How it felt to me…” Joan Didion writes. Which me is she considering? In this case, the “eye” – the me of “then.”
How, I ask students, did “it” feel to you, that wedding, that funeral, that
Boring afternoon on the intercity bus, that time you careened down a park side hill with your brother on a red Flexible Flyer? This inquiry, along with giving them sufficient time to write, allows students to open up, look inside, and meet themselves coming round again. Still another example of how we, as writers, can develop more substantive narratives.
Writing creative nonfiction, as we know, involves much more than plot. It allows us to examine and evaluate the effects of an important subject, and in that way, it operates on two levels; a nominal level, which is the surface, or basic storyline, and a substantive level, the real pulse that runs beneath the storyline.
Knowing this can help us better understand the difference between the “Eye/I.” The “eye” shows us the nominal story, and the “I” extracts and develops the substantive story. It is in the substantive writing that the author of an essay or a memoir does most of her real work; and it’s also where the reader locates the heart of the piece.
Writing about the self means that, for the duration of the writing, you can’t really separate the two selves. Think of the Russian nesting doll, the matroyshka doll. The outer shell is the writer self, and the inner dolls are the ‘eye’ selves.
Without the inner pieces, that doll is empty.
Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009, University of Georgia Press, 2015) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Newsweek, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned to never again wear couture. She teaches at Ogellhorpe University in Atlanta.
June 22, 2016
NOTE: Mike Steinberg’s new collection--Greatest Hits and Some That Weren’t--eleven selected personal essays and memoirs on/about childhood, baseball, place, aging, travel, teaching, and writing—is now available from Amazon, or through Carmike Press/Seahorse Books (email@example.com)
Blog # 50, Hindrance or Help: How Repetition Can Stop (or Start) Your Writing
by Mike Steinberg
FOREWORD: I adapted this essay from a panel talk I gave at the River Teeth Writer’s Conference on June 3 in Ashland, Ohio.
The idea for the River Teeth panel grew out of a series of emails between personal essayist, Pat Madden, and myself--over the matter of duplication and repetition in our own (and in other’s) writing.
The issue that came up most frequently in our correspondence was, and I’m paraphrasing: When we recycle/rephrase/reuse our already-published ideas, thoughts, and opinions, when are we plagiarizing, from ourselves; and when does repeating ourselves become a means by which we’re looking from a different perspective? And when we dig more deeply into ideas and issues that we've already written about, does it mean we’re going back to old material; or, could it be that these are materials and ideas we haven’t yet fully explored or exhausted?
These are, I think, important concerns, especially for autobiographical writers--personal essayists and memoirists--as well as those of us that write personal journalism and/or personal/ cultural criticism--which is, I’m betting, almost everyone who might be reading this blog post. In other words, at one time or another in our writing lives, haven’t we all had to deal with this matter?
Here then, is my current take on it.
Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves--that's the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences so great and so moving that it doesn't seem at the time that anybody else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and humbled in just that way ever before...and we tell our two or three stories each time in a new disguise--maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
I’ll begin with some brief back-story regarding my own struggles with this problem.
I’m primarily a memoirist/personal essayist who also teaches and writes essays on matters of genre and craft. A few years ago, I began to be more aware and then gradually more troubled by the realization that I seemed to be repeating myself in my writing--in both my personal essays and memoirs and in my craft essays as well.
This wasn’t the first time, though. For years, a voice in the back of my head had been nagging away, scolding me really, for having written too much about baseball. And, it’s true; baseball, in one form or another, had been part of most of my stand-alone and book length narratives.
In time, I began to feel, first, a little defensive, then, apologetic--and, finally, more self-conscious and defensive, especially when colleagues, friends and former students would ask what I was working on.
At a point, my self-consciousness turned into an almost inhibiting fear--a fear that perhaps I was destined to become a one-note writer, like those Hollywood actors who’ve played the same kinds of character roles over and over again. Worse yet, what if I’d literally written myself out?
Right around then, I started comparing myself (and with some envy, I admit) to other, more versatile, writers--writers, who, to my mind, never seemed to repeat the same subjects or same concerns in each subsequent work.
We all know how this goes, right? And it’s just what we don’t need
--that is; still another censor sitting on our shoulder, giving us one more reason to avoid our writing.
Up until then, the two other usual suspects (in my case anyway), were a version or variation of either, “I have nothing original or new to say,” or; “who’s gonn’a give a damn about the stuff I write?”
This is, of course, one of the things I make a point of telling my students not to worry about.
Those who can’t write, teach writing--right?
It’s way too long of a story to get into here; but, what could have turned into a debilitating writing block, evolved instead (and thankfully) into a larger inquiry on/about the reasons why some writers, like me, tend to work with persistent, recurring themes--with preoccupations and confusions—and, most especially, with obsessions--while others, as I’ve mentioned, seem more capable of pursuing multiple, sometimes contradictory ideas, themes, and subjects--and, in some instances, these same writers will even tackle other forms and genres-all -without seeming to repeat themselves.
My inquiry began in earnest with that email exchange with Pat Madden. I was kvetching to Pat one day, telling him that, lately, whenever I wrote about baseball, I felt like I was repeating same thing over and over again (Einstein’s definition of crazy, yes?). Pat’s response was, and I’m paraphrasing, that, according to Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace sometimes despaired that he was simply repeating himself. “And other writers” Pat went on to say, “have talked about this too (with varying emotional responses).”
I was thinking at the time that maybe this actually was a hopeful sign. If writers who were that high on the food chain had similar doubts, then perhaps I was in better company than I’d thought.
“Maybe,” Pat added, “a good idea for a panel might be about how we can repeat ourselves without losing hope; or, how and why, and to what end do we re-envision, or refashion, our main themes in different works?”
And since I’ve started this essay with an epigraph from Scott Fitzgerald, let me pick up on that.
While I was looking for a way into this talk, I pulled up a quote that I had stored away for a long time. And it became the epigraph I cited above, the one that reads: “Mostly we authors must repeat ourselves--that's the truth…” etc. Which then, got me to thinking.
Back when I was a graduate student, I chose to write my doctoral dissertation on Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction--the novels and short stories—all 152 of them.
While I was thrashing around looking for a central idea for the dissertation, I began to track a recurring motif, a main theme, if you will--which I referred to as “dream and disillusion.” It seemed to me that it ran through just about all of Fitzgerald’s fiction, and even a good bit of his autobiographical nonfiction.
Even now though, It’s hard to know if I came up with that recurring theme because I was looking for a unifying idea; or, if maybe, even back then, a piece of me already feared the prospect of someday repeating myself in my own writing.
But no matter; what Fitzgerald said in that epigraph seemed to support what Pat had been telling me in his emails, the ones about the other writers who worried that they too were repeating themselves in their work.
And so, I started to look for examples. It came as no surprise that I found far more than I could use in a short essay: comments, for example, by playwright’s and screenwriters; songwriters and visual artists; choreographers, directors, and critics. But because this essay is about repeating ourselves in our writing, I’ll focus on a single author.
For the past few years, I’ve found myself consistently being drawn back to P.F. Kluge’s work. Kluge, who’s primarily a novelist, has talked openly in interviews about a single fascination/attraction that he revisits in his novels.
Here’s a sampling:
About his novel The Master Blaster, Kluge says, it’s “set on Saipan. I was there in the 1960's with the Peace Corps, and I’ve returned many times since. Saipan is one of my islands, part of my life-long fascination with bounded, yet also boundless, places.”
About another novel The Edge of Paradise, Kluge writes, ‘The Peace Corps sent me to the Pacific Islands — Micronesia. The islands stayed with me and I’ve kept returning, checking on places and people I care about.”
He also says that …”my continuing interest in the love/hate relationship between America and the Philippines underlies my second novel (Macarthur’s Ghost), which spans the years from World War II to the Marcos era.”
And he describes The Day I Die, as a “ thriller set in the Pacific islands I saw as a Peace Corps volunteer.”
To which, I’d add, that Season For War, another novel, is set in the turn-of-the-century Philippines.
But that’s not all. Kluge has a produced large body of work. Three other books--Gone Tomorrow, Final Exam, and Alma Mater—a novel and two personal narratives—are not set in the islands but at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, where Kluge teaches.
“I love islands;” Kluge says, “Micronesia --Saipan, Palau, Pohnpei-- is full of them. Gambier, Ohio is another kind of island, a small, surrounded place where I live and teach. My alma mater, my current employer. If you live in a place,” Kluge says, “you write about it”
What I take away from his disclosures are that Kluge’s deep fascination with specific locations and geographies, more often than not, becomes the means through which his narrators are best able to explore their most insistent yearnings as well as to interrogate the questions and confusions that provoke and/or animate them most.
It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this. But, and I’m speculating here, I first began to see things a little differently after two separate conversations I’d had with colleagues, essayist/memoirist Renee D’ Aoust and novelist Mick Cochrane, who, like me, are teaching writers.
The conversation with Renee came about when I was, once again, complaining about not being able to move away from writing about baseball.
“I wonder if we have a similar issue,” she said. “I 've tried to quit writing about dance. Years ago, I mentioned this in a college classroom, and a student asked, ‘but if you love it, and do it so well, why would you quit writing about the subject? "
That question, Renee maintains, triggered other thoughts:--such as; “how do we stay with the same subject, but not repeat ourselves? Or; is it okay to repeat ourselves? After all, isn’t writing a way of working things out?”
A while back I remember also asking Mick Cochrane why he writes so much about sports; in his case, it’s also baseball. His answer was, that “I felt permission to write about sports, because Thoreau writes about beans. Melville writes about whales. Poe writes about a bird. So why not me and baseball?”
When I asked him to expand on that, Cochrane said that"...all writers seek dense, complex material over which they have some authority" and that "all writers would probably be wise to engage their obsessive loves, whatever they might be."
In some ways both writers are talking about the same two things: permission and obsession.
I’ve since come around to thinking that a big reason why we repeat ourselves is that the things we write about are governed more by matters of sensibility (and intent) than they are by a predetermined design. In my own case, it means giving myself the permission to follow my obsessions, whatever those might be.
It’s another version of “follow the writing where it takes you,” something I also try to tell my students. And, at the same time, it’s advice I need to keep reminding myself about. (more…)