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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

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

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)

1
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  Read More 

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