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

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

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.  Read More 

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

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.

*
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.

*
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.

*
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.  Read More 

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