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

Finding the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction

Blog Entry No. 3

Prefatory note: This is the first of a few postings on/about the narrator as a created persona in personal essays and memoirs.

…the genuine essayist . . . . thinks his way through the essay—and so comes out where perhaps he did not wish to . . . . He uses the essay as an open form—as a way of thinking things out for himself, as a way of discovering what he thinks.
--Alfred Kazin

The comment I find myself making most frequently to my MFA students is that “the main thing missing in this piece is your story.” A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the ‘inner story’; that is, the story of their thinking.

Here’s a personal example. A while ago, I wrote an essay/memoir called “Trading Off.” It was about a four-year struggle the narrator, a Jewish boy, had with a high school coach who might or might not have been anti-Semitic. While I was writing it, I was trying to recall the shame I felt and the terrible humiliation I allowed myself to put up with—which is, as the narrator discovers, the price he’d paid for wanting to play baseball for this punitive coach.

At readings, whenever I introduce the piece as a baseball memoir, I make it a point to watch the expressions on the faces of several women in the audience. Some roll their eyes, some cross their arms, some even grimace. To them, it’s another baseball story, about a kid’s bad experience with a mean-spirited coach—the kind of jock story their boyfriends or husbands may have told them over and over again.

Not always, but often enough, by the time I’ve finished reading, their body language has changed. Some, men and women alike, have figured out that the piece isn’t really about baseball. The more interesting and important story is what it’s like to be in the mind of the narrator as he agonizes over how badly he wants to pitch for this team, while at the same time questioning his decision to put up with his coach’s cruel tactics.

He repeatedly asks himself, “why am I doing this to myself?” Indeed, why is he doing it? And how much humiliation is he willing to put up with in order to make the team? Quite a bit, it seems. That’s why I titled the essay “Trading Off.”

Often, during the question-and-answer period, or after the reading, some of the same women who’d initially resisted the piece will come up and tell me their own stories about humiliating experiences they’ve had with similar gatekeepers: a punitive ballet teacher, an abusive parent, cruel childhood friends, and so on.

That’s exactly the kind of response I hope for. I don’t want the reader to come away from the reading thinking that it’s another “poor, poor, pitiful me” story. I want her/him to feel the humiliation and shame that the narrator felt, as well as to understand that the young narrator chose. to make this tradeoff in order to prove myself to his hard-ass coach.

But, I doubt that readers—especially skeptical ones—would have been able to make that personal connection had I omitted the internal struggle and written only the literal “here’s what happened” story.

When I teach creative nonfiction, I’m always urging students to go beyond and/or to probe beneath the literal story. And so, I nudge them, as well as myself, to examine (in retrospect) why they’re telling this particular story, why now, and why it matters enough to write about?

I also advise writers to think about personal essays and memoir as having two stories. The story of the experience itself, including the facts and remembered sequence of events. But most importantly, the story of their thinking. Which is; what do those facts and events mean? What I’m really asking is: How do you, the writer, interpret the story of your own experience?

Literary nonfiction then, can have more than one persona and one voice. Sometimes it must. The persona that tells the surface story, and another, more reflective character, often the adult “I,” that comments, digresses, analyzes, and speculates on/about the story’s meaning. In other words, a narrative persona that looks to find a human connection or larger meaning in his/her personal experience.

The mind never stops searching for connections and asking questions. And that’s the thinking/feeling self I’d like to see more of in the personal narratives I read.
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