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

When Literary Memoir Isn’t

Blog Entry No. 7

At the National Book Awards ceremony several years back, author Bob Shaccochis said, "literature is the exploration of {our common} humaneness through language." Literary writers, teachers of literature, and literary critics, myself included, are pretty much in agreement with Shaccochis’s general interpretation. I also take it to be all embracing. That is, he’s including fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction as forms of literary writing.

The genre has evolved quite a bit over the last ten years. But, as we all know, not everyone sees creative nonfiction as a legitimate literary form. Many critics, journalists, and even some fiction writers, routinely take shots at the genre, especially memoirs. And there’s even been some disagreement among those of us who write, edit literary journals and anthologies, and teach. A lot of it has to do with the varying arguments and confusions about whether creative nonfiction—in this case memoir-- is either a literary genre, or, if you will, a popular form.

In an earlier post on the inner story (#3, 5/29/12), I mentioned that when I was editing Fourth Genre, many submissions were narratives on/about the external events of a writer’s personal story. Several were written with clarity, precision, and detail. This is true as well for a good number of MFA manuscripts I read at MFA residencies and summer writer’s conferences. But what I didn’t see enough of were narratives that revealed what was going on inside the author’s head as he/she struggled to make some larger sense out of an experience or a personal story.

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I want to use this as a jumping off-point to talk about the distinction between what I’ll refer to as general/personal nonfiction and what I think of as creative/literary nonfiction, particularly as it bears on the writing and teaching of memoir.

The following are some characteristics and identifying qualities that I associate with general/personal nonfiction.

Reminiscence or Remembrance
A retelling (often anecdotal) of an event, encounter, situation, incident, and/or family story written because it sticks in the author’s memory. To some degree, the writer is saying that he/she wants to recapture in language something that happened a long time ago. The intent here is to retell the story as accurately as the writer remembers it.

Nostalgia
Like a reminiscence or remembrance, nostalgic writing is about re-experiencing or reliving a lost feeling; such as, a deeply felt emotion, important incident, and/or an old relationship. The meaning, once again, is in the retelling. Among the things that can trigger nostalgic reminiscences and remembrances are songs, movies, and/or television shows that the writer associates with an earlier period of his/her life, often childhood or adolescence. Adults frequently become nostalgic at events like high school or college reunions, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals.

Family Stories
This is often a form of research where the writer utilizes things like journals, letters, interviews, family albums, diaries, etc. Many family stories are written for oneself and/or for current and future family members. Usually, the writer’s intent is to preserve a family history or leave a legacy for future generations. Once again, the writer is trying for an accurate rendering or retelling.

Compare these with the identifying characteristics and qualities of creative/literary nonfiction.

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I agree with writer/critic Laurie Stone when she says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Most memoirs fail as literature because the writer {narrator} mistakes his/her experience for a story instead of finding the story in the experience.”

As I suggested in the earlier post (# 3), the important story is that of the narrator’s internal struggle to come to terms with something he/she couldn't have discovered or understood any other way. And in the telling of that story, the narrator consciously provides a way for the reader not only to enter his/her thoughts but also identify with those struggles. This is what Bob Schaccochis means when he talks about “literature{as}an exploration of (our common) humaneness through language."

And while a given narrator’s personal story might or might not resonate with all readers, that narrator’s search to understand what it means is what connects him to other like-minded human beings, people, for example, that are also trying to make sense out of the confusion and chaos of our daily existence.

In my own case, I don't approach memoir as a disclosure about my life. I write personal narratives to discover and explore something about myself that I need to better understand. And no matter what I'm writing about--an idea, issue, a thought, a situation, an event, or a subject like family, baseball, education, or anything else--what’s most important is that the narrative has emotional resonance and authenticity.

Finally, for me, writing a literary memoir, like writing any other literary work, comes down to the business of what Annie Dillard calls, “fashioning a text.” We all know our own stories. In fact, knowing one’s story too well can become the enemy of the developing text. Still, how we shape our narratives is another (perhaps the most important) characteristic that distinguishes a literary work from a general/personal story.

As Vivian Gornick says, and I’m paraphrasing again, “what happens to the writer is not what’s important. What matters {most} is the larger sense the writer makes out of what happens. And for that an imagination is required.” V. S, Pritchard puts it another way when he writes, “ It's all in the art.” You get on credit for the living.”

Neither writing a general/personal story nor crafting a literary memoir is a superior or inferior undertaking. The fundamental difference, I believe, comes down to the writer’s intent; that is, what he/she is trying to accomplish through the writing.

As writers and teachers then, we’re obligated to know the difference. If we don’t, that’s usually when the disagreements over what are and isn’t literary work begin to take over the conversation.

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