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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)

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.

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 frequently grow out of a nagging itch; an internal struggle to gain a better understanding of a persistent question, confusing feeling, or lingering personal problem, something I can’t articulate in any other way except through the writing.

That said, I've learned the hard way that there’s a big difference between talking about this approach in a workshop and successfully executing it in a piece of writing. Because, like many other writers, when I started drafting what eventually became my first memoir, Still Pitching, I fell into the same trap that I described in the early part of this essay.

Here’s a short version of what happened.
Still Pitching began with a insistent need to explore what I thought might be a set of specific connections that led the narrator, a single-minded high school baseball pitcher, to become an equally driven mid-life memoirist.

First, to give myself a scaffold, I sketched out a tentative structure. Like a ball game, the narrative would be nine innings, nine interrelated chapters with a prologue and epilogue. A pre-game, post-game kind of thing.

So, ok, you’re thinking, “what a cliché. “ And you’re right, of course. Because that’s where the real problems began. Over the next two years I wrote some 300-plus pages, a chronological narrative by the way, and one that spanned several decades as well.

I knew I was in trouble. When I asked a more experienced writer for advice, he told me to “be careful not to allow the pitching-writing connection or the nine-inning structure to guide the narrative. Both will shut down your thinking.”

He was being kind. Translated, he meant; don’t let a predetermined thesis or template block the discoveries and surprises you might otherwise stumble across along the way. What he said, of course, made sense. It was the same kind of advice I was giving to my writing students.

Rather than narrating a long chronological story, I’d tell them, try instead to focus on a single time period—like childhood, adolescence, or midlife—or perhaps, one aspect of your lives—marriage, family, career choices--something that focuses the narrative and allows you to explore that something, whatever it might be, in more depth and dimension.

Duh! Why then, couldn’t give myself the same advice? Another story for another time. Suffice to say though, that when I revisited my 300-plus pages, I immediately saw that too many of the incidents and situations I described weren’t serving my original intent
--which was, to explore the still undiscovered connections between how the narrator’s having been a young baseball pitcher led him to become a mid-life memoirist.

Halfway through that rereading, I remembered something the memoirist Patricia Hampl once said to me. About writing memoirs, she told me “Knowing your story is the enemy of the developing narrative.” And she’s right. As memoirists, we’re all too familiar with our own stories. And, I had allowed those stories to take over the narrative.

That’s when I knew I had to scrap the pitching-writing connection (the thesis) and the nine-inning structure (the template). In other words, I’d have to begin the memoir all over again. But this time, I didn’t have a plan. And I didn't want one

This is a good place to stop.

In part two, which I’ll post in two weeks, I’ll talk about what surprised me and what I discovered while I was as I reworking the memoir.

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