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

Planning For Surprise (Part Two)

Note: This is Part Two of the long overdue June 3 entry, #19, Expecting the Unexpected, a post about importance of discovery and surprise in writing personal essays and memoirs. In that post, I left off at the point where I’d scrapped a 300-page draft of Still Pitching, a memoir that was becoming a long, chronologically driven linear story rather than a reflective, exploratory narrative. The arc of that draft begins in the narrator’s childhood and ends when he turns 50. Which, in my opinion was reason enough to stop and rethink what I was doing. Since I took so long to post this one, it might be a good idea to give #19 (6/3/13) a quick look before reading #20.

Blog No. 20

1 Planning For Surprise

It's a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. What keeps me sitting at my desk, hour after hour, year after year, is that I do not know something, and I must write in order to find my way to an understanding.
--Marcie Hershman

After the big cuts, I was left with some fifty pages on/about the narrator’s childhood and adolescence (ages 7-17). That was all the raw material I had to work with. With no over-arching plan in mind, I was, in effect, beginning over. And this time, literally in a state of not knowing.

The question/speculation that guided the new draft still was, “Is there some deep-seated connection between the narrator’s being a kid baseball pitcher and a mid-life memoirist?” And the answer still was unexamined, still unexplored.

I recalled what Patricia Hampl said to me a while back (a comment I’d mentioned in post # 19). “Knowing your story is the enemy of the developing narrative,” she said. At the time, it made sense, yet I wasn’t quite sure why.

Once I got the new draft going though, I slowly began to figure out what Hampl was driving at. Yes, all of us do know our own stories. But in my case, what I didn’t know was how to write it and what it meant. And when you think about it, isn’t that what we hope to discover through the writing?

Duh! Still another example, I’m afraid, of something I was regularly preaching to my students and neglecting to pay attention to in my own writing.

First, in rereading the remaining fifty pages, I discovered that a former baseball baseball kept reappearing every few pages. He was a gatekeeper I’d written about several years ago. But I hadn’t thought much about him since.

“Why him again?” I wrote in my notes, “and why now?”

Thinking about that coach tripped off other unexpected associations. When I reread the fifty pages a second time, I noticed an abundance of references to Jackie Robinson, as well as to the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and New York Giants, the teams I followed as a kid. Teams l'd also written about some time ago.

“Haven’t I already put that stuff to bed, as well?” I asked myself again. Well, apparently not.

That’s when the surprises began to appear; and sometimes in bunches. First, following a hunch, I set the narrative between the years from 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, until 1959, when the Dodgers and Giants moved their franchises to California. During those years, the three New York teams dominated the game, winning the World Series ten times in eleven years. And it wasn’t lost on me that those years also constituted a good piece of the young narrator’s childhood and the majority of his adolescence.

I wasn’t sure where all this was taking me, but the draft, it seemed, was leading me into uncharted territory. And so, I cautiously followed.

It’s my belief now, that had I not discarded the chronological narrative and confined the new narrative to childhood and adolescence, I wouldn’t have stumbled across the following associations and connections.

As Bob Root so aptly puts it,

"Our thought process is not linear, and so our narratives should in part reflect the way we think. Part of what we do in life is assemble the associations of memory and experience and struggle to make sense of them. It’s an act of discovery. We make sense of the world by association, accumulation, juxtaposition, just the way we make sense of the world in a photo album, a book of poetry, a sonnet sequence, a film like Magnolia, a collection of short stories or essays, etc..."

In retrospect, how obvious that now seems. But it reminds me that one of the reasons that some writers (myself included) have trouble giving themselves permission to follow the writing is because most of our schooling has taught us how to write in prescriptive, conscious forms. Which is completely opposite from the informed instincts and intuitions that guide the majority of decisions and choices we make in our daily lives.

Still, that’s another discussion for another time.

Trusting the Subconscious

You don't need to know a whole book in order to write the first page. You don't even need to know the end of the first page. You need a willingness to discover the wealth and wisdom of your own subconscious, and to trust that it will tell you what to do and how to do it – not all at once, but as needed, step-by-step.
--Elizabeth Berg

I can’t claim that that the rest of the memoir wrote itself. But there were times when it felt like I was taking dictation from my head. I carried a notebook with me everywhere. And as I kept on writing, still not knowing where the writing was taking me, there were moments when I’d be out jogging or taking a shower, or even sleeping--times where I wasn’t even thinking about the book--when suddenly an unbidden (and often useable) thought, image, and/or idea would come to me.

By then, I’d already let go of my original intent-- that there is some deep-seated connection between the young narrator’s yearning to become a baseball pitcher and his mid-life desire to become a memoirist. And yet, long after the memoir was published, and long after I had gotten some emotional distance from the book, it became clear to me that there indeed was a strong connection between the two. The young narrator, a version, of course, of my adult self, had become a capable pitcher because of his determination, tenacity, and resilience; and because at that particular time in his life, achieving that goal was crucial, even urgent. And it now seems to me, that my aspiration to become a midlife writer was driven by a similar, single-mined, sense of urgency.

The discoveries and surprises didn’t end when the book was published. Because when the memoir came out, whoever wrote the jacket notes (and I’m paraphrasing here) said that Still Pitching was about how the narrator’s childhood passion for baseball helped make him into a writer.

In writing Still Pitching, I also discovered that I’d just scratched the surface; that there were more avenues to purse and influences (in addition to baseball) to explore. And that’s what I’m attempting to do right now, in a second memoir, one that’s still several drafts away from finding its narrative center.

And though there are periods when I’ll fall back into my old habits, this time around I’m paying attention to something my old mentor Donald Murray wrote. Tacked up on the wall above my computer are his words,

“I do not write what I know but to know. "Writing, he says, "is thinking not reporting previous thought. I surprise myself by what I didn’t know I knew...more than anything else, that is what draws me to my writing desk each morning.”

Like Murray, I too am curious to see what surprises lie ahead, what decisions I’ll come up with, and what challenges I’ll encounter in the struggle to compose this narrative.

Note: I'll be doing a reading, craft talk, and some manuscript consultations at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (November 8-11). For those who are looking for a good conference to attend, this one is great fun and it's in a wonderful location. There will be talks, workshops, readings and manuscript consultations in all the literary genres. Two of the presenters in creative nonfiction, Steve Almond and Kristine Iverson, are very fine writers and teachers. The link is Sanibel

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