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

Blog # 81 Using the "Smart Voice" in Personal Essays and Memoir by Michael Steinberg

Blog # 81 Using the "Smart Voice" in Personal Essays and Memoir by Michael Steinberg



I've adapted this craft essay from a panel talk I gave at the AWP national convention a few weeks ago. The panel's title was "How To Talk About Yourself in Nonfiction." The essay is about how to selectively employ the "inner story" when writing personal essays and memoirs."




Even thinking has—or is—a story. The right voice can reveal what it's like to be thinking. This is memoir's great task really: the revelation of consciousness.

                                                                                          --Patricia Hampl



Ten years ago when I was the editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre, many of the submissions we received were from writers who could narrate the external events of their personal stories with great clarity and precision. And the same is true today for the majority of MFA students whose work I read.


As an editor and a teacher, what I didn't see then, and still don't see frequently enough, is what I'd call "internal" narratives.


By this I mean that a lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the "inner narrative", the story, that is, of their thinking.


In short, what writer and editor Martha Nichols call the "smart voice."


The comment, in fact, I found and still find myself often making to aspiring writers goes something like this: "the main thing that's missing in this piece, I tell them, "is your story".


I'm not talking about self-absorbed, strictly confessional work; the story I'm looking for is what's going on inside the narrator's mind as he/she struggles to find shape and meaning in the writing.


The problem in the works I've mentioned is that, at some point, usually toward the end of the piece, I often find what feels like an unearned epiphany. That's because, I believe, the writer hasn't provided the reader with a sense of the how the evolution of that narrator's thoughts, feelings, and emotions evolved.


Often these works emerge from a sequence of events rather than from some deep confusion or uncertainty. As a memoirist myself, I've been guilty of the same thing. One of the reasons why, I think, is that the work is still a rough, still evolving draft. In other words, writer has shaped his/her piece too soon—a draft that isn't yet fully thought out. 




The essayist gives you his thoughts and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them

                                                                                              --Alexander Smith 


One of the qualities that distinguish a skillfully rendered personal essay (or a memoir) from other literary forms is that, throughout the narrative, the writer's thoughts and feelings are inherently transparent.


Consequently, readers are able to track the evolution of that writer's thinking.


"Memoir, like fiction, Sue William Silverman maintains, "tells a story, one that needs an over-riding struggle and conflict. What does the narrator want? What is she struggling toward? Something also must be at stake. What are her inner struggles? Her longings, her fears."


Silverman is right. The reader in me badly wants to understand, even identify with, another human being's struggles. But without access to those internal battles... to the narrator's "longings and/or fears," it's difficult, at least for this reader, to enter the narrative.


In order then, for readers to gain access to the narrator's thoughts, that narrator has to let us in on how and what he/she's thinking and feeling. In addition, we need to know how long has this conflict been percolating, incubating. 


I also concur with the late critic/memoirist Alfred Kazin when he says that "an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts" Kazin says, "but the experience we get of the writer's thought; not the self, but the self thinking."


As a result, the connections between writer and reader (that is, between one human being and another) depend on our knowing how, when, and why narrators reveals their thoughts and feelings.


This, then, is a necessary, even essential part of writing authentic personal narratives. And it is of course, a matter of strategy and approach.




{An essay} allows you to ramble in a way that reflects the mind at an essay, the track of a person's thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.

                                                                                           --Phillip Lopate


In the late Judith Kitchen's craft essay, "The End," Kitchen writes, "The building of a process of thought is what interests the reader.... The intimacy of the essay," Kitchen goes on to say is that, "it's a sharing of thought. We look as much for how an author approaches a subject as for the subject itself."


Kitchen then adds some useful advice:


"Here are five things," she says that "my students deny themselves as their stories draw to a close:


     --retrospection: a looking back, an


     --intrusion: a stepping in, a commentary

     --meditation/rumination: a thinking

        through and around, finding a


     --introspection: a self-examination,

        honest  appraisal, and discovery

     --imagination: (as distinct from invention

        or making things up) which allows for

        alternatives, projections, juxtapositions, 

        whatever could provide a larger frame.


These are things that, as Kitchen's says, her students "deny themselves." And, that's an accurate, and I think a very generous way to phrase it.


I'll add the following to her list:


     --reflection: thinking things out, searching

        for meaning.

     --speculation: playing "what if. ''

     --self-interrogation: asking the hard

        questions about yourself, the ones you

        don't always want to know the answers to

     --projection: the unconscious ascription

        of a feeling, thought, or impulse to

        someone else.

     --digression: allowing the mind to wander

        away from the subject {some of my

        richest discoveries, I've found, are in

        those digressions}. 

     --confession: not for the sake of itself, but 

        only as it serves the larger narrative.


To conclude:


No matter what the catalyst might be, the mind and imagination never stop analyzing, asking why, and posing "what if" questions.


Aspiring and experienced writers then, should continue to probe their questions, uncertainties, and confusions more deeply; interrogate their thinking more rigorously; extend their ruminations and reflections outward; and, in the process continue to search for ways to find shape and meaning in those deliberations.


Let's also agree then, that, by nature and disposition all thinking human beings are reactive creatures. That is, we're always responding internally. In any situation or encounter, we probably couldn't get through thirty seconds without experiencing most or all of the reactions I've mentioned.


And that's the kind of thinking/feeling narrators I'd like to see more of in the personal essays and memoirs I teach, read, and write.


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