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

Fiction as Memoir, Memoir as Fiction: Does it Really Matter? Lev Raphael, Guest Blogger

Blog No. 16

Lev Raphael is one of the most prolific writers I know. And a voracious, informed lover of books as well. Over the course of his career, he’s written short stories, novels, memoirs, articles, and reviews. He’s also taught writing, interviewed many writers, both for his radio show and for publications on/about writing. Lev has also lectured and done readings in several countries, most recently, Germany. Just a look at his bio note below shows you how versatile and productive he is.

I’m happy to have him as a guest blogger.
MJS

Fiction as Memoir, Memoir as Fiction: Does it Really Matter?

Memoir scandals break out all the time: someone's memoir turns out to be highly fictionalized. But what about the opposite? How much fiction is really disguised memoir? Over the years I've often been asked how much of my writing is autobiographical, and even people who know me have gotten confused.

My recently re-published first novel Winter Eyes is about the son of Holocaust survivors who've hidden their Jewish past from him and tried to bring him up in New York as a Polish Catholic. Because the book was set in New York where I grew up, and because it focuses on a child of Holocaust survivors like me, it actually puzzled one friend who knew a lot about my life. After he finished reading it, he said, "I didn't realize your parents got divorced when you were little." I told him they weren't divorced, though perhaps they should have been.

"And did your parents pretend they weren't Jewish?" I explained that of course they hadn't, and that he and I had talked about my Jewish background before, more than once. He wasn't done. There was a whole series of things he said he hadn't known about me, but those were all drawn from the life of the boy in the novel, not part of my real life. In each case, I explained the difference. After a long pause, he said, "No wonder I was confused."

Because I had woven in bits and pieces of my real experiences, refracted in complex ways, he caught their scent, but those few traces of reality made him assume it was all true. Winter Eyes is emotionally real, but an alternate reality. I wrote it imagining an almost completely different life from the one I’d had. For instance, I had a very troubled relationship with my older brother, but the boy in Winter Eyes is an only child. So in a way, you could also call the novel a secret memoir.

My friend's type of confusion is especially strong with stories and books I've written in the first person, and people after a reading from one of those works will invariably refer to "The part where you..." I reply, "You mean the part where he..." and they smile indulgently. It's happened not just in America, but at readings I've given in Germany. Years ago, I was annoyed, but I eventually learned to take it as a compliment. The narrative had seemed so real to the audience that people automatically assumed I was transcribing something from my own life.  Read More 

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Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator

Blog No. 15

This entry is an extension of entry 4, The Role of Persona in Crafting
Personal Narratives, June 13, 2012 (see Archives)
MJS

Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator

In Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, the two main characters are dueling, unreliable narrators. A deliberate choice of course by the author. Both are
self-centered narcissists who exaggerate their own strengths and exploit one another’s weaknesses; both are misleading and deceitful; both are unconscionable liars. Classic unreliable narrators, and believable ones at that. This is a big reason why the novel worked, for me, at least.

As a lifelong reader of fiction who borrows what he can from the good writers, I have no problem accepting the larger-than-life behavior of Flynn’s twin narrators. Their actions, abhorrent as they might be, demonize them and at the same time, humanize them.

As a writer, I’m a memoirist by trade; and according to certain readers, reviewers, critics, and media flaks, there simply is no place in the genre for unreliable narrators. Right, the James Frey/Oprah flap, false Holocaust memoirs, plagiarized journalism—you know, the usual suspects.

But, those aren’t literary works and that’s not the only way to look at this.

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...We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand --C.S. Lewis

Many works of creative nonfiction—especially the personal essay and the memoir-- grow out of an expressive, exploratory impulse--closer in intent perhaps to the impulse that produces some forms of lyric poetry and prose.  Read More 

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The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey by Robert Root,Guest Blogger

Bob Root is one of Creative Nonfiction's most prominent, well respected figures. His work has played an important role in the genre's current resurgence and evolution. Among his many books is the seminal anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1997-present). A member of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction's board of founding editors, Bob's contributions were instrumental in helping shape the journal's philosophy and point of view. In addition, he also served as the journal’s interviews and roundtable editor for twelve years. His bio note below will give you a sense of the scope and breadth of his work. Creative Nonfiction is richer and more expansive as a result of Bob Root's writing, teaching, research, and scholarship. We're fortunate to have The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey as our guest post for the next few weeks.
--MJS

The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey

I don’t really envy memoirists with a straightforward story to tell—“Here’s how it started; here’s what happened next; here’s how it ended”—but I appreciate the advantages of working with a clear narrative structure. For both Recovering Ruth and Following Isabella, the structure of earlier works determined the structures I built, even if I didn’t exactly write my portion of it as chronologically as they wrote theirs. It’s good to follow a straightforward path, the road most travelled; those of us without one can end up on a long and winding road, bushwhacking and breaking trail most of the way.

The subject of my memoir, Happenstance, wasn’t entirely one I’d ignored; decades earlier, writing essays for broadcast on my local public radio station in Michigan, I’d written a few vignettes. Most were inspired by boyhood memories triggered by recent adult events: confrontations with renovation in the hundred-year old house my wife and I had bought took me back to the dank cellar and stripped walls of my parent’s house; watching my children play reminded me of my neighborhood and my childhood friends; and so on. The radio scripts were three or four pages long, a few hundred words, written to sound conversational on the airwaves. Some of those vignettes showed up again when I encouraged composition students to write about their childhoods—the street map I modeled to help them reconnect with memory ignited my own memories; the guided imagery exercise leading them into their past places propelled me toward mine. One student’s story about his mother meeting his father because of a fly ball at a summer softball game haunted me: what if the batter had bunted or struck out? What kind of happenstance brought my own parents together?

Initially, having been led to my own family history by researching someone else’s, I began to research a family memoir. The material invited a chronological history but didn’t answer questions about my own parents and my own life; everything that surfaced seemed connected with everything else. I thought, why not at least write a book that would say something to my children about how their father turned out to be who he was? But then I plunged more deeply into genealogy. After months of research and drafting, when my wife asked how it was coming, I told her I’d almost gotten up to the birth of my grandfather. She said quietly, “You know, if this is going to be a memoir, you should probably be in it.” I loved all the research, but she was right—I wasn’t in the book I was writing to explain about me. Read More 

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Part 2: How Do You Know When a Work is Finished

Blog No. 13

Note:
For those who want to read this entry, it would be useful to look first at #12 where I talk as an editor and teacher (in other words, a critical reader) about manuscripts that have been shaped too soon. And, I point out several signs that might indicate that a work is still unfinished--things like: the writer hasn’t yet discovered the central idea of the piece; beginnings and endings that don’t match up with the larger narrative; the voice and/or the persona aren’t in sync with the narrative; the writer’s trying to cover too much ground as opposed to probing more deeply beyond or beneath the narrative’s story line.

It would seem then, the overall problem is that the structure/shape somehow don’t quite mesh yet with the piece’s central intent.

In this entry (a bit longer than the others), I’ll speak as a writer and use examples from my own struggles with these problems, in hopes that readers will find some useful strategies they can adapt to their own work.
MJS
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Author Marcie Hershman writes,
"…writing a memoir is different from keeping a journal…. a memoir asks more from writers than the faithful recording of a daily chronology; it requires shape, pace, aim, and characters whose interactions come to reveal something important… {t}he writer's task is to serve the story: to elect from its many impulses and actions its strongest shape, to craft carefully the tension and rhythm of its prose…"

Years ago, I happened to see the Stanley Kubrick film, "Full Metal Jacket." In an early scene, a cruel D. I., mercilessly hazes and intimidates a frightened, unstable, recruit who retaliates unexpectedly by shooting and killing, first, the D. I. and next, himself. The scene immediately triggered a memory of a disturbing (though not as violent) incident in my adolescence; that is, a surprising (to me) confrontation that occurred between myself at age fourteen and a bigoted VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) summer league baseball coach, a man who was rumored to be an anti-Semite; a man who believed and acted on the notion that Jewish kids, like me, were too soft. Read More 

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How Do You Know When a Work is Finished?

Blog Entry No. 12

Prefatory Note

A while ago, I received a note from a colleague, “ You have wonderful advice to dispense as a writer, “ she wrote. But I think your experience as an editor could be very beneficial to writers...{We} need to know what editor’s think about, what they look for, etc. I think good editors can tell immediately when a work isn't finished, when the structure is wrong, etc…. I like how you talk about these issues in your own writing, but want to hear a lot more about how you see these problems in other peoples' writing, and perhaps advice on how they can see it in their own.”

In response to her suggestions, I've divided this post into two interrelated parts.

In part I, I’ll talk as an editor and teacher about final drafts that are, according to the writer, finished pieces; but, for one reason or another, seem to me to still need work. In part II, I’ll illustrate with more specifics some examples of how, after years of writing and rewriting a particular essay/memoir, I found the missing elements that finally allowed me to complete it. The latter post will appear sometime during the week of January 14.

Beth, this one’s for you.

How Do You Know When a Work is Finished?

Part I
Back when I was the editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre, many of the better essays we wound up not being able to publish were turned down because we--the editorial board readers--felt they weren’t finished; in other words, not yet fully realized.

For the most part, those essays and memoirs, several of which had real potential, were gracefully written and clearly rendered personal narratives. The same is true for many of my MFA student’s self-proclaimed “final drafts.” In both instances, I found the drafts had been shaped too soon. That is, the author hadn’t yet discovered the central idea, and/or structural element(s), that would bring the work together as a finished, fully dimensional dimensional whole. (If indeed any piece of writing is ever truly finished). Read More 

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How Do We Know When a Work is Finished? (to be posted in January)

The next entry, # 12, “How Do We Know When a Work is Finished?” will be posted on January 4). Those who haven’t seen some or any of the 11 previous posts, please take a look in the Archives (below left).

Happy Holidays

See You in January

# 1 April, A Brief Overview and The Hybrid Forms of Literary/Creative Nonfiction
# 2 and 3 May, Finding the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction, and Reading Like a Writer
# 4 June, The Role of Persona in Crafting Personal Narratives
# 5 July, The Role of Research in Personal Narratives
# 6 The Memoir as Psychological Thriller (Guest, Joy Castro)
# 7 August, When Literary Memoir Isn’t
# 8 September, The Art of Self (Guest, Steven Harvey)
# 9 October, Discovering Structure in Memoir
# 10 November, Melody Lines and Riffs: How I Found the Structural (Organizing) Principal For My Memoir, Still Pitching
# 11 After Many A Summer, Still Writing About My Parents (Guest, Tom Larson)  Read More 

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After Many a Summer Still Writing My Parents by Thomas Larson, Guest Blogger

Blog Entry No. 11

Guest blogger, Tom Larson, is one of our most accomplished essayist/critics. His book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, is one of if not the finest on/about memoir. We can all learn something about writing and craft from Tom's meditation below on memory, recollection invention as they relate to writing about our parents. Tom's piece might be especially useful to those who teach, write, and/or are currently working on family memoirs.
MJS

After Many a Summer Still Writing About My Parents
By Thomas Larson

When I began life-writing in earnest, in the early 1990s, I turned to my dead father—my first, natural subject. Why first? Why natural? In a word, access. Our intimacy, was special, almost motherly on his part; better yet, it was still on my skin. I listed a dozen moments I had with him as a boy in which he transferred some male potency, sorrow stirred with wisdom, to me. I wrote many of these episodes quickly, discovering that this skin-activated memory, attuned more to a felt frequency than any consequential event, had kept our relationship wired and alive.

Those several episodes, time-stopping, and they lingered like a burn—his scratchy-glancing kiss goodnight; his smell of Aqua Velva, soap, and coffee; his telling me I was, of his three sons, his favorite, though my older and younger brothers, reading my work or hearing me talk much later, disagree. Teaching memoir, how often I have demonstrated memory’s rash—stroking my arm and saying, "I can still feel him/his touch on my body. He’s right here."

His intimations of love are stronger, more binding and palpable, than any physical tie with which my mother or my brothers have held me. With my dad I imagined less, recalled more. His hairy-knuckled tap, his baggy blue eyes, his Eric-Sevareid voice, his sober directness—landscaped within since he’d taken the time to come close—imprinted themselves. Or I imprinted them after I’d been scored. Take your pick. Both are true.  Read More 

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Melody Lines and Riffs: How I Found the Structural (Organizing) Principle for the Memoir, Still Pitching

Blog Entry No. 10

Note: This is the second of a two-part posting on/about finding the structure in a memoir-in-progress. Since it’s a continuation of the preceding entry, those that haven’t read #9 would benefit by looking it over before reading this one.

Before beginning this discussion, I also want to mention that I've separated myself, the writer, from the adult narrator who's looking back on a younger version of himself.

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* We shape {a piece of literary writing] in order to let it go; the process of crafting the [work], of trying to get everything from line to sonic texture to each individual word just right involves standing back and gaining a greater degree of distance from what we've said. A good [literary work] may begin in self-expression, but it ends as art, which means it isn't really for the writer anymore but for the reader who steps into and makes the experience of the poem her or his own. Therein lies the marvel: The [writer’s] little limited life becomes larger because readers enter into it.
--Mark Doty

One reason you write a memoir is to try to find out which people and events helped shape you into the person you’ve become. In composing Still Pitching, my intent was to craft an emotionally honest narrative about what it felt like to be that kid narrator growing up at that particular time in that particular place. But it was also an inquiry into what it all meant.

After deciding to focus only on the ten year period (1947-1957) of the young narrator’s childhood/adolescence, I (the writer) began by brainstorming what turned out to be a long (some 150 pages), meandering, free association composed of notes and impressions from the young boy's childhood and adolescence. That scattered draft included things like family, school, his early love of books and writing, his sense of being an outsider, his obsession with baseball and his identification with the Brooklyn Dodger teams of the 50’s--in addition to his social life, friends, rivals, cliques, the mysteries of girls and sex, and some general impressions of New York in he 50’s.  Read More 

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Discovering Structure in Memoir

Blog Entry No. 9

Prefatory Note:

Recently, I got an e-request from a writing teacher who’d heard me talk about what a long-drawn-out struggle it was to find the structure for my memoir, Still Pitching. He was introducing his students to the personal essay and he wanted me to summarize a few things I’d said. When I began my reply, I could tell right away that a short email wouldn’t be the best way to go about this. So in a roundabout way, these next two blog postings ( #9, 1 and 2) offer an expanded discussion of what I believe is the single most challenging aspect of getting a manuscript to coalesce.

Part 1

The majority of manuscripts-in-progress I’ve read, both from MFA students and from the many submissions to the journal, Fourth Genre, seem to have one of two problems, each bearing on structure. Either the manuscript doesn't have an essential shape or form, or, it's just the opposite; the work has been shaped too soon-- that is, before the writer has discovered the narrative’s organizing principle (and, I’d also add, its emotional heart). More about that in Part 2.

In writing the early drafts of what eventually became Still Pitching, I encountered both problems. The memoir began as a collection of personal essay/memoirs loosely connected by my having had grown up with baseball in New York City in the 50’s. I was an inexperienced writer at the time; and apart from time, place, and baseball, I couldn’t find a common thread that would (organically) link those stand-alone pieces together. Read More 

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The Art of Self by Steven Harvey, Guest Blogger

Blog Entry No. 8

The guest blogger for this posting is Steven Harvey. In my opinion, Steven is one of our best and most knowledgeable personal essaysists. “The Art of Self” is one of the most thoughtful, incisive pieces I’ve read on/about the personal essay. It’s a reprint from the sixth edition of The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, an anthology co-edited by Robert Root and myself.

"The Art of Self" by Steven Harvey

On a flight recently I met a fiction writer. Both of us were on our way to a writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, and when I told her that I wrote personal essays she laughed. “Oh, I love the form,” she said. “It’s so easy.” I heard the ice in our drinks rattle in the silence that ensued. I had plenty of time, before we landed, to think about what she had said.

Confusion about the essay begins with a misconception: that art must be invented. To be creative—the argument goes—literature must be made up. Since the personal essay begins with a real life, it is less creative, less artistic, than fiction. Such a view, I think, is mistaken, based not only on confusions about writing, but on confusions about art as well. What makes writing—writing of any kind—an art is not invention, but shape. Shapeliness. The facts, the events, the invented flights of fancy do not make up a work of art. The shapeliness of the author’s composition takes us to that level.  Read More 

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