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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)

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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.

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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  Read More 

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Family History Meets Memoir - Part 2, by guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

This post is Part 2 of a two part entry. See # 17 below for part 1.

This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir.

Note: Anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference

Blog No. 18

FAMILY HISTORY MEETS MEMOIR - Part 2 by Rebecca McClanahan

3. Re-enact history for your readers.

Reconstructed or imagined scenes can enliven your family history memoir, filling in the blanks that remain after the research is complete. Consider these possibilities:

• THE TELLING OF THE TALE: This type of scene grows out of an interview or conversation between you and another family member or informant. Whether you transcribe the conversation word for word or rely solely upon memory, your goal is to give the reader a sense of the storytelling moment itself. As in most effective monologue or dialogue scenes, the words spoken are often not as important as the manner in which they are delivered. As you write, include details such as pauses, voice inflections, repetitions and gestures. When you asked your uncle about his duty in the Vietnam War, did he look out the window, light another cigarette and change the subject? These clues are part of the telling of the tale, as are details about the interview environment. Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? When the phone rang, did your uncle ignore it, or jump up to answer it? Was your uncle’s ancient dog sleeping across his lap? Put the reader in the moment with you, any way you can.

• RECONSTRUCTED OR IMAGINED EVENTS: Just because you weren’t present at an event—for instance, your great-aunt’s 1904 wedding—doesn’t mean you can’t write a scene based on the research material you’ve gathered. Build on what you have, whether it’s a photograph of her wedding dress, a letter or newspaper clipping, the weather report from that January day (easily accessible from archival sources), pages from that year’s Sears catalog, or memories of your conversations with your great-aunt. Create the scene that might have been, should have been, or even—if you enter the territory of negative space—what could never have been. As you write, create as full a scene as you would for a fictional story. Describe the sights, sounds, smells and textures you encounter. Let us hear the voices of the characters, watch them move through the room. Just remember to supply navigation tools for the reader. Phrases such as “I imagine” or, “In my mind, the French doors open into a parlor,” alert the reader that you are moving into reconstructed or imagined scenes.

4. Draw upon your personal connection to the facts.

Ask yourself, “Why am I drawn to this subject at this particular time in my life?” Quite often, events in the author’s life trigger an interest—even an obsession—with family history. Perhaps you recently received a cancer diagnosis or gave birth to your first child, or your parents are entering an assisted-living center. Although the author’s life is not usually the central focus of a family history memoir, his story often intersects with those of the family members or ancestors in the spotlight.

If you decide that a current situation in your life relates to your family history, you can weave that situation into the larger narrative, as Terry Tempest Williams did in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. You can also create a double-strand text, alternating your present-tense story with your ancestors’ histories. Your personal story can even form the narrative timeline for the book, with family research details carefully selected to illuminate your own account.

Yet even if your personal story remains in the background, your stake in the proceedings should be clear, or, to paraphrase Rust Hills in his discussion of the peripheral narrator in fiction, you must be “the one moved by the action.” You are the reader’s guide through the text, and he will probably sense your personal connection through your selection and arrangement of research details, your voice and tone, and even the rhythm and sounds of your sentences. Here are more explicit methods for revealing your connection to the research:  Read More 

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Family History Meets Memoir - Part I, guest blogger Rebecca McClanahan

This month’s guest is Rebecca McClanahan, a writer/teacher whose poetry, literary nonfiction, and essays on/about the genre I’ve always admired. Her piece below, Family History Meets Memoir grows out of her latest book, The Tribal Knot, a poetic, deeply human, family memoir. This posting is Part I of a two part entry. Part II will be up during the first week of May.

Note: For anyone who follows this blog and is interested in learning more about the genre and its craft, I urge you to look into the River Teeth Conference, May 17-19. Rebecca will be one of the keynote speakers and I’ll be on a panel about structure in memoir.
River Teeth Conference

Blog No. 17

Family History Meets Memoir - Part I

“So, you’re writing your family history,” people said when I mentioned the book I’d been working on for over a decade. “Not exactly,” I answered, not sure of what to say next. Although I’d been poring over hundreds of century-old ancestral letters and artifacts in my search to understand my family’s past, I knew I could not claim to be a historian or even a genealogist. I kept envisioning all the gravestones I’d left unturned, and the scraggly family tree with all the missing branches. No, I finally decided. I am definitely not writing a family history. What I’m writing is a family history memoir.

Here’s the difference: The primarily allegiance of a family historian is to the research itself—to gathering, organizing and recording as much information as possible. When you write a family history memoir, your primary allegiance is not to the research itself but to the larger story you discover through the research, a story that in some way connects to your own. This does not mean that research is not important, or that you play loose with the facts, but rather that you use the knowledge you’ve gained to create a text that is more than a “just the facts, ma’am” report, a text that might appeal to a broad audience of readers.

How do you do this? How do you use research to enrich your memoir and create an artful, lively text that combines your own story with the story of your family or ancestors? Some writers do little or no formal research, relying on their memories of past events or stories passed down. Others conduct extensive searches involving archival documents, site visits, interviews, library and online records, and other sources. But whether you have inherited trunk-loads of ancestral documents, as I did, or only a few family anecdotes, you can use that research to create an engaging memoir. Here are five principles and techniques that helped me while researching and writing The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change.

1. Organize your findings around your main character.

In a family history memoir, your main character can of course be a particular person—such as an ancestor or family member or even (in rare cases) you, the author—but it can also be any other central focus that drives your story. You may decide that your main “character” is actually a place, event, time period, relationship, physical object, image or recurring question. It could be 1930s Detroit, the 65-year marriage of your grandparents, the forest you played in as a child, the specter of alcoholism throughout generations, or, as in the case of my book The Tribal Knot, a physical artifact that embodies your memoir’s main themes.  Read More 

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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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