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

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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When Literary Memoir Isn’t

Blog Entry No. 7

At the National Book Awards ceremony several years back, author Bob Shaccochis said, "literature is the exploration of {our common} humaneness through language." Literary writers, teachers of literature, and literary critics, myself included, are pretty much in agreement with Shaccochis’s general interpretation. I also take it to be all embracing. That is, he’s including fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction as forms of literary writing.

The genre has evolved quite a bit over the last ten years. But, as we all know, not everyone sees creative nonfiction as a legitimate literary form. Many critics, journalists, and even some fiction writers, routinely take shots at the genre, especially memoirs. And there’s even been some disagreement among those of us who write, edit literary journals and anthologies, and teach. A lot of it has to do with the varying arguments and confusions about whether creative nonfiction—in this case memoir-- is either a literary genre, or, if you will, a popular form.

In an earlier post on the inner story (#3, 5/29/12), I mentioned that when I was editing Fourth Genre, many submissions were narratives on/about the external events of a writer’s personal story.  Read More 

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The Role of Research in Personal Narratives

Blog Entry No. 6

Research is essential, whether telling a coming-of-age story, investigating a family secret, or recreating the legacy of several generations. Whether we write about a world we know intimately or are just discovering, research leads to more layered and authentic narratives.
--Mimi Schwartz

The notion that memoirists rely exclusively on memory and imagination to shape their narratives is a persistent misconception. Let’s agree on this much. Memoirs are set in real time and in real places; and they include real people and real events. None of us would be inclined to trust a writer who fabricated those facts. And so, the memoirist, and for that matter, the journalist’s credibility rests on those things that can be verified—even fact checked.

But, what about the memoir’s personal story?

At a recent writer’s conference, I gave a craft talk on the role of research in writing personal narratives. In the Q and A, someone asked, “does the research serve the personal story; or is it the other way round?” My answer was that, in my memoir Still Pitching, I’d originally set out to write the personal story first. Then, when I had a working draft, I’d insert the research wherever I thought it would fit the narrative. Of course, things didn’t go according to plan.  Read More 

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The Memoir as Psychological Thriller by Joy Castro, Guest Blogger

Blog entry No. 5

For this post, I've invited Joy Castro, one of our finest, most versatile writers of literary nonfiction, fiction, and criticism, to be the first guest in what I hope will become an intermittent series of invited writers, all of whom will lend us their wisdom and insights on/about a variety of matters related to the art and craft of creative nonfiction.

Here's a short overview of Joy's piece, The Memoir as Psychological Thriller.

Because memoirists often find themselves overwhelmed with material to write about, Joy's advice below is, I believe, particularly useful to readers of this blog.

In her piece, Joy maintains that memoirists could benefit more by organizing and focusing their drafts around urgent, unanswered questions, particularly those that are troubling and mysterious, the ones that are still unanswered. By challenging their narrators to explore these kinds of questions, memoirists are significantly raising the stakes both for themselves and their readers.

For more detailed commentary and examples, I invite you all to read the complete essay. Joy's piece will be up until the last week of July.  Read More 

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The Role of Persona in Crafting Personal Narratives

Blog Entry No. 4

In The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, Carl Klaus maintains ‘the persona in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.”

I agree in spirit. Where we differ slightly is, that to me, the narrator isn’t so much a made-up self but several different selves from which the writer selects the one (or ones) that best serves his/her intent.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes,

"Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being
a narrator is fashioned…This narrator becomes a persona…Its
tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentence,
what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to
serve the subject."

That last phrase, “to serve the subject,” points out the difference, I believe, between a writer who’s literally trying to recreate the specifics of a real-life experience and one who’s searching for a persona that best suits the story being told. Moreover, it’s a way of differentiating between a straightforward telling of a life story and shaping the raw materials of a life into a literary work.  Read More 

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Finding the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction

Blog Entry No. 3

Prefatory note: This is the first of a few postings on/about the narrator as a created persona in personal essays and memoirs.

…the genuine essayist . . . . thinks his way through the essay—and so comes out where perhaps he did not wish to . . . . He uses the essay as an open form—as a way of thinking things out for himself, as a way of discovering what he thinks.
--Alfred Kazin

The comment I find myself making most frequently to my MFA students is that “the main thing missing in this piece is your story.” A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the ‘inner story’; that is, the story of their thinking.

Here’s a personal example.  Read More 

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Reading Like a Writer

Reading Like A Writer
Blog Entry No. 2

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At a writer’s conference a few summers ago, I witnessed the following scenario: After his reading, the poet Gerald Stern was conducting a Q and A. Someone in the audience asked, “How does your reading influence your writing?” It’s the kind of benign, well-intentioned question that writers often have to field in public forums.

Stern paused for a long beat and then, partly tongue-in-cheek, he said, “All writers are full-time readers. That’s our job description. When we have some free time, we write.”

Exaggerated, maybe. Still, it’s a pretty accurate description of what practicing writers do. And when Stern refers to writers as “fulltime readers,” I think he’s including reading like a writer as part of the mix. By which I mean, the finely tuned awareness of the techniques and tactics that writers call on in order to better craft their work.

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Reading like a writer isn’t the same as reading for enjoyment, appreciation, or self-enrichment, all of which are important pleasures to those of us who love books. Nor is it like reading the way a critic does, which is, of course, how many of us, especially those that were English majors, have been taught. As critics, we’re trained to look for themes, symbols, and ideas in literary works. And in some instances, that’s a useful pursuit. But it doesn’t help us identify and better understand how other writers’ work was made. It’s the difference then, between interpretation and exploration.  Read More 

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The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog Entry No. 1 See Archive
ABOUT THIS BLOG.

For links to other blogs and literary journals, see "Quick Links" in the right column just below "Selected Single Works." For a list of writing contests and a few of my craft essays and interviews, see the left column, just below my bio note.

WELCOME.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE BLOG'S PURPOSE AND INTENT.

As a personal essayist/memoirist, the founding editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and a long-time writing teacher/workshop leader, I’ve been part of a twenty-plus year conversation on/about this genre, a literary genre that's evolved and expanded in ways I could have never imagined two decades ago.  Read More 

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