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

Blog # 74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview with Michael Steinberg

Blog #74 Writers in the Trenches: An Interview


This month’s blog is an interview I did for Writers in the Trenches.
Writers in the Trenches is a series of interviews with a variety of writers across the genres. You can find this interview and others on writer Faye Rapoport’s blog, Musings on Writers, Writing, Literature, the Writer’s Life


1) Writers in the Trenches:
As the founding editor of the prominent literary journal Fourth Genre, an award-winning essayist, and a teacher in both formal and informal settings, you have played a significant role in the advancement of creative nonfiction as a modern American literary genre. How has the genre evolved since you entered the scene?

The genre has evolved and expanded greatly since I started the journal in 1999. For the first five-seven years, the majority of our submissions were personal narratives—some segmented, but mostly chronological. And we also ran a handful of lyric essays. Other pieces we accepted were examples of good literary/investigative journalism; strong pieces of personal/cultural criticism. For the most part though, we were reading and publishing Montaignian personal essays and stand-alone literary memoirs.

If you look at a copy of the journal today, you’ll find a different literary landscape. We are, I believe, in the midst of a paradigm shift, one that’s very similar to what we’ve been seeing in the other fine arts--music, visual art, theater, and dance. Representative works of creative nonfiction would include examples of mixed media, graphic; and video essays; cross genre and hybrid/interactive forms, in addition to essays on/about gender, ethnicity, and identity, as well as pieces on/about political, social, and cultural issues and works of scholarship, ethnography, and research. That’s quite a dramatic shift.

2.) Your memoir, Still Pitching, is far more than a baseball story. Many readers are surprised at how much they enjoy the book even if they're not baseball fans. Now, interestingly, you're working on a book that explores that connection between baseball and writing. Can you summarize what you've discovered about that connection in a paragraph or two?

--I make no claims for baseball being a metaphor for life, for writing, or for anything else, really. My speculation is that being a relief pitcher, a closer, for some fifteen years, and then a player/manager for a fast pitch softball team for fifteen others, taught me the value of perseverance, resilience, discipline and determination, among other things (like how to handle the kinds of disappointments that are a part of anyone’s writing life). These qualities, as well as my having both an analytical and imaginative bent, have served me well as a writer—in my case, a writer of personal essays and literary memoirs.

3.) Your personal essay "Chin Music," which was chosen as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2010, is one of my favorite essays to teach to undergraduates. From the setting to the voice, from the nested structure to the careful balance between scene and reflection, "Chin Music" is rich in literary technique. How long did it take you to write that essay?

--“Chin Music” took some five plus years to complete. In its first incarnation, the entire piece was composed of one long scene that now forms the middle section. It was a description of a confrontation between a young narrator and an anti-Semitic baseball coach.

In real life, the scene might have lasted maybe 30 seconds or a minute; but in early drafts, it was some ten pages long. To increase the tension and immediacy of the scene, the narrator uses only the present tense. Yet, on its own, the piece was no more than one long scene. I knew it needed a frame (a prologue and an epilogue), and a larger point of some sort. So I put the piece away for while.

Over a period of years, I went back to it. And each time, I tried a different frame. But none of them, I could tell, were the right fit. Then a little later on, I had a classroom confrontation with a difficult student. And at some point, I lost my composure As a result, he embarrassed me (and rightly so) in front of my own class. Of course, I was disappointed in myself; but still, I walked away from that encounter knowing that I’d finally found the frame that the piece needed. And once I knew that much, it took me only a couple of hours to write the prologue and epilogue. At the same time, I was also able to connect the new transitions to that long middle scene.

4.) The popular textbook Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited by you and Robert Root, went through six editions. How has creative nonfiction evolved since the initial publication of that text?

Note--I answered this in question one. You might want to combine the anthology and journal by simply mentioning that the anthology came out in 1998 and the journal’s first issue was a year and a half later, in 1999.

5.) I love the title of your most recent collection: Greatest Hits and Some That Weren't. Which ones "weren't," and why?

--The collection’s title has since changed. Now it’s Living in Michigan Dreaming Manhattan.

But here’s the answer to your question:
To my mind, the greatest hits were the personal essay/memoirs that were chosen as Notables in BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, along with a piece that was chosen for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and a couple of others that had won smaller awards and/or were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The remaining essay/memoirs, “Those that Weren’t,” were works I’d published that didn’t achieve anything more than publication. Which, honestly, for the likes of me, is recognition enough.

6.) One of the things you've often talked about is your satisfaction, as a writer, with being a "voice in the choir." This interview series is for writers in the trenches who struggle to stay inspired, keep writing, and avoid giving in to discouragement. What do you say to discouraged writers who feel as if they will never find "success?"

--This question connects nicely with the last line of my reply to the previous one. Anyone who continues to write knows that rejection and disappointment come with the territory. In fact, both are givens. To expand on that notion a bit, I’m going to cite a quote from the playwright/essayist, David Mamet.

Above my writing desk, Mamet’s quote reads:

"If you intend to follow the truth in yourself--to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity--you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And, if you persevere, the Theater, which you are learning to serve will grace you, now and then, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know."

Where Mamet has written “the Theater,” I’ve substituted “the writing life.” And I take his words “persevere,” “discipline,” and “simplicity” to mean the truth that emerges from one’s most honest and unequivocal writing. And that’s is the kind of success that means the most to me.


Founding editor of Fourth Genre, Michael Steinberg has written and co-authored seven books and a stage play. Still Pitching won the 2003 ForeWord Magazine Memoir of the Year. An anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Robert Root) is in a sixth edition. He’s a writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor College MFA program. Read More 

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