icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

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

#33 Teaching (Yourself) What You Know - Guest Blogger, Mary Elizabeth Pope


A reprint of Mike Steinberg's blog essay (#26 in the Archives), The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction appears on Faye Rapport's blog,
The Roles of Memory...

You can also read an expanded version of this essay in the Solstice Literary Magazine
The Roles of Memory...

Another craft essay, Planning For Surprise: Writing and Teaching the Personal Essay was published by TriQuarterly Triquarterly

Also, One Story, Two Narrators: Reflection’s Role In Writing and Teaching Personal Narratives appears in the current issue of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices appears in One Story, Two Narrators:.......

Earlier and much different versions of both pieces appeared on my blog (# 3), Finding
the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction and # 19 and 20, Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Literary Nonfiction. You can find both in the Archives


I've known Mary Beth Pope for many years. She's a first rate personal essayist/memoirist and a passionate, dedicated teacher. Using her own experience as a teacher and writer, in this piece, Mary Beth talks about and illustrates how important it is for students, especially beginning or inexperienced writers, to overcome their fear of disclosing their embarrassments and human flaws and instead to look at those confusions and uncertainties as rich materials for crafting their personal essays and memoirs.


Blog # 33

Recently, a colleague who knows about my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder gave me Wendy McClure’s memoir “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie,.” As a child I had read the Little House series with a fervor bordering on delusion. I didn’t just love Laura Ingalls Wilder at the age of ten. I thought I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. So when I opened Wendy McClure’s memoir, I laughed out loud at the opening line, which reads: “I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we travelled to Indian Territory, where Pa built another house, out on the high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?”

Right! I laughed. Oh, wow! This was completely true of me too. I had tried to sit as still as I could in church every Sunday because I knew that “Ma” would demand no less. I had secretly hoped that when I fished with my father in the Chippewa River, I’d get leeches like Laura did in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I even sent a post card to my aunt and uncle in Rhode Island saying that I’d gone “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” that afternoon, at which point a call was placed to my parents in Michigan, asking if I was okay. How funny, I thought, that someone else had experienced these books the same way I had.

Then I stopped laughing and got jealous, the kind of jealous only writers really know, I think, when they realize they’d had a great subject right under their nose all along and never even considered it worthwhile until someone else pounced on it successfully. I mean, that was MY childhood delusion Wendy McClure was writing about. And she did it in such a smart way, too, taking on all the politically problematic elements of the “going West” trajectory of the books, which ten-year-old girls don’t necessarily pick up on, but I had, after my graduate work in postcolonial studies. In fact, in a discussion in one of my graduate classes I’d even brought up the moment in The Long Winter in which Pa dresses up and performs in (yikes, I know) blackface. So what, I wondered, had prevented me from realizing that I could have written a book about the Little House on the Prairie series?

As a teacher of creative nonfiction, I know how to walk my 18-22 year-old-students through their own lives, identifying the subject-worthy elements they may have overlooked, especially when they tell me they are too young for anything to have “happened” to them yet. I have them make lists, do bubble charts, write about their hobbies and obsessions, no matter how small they may seem. And in general, I’m usually successful at getting them to find a subject that both they and their audience will find interesting.

So how is it that I could miss a subject that loomed so large in my childhood?

In thinking this over, I’ve realized that there are three primary barriers that prevent even seasoned writers from recognizing a topic as subject-worthy, and in my own case, it doesn’t matter that, first of all, I know what they are, and second, that I teach other people to overcome these barriers every day as a teacher. They’re still difficult barriers for me to overcome, still the reason I miss things, which makes them all the more important to drag out in the open and remind myself (and you, since you’re reading this) that you have to move past these things in order to access your best work.

The first of these barriers is embarrassment. Now, I talk about embarrassment with my students as a fertile subject for writing. But the truth is, as a human being myself, even if there are things I’m willing to talk about that embarrass me, there are other things, both new and old, that I’m just not willing to face. And if I am honest, the truth is that I’ve always been kind of embarrassed by my obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, because that story about the postcard I sent my relatives about “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” has come to feature prominently in my parents’ narrative about realizing their daughter was strange. It was the kind of story I’ve shared only with my husband, a handful of other Laura Ingalls Wilder fans I’d met in graduate school, and the one friend who gave me The Wilder Life. These were the people who already knew about my insomnia, my shut-in tendencies, my awful ungenerous germ phobia, and the fact that, despite my academic credentials, I have never missed an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor in eighteen seasons, even though I know it’s a really, really, really terrible show and violates every feminist impulse I have.

Now, concealing our embarrassing qualities, I tell my students, is something we learn as a social inclusion tactic. It would be nice if we could think of these qualities as unique, I say, and therefore recognize them immediately as subject-worthy, but that’s not how you survive junior high. So instead we go out the door every morning trying to make sure everyone knows we’re just fine, thank you very much, nothing to see here, move along now. And it’s such an ingrained part of our social makeup that we can’t stop doing it even when we sit down to write.

But, as I also tell my students, it’s our flaws and quirks and silent crazy thoughts that make for good writing. As evidence, I have them read Katha Pollitt’s essay “Webstalker” from her collection Learning to Drive, in which, after spending months stalking her Marxist ex-boyfriend online, she explains that her rationale for not buying banned “detective software” to find out more is to distinguish herself from the truly insane. She writes:

“Besides, it was one thing to stay up half the night going through the archives of obscure leftist Listservs and e-mailing this or that woman to ask if she had ever slept with the man I had been living with. (Amazingly, they all wrote back nice notes affirming that they had, except for one, who sent a huffy e-mail saying it was none of my business. In other words, yes.) It was another thing to bring in professional help.”

I also give my students David Sedaris’s essay “Smart Guy” from Me Talk Pretty One Day, in which Sedaris takes an I.Q. test to prove he’s a genius and discovers instead that “I’m really, really stupid, practically an idiot. There are cats that weigh more than my I.Q. score. Were my number translated into dollars, it would buy you about three buckets of fried chicken.” As Pollitt and Sedaris demonstrate, it’s the things we hope nobody ever finds out about us that make us who we are, which is to say, people who have great stories to tell.

A second barrier to recognizing great subject matter, I tell my students, is that it takes most writers a long time and a lot of life experience to see the routine matters of your life as inherently interesting because you’ve experienced them so regularly that they seem ordinary. The problem with this thinking, I tell them, is that nobody else has lived your life. So I normally start breaking down this barrier by asking them to think of a time when someone visited their house as a child and they suddenly saw their family with new eyes.

For instance, in my own life, I had had moments of understanding that my father was more paranoid than other people’s fathers, that sleeping with seven guns under the bed was unusual, that the rural Michigan town where I grew up was not, in fact, the lair of carjackers or Harley Davidson gangs that might chain me to the back of their motorcycles and carry me off, no matter what my father said. Then one day my father forwarded me one of those hoax e-mails claiming there was an epidemic of poisonous South American spiders that had migrated north on a plane somehow and hung out under toilet seats waiting to bite you in the ass. I’d been gone from Michigan for a decade by then, and when that e-mail turned up in my inbox, it suddenly dawned on me that there was something really odd about the way I was raised. Even then, it took me a long time to write about it. It was, however, the subject of the first piece I ever had accepted into a national literary magazine.

A third barrier to recognizing our experiences as interesting, I tell my students, is that at some point along the way, most of us have been given the impression that the only subject matter worth writing about is Big and Splashy and Important. There is a practical dynamic at work here: editors of literary magazines and presses like Big and Splashy and Important. If you want to get published, Big and Splashy and Important is conventionally believed to be the way to go. Which is one reason why I learned to be somewhat ashamed of my Michigan upbringing, even though it had once been a favorite topic of mine. In fact, for a long time I’d come to feel somewhat apologetic about my Midwestern roots, because I’d been given the impression that hailing from the “flyover zone” (or, as one American I met in South Africa put it “one of those ‘I’ states”) rendered me about as interesting as an old shoe. Los Angeles was good. New York was good. New Orleans was good, especially following Hurricane Katrina. But the Midwest? Come on, honey, you must have something more interesting to write about.

Which brings me back to Wendy McClure, whose interest in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books is about as Midwestern as it gets. Only here’s the thing, and yet again it’s something I also tell my students: it doesn’t matter what you’re writing about as long as you’re writing about it in an interesting or beautiful or funny way. For instance, at one point, McClure explains that her husband Chris, who is trying to support her in her research for The Wilder Life, puts a bag of horehound candy (which Pa gives to Laura in On the Banks of Plum Creek) in McClure’s stocking for Christmas. When Chris asks her what it tastes like, McClure writes:

“It’s not bad,” I told him truthfully. It came in dusty lozenges and tasted sort of like an off-brand Diet Dr. Pepper. Then I remembered when Laura tried it and she decided it tasted “brown.” “You know, it really does taste brown,” I said to Chris. “Brown in a good way.”

“Let’s not talk about the other ways,” Chris said. “Ever.”

Now, horehound candy is not cancer or drugs or sex. It’s not Big and Splashy and Important. But this little vignette captures the essence of what works about McClure’s book, which is the interplay between a child’s obsession and an adult’s perspective on that obsession, the clash between the sensibilities of the past and the present, and—perhaps most importantly for her readers—the humorous perspective McClure brings to bear on the topic in general.

In my own life, as I’ve said, I know how to help students do this, because that’s my job. But like so many teachers of writing, it’s much easier to tell someone else how to do something than to do it yourself. Occasionally I’ve been lucky and a subject will assert itself and demand to be written about and I just know it’s going to work, even if it’s about baking a cake that flops or the night I stayed up singing Billy Joel songs with a boyfriend’s father back in college. These don’t sound like riveting topics. But the impulse that pushes them forward out of the haze of my life is so strong that I can sustain the belief that they’re interesting long enough to get them written about, and usually when this happens, I’m right, and I can place the essay or story in a magazine. But most of the time, in spite of the expertise I have as a teacher of writing for twenty years now, the process of recognizing good material is very, very slow.

I think most writers would agree that we’d all be more prolific if we could speed up this process and access this subject matter more consciously, rather than waiting for it to show up in our inboxes ten years later or emerge from the fog of the past spontaneously. The problem with this method is that if you wait for inspiration to strike, and if you don’t learn to identify and value the things that seem too small or ordinary or embarrassing to write about, at some point you will find out that someone else has written a great book about your obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, and this will really make you mad. But if you’re lucky, I tell my students, it will also help you understand that your life—with all its lulls and humiliations and routine daily experiences—has already offered you lots of subject-rich material if only you can learn to see it that way.

Now, if I can just remember to take my own advice . . .

Mary Elizabeth Pope is Professor of English at Emmanuel College in Boston. Her collection of short stories, Divining Venus, was published in 2013 by Waywiser Press waywiser-press.com/. Her personal essays have appeared in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction and Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From Michigan. And her short stories and essays have been featured in literary magazines such as Florida Review, Bellingham Review, PoemMemoirStory, Passages North, and many others.

Post a comment