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

The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog Entry No. 1 See Archive

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.



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.

During that period, I’ve been asked to field literally hundreds of questions about the writing, editing, and teaching of creative nonfiction. So, I’ve decided to launch this blog, partly to extend the genre conversation and partly as a way of passing on some of what I’ve learned.

Over time, I’ve found that the most helpful suggestions I’ve gotten from veteran teachers and writers were, for the most part, related to genre issues and/or matters of craft. And so every ten days-two weeks, I’ll respond to a subject/topic from a list of recurring questions about the genre—questions that have come up at MFA workshops, public workshop visits, talks, and writers’ conferences. (SEE #1 BELOW) And in between those postings, I’ll offer brief opinions and comments about controversial genre issues, as well as recommended books and articles that have caught my attention.

Feel free then, to respond to whatever concerns interest you. And if you have questions, by all means, include them. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start our own dialogue about both the craft and the current state of the genre.


Contemporary creative nonfiction -- the fourth genre -- is an elastic, expansive literary form. The broad spectrum of which includes the personal essay, literary memoir, literary journalism, and some forms of first person cultural criticism.

To be sure, there are many differing approaches to the genre. But two, in particular, stand out.

Some writers, editors, and teachers see creative nonfiction largely as literary journalism—that is, artfully rendered, carefully documented research and reportage of true-life stories, often about larger subjects. Others, myself included, view the genre as more openly expressive and exploratory, a notion that goes back to Montaigne’s original intent when he wrote, “It is about myself{e} I write.”

Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, it isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic writing. Quite the opposite. Often, the impulse to write personal essays and memoirs is much like the impulse that produces certain forms of lyric poetry and prose. By this I mean that a good number of personal essayists and memoirists are writing not so much to confess or tell their story, but to discover and explore what many poets and fiction writers describe as finding out “what we didn't know we knew."

That journey of discovery is an inner voyage. And since many essayists are by nature, reflective, contemplative types, the personal essay is an ideal vehicle for their interior explorations, which, more times than not, spring from the writer’s need to make sense out of some nagging question, elusive idea, confusing experience, or perplexing situation.

Consequently, readers should expect to encounter a narrator in the act of thinking things out on the page, while at the same time, trying to find some shape and meaning in those thoughts.


After a craft talk at a recent MFA residency, someone in the audience asked, “What can I learn from reading the kind of creative nonfiction that’s so different in style and approach from the writing I do?”

She went on to say, “I’m thinking of the number of experimental and abstract pieces I’ve been seeing. They aren’t at all like the {more traditional} personal essays that I write and am most familiar with.“

Her question puts me in mind of something David James Duncan, wrote,

"Admirers of nailed down definitions and tidy categories may not like to hear it, but all writers and readers are full time imaginers, all prose is imaginative, and fiction and nonfiction are just two anarchic shades of ink swirling around in the same mysterious well. Those of us who would tell a story can only dip in our pens. We can never claim full certainty as to which shade of ink we’re using."

Duncan’s claim is similar to what Patricia Hampl, one of our finest memoirists, said when she described literary/creative nonfiction as a "mongrel" or "hybrid" genre.

I agree with Duncan and Hampl. During the ten years that I co-edited the literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (1998-2008), the genre grew more expansive and diverse, which, in turn, opened up opportunities for writers to create more experimental and riskier works.

Consequently, as the genre continues to change and grow, it encourages us—writers, editors, and teachers alike--to rethink our preconceptions of what creative nonfiction is. In other words, it expands our boundaries and creates new possibilities, such as, the short prose pieces that use language and form in most unexpected ways; essays and memoirs that combine personal narrative with analysis, research, and reportage; and some forms of personal journalism and cultural criticism (Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, and Alyssa East’s Dogtown, for example), where the “I” isn’t at the center of the narrative, yet the writer’s presence and point of view clearly inform the narrative.

We’re also seeing more segmented and disjunctive pieces, as well as an increase in lyric (and lyrical) essays, some of which take the sorts of imaginative and linguistic leaps that the best lyric poetry does. Add to that, the appearance of graphic memoirs and video essays, as well as personal essay/reviews, some of which originally appeared in online blogs.

This is a more eclectic body of work than the more traditional personal essays and memoirs that I chose for the first few issues of Fourth Genre, the journal, or the selections that Bob Root and I picked for the first edition of our anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1998-1999).

“So, ok,” you’re thinking, what does all this have to do with the original question, the one that asks,” what can I learn from writing that’s so different from the work I do?” To which I say, that as a writer you’re always trying to discover the form/shape that’ll best suit your intent. And the more tools and resources writers have at hand, the more varied and compelling the work is likely to be.

If, as I believe, contemporary creative nonfiction is a spin-off from the personal essay, no matter what form the writing takes, lyric, graphic, and/or narrative, its hallmark is that it allows us access to the narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and observations, as well as to his/her yearnings and confusions, exhilarations and fears--in short; the qualities that make us human.

Which is, after all, what characterizes the most enduring writing in all four literary genres.

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