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

Part 2: How Do You Know When a Work is Finished

Blog No. 13

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.
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.

Here’s a short version of the back-story.
On the first day of tryouts, in a practice scrimmage, I was pitching in a simulated game situation. There was a runner at third base and my best friend, Mike Rubin, was at bat. I should mention here that Mike and I were the only two Jewish boys at tryouts.
Coach Sullivan called for a “suicide squeeze.” He told Rubin to lay down a bunt. “When the runner breaks from third,” he said, staring directly at me, “I want you, Steinberg, to throw the ball right at Rubin’s head.”
Well, we all know that a suicide squeeze calls for the pitcher to brush the hitter back away from the plate so the catcher has a clear look at the runner who’s breaking from third. And given what I already knew about Sullivan, I must have figured he was testing both Rubin and me. Ok, I told myself. I’ll throw it inside and back him off the plate. Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, Sullivan glared at me and said, “Let’s see if you’ve got any balls, Jew boy.” Instinctively, I told him to grab a bat and stand up there himself. To make a long story (essay) short, my pitch hit the bill of his cap and spun him to the ground.

Ever since I’d seen the movie, that memory had been rattling around in my imagination. It was even keeping me up at night. So, not really knowing what I might find, I started writing about the incident.
In my first rough draft, I scribbled down the moment-to-moment details of that scenario as best I could recall them. I wrote the narrative in the present tense, in the voice and persona of the fourteen-year old boy. After a few more drafts, I could see that I'd captured the details of what the confrontation felt like; but I sensed that something still wasn’t quite right. Not in the story, but in the way I’d set up the draft.
At the time though, I was a far less seasoned, less experienced, writer. And to me, so desperate back then to publish my work, this was the best I could do. The essay was powerful dramatic, and specific, I reasoned. So, despite my reservations, I sent it out to a half-dozen good journals. After a half-dozen rejection slips, I figured that the essay really did have a missing piece of some sort. What it was though, was a mystery to me. So, I put it away, thinking I’d maybe come back to it another time.
Over time, I thought about the piece intermittently. Out of curiosity, I reread it a year later; and I immediately saw the problem. Or, as it would turn out, one of the problems. On paper, the essay, though still powerful and dramatic, was no more than a memory recollection. And also a set piece.
So, I began asking myself the same kinds of questions I was posing to my writing students. It happened, so what? And, In the larger scheme of things, what did it mean? To me? To anyone else?
To carefully examine those questions, the piece, I now knew, needed an adult voice and persona—in other words, a version of my present self; a narrator who's looking back on his fourteen year old self. But even after I’d switched from present to past tense, and even with the adult narrator telling the story, the essay felt somehow still unbalanced.
I decided to experiment a bit. Over the next several months, I framed the story of young boy's confrontation by beginning with the present-time adult’s (me) point of view then jumping back in time and shifting into the persona/voice of the young boy telling his own story. It was still missing an ending, but I sensed I was on the right track. The challenge now was to find a somewhat current incident or situation that would frame the boy’s story. So I began and ended the next draft by with my original impressions of the Kubrick movie. Presto, I thought, the piece was done.
I sent it out again. Again, no takers. So I put it away again.
During that same time period, a childhood friend and I visited the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Being there tripped off a memory of the time when our VFW team had made it to the state finals. The game was played at Doubleday Field (in Cooperstown), the same summer I’d had the run-in with Sullivan. Perfect frame for the essay I thought. When I got home, the first thing I did was cut the Kubrick frame and begin and end the piece with a description of my visit to the Hall of Fame.
This time though, I didn’t send the piece out. I deliberately shelved it for six more months. When I revisited it, I could see that the new frame, the Hall of Fame visit ,read like the mechanical quick fix that it was--a way of getting the reader in and out of the memory recollection. So after three years of struggle, I wrote the piece off (no pun intended) and put it away, this time I thought for good.

During the years I spent writing that piece, I was starting to notice that, after some twenty-five years of teaching, I was engaging in some involuntary, disturbing squabbles with students. And one day while I was working out on campus, I overheard two colleagues debating the difference between being an encouraging and a punative teacher.

In retrospect, I now believe it was no coincidence that the first breakthrough in my long-since-discarded piece occurred the following semester, right after I’d publicly humiliated a student for a smart-ass comment he made in class.
I stewed over the incident for days. To my disappointment, I couldn't resolve the situation with him. But at the same time, I began to wonder if my dissatisfactions with my teaching might be a red flag, a sign that I was turning into a version of my old resentful coach. I was horrified at the thought, yet the idea helped me understand how to solve the elusive essay’s problem. And maybe even to better understand why that childhood incident was still nagging at me now.
By which I mean, I framed the story of the boy's confrontation with the story of my own recent encounter with the belligerent student. As a result, the new frame now had the immediacy, authenticity, and authority I'd been searching for.
Subsequently, within a matter of days, the piece coalesced into a coherent and satisfying whole. And this time I knew the reasons why.

This is, by no means indented to be a cautionary tale. I don’t, in fact, recommend my convoluted process to anybody. But I did learn to let go of my conscious intentions and follow where the writing was leading. And in the process, I was able to reconfirm my notion that most problems with pieces that have been shaped too soon invariably end up, as Marcie Hershman indicates in the epigraph above, with issues of structure and form.

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