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

The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey by Robert Root,Guest Blogger

Bob Root is one of Creative Nonfiction's most prominent, well respected figures. His work has played an important role in the genre's current resurgence and evolution. Among his many books is the seminal anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (1997-present). A member of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction's board of founding editors, Bob's contributions were instrumental in helping shape the journal's philosophy and point of view. In addition, he also served as the journal’s interviews and roundtable editor for twelve years. His bio note below will give you a sense of the scope and breadth of his work. Creative Nonfiction is richer and more expansive as a result of Bob Root's writing, teaching, research, and scholarship. We're fortunate to have The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey as our guest post for the next few weeks.

The Long and Winding Road: A Memoirist’s Journey

I don’t really envy memoirists with a straightforward story to tell—“Here’s how it started; here’s what happened next; here’s how it ended”—but I appreciate the advantages of working with a clear narrative structure. For both Recovering Ruth and Following Isabella, the structure of earlier works determined the structures I built, even if I didn’t exactly write my portion of it as chronologically as they wrote theirs. It’s good to follow a straightforward path, the road most travelled; those of us without one can end up on a long and winding road, bushwhacking and breaking trail most of the way.

The subject of my memoir, Happenstance, wasn’t entirely one I’d ignored; decades earlier, writing essays for broadcast on my local public radio station in Michigan, I’d written a few vignettes. Most were inspired by boyhood memories triggered by recent adult events: confrontations with renovation in the hundred-year old house my wife and I had bought took me back to the dank cellar and stripped walls of my parent’s house; watching my children play reminded me of my neighborhood and my childhood friends; and so on. The radio scripts were three or four pages long, a few hundred words, written to sound conversational on the airwaves. Some of those vignettes showed up again when I encouraged composition students to write about their childhoods—the street map I modeled to help them reconnect with memory ignited my own memories; the guided imagery exercise leading them into their past places propelled me toward mine. One student’s story about his mother meeting his father because of a fly ball at a summer softball game haunted me: what if the batter had bunted or struck out? What kind of happenstance brought my own parents together?

Initially, having been led to my own family history by researching someone else’s, I began to research a family memoir. The material invited a chronological history but didn’t answer questions about my own parents and my own life; everything that surfaced seemed connected with everything else. I thought, why not at least write a book that would say something to my children about how their father turned out to be who he was? But then I plunged more deeply into genealogy. After months of research and drafting, when my wife asked how it was coming, I told her I’d almost gotten up to the birth of my grandfather. She said quietly, “You know, if this is going to be a memoir, you should probably be in it.” I loved all the research, but she was right—I wasn’t in the book I was writing to explain about me.

Life, and other books, intervened. When I picked up the project again, I discovered two ways to focus my attention. Before I’d assigned students to write caption essays about individual photos of their own, I’d attempted the exercise myself and had been startled by what it unleashed in memory, based on my greater distance from the events. For the memoir I began to interrogate family photographs, describing what I saw in them first as a viewer and then as an interpreter. Leafing through family photo albums, I wrote about the pictures that most interested me. At the same time, rather than attempt a strict chronological narrative, I wondered what would happen if I wrote up the first hundred days of my life that I could remember, in the order that they occurred to me. Those radio vignettes, I recalled, had been like journal entries. I was sure I could write one a day over the next one hundred days, but on the eleventh day my father died. I stopped writing the hundred days, but scribbled down a list of possible subjects in case I ever started up again. The list ran well over a hundred items.

Once more, life, and other books, intervened. What stayed with me was the experience of the first day I had written about, a day in elementary school when I ran home from school feeling exuberant. I wondered why I had remembered that day first, pondered why I could remember no other exuberant days, and realized how this approach could help me get at formative moments in my life. Once more I revived the memoir. I’d begun teaching memoir-writing graduate students at Ashland University, and felt that I shouldn’t give up on it. By now I knew there was a third strand to the memoir, in addition to the Album entries and Hundred Days entries, a strand that reflected on the nature of happenstance and the nature of choice, and in time I discovered that happenstance was the dominant theme of the memoir. It also became the title.

I had once expected the memoir to be organized around the locks on the Erie Canal at Lockport, where I was born. It was a very clever design and it didn’t work. I later thought it might be a prose album, like a photo album, and tried that approach for a short time. The challenge was to figure out how these Hundred Days entries and Album entries and Happenstance entries went together, and there were days when I would be laying all these entries side by side on our circular dining table or in a straight line on the carpet and hovering over them, trying to feel some sort of sympathetic tuning among the various pieces.

Some of the material from my old radio scripts got into the memoir; a good many of the fifty-seven entries I eventually completed in the Hundred Days series got in; a good many of the Album entries got in; items I think of as literary remains from my father, mother and grandmother got in; reflections on the nature of happenstance got in. These strands are woven together in ways that depend on juxtaposition and association, the reverberations that one piece of writing picks up from another piece of writing, the synchronicities ignited by experience and memory. It’s certainly a memoir but not exactly nonfiction narrative; it’s closer to the prose equivalent of a medieval polyptych, a multi-paneled altarpiece, especially since it is also full of photographs.

I’m sometimes amazed at all the time and energy and false starts and missteps and perplexity this book has put me through. No book ever becomes the book you intended to write, of course. When I tell students that the writing will tell you what it wants to be, this is what I mean. I will never write such a book again, but this was the only way I could write this one—the only way it would let me write it.

Robert Root is an author, editor, and teacher. His creative nonfiction includesRecovering Ruth: A Biographer’s Tale, Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, and the essay collections Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place and Limited Sight Distance. His studies of writing include E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist and The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction. An emeritus professor at Central Michigan University, he now teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ashland University and now lives in Wisconsin. Happenstance will be published in 2013 by the University of Iowa Press. Bob’s website is Root

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