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

# 29 Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical "I"

Note: Contest Announcement:

Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices announces its 5th annual CONTEST.
$1,000 Fiction Prize; also the $500 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize. Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry; and our $500 Nonfiction Prize, donated by Michael Steinberg. Finalists are also offered publication. Solsticelitmag, a Best of the Net publication, promotes its writers in the present and post-publication. Reading fee: $18.00. Deadline: extended to April 19th. www.solsticelitmag.org

This is a very fine online lit journal. The nonfiction prize is well worth looking into. Richard Hoffman, who wrote a recent post (#28) will judge.


Blog # 29

This post is a reworking of a panel presentation I gave last month at AWP in Seattle. The panel’s title is: The I Or The Eye: The Narrator's Role in Nonfiction

Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical “I”

Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town is a carefully crafted, artfully written book that, for the most part, is about her investigation of a murder that was committed several years ago in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a place the author describes as “an enchanted New England ghost town.”

It’s a convincing, eminently readable story. But what drew me more deeply into the book was the narrator’s curiosity and fascination with the mythology and history of this small New England village. And it’s that pull, that attraction, I believe, that influenced (either consciously or unconsciously) the way in which the author set up her narrative.

For the most part, Dogtown is a combination of immersion journalism and cultural criticism along with some very spare, but important personal remarks and observations, most of which East intermittently weaves into the early parts of the narrative. These pointed disclosures explain some of the reasons why the author felt compelled first to visit and then to write about Dogtown. And to my mind, East’s interest in this place convinced me that she would be a most reliable and companionable guide.

That said, after the first sixty-five pages, the personal disclosures all but disappear from the narrative. And the writer/teacher in me naturally wanted to know why. Later on, when I had a chance to talk to Elyssa, about this, she told me “what makes Dogtown distinct is utterly elusive and I only wanted to be in the book to further illuminate this feeling; to help the reader live this sensation on the page with me.”

Her comments triggered some thoughts that had been nagging at me for quite some time. Why, I’ve been wondering, do some writers place their narrators at center-stage (in other words, as the “I”) while others locate their narrators on the periphery, or off-stage—as reporters, witnesses and/or observers (the E-Y-E)?

Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.
---David Shields

The literary nonfiction that’s most fascinating to me lately is, like Dogtown, a mix of investigation, research, and personal narrative. Four books immediately come to mind; Katy Butler’s, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Kristin Iverson’s, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Rebecca Mead’s biography/memoir My Life in Middlemarch, and Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire.

While I’d love to write the kinds of narratives that, like those authors, marry the personal with larger cultural, historical events and issues, more often than not, my narrators, are variations of the “I,” the persona, that is, who’s at the center of the narrative.

Poet William Stafford comments (inadvertently) on this dilemma when he says, “I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now…”

To which I’ll add my belief that the narrators and narratives and we choose are related, at least in part, to matters of disposition, temperament, and sensibility. As well to the specific ways in which we view the world.

Over time, I’ve come to accept that my sensibility is a lot closer to that of a personal essayist/memoirist than it is to a literary journalist or cultural critic. And so, he majority of my narrators fit the kind of persona that Montaigne describes in Essais when he says "It is about myself{e} I write."

Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, let me qualify it. This isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic and/or confessional writing. Quite the contrary. It's closer in spirit to what essayist Scott Russell Sanders refers to as "the singular first person." And in times like these--where the messages we listen to and read are often generic slogans and hash tags, like, “I’m Luvin’ it, “Let’s Go Places,” and What’s in Your Wallet?,“ we especially need to listen to “the singular first person;” the individual human voice more.

Subject in an essay…becomes not the target so much as the sight, the lens through which you see the world
--Steven Church

The majority of my personal essays and memoirs tend to revolve around two “subjects;” baseball is one, and the other is my congenital sense of feeling like a displaced New Yorker in the Midwest.

Over the course of several years, I’ve written a series of linked pieces about both. Each series offers variations on a single subject. In addition, each demands a distinctly rendered, sometimes even contradictory, narrator/persona. And because my body of work ranges from adolescence to later life, each stand-alone personal essay/memoir requires a differing viewpoint and perspective. An adolescent point of view, as we know, doesn’t convey the wisdom or perspective that an adult point of view does.

F. Scott Fitzgerald says, “Writers aren't exactly people…they're a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.” To me this means that finding the most appropriate narrator/persona for each subject and individual piece, the “lens” through which you see the world is at least as much (perhaps even more) of an aesthetic concern as it is a personal one.

…. {t} he right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking. This is memoir’s great task really: the revelation of consciousness…
--Patricia Hampl

Though my narrators are “I”-centered personae, they aren’t strictly “autobiographical ‘I’s.’ ” What I mean to say is that I don't approach the writing of personal essays or memoirs as literal disclosures about my myself or my personal life.

The circumstances of one’s life, I believe, are raw material (hopefully) for uncovering some larger, more inclusive idea; or, more frequently in my own writing, something I didn’t know I knew--like, for example, a powerful, but previously unexplored, influence; or perhaps, an as yet undiscovered personal relationship, both of which might have been hiding on the fringes of my imagination.

Consequently, I think that whomever our narrator/persona might be—a witness, an investigative and/or analytical self (the E-Y-E), or perhaps some version of the subjective “I,”--the important human story (as Patricia Hampl stresses) is the narrator’s internal struggle to come to terms with something—an event, situation, idea or thought--he/she couldn't discover or understand except through the writing.

Patricia Hampl also says (about memoir), “You give me your story, I get mine.” Which suggests to me, that, no matter what narrator/persona I might choose, and/or what subject I might pursue—be it a larger issue or idea, or maybe something like family or baseball—or anything else, for that matter—if what I write has authentic emotional resonance, chances are better that the story of my narrator’s inner struggle can, at least in part, become the story of the reader's struggles as well. And isn’t this the happy result that most of us hope for?

Writer/editor, F. Scott Olsen maintains (and I most certainly agree), that “As the world becomes more problematic, it is in the little excursions and small observations that we can discover ourselves, that we can make an honest connection with others, that we can remind ourselves of what it means to belong to one another.”

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