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

6/29/15, #40, The Doctor is In: Some Thoughts about Matters of Craft

6/29/15, #40, The Doctor is In: Some Thoughts about Matters of Craft

Michael Steinberg

Those who follow this blog know that, in addition to my own posts, I have, for the last few years, invited selected guests--notable writers and teachers, and accomplished former students as well--to send me mini-essays on/about whatever specific matters of craft they wanted to write about. Their contributions have not only extended the blog’s scope and range, they’ve also added a variety of voices, thoughts, and opinions--in other words, some diversity--to the mix.

Last week, as it turned out, I happened to be interviewed three times for three different reasons. It was an atypical seven days, to be sure. During that time, I answered a variety of questions on/about genre, teaching, and the craft of writing. By necessity, some (not all) of my answers were spontaneous, almost off-the-cuff, responses to things I hadn’t thought about before, and issues I want to rethink and/or explore more fully but haven’t yet gotten around to pursuing.

That’s when I came up with the idea to expand the blog--to include some questions that readers might like to ask.

But first, I want to set some boundaries. It’s not possible, of course, for me to respond to every question that’s asked. So when the questions--on/about genre and craft issues--come in, I’ll select a few that a reasonable number people seem to be asking. I’ll treat this as an informal Q and A—a kind of “The Doctor is In”column.

To start off, for this post, I’ll choose some questions and answers from the three interviews I mentioned above. Here are two from the first interview




The following is from “Talking Creative Nonfiction,” an interview I did a few weeks ago for the Solstice Literary Magazine blog. For the full (short) interview the link is Solstice Literary Magazine blog

SOLSTICE : In “One Story, Two Narrators,” a craft essay you wrote for this journal, you talk about how many personal essays/memoirs fall short, because they fail to create an internal narrative to accompany the surface-level events. Why do you think that so many aspiring nonfiction writers struggle with this?

MY ANSWER : “As you say, ‘many writers give us only the surface level events.' That is; the story of what happened. But too often, I’ve found, they don’t comment/speculate/reflect on what those events might mean. And I think that’s partly because they don’t allow themselves permission to write as a fully present “I.” By this I mean, the thinking, feeling, three dimensional “I--” the person, in other words, who goes out into the world every day--and who, in response to specific situations, encounters, and events--reflects, speculates, imagines, analyzes, questions, projects…. I could go on.

To illustrate further, here’s an excerpt from “One Story, Two Narrators”

“I think we can agree that human beings are by nature and predisposition instinctively reactive creatures. In most any situation or encounter we probably couldn’t get through thirty seconds without experiencing and/or utilizing most or all of the reactions listed above.

And so, we need to keep reminding ourselves (as well as our students) that in writing personal narratives, it’s important to render our thoughts and reflections with the same clarity and transparency that we’re able to affect when we’re narrating the details and specifics of our own personal stories.

Because no matter how authentic and convincing the situations, people, and events of those stories are, no matter what subject they’re about, in order to connect more meaningfully with readers, narrators need to allow the reader more frequent glimpses into their thought processes, especially those ways in which they deal with their confusions, fears, doubts, exhilarations, and successes--the qualities, in short, that link us as fellow human beings.”

SOLSTICE : Towards the end of that same piece, when you give some examples of the various things that your students deny themselves in their writing, you mention self-interrogation, “asking the hard questions about yourself, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to.” This is a tough one for writers to do because it involves reevaluating their core selves; as a teacher, how do you get your students to have the confidence to really pick themselves apart? How do you know whether or not they can or should dig deeper?

MY ANSWER: “ In a personal essay or a memoir, writers too often present themselves as the literal “I,” the actual person who’s telling us the story. As a result, they’re not going to, (as the interviewer says), 'really pick themselves apart.'

Let’s talk in more specific terms then, about the notion of disclosure, confession, and “digging deeper.”

We'll assume that in response perhaps to an assignment, those students that the interviewer refers to are being asked to write a literary essay or memoir; or else, they've chosen to write one on their own In either case, the “I,” (the narrator), is the main character in his/her story. Consequently, the writer/author will need to create him/herself as a “persona,” by which I mean an invented self-- a stand in, if you will, for that author.

Let me illustrate/explain.

When I write a personal essay and/or a memoir, I never think of myself as the literal "I." The truth is that I'm "the writer at the desk," the author who's trying, first, to figure out what it is I'm writing about, then, how to best craft the work's shape. As "the writer at the desk," therefore, my first concern/challenge is to create a fully realized, three dimensional narrator to tell a particular story. And that's an act of imagination. Once I've found that "persona"--I say "persona" as opposed to the literal "I"--he becomes , as I said above, the main character in his own story.

The only way, I've found, that any given narrator can puzzle something out is by digging deeper into the problem. My first editor called it "writing vertically." And she was right. Because writing a literary essay or memoir is a different undertaking from picking oneself apart on the page. One is a straightforward disclosure, even a confession of sorts; the other is a form of self-interrogation.

In autobiographical writing, the narrator's thinking and feeling selves need to be transparent enough to allow the reader, any reader, to enter that narrator's mind and imagination. In my opinion then, the most human (ie: three-dimensional) narrators in a good memoir (or novel) are those that allow us access to the story of their thinking; what I call the "inner story." For the most part, that inner story is about the narrator's struggles to come to terms with something difficult or confusing; and in some cases, that struggle is also about the narrator’s need to understand the larger meaning of that struggle.

In order for readers to identify with and/or understand that narrator's inner struggle then, they need to see him/her wrestling with the problem. When and why does that narrator speculate, reflect, imagine, project, analyze, interrogate, and question? How, in other words, does that narrator utilize the resources that all of us must call on whenever we're trying to make sense out of something that perplexes and/or troubles us?

This brings us back to the first question the interviewer asked me--which is; and I’m paraphrasing here--why don’t enough writers comment/speculate/reflect on the events, situations, and/or problems they’re writing about?

For essayists, memoirists, as well as writers of personal journalism and personal/ cultural criticism, this is something worth thinking about.

Short questions, long, roundabout answers, right? Which makes me believe that it’s time to wrap things up, at least for now.

In the next “The Doctor is In” (post # 41), I’ll respond to a few different questions that I’ll select from the other two interviews I’ve mentioned above.

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