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

Blog #82 A Tribute to Floyd Skloot by Michael Steinberg

Blog # 82, A Tribute to Floyd Skloot by Michael Steinberg


To my mind, Floyd Skoot is one of this country's finest, most prolific writers of personal essays and memoirs. This blog post is from a recent AWP tribute panel on/about Floyd's life and work.




 When John Domini invited me to be on an AWP tribute panel for Floyd Skloot, I said yes in less than a New York minute. It's a high honor to talk (in this case, write) about Floyd Skloot as a writer. colleague, and friend.


There's no doubt in my mind that Floyd is one of our finest, most accomplished, and prolific personal essayist/memoirist.


The body of his major nonfiction works includes 5 books:


The Night-Side

In The Shadow of Memory

A World of Light

The Wink of the Zenith



Reading and studying Floyd's work had inspired me to keep going during a time, just before the turn of the century, when the personal essay and memoir were pretty much on the fringes of the larger literary conversation.


In addition, Floyd's works back then had educated me about the existence of good literary journals—magazines like The Gettysburg Review, the Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Boulevard, among several others.


Not only did this offer me places to find good literary nonfiction, it has also provided me with venues in which to submit my own work. And in addition, reading these journals influenced me quite a bit when I founded my own literary journal, Fourth Genre back in 1999.


Just as a personal note, several years ago I found out that both of us grew up only miles apart on Long Island in the 1950's, and that our high schools competed in sports against one another. So, we have all that back history in common as well.


After a brief email correspondence, Floyd and I finally met back in 2004, just after the publication of In The Shadow of Memory.  Floyd and his wife Beverly were living at the time in Amity, just outside of Portland—in a unique, round house way up on a hill that Beverly had built in 1993.


We exchanged and signed books for one another; and one of the things he wrote in a follow-up email has stuck with me to this day.


In talking about writing, Floyd said,


The slow, steady accrual of accomplishment by dint

of passion and intelligence and careful management

of what one is given {is} {t}he way most

people have to learn to succeed.      


It's a good example, I think, of the philosophy that's guided his own life and writing. And it is, I think, an appropriate segue to the next part of this essay.




I can't remember the last book that taught me so

much, and so well, about what it means to be human.


     --James Gleick (writing about In The Shadow of Memory)


Skloot turns personal catastrophe into literary reflection.    



In addition to these epigraphs,, the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for Floyd reads as follows:


Floyd Skloot is an American poet, novelist, and memoirist who has

often written about the search for meaning through personal loss,

about love and memory, and the struggle for coherence in a

fragmented world. Some of his work concerns his experience with

neurological damage caused by a virus contracted in 1988.      


That's all true; but Floyd's work adds up to so much more than that. And so I'd like to elaborate on the two epigraphs and the Wikipedia entry. Which is to say, that I'll talk about some of the ways in which Floyd has managed to turn his deepest misfortunes into powerful. compelling, and deeply human literary works


I often tell my memoir students that writing about their emotional and psychological traumas won't heal their pain or soothe their wounds. Nor will it reverse the losses or remove the sorrows and regrets. It doesn't, in other words, alter the reality of what happened and how. And it shouldn't.


I then invite them to read some of Floyd's works. And as those works demonstrate, far from being a literal retelling or a re-experiencing of what really happened, the hard earned writing that emerges from Floyd's impulse to explore and try to comprehend his darkest moments is often an unexpected, and gratifying, surprise.


I say that because I believe that if we honestly interrogate our darkest experiences as well as mine our anxieties and fears in service of what Annie Dillard describes as, "fashioning a text," we'll at least be giving ourselves a chance--perhaps our only chance-- to make some human sense out of our difficulties and sufferings.


And Floyd's work indeed does just that.


In combining language, thought, and imagination in the ways that he does, Floyd is attempting to transform his most threatening fears and devastating setbacks into something meaningful, and in many cases, something beautifully wrought--namely, that is, a fully realized, convincing piece of writing in which he struggles transparently and honestly to make some larger sense out of personal suffering, loss, and emotional chaos.


I'm reminded here of something Virginia Woolf said—and I'm paraphrasing: Woolf writes that "putting feelings into words takes the pain away." "Making a scene come right," she says, "making a character come together—there is no greater pleasure."


These citations, I hope, will help to explain why Floyd Skloot is such a skilled and gifted  writer of literary nonfiction.


In closing, I'd like to quote from the Preface of Floyd's book, The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life.


In it Floyd writes,


The Wink of the Zenith is the fourth memoir I've written in the

twenty years since getting sick. But it's the first that isn't

about being sick or reassembling myself in the aftermath of

a neurological calamity, or finding my way back into the

world as a disabled man. It's about the shaping of a writer's

life, about the forces that made me the sort of person who

could only deal with what happened to him by writing about it.     



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