Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: Memoirist and Essayist Michael Steinberg on His New Book

Every interview in this series is unique and provides insight into a writer who is working on craft. Some interviewees have had many publications in literary journals, some none. Some have published books, others haven’t. Some I know personally, and some I only know through connections made in the writing world. Each writer featured is, I feel, special.

Michael Steinberg

Still, there’s something just a little extra special about Michael Steinberg. Listing his achievements as a writer and teacher doesn’t really do him justice. Yes, he holds a Ph.D. in literature and is the author of the award-winning memoir Still Pitching. Yes, he has authored or edited a number of other books, including the essay collection Greatest Hits, and Some that Weren’t and Word Painting Whimsies, Dreams and Playful Fantasies, a collaboration of poetry written by Steinberg and corresponding paintings by his wife, Carole Steinberg Berk. Yes, he was the founding editor of one of the most esteemed literary journals publishing creative nonfiction, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. The accolades and achievements go on and on.

But none of these achievements capture who Michael Steinberg really is, at least not who he is to me. I have been thinking a lot lately about the literary community and the hierarchies and competition and rejection involved in being a writer who is part of that community. I have considered the way writers are often held up against their “accomplishments” the way we hold up a piece of faded paper to the sun to see what might be revealed about its contents or its worth. Michael Steinberg is so much more than what we see when we hold him up against the brightness of his accomplishments. In fact, his accomplishments are what fade when we realize who he is, separate from all that, as a human being.

Michael Steinberg has taught students in a wide variety of settings, from the college classroom to conferences and MFA residencies. From the first time I met him when I was a student at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College, I could tell he was unusual. He was, as we say in Yiddish, a true mensch — a person of integrity and honor with a giving soul. With his students, he was completely unselfish with his time, his advice, and his encouragement. Never in the years I have known him has he turned down a request for a blurb for a book, or advice on a piece of writing or the publishing process. His passion for the genre of creative nonfiction goes without saying, but he combines that passion with a desire to give to other writers and to help steer them toward success.

Humble to the core and always referring to himself as “just a voice in the choir,” Michael Steinberg has been, to me, much more than a voice among many. He has been a singular voice cheering me on during my best and worst times as a writer. He has been something so much more important, I believe, than a successful writer. He has been the very definition of a friend.

At the same time, I know what Mike does have to offer in terms of experience and words of wisdom to other writers. I was so glad to hear that he just released a new essay collection: Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond. While I wait for my copy to arrive, I will share some of his words of experience and wisdom below, in my latest interview.

FRD: Congratulations on the publication of Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball On and Off the Diamond. How does it feel to have finished yet another book?

MS: Writing a book is daunting and exhilarating. And every book I wrote took years in the making. Each time I finish a book, my first reaction is to ask myself how in the world I did it? At the start, it seemed so impossible.

The second reaction is the feeling of just having finished running a marathon — you’re bone tired and also on a high of sorts.

FRD: You have written or edited several memoirs, essay collections, and anthologies. What makes this book different from the rest?

MS: This was a very personal book. It was also a book I was afraid of writing. Ever since my memoir Still Pitching came out some 15 years ago, I’d been telling myself that I was all done with writing about baseball. I didn’t want to turn into a one-note writer.

But over time, I found that, without it being conscious to me, some of my richest writing still contained elements about baseball. In fact, in some of my stand-alone works, it became a lens for looking at larger issues. In some ways, I began to see that baseball, in one form or another, had influenced so many other aspects of my life and/or had played a role, sometimes for the better, sometimes not, in some of the most important decisions and choices I’d made.

Baseball also had a strong impact on my adolescence, my schooling, my marriage, my teaching career, and of course, on my writing. In the end, it’s been a shaping influence of sorts.

FRD: Every book provides unique craft challenges. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book for you?

MS: The biggest challenge for me, as with every book, was finding the structure, the book’s shape. Since this is a collection of stand-alone works, each piece was written at a different period of my writing life. Trying to find a controlling idea that would link the works and bring the manuscript together was important. Would the collection be organized chronologically, or by subject or theme were questions I wrestled with throughout the process. And in fact, now that the collection is finished, I still question the order of the pieces.

FRD: We’ve talked about the fact that the creative nonfiction genre is changing. If you had your way, what would never change about the genre?

MS: I think that changes in genres are inevitable. And creative/literary nonfiction has undergone some radical shifts over the past several years. Many of these are changes that have helped the genre grow and become more contemporary. But since I believe that this genre offers readers access to another human being’s mind at work, the one aspect of the genre that I’d hate to lose is its foundations in the personal essay – that is, the transparency of an engaged mind and imagination in the act of thinking, reflecting, speculating, projecting, and trying to make some larger meaning of a thought, feeling, or nagging idea that couldn’t be understood in any other way.

FRD: You have taught many students in many environments over quite a few decades. If you could offer just ONE piece of advice learned from all of those interactions, what would it be?

MS: You’ll never write well unless you get used to accepting, tolerating your own worst writing. I say this because writing is a discursive process that often begins in not knowing. Early on you’ll struggle with language and with confused thinking as you move through revisions and changes until, with persistence,  you’ve hopefully discovered what it is that you didn’t know you knew.

Understand that you do not want to defeat or discourage yourself by thinking that your early drafts should be better than they are. Have patience with yourself and keep the writing going.

FRD: Thank you, Mike. Your new book is in the mail on the way to me now, and I can’t wait to read it.

For more information about Michael Steinberg and his books (and to read his informative blog), visit: mjsteinberg.net. Elegy for Ebbets: Baseball on and Off the Diamond is available from the publisher here or at Amazon here.

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