Faye Rapoport DesPres

Remembering Michael Steinberg: My Teacher, My Friend

Photo by Carole Berk Steinberg

It’s difficult to know how to add my voice to the those of the writers and friends who have been remembering and praising Michael Steinberg. On December 9 the writing community — especially the creative nonfiction community — lost someone who had a deep influence on our lives and writing. Though none of us feel the loss as deeply as his artist wife Carole, who had been by his side for 60 years, we each are navigating our own version of this new, somewhat incomprehensible void.

It is tempting to wait even longer before writing about Mike; waiting until you have some emotional distance from a subject was one of his most common pieces of advice. Before he passed away, for example, he expressed sadness at the prospect of selling his and Carole’s beloved lake cottage in northern Michigan. I suggested he write about the loss, but he said, “I’m still too close to it.” He needed time, which he didn’t get.

So here I sit, on an unusually cold December morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a fake electric fireplace casting an orange glow in a bare, chilly room. Outside, the snow in our small backyard is covered with a layer of ice. Every word I type feels haunted by the echoes of a slightly gravelly voice. “Use your imagination. Think on the page. Don’t worry about the grammar stuff until you’ve written a few drafts.” But I don’t know what to do with the thought that comes next: Should I send an early draft to Mike to find out if I’m writing crap?

Some might think it’s hubris to think that Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of the literary journal Fourth Genre who helped launch the careers of some of today’s most prominent CNF writers, and who won awards for his own memoir and personal essays, would have taken the time to read a draft of some piece I was working on. But I never doubted that if I asked, he would. He would do it not just as a favor for a friend, but because he genuinely enjoyed reading other writers’ work and helping them shape their drafts into something better. He was fascinated with the process of creating and developing a good piece of writing, whether he was doing it himself or helping someone else.

So I sit here now, across the room from a fake fireplace that is trying to convince me that a rolling canvas with light bulbs behind it is actually representative of flames. Thinking about it, I realize that warmth radiates from both fire and electricity, from both the real and the created version of it. And that is what Mike Steinberg encouraged me to believe that writers can do with words: create something with the help of our imaginations that helps us experience what is — or was — real.

But that sinking feeling comes as I realize something else Mike taught me is true: you can’t rush good writing. To prove his point, when he was the writer-in residence at the Solstice MFA Program for Creative Writing, Mike once pulled a manila folder out of the bag he carried with him. The folder was so thick with papers that it was stretched out of shape, and he could barely keep the papers from spilling out onto the floor. He set the folder on the coffee table between us and said, “Faye, those are all drafts of a single essay.”

You can’t rush good writing. But Mike has been gone for three weeks now, and I feel that in a way I, too, am running out of time.

I know Mike would have wanted his students and colleagues to carry forward the lessons he taught in so many classes over the years and the comments he made on the many panels at conferences in which he took part. He’d want us to move on with our writing. We exchanged a number of emails in the last few months of his life, and one thing we talked about was how creative nonfiction is changing. The type of contemplative personal essay Mike championed and wrote for a quarter of a century is at least partially making way for new kinds of work. New media have paved the way for more experimentation with hybrid essays, for example.

But I want to hold on. I want to hold on to that moving, sensitive way of “living life twice” by describing it in words and reflecting on its significance, by “thinking on the page” and shaping what happened into something that gets to the meaning of what happened.

But I have to be honest. That’s not the full truth.

Do I want to hold on to a world that has Mike’s writing and teachings in it? Yes. But I’d let it all go if I could have the world back with Mike in it.

What I miss is not my teacher. What I miss is my friend.

As I think about Carole moving forward without the love of her life, and the rest of us without the mentor so many of us turned to, I realize something. Experiencing life ourselves is one thing, and expressing it in art or writing is another. But getting the chance to share our lives, or some aspect of them, with a partner or a friend or a mentor, or anyone we care about, is also a way of living life twice.

We experience good things and bad things and exciting things and hard things once through our own senses, and then again through the comfort or joy or pain or celebration that comes from sharing them with someone else. Both experiences propel us, rumbling, along the train tracks of life. And when we lose someone, it’s like the train is still there, but it runs out of steam and screeches to a stop.

And then all you can hear is the wind whistling through the hills and the caw of a crow somewhere invisible in the trees. All you can see is the snow falling quietly to the ground and the flicker of a flame that isn’t really a flame.

All you can feel is the warmth of an electric fireplace in a bare room.

Tomorrow, we’ll move on. Tomorrow, we’ll propel ourselves into a new year.

But today, all I can do is reach out to Carole over the miles between Massachusetts and Michigan in the only way I know how, by doing the one thing I didn’t get a chance to promise Mike I’d keep doing.