Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: The Inimitable Michael Steinberg

Welcome to the second interview in my new series: “Writers in the Trenches.” Not every writer featured here will have a list of publishing accomplishments – I will showcase diverse writers who may or may not have been published, but who are experiencing various aspects of the writing life. Some interviews will be literary, others craft-oriented, and some will just be fun.

Today, I’m featuring a writer who has experienced just about every aspect of the writing life, and he does happen to arrive with a list of rather impressive accomplishments.

When I first spotted Michael Steinberg across a crowded campus hallway, I was a shy MFA student afraid to approach a “real writer.” Someone suggested I talk to him, and I think I turned around and ran in the other direction. As the Creative Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence at the Solstice/Pine Manor College low-residency MFA program, Mike was surrounded by students eager to glean tidbits of hope, craft, and inspiration from him. When I finally braved attending a one-on-one meeting, I found him to be one of the kindest people I’d ever met. He has been a teacher/cheerleader/friend to me ever since.

Michael Steinberg is an award-winning essayist and the founding editor of the prominent literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. He has written, co-authored and/​or edited six books and a stage play. In 2003, his memoir Still Pitching won the ForeWord Magazine/​Independent Press Memoir of the Year award. A popular textbook/anthology he co-edited with Robert Root, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/​on Creative Nonfiction, is in its sixth edition. Mike is an invited panelist, speaker, and instructor at numerous literary events. He has seen it all when it comes to creative nonfiction, and he has had a ringside seat to the changes currently happening in the genre. Below, Mike discusses his impressions of the evolving CNF scene as well as his own writing life and work.

FRD: The textbook/anthology Fourth Genre: Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction came out in 1998 and went through six editions. In 1999, a year and a half after the first edition was published, you founded the journal Fourth Genre. Between these contributions and being an essayist and a teacher in both formal and informal settings, you have played a significant role in the advancement of creative nonfiction as a modern American literary genre. How has the genre evolved since you entered the scene?

MS: The genre has evolved and expanded greatly since I started the journal in 1999. For the first five to seven years, the majority of our submissions were personal narratives—some segmented, but mostly chronological. And we also ran a handful of lyric essays. Other pieces we accepted were examples of good literary/investigative journalism; strong pieces of personal/cultural criticism. For the most part, though, we were reading and publishing Montaignian personal essays and stand-alone literary memoirs.

If you look at a copy of the journal today, you’ll find a different literary landscape. We are, I believe, in the midst of a paradigm shift, one that’s very similar to what we’ve been seeing in the other fine arts–music, visual art, theater, and dance. Representative works of creative nonfiction would include examples of mixed media, graphic; and video essays; cross genre and hybrid/interactive forms, in addition to essays on/about gender, ethnicity, and identity, as well as pieces on/about political, social, and cultural issues and works of scholarship, ethnography, and research.

That’s quite a dramatic shift.

FRD:  Your memoir, Still Pitching, is far more than a baseball story. Many readers are surprised at how much they enjoy the book even if they’re not baseball fans. Now, interestingly, you’re working on a book that explores that connection between baseball and writing. Can you summarize what you’ve discovered about that connection in a paragraph or two?

MS: I make no claims for baseball being a metaphor for life, for writing, or for anything else, really. My speculation is that being a relief pitcher, a closer, for some fifteen years, and then a player/manager for a fast pitch softball team for fifteen others, taught me the value of perseverance, resilience, discipline and determination, among other things (like how to handle the kinds of disappointments that are a part of anyone’s writing life). These qualities, as well as my having both an analytical and imaginative bent, have served me well as a writer—in my case, a writer of personal essays and literary memoirs.

FRD:  Your personal essay “Chin Music” was chosen as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2010 and is one of my favorite essays to teach to undergraduates. From the setting to the voice, from the nested structure to the careful balance between scene and reflection, “Chin Music” is rich in literary technique. How long did it take you to write that essay?

MS: “Chin Music” took some five plus years to complete. In its first incarnation, the entire piece was composed of one long scene that now forms the middle section. It was a description of a confrontation between a young narrator and an anti-Semitic baseball coach.

In real life, the scene might have lasted maybe 30 seconds or a minute; but in early drafts, it was some ten pages long. To increase the tension and immediacy of the scene, the narrator uses only the present tense. Yet, on its own, the piece was no more than one long scene. I knew it needed a frame (a prologue and an epilogue), and a larger point of some sort. So I put the piece away for a while.

Over a period of years, I went back to it. And each time, I tried a different frame.  But none of them, I could tell, were the right fit. Then a little later on, I had a classroom confrontation with a difficult student. And at some point, I lost my composure. As a result, he embarrassed me (and rightly so) in front of my own class. Of course, I was disappointed in myself; but still, I walked away from that encounter knowing that I’d finally found the frame that the piece needed. And once I knew that much, it took me only a couple of hours to write the prologue and epilogue. At the same time, I was also able to connect the new transitions to that long middle scene.

FRD: I love the title of your most recent collection: Greatest Hits and Some That Weren’t. Which ones “weren’t,” and why?

MS: The collection’s title has since changed. Now it’s Living in Michigan, Dreaming Manhattan.

But here’s the answer to your question:

To my mind, the greatest hits were the personal essay/memoirs that were chosen as Notables in Best American Essays, along with a piece that was chosen for the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and a couple of others that had won smaller awards and/or were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The remaining essay/memoirs, “Those that Weren’t,” were works I’d published that didn’t achieve anything more than publication. Which, honestly, for the likes of me, is recognition enough.

FRD: One of the things you’ve often talked about is your satisfaction, as a writer, with being a “voice in the choir.” This interview series is for writers in the trenches who struggle to stay inspired, keep writing, and avoid giving in to discouragement. What do you say to discouraged writers who feel as if they will never find “success?”

MS: This question connects nicely with the last line of my reply to the previous one. Anyone who continues to write knows that rejection and disappointment come with the territory. In fact, both are givens. To expand on that notion a bit, I’m going to cite a quote from the playwright/essayist, David Mamet.

Above my writing desk, Mamet’s quote reads:

If you intend to follow the truth in yourself–to follow your common sense and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity–you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And, if you persevere, the Theater, which you are learning to serve will grace you, now and then, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.

Where Mamet has written “the Theater,” I’ve substituted “the writing life.” And I take his words “persevere,”  “discipline,” and “simplicity” to mean the truth that emerges from one’s most honest and unequivocal writing.

And that’s is the kind of success that means the most to me.

FRD: Our conversation could go on for much longer, but because this is an online interview, we’ll close with those wise words. Thank you!

To read Michael Steinberg’s popular blog, Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, which includes craft essays from both Mike and a variety of guest writers, visit this link: http://mjsteinberg.net/blog.htm.