Michael Steinberg had a story to write, and the main character was himself — not a character based on him, but the real Michael Steinberg, the Michael Steinberg who grew up in New York loving baseball and awkwardly trying to fit in with the cooler kids around him.
But why should we care about this guy’s life story? Is he famous? Did he survive a freak accident? Does he have a disease?
The answer to all of these questions is “no,” but Steinberg still believes he has something worth saying.
Steinberg, 63, taught writing at Michigan State for more than 25 years, but he isn’t aspiring to be a great novelist or poet or a playwright. He writes nonfiction — the memoir and the personal essay — and he believes his style of writing is just as legitimate as any other.
“It used to be if you couldn’t write fiction or poetry, you weren’t a writer,” says Steinberg, whose memoir, Still Pitching, was published by Michigan State University Press in 2003. “The case I want to make is: Why would someone like me be excluded from a literary conversation because I’m not writing fiction or poetry?”
Steinberg’s quest started years before his book was published, and has put him in the center of the debate over “creative nonfiction” writing and the role of the memoir in the literary world. In the late ’90s he founded Fourth Genre, a twice-yearly literary journal devoted to personal essayists. Steinberg says Fourth Genre, published by MSU Press, is the only literary journal dedicated to the more personal form of creative nonfiction writing, and has won a Writing Excellence Award from The Utne Reader. Its growing popularity is evident in the 500 to 600 submissions it receives per issue.
The Web, too, has spawned a subculture of memoirists. A number of sites, including opendiary.com and livejournal.com, offer space for people to post writing that ranges from simple journal writing to poetry. Blogs offer a chance for others to reply to a posting, comment on writing or offer advice.
Though memoir and personal essays have been around for centuries, the last decade has seen a rise in their publication. That includes bestsellers such as Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s story of his boyhood in Ireland, and Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kayson’s account of time spent in a psychiatric hospital.
“We’re all living a lot longer and we have a lot of spare time,” says Robert Goodman, who teaches memoir writing in San Diego. “People want to leave a legacy behind, they want to say, ‘This is what I stand for.’”
Books such as Angela’s Ashes legitimized the form, Goodman says. McCourt’s story gave people the idea that they too had something to say.
“People are now willing to say, ‘Well, this was a personal tragedy in my life, here it is, I’m managing to survive,’” says Marjory Lyons Krauss, president and owner of Telling Your Story Inc., a business that helps clients write and publish their life stories in book form.
Krauss says reasons for the spate of memoirs include a compulsion to share what it was like growing up in a certain place, the increasing ease of self-publishing, and a need for more personal expression in an increasingly impersonal society.
However, the genre is not without its critics. Elitists roll their eyes at the idea that the Journals of Anaïs Nin could share shelf space with Confessions of an Heiress by Paris Hilton. Some critics — many of them journalists — argue that memoirs, with their reliance on faulty memory, should be moved from nonfiction to fiction. (Hence the term “creative” nonfiction.)
In a 1997 Vanity Fair article, James Wolcott speared creative nonfiction, calling it a “sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction.”
But naysayers must take pause and remember that, as with any other genre, not everything published will be Pulitzer-worthy. Goodman acknowledges there’s both “dreck” and quality work in the nonfiction world.
In the editor’s notes of the first issue of Fourth Genre, Steinberg writes that most of the work is “characterized by a strong, authorial presence, a distinctive personal voice, an active desire on the writer’s part to explore and discover, a commitment to veracity and the skillful use of literary language.”
To Steinberg, what makes a good personal memoir is what it draws from the other genres: fiction, poetry and drama. There’s plot, setting, dialogue, artful language and character development.
“You have to create the eye or the narrator as a credible, three-dimensional character, and that’s what people don’t get,” Steinberg says. “They think if they put ‘I’ on the page, the reader’s going to go along.”
In an essay spawned from a talk Steinberg gave a few years back, he discusses a scene he wrote involving an encounter with a high school baseball coach. The coach has called him out of class and Steinberg describes the panic he feels, the sights and sounds on the way through the locker room and his scene with the coach — who greets him in a jockstrap, sans pants.
“I want the audience to be inside my skin to the extent that they feel the humiliation and shame that I did,” he writes. “And I want them to be inside my mind so they can comprehend why I chose to make this devil’s bargain with such a cruel and manipulative coach.”
The first issue of Fourth Genre came out in 1999, after Laura Luptowski Seeley, a student in one of Steinberg’s graduate classes at Michigan State, made the suggestion. Seeley was then manager of the journals department at MSU Press.
“There was an audience hungry for a new journal,” Seeley says. “But I also knew that soon, other creative nonfiction journals would begin popping up across the country. I knew we had to move quickly so we could enter the market before it was flooded.”
While Steinberg never thought of himself as an editor of a literary magazine, the offer was attractive. He was getting creative carte blanche.
“I thought, ‘Man, this is like somebody handing me keys to their Jaguar,” he says. “It was impossible to pass it up.”
He received a grant and began piecing the journal together, modeling it after similar publications.
Steinberg says the term “fourth genre” was coined by himself and Robert Root Jr., with whom he co-edited an anthology of the same title, published in 1998. The anthology includes works of nonfiction as well as discussions of the craft, and is used as a textbook in creative nonfiction classes. For the literary journal, Steinberg expanded on that format; he wanted the journal to be a place to publish personal work and discuss it, as well as confront the issues — particularly that sticky one about the nature of truth in the memoir.
Some purists argue that if you can’t remember something exactly, it should be labeled fiction. Memory is by nature selective and subjective. Steinberg offers this example: He writes about going to the racetrack with his grandfather, something he looked forward to as a child. When he showed the writing to his mother and his aunt they said they didn’t remember it quite that way. Steinberg’s version of his grandfather wasn’t the same as his mother remembered him. But Steinberg says that doesn’t make his memory wrong.
“You sit people down, everyone is going to remember something differently,” he says. “You can’t depict someone else’s memory.”
What matters is getting to the truth of how the person felt at the time, Steinberg says. “It’s a different kind of truth you’re after. The accuracy that you’re after is the accuracy of feelings,” he says.
Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute, a prestigious nonprofit school for journalists that specializes in ethics issues. Clark notes the difference between intentionally altering reality and remembering and imagining the past. Some authors, for dramatic effect, insert details into stories they know aren’t true and still call their work nonfiction, Clark says. One example of this is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the story of a murder in Savannah, Ga. Author John Berendt admits he’s taken storytelling liberties, and where the narrative “strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.”
Writers shouldn’t use bits of fiction to make a nonfiction piece better, Clark says.
“It’s not wrong if you call it fiction, but if you claim it’s nonfiction I think you have violated the implicit contract between writer and reader.”
Memoirists also employ other techniques, such as using composite characters and altering characters’ names to protect their identities. These are trickier, arguably more fiction-like techniques, where the author needs to tell the readers what he or she has done, Clark says.
For his part, Steinberg doesn’t advocate whole-cloth fabrication for the sake of storyline in a memoir.
“As a reader, one wouldn’t know if the writer was inventing things or not. But for myself, I probably wouldn’t do it,” Steinberg says.
In Still Pitching, Steinberg writes about his New York childhood and his love of baseball, but also his struggle to become accepted, to make the baseball team and how this helped shape his future.
“I used sight, I used sound, certainly smell, touch for sure. It took longer to write it than it took to experience it,” Steinberg says of some scenes in the memoir.
“That’s not literal truth. What’s true is that it felt like that.”
Visit Fourth Genre online at msupress.msu.edu/FourthGenre.Alexandra Moses is a freelancer writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.