Amy Yelin

Interview with Michael Steinberg

So happy to be interviewing you, Michael! Thank you for your commitment to Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices and supporting our annual nonfiction prize. What is it about Solstice that keeps you connected to the magazine all these years?

The fact that the magazine has grown into one of the best literary journals out there. I’m honored to be a part of it.

 

You are Founding Editor of the wonderful journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Can you share a bit about the magazine for readers who are unfamiliar with it? How did the magazine evolve for instance? And what might you want readers and/or potential submitters who are unfamiliar with the publication to know about it?

From 1999 to 2009, I was the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In the mid-to-late 90’s, contemporary creative/literary nonfiction was just beginning to evolve. And Fourth Genre was one of three literary journals devoted solely to its publication. The other two were Creative Nonfiction, 1995, first, and River Teeth, 1999, third.

During the late 90’s up through the first decade of the new century, the journal was at the forefront of an evolving, dynamic conversation about the genre as a legitimate literary form. When I was the editor of Fourth Genre, the majority of works we received were narratives—mostly personal essays and memoirs–some pieces of personal/literary journalism and first-person cultural criticism, as well as a handful of lyric essays. The genre’s structural forms ranged from chronological narratives to segmented and disjunctive essays and memoirs. Sometime during the genre’s early evolution, the very fine memoirist Patricia Hampl described literary/creative nonfiction as a “mongrel” or “hybrid” form. Back then, the work Hampl was describing included essays and memoirs that combined personal narrative with analysis, research, and reportage. But now, some twenty years later, we’re looking at a far different, and continually changing landscape.

 

I believe Fourth Genre is solely a print magazine, is that correct? If yes, why have you chosen to stay offline?

The journal is mostly a print magazine with a few things online, but I haven’t been involved with its production since 2010.

 

What originally drew you to writing…or more specifically, writing nonfiction?

I’ve always written, but until I began writing personal essays and memoirs in the early 1990’s, I hadn’t found the form that would bring out my best writing self. Part of the reason why this genre appealed to me was that, having taught the personal essay in Composition for many years, I became interested in learning more about the form. It seemed to fit my sensibilities. So, I began writing personal essays along with my students. Later on, I started to write stand-alone memoirs, which led me to Still Pitching, a book-length memoir.

 

Can you talk a bit about the process of writing your memoir Still Pitching? I’m trying to write a memoir and it’s quite different from writing essays! What challenges struck you along the way to memoir publication? What did you enjoy about the process? What drove you nuts…or made you want to quit (if anything)?

You’re right. Writing stand alone pieces is much different from writing a book-length memoir. The biggest challenges and frustrations for me were trying to discover what the emotional heart or center of the memoir was, who would be the narrator—my younger or adult self—and what would be the shape/structure of the narrative. Until I knew those things, I couldn’t really write the book. I began with a vague and far reaching notion that having been an active baseball player for many years taught me (at least in part) how to be a writer. I wrote several long, meandering drafts that covered decades—from adolescence to early middle age.

After thrashing around and getting nowhere, I realized in time that I was working from a thesis and trying to cover too much ground. So, I scrapped everything and began again with a long (almost a 100 page) free write. And when I read over those pages, I noticed that my old high school baseball coach’s name kept coming up every three or four pages. I hadn’t thought about that coach in decades, so why now? I then cut everything in the long free write that didn’t include the coach. And at that point, I knew the narrative, for the most part, was going to be about the turbulent four-year relationship between us.

This discovery also allowed me to focus on a tumultuous period of my adolescence. Of course, there were spin offs of that story in the larger narrative—family, cliques, the mystery of girls, school, and writing sports for the school newspaper. But developing the relationship between the younger me and the coach provided the memoir with a central story and an encompassing structure, two things I couldn’t manage to discover in my early drafts. I also decided that the narrator had to be the adult self looking back on an earlier version of himself. And this allowed me to reflect more and write “vertically” instead of trying to describe what went on over several decades. It’s funny; as it turned out, without my consciously realizing it, the book did indeed become, at least in part, a story of how struggling against a high school baseball coach inevitably served me as a writer.

 

I first stumbled upon your craft essays when I was in my MFA program at Lesley University in 2003/4. I still have some of them that I refer back to. For instance, “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays”, which appeared in Fourth Genre in 2001. And then another piece in Solstice‘s Fall 2009 issue titled “Memory, Fact, Imagination, Research: Memoir’s Hybrid Personality.” I think anyone writing memoir or personal essay can really benefit from reading these thoughtful and informative essays. I know that years ago there was a lot of controversy and talk about truth vs. fact in creative nonfiction. From your perspective, have those conversations changed over the years at all? Do people still fret as much about these issues?

I don’t think that truth vs. fact is as much of an issue as it was, say, ten years ago. Memoir has evolved into such a hybrid, experimental, form that it seems to have extended the boundaries of the genre. And so, there are fewer territorial battles and moral arguments. The issues people seem to be more focused on today are related to the genre’s recent expansion/extension. What I mean by that is the differences of opinion about the expansion and extension of creative nonfiction in the last 5-7 years—mainly from personal narratives and lyric essays to hybrid, multimedia, and multi genre works. It’s not exactly a controversy, but it is an issue that writers, teachers, and critics of the form have been debating.

 

In your opinion, does our current political and cultural climate– where we are bombarded with fake news, with lies, and hate speech—make it harder or easier for one to write? I mean to put one’s voice out there? Do writers have a responsibility to “speak” out?

I’m not a political writer. For me, writing is way of reaching/connecting with others who share specific human concerns. That said, there are many, many nonfiction writers who, because of the toxic political climate, feel an urgent need to “speak out.”  I’m wondering if those who want to put their voices out there are expanding the form. Are we looking at what Phillip Lopate describes as “the new nonfiction?” In any case, it will be interesting to see where literary nonfiction will go next.

 

You are a current writer-in-residence the Solstice MFA program, yes? Anything you want to share about what you do there?

The Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts is a small, diverse program. As a writer-in-residence there, I meet with the creative nonfiction students and do a reading and a workshop. It’s a way of staying active as a teacher/mentor.

 

Thanks so much for your time Michael. Before we wrap up, can you share with our readers what you’re working on these days?

I’m finishing up a collection of personal essay/memoirs about the influence and impact baseball has had, pros and cons, on things like my New York roots, schooling, teaching, ageing, my marriage, and my writing. Baseball, in different forms, becomes the lens the adult narrator looks through in order to examine those matters in more depth and dimension.

 

 

Comments
  1. Gloria Nixon-Johm on

    Nice interview, Mike! You introduced me to Creative Non-fiction years ago, and the form is a comfortable place for me. In some ways it is therapeutic in that it gets to the heart of things, or better yet, scratches the itch.

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