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Issue 11, July-September 2011
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
The Person To Whom Things Happened: Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives
by Michael Steinberg
followed by Q&A
Order Still Pitching from your favorite Indie Bookseller
     

               “From Journalism to the essay to the memoir, the trip being taken by 
              a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.” 
                          --Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
          
Literature—fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—is the singular art form that allows readers access to another human being’s thoughts and feelings. Consequently, we turn to literary writing not only to connect with others who are attempting to make sense of their lives, but also to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the perplexing worlds we live in.                
    
It would seem then, that creative nonfiction, particularly memoir and personal essays, would offer readers an accessible entree to a given writer/narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination. Why is it, then, that I so often find myself saying to several of my MFA students “the main thing missing here is your story”?
     
You’re probably thinking, “Here comes another endorsement of those confessional ‘me, me, me’ narratives”—the kind that give creative nonfiction a bad name. Quite the contrary. One of the reasons we’re seeing too many of those pieces is that a good number of memoirists and essayists are narrating only the literal story of their experience and leaving out the “inner story,” the story, that is, of their thinking.
               
The Inner Story in Literary Memoir
Recently, a colleague sent me a segment of a family memoir in progress. In it, she discusses both her father’s recent death and how much her childhood neighborhood has changed. She says in her cover letter that she’s trying to explain the connections between the loss of her father, the decay of her old hometown, and, by extension, the erosion of many urban neighborhoods throughout the country. 
    
This is the kind of personal/investigative essay that we don’t see often enough in creative nonfiction. Still, ambitious as it is, there’s an important element missing; that is, the narrator’s engagement with her own story.   
     
In my notes to her, I wrote,
         
          Your writing is graceful and honest. There’s an important
         back story here that sets a clear context for the reader. There are
         also some compelling characters here, including the narrator—that
         I’d like to know a lot more about. For example, beyond the fact that
         this is being told in the first person, who is this narrator? What was
         her childhood relationship to her father like? How old is she now?
         And why, at this particular juncture in her life, is she examining this
         aspect of her past? 
     
It was my way of nudging her to cut loose from her thesis and give us the human story—that is, the story of her thinking, the internal struggle to come to terms with her losses. If she allows us that access, we’re more likely to become interested not only in her story, but also in her relationship to her father, the significance of his death, and the larger connections that she’s trying to establish.      
     
In A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf writes, “The reason so many memoirs fail is that they focus on the events or what happened and leave out the person to whom things happened.”  
      
As Woolf suggests, in order for readers to connect with a particular narrator's story, they need to feel that person’s presence throughout, whether the narrator is at the center of the story or whether he/she is a witness or observer.  
     
Memoirist Patricia Hampl says it another way: “You give me your story, I get mine.” Both Woolf and Hampl are implying that memoirists, no matter what subject they’re writing about, are more likely to connect with their readers by disclosing their thoughts and feelings, their confusions, fears, and self doubts, as well as their exhilarations and successes—the qualities, in short, that link us as fellow human beings.      
                                                


Awhile back, I wrote an essay/memoir entitled “Trading Off.” It’s largely about a four-year struggle between me and a high school baseball coach, one Jack Kerchman, who had the reputation for being a taskmaster. Throughout the narrative, I am trying to describe, mostly through sense impression and memory, the shame and humiliation that I chose to put up with while in pursuit of a single-minded dream. At fourteen, I wanted more than anything to pitch for the high school baseball team. And that meant I’d have to audition for this formidable coach. According to the rumors, Kerchman, a Jew himself, routinely went out of his way to taunt and harass his Jewish players. As the adult narrator looking back on his adolescent self, I wrote the piece partly as a way of better understanding why that apprehensive, uncertain young boy so deeply craved the approval and respect of such a perverse human being.       
          
Here’s a scene that describes our first encounter. 
             
  • It was early September, my first day of high school. Baseball tryouts were in February, so I figured I had plenty of time before I had to worry about dealing with Coach Kerchman. In first period homeroom, though, Mrs. Klinger handed me a note, ‘Be at my office 3 o’clock sharp.’ It was signed by Mr. K. The rest of the day was a blur. I couldn’t hold a conversation, I picked at my lunch, and every time I opened a book, my thoughts drifted. By five minutes to three, my stomach was in knots.
  •        Kerchman’s ‘office’ was located across from the boiler room, deep in the bowels of the ancient brick building. To get there, you had to walk past the showers and through the boy’s locker room. As I opened the stairwell door, I inhaled the steam from the shower, and above the hum and buzz of locker room banter and small talk, I heard the clackety-clack-clack of aluminum cleats hitting the cement floor. An entire bank of lockers was reserved for Angelo Labrizzi, Mickey Imbrianni, and Leon Cholakis, the football gladiators I’d been watching with envy for the past year. I’d seen them around school and at the State Diner jock table. But here in their domain, they possessed an undeniable aura. As far back as grade school, this was an exclusive, prestigious club I’d dreamed of belonging to ever since I was in junior high.
  • Though football would never be my sport, I’d fantasized that playing varsity baseball would offer many of the same privileges. I’d already witnessed these for myself: Adults—your own parents—as well as your friends, actually paid a half-a-buck to watch you play; cheer-leaders chant-ed your name (‘Steinberg, Steinberg, he’s our man, if he can’t do it no one can’), and they kicked their bare legs so high you could see their red silk panties. After school, you’d hold court at the jock table in the State Diner. You also got to wear a tan leather jacket with a big blue and red ‘R’ across the left breast, and your girlfriend would show off by wearing your letter sweater to school. Maybe the biggest ego-trip of all was when everybody watched with envy when you left sixth period Econ to go on ‘road trips.’
  •         I tried to push those thoughts out of my mind as I timidly knocked on Kerchman’s door. ‘It’s open,’ he rasped in a deep, gravely voice. The room was a ten-foot-square box, a glorified cubbyhole, smelling of Wintergreen, Merthiolate, and stale sweat sox. The brown cement floor was coated with dust and rotted out orange peels; and on all four sides were make-shift-two-by-four equipment bays which overflowed with old scuffed white helmets, broken red shoulder pads, torn blue and red jerseys, red padded pants, muddy cleats, and deflated footballs—all randomly piled on top of one another. 
  •        Mr. K stood under a bare light bulb wearing a blue baseball hat, white socks, and a jock strap. He was holding his sweatpants and chewing a plug of tobacco. 
  •         ‘You’re Stein-berg, right?’ He said my name, Stein-berg, slowly, enunciating and stretching out both syllables.
  •          ‘I don’t beat around the bush, Stein-berg. You’re here for one reason and one reason only. Because *Gail Sloane told me you were a reliable kid. What I’m looking for, Stein-berg, is an assistant football manager, and I’m willing to take a chance on you.’
  •         I’d forgotten about Gail. At that moment, I wanted to run out of the room and find a place to cry. Assistant football managers were glorified water boys; they did all the ‘shit work,’ everything from being stretcher-bearers to toting the equipment.   
  •         He sensed my disappointment and waited a beat while I tried to compose myself.
  • ‘Gail also tells me you’re a pitcher,’ he muttered, as he slipped into his sweatpants. Another tense beat. 
  • Finally, he said, ‘In February, you’ll get your chance to show me what you’ve got.’ 
  •        To make certain there was no misunderstanding, he added, ‘Just like everyone else.’
  • Then he paused again. ‘So, what’s it gonna' be, Stein-berg?’
  •         It had all happened too fast. My head was throbbing, my thoughts chaotic.
  •         In a trembling, uncertain voice, I told him I’d have to think about it and let him know tomorrow.

  • =============================================================
  •         *Gail Sloane was a neighbor who worked for Kerchman in the Guidance office at the
  •      Junior High where he taught. During the summer, over my objections, my father had 
  •      asked Gail to put in a word for me with the coach.  
      

Whenever I’ve had occasion to read that scene in public, I deliberately observe the facial expressions of some of the people in the audience—particularly, the women. A few will roll their eyes. Others will cross their arms. Some will even grimace. And who can blame them? So far as they’re concerned, it begins as just another high school baseball story, the kind of “bad old days” jock tale that their boyfriends or husbands have recited to them over and over again.
 
By the time I’ve finished reading, though, many in the audience, men and women alike, have figured out that the memoir really isn’t only about baseball. Baseball is mainly the context and setting for the boy’s  encounter with the coach. 

More important is that both audiences and readers are able to imagine what it’s like to be inside the mind of the narrator as he obsesses and agonizes over how badly he wants to make the team, while at the same time weighing the trade offs he’s inevitably going to have to make in order to fulfill his dream. 
     
As the older narrator looking back, I realize that I have to earn a reader/audience’s trust and empathy. Therefore, I must allow them access to the moment-to-moment turmoil  that’s running through the young boy’s mind.  

If I’m successful, sometimes the very same people who’d initially resisted the scene, will approach me after the reading and tell me about the humiliating experiences they’ve experienced with similar kinds of gatekeepers: punitive teachers, abusive parents, cruel or manipulative friends, for example. Not so long ago, one woman told me that the scene was reminiscent of her own teenage struggle with a harsh and demanding ballet teacher. 
    
That’s precisely the kind of response I’m hoping for.  I want the audience or reader to be inside the young boy’s skin, to the extent that they feel the humiliation and shame that he did.  And I want them to be inside his mind so they can comprehend why he chose to make this devil’s bargain with such a cruel and manipulative coach.  
     
Only by allowing them this access, can my story, as Patricia Hampl suggests, become their story. Had I written only the factual, “here’s what happened to me” part, how many people in that audience would have been able to make the kinds of personal connections and discoveries I just described? 

                             
Teaching Applications

I frequently tell my students that there are as many different reasons and impulses for writing a memoir as there are memoirists. Some write to tell their story, others to preserve a family history. Some want to reminisce, others write in hopes of discovering what the story means.  

Whatever their intent, no matter how young or old they are, I find myself urging them to go beyond and/or to probe beneath the literal story. As Vivian Gornick explains, “Every work {of literature} has both a situation and a story. The situation,” Gornick says, “is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that pre-occupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” Essayist/critic Laurie Stone phrases it another way.  “Too often,” Stone writes, “the writer mistakes his or her experience for a story, instead of looking for the story in the experience.” 
     
And so, I advise writers to think about a given memoir as having two stories: the story of the actual experience—the surface subject, the facts, the sequence of remembered events (what Gornick calls “the situation”)—and the story of their internal struggle to come to grips with what those facts and events might signify.     
     
I also pose to my students a series of questions, deliberately designed to get them thinking about why they’re telling this particular story, and why it matters enough to write it. 
    
How, I ask them, did this experience shape/change you? Was there anything important at stake? If so, what were the costs? And finally, what were you thinking/ feeling as you wrote the specific scenes? Hopefully, these will become part of their thought process as they compose their narratives.  
    
Gornick also says, “What happens to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”
     
It follows then, that memoirs can have more than one voice; there’s the voice that tells the literal story, and another, more reflective voice/persona that analyzes, comments, and speculates about the story’s meaning. The second voice is that of the adult narrator, the persona that Bill Roorbach calls “the writer at the desk, searching to discover what’s at stake in this story, and what the larger human implications might be.” Consequently, that voice is the one we’re more inclined to identify with and trust.   
             

The Inner Story in Personal Essays

Everything I’ve said about writing memoirs grows largely out of what I’ve learned from reading, teaching, and writing my own personal essays. Since many essayists are by nature, contemplative, reflective types, the essay is an ideal vehicle for their interior explorations.

As Scott Russell Sanders says, the essay works by “following the zigzag motions of the inquisitive mind.”  Phillip Lopate adds that an essay “allows you to ramble in a way that reflects the mind at work...in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.” And the late critic/memoirist, Alfred Kazin, maintains that “an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts,” he says, “but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.”
       
All three are suggesting that connections between writer and reader have less to do with an essay’s subject than with the writer’s inner struggle to make sense out of some nagging question, elusive idea, confusing experience, or perplexing situation.  
    
For example, let’s examine how Dagoberto Gilb crafts his very short personal essay, “Northeast Direct” in such a way as to facilitate this writer-to-reader connection. 
    
To summarize the essay, in the opening paragraph, Gilb, the narrator, boards an Amtrak train in Boston that’s headed to Grand Central Station in New York. Shortly afterwards, he spots a stranger reading a novel. Within a matter of minutes, he notices that the man in front of him is reading his latest novel. Naturally, he’s shocked and surprised—and, above all, intensely curious to know more about his reader.     
     
This subsequently triggers an inner confusion that causes Gilb to wonder if he ought not approach the stranger and inform him that he’s the author of the novel the man is reading. So for the remainder of the train ride, Gilb goes back and forth in his head, obsessing about how to handle this unlikely coincidence. 

Until he reaches Grand Central, Gilb self-consciously debates with himself about whether or not to tell his reader that he’s the author of the book. Hours later, when he gets off the train at Grand Central, Gilb trails his anonymous reader until deciding at the stairs leading to the street that it’s best if they each go their separate ways without disclosing anything to the man about being the novelist.     
    
That’s the obvious plot of the essay, what Vivian Gornick calls the “situation.” What makes this a compelling narrative is that for the entire journey, we’re privy to Gilb’s thoughts and feelings. We feel his confusions; we witness his observations; we follow his ruminations and speculations—both about himself and the guy who's reading his book. When the reader puts the book down, gets up to leave the car, comes back and picks the book up, we watch as Gilb sizes him up, while vacillating between wanting to disclose himself as the author, yet preferring, in the end, to remain anonymous.  
   
We also follow the twists and turns of our narrator’s thoughts as he experiences a variety of contradictory responses: self doubt, pride, insecurity, elation, confusion, disappointment, and relief. Given the situation, we recognize that these are all normal human responses. So much so that we probably wouldn’t trust Gilb if he didn’t react in this way. 
    
What makes this essay work, then, is the way in which Gilb, as narrator, enlists his readers’ empathy and then gets us to identify with his anxieties and inner struggles. It’s as if he’s saying, “Reader, what would you do if you were in my shoes?” 
    
Moreover, by using the incident on the train as a catalyst for his thoughts, and by confining those thoughts to a prescribed period of time (the duration of the train ride), he transparently allows his readers to understand and know him far more intimately than we would have if he'd written the literal story of his chance encounter. It’s the difference between a story told to friends at the bar and a well-crafted personal narrative by a writer who understands the form.   

*

In Scott Russell Sanders’s personal essay, “Cloud Crossing,” we encounter a narrator who, like Gilb, is thinking his way through a personal dilemma. The main difference is that Saunders’s persona is a more somber and contemplative human being.  
    
Like “Northeast Direct,” “Cloud Cover” is crafted as a journey—an interior exploration. Whereas Gilb uses the train ride from Boston to New York to structure and frame his essay, Sanders shapes “Cloud Cover” by inviting the reader along on his hike up and down the side of Hardesty Mountain. 
     
Carrying his son in a backpack, Sanders, as the narrator, observes the natural world around him: rocks, fossils, trees, and cloud formations. Each observation triggers a series of disjunctive thoughts and reactions, mainly tied to his confusions, guilts, and apprehensions about the future of the environment and the hazardous world his son is being born into. 
   
The piece opens with the narrator ruminating in part on the guilt he feels for spending too much time writing and not enough time with his infant son. This leads to a series of brooding, somewhat metaphysical meditations on time, mortality, and personal responsibility. In the midst of his soul-searching, Sanders decides to take the child with him on a hike up and down the side of a nearby Oregon mountain. 
     
In “Cloud Cover,” Sanders is trying to puzzle out some troubling personal issues, as well as ruminating on the larger implications of his thoughts. In the process, he expresses some dark apprehensions that he might otherwise not have encountered.  And we, the readers, understand his moody pessimism because we’ve been part and party to his inner journey.
      
In each essay. Gilb and Sanders have created structures and situations that act as catalysts for thought and reflection. As a result, both writers can range as freely and digressively as they wish, like jazz musicians riffing away from the melody line and then coming back to it. 


Final Thoughts on Teaching

In Judith Kitchen’s essay, “The End,” she writes, “The building of a process of thought is what interests the reader....The intimacy of the essay,” Kitchen maintains, “is a sharing of thought. We look as much for how an author approaches a subject as for the subject itself.” 
     
In the piece, Kitchen offers some sound writing advice. 
       “Here are five things,” she says that “my students deny themselves as their stories draw to a close: 

        —retrospection: a looking back, an assessment
        —intrusion: a stepping in, a commentary
        —meditation: a thinking through and around, finding a perspective
        —introspection: a self-examination, honest appraisal and discovery
        —imagination: (as distinct from invention) which allows for alternatives, projections, juxtapositions, whatever could provide a larger frame.

Kitchen claims her students “deny themselves” these opportunities. It’s a  generous, accurate phrasing of the matter. 
        I’ll add the following to her list: 
     
     —reflection: thinking things out, searching for meaning 
     —speculation: playing “what if ’’  
     —self-interrogation: asking the hard questions, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to 
     —projection: trying to predict what might happen
     —digression: allowing the mind to wander away from the subject  {some of the richest discoveries, I believe, are made through digressions}.  
      
The truth is that by nature and disposition all human beings are reactive creatures. That is, we’re always responding internally. In any situation or encounter, we probably couldn’t get through thirty seconds without experiencing most or all of the reactions listed above.  

*

No matter what the catalyst might be then—a teenager’s desperate need to impress a coach; a writer’s impulse to introduce himself to a stranger who’s reading his book; or a father’s guilt over not spending enough time with a child—the human mind and imagination never stop analyzing, asking why, and posing “what if” questions.
     
And so our charge as writing teachers is to keep urging would-be-writers to explore their internal thoughts, questions, and confusions more deeply, to interrogate their thinking more rigorously, to extend their ruminations and reflections outward, and, in the process, continue to search for ways of finding shape and meaning in those deliberations.      
     
As V.S. Pritchett says, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

This piece originally appeared in a slightly different 
form in the 2011 issue of Grist: The Journal For Writers.



Works Cited

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Woolf, Virginia. A Sketch of the Past. Quoted in “The Luminous Power of Words.” Bartkevicius, Jocelyn.  Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 3:2, (Fall, 2001).

Steinberg, Michael. “Trading Off,” The Missouri Review. XV11 (Spring, 1994).

Stone, Laurie, ed. Close to the Bone. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

Gilb, Dagoberto. “Northeast Direct,” The Threepenny Review , 67: (Fall, 1996).

Lopate, Phillip. “The Essay Lives On: In Disguise,” New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984.

Kazin, Alfred. Quoted in Heilker, Paul. The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form. Urbana, NCTE, 1996.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.” Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home. Boston: Beacon, 1991.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “Cloud Cover,” The North American Review, (1981).

Pritchett, V.S.  Quoted in Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story.




Michael Steinberg has written and edited five books. In 2004, Foreword Magazine chose Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir of the Year. Other titles include, Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From MichiganThose Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching, and The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Bob Root), now in a sixth edition. He’s also founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Steinberg has been a guest writer at many colleges and universities, as well as at several national and international writers’ conferences. Currently, he’s the creative nonfiction writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor Low Residency MFA program. 

Q&A

Q: Can you share a little about your current writing project? 
A: Currently, I’m working on three projects. I’m finishing up a collection of personal essay/memoirs loosely connected on the relationship between baseball and writing. I’m also part way into a midlife memoir, which seems to be turning into a sequel of Still Pitching, my earlier coming-of-age-memoir that came out in 2003. The third project is a collection of personal essays on/about selected craft issues in creative nonfiction. The essay you’re publishing is from that collection 

Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?
A: Its unexpected evolution. It began some years ago as a fifteen-minute AWP talk. Then, I revised it into a short (780 words) craft essay that was published in Fourth Genre  before expanding it again last year into the almost 4,000-word piece that you see here. What surprised me most was discovering, over time, how much more I had to say about this subject. 

Q: Writers often ask the question, How does one know a work is complete? You’ve provided invaluable checklists within this essay, but even then, I’m afraid many of us will mentally insist, “It’s all in there, I swear.” So how do you know, for example, when a piece is ready to submit for publishing  consideration? 
A: This answer is related in some ways to the previous one above. At Fourth Genre, we editors see a lot of very good pieces that are unfinished.That is, they’re still missing something. It’s hard for us to know what that something is. Often, the problem is in the structure. As a writer, I’ve also come to recognize that what I originally thought were my best pieces—that is, when I first sent them out—simply weren’t finished. So, I got into the habit of not looking at my rejected work for a while. When I pulled them out to reread and revise, I immediately recognized what was missing. Again, it was usually a problem with structure. My point is that six months or a year later, you have more emotional distance from the work. And, as a writer and reader, you also have more experience wrestling with matters of craft.

Q: If we were to lock you in a room for a single hour with a writer of your choice, who would that writer be, and why?
A: Patricia Hampl. In the mid-90’s, when I was beginning to read about and write literary nonfiction, particularly memoir, I came across Hampl’s essay, “Memory and Imagination.” At that time, memoir wasn’t taken very seriously as a “literary” form. By which I mean that the literary writer’s impulse is to transpose and transform human experience into art. And that’s what I wanted to do in my own memoirs. During the 90’s, though, we were just beginning to debate the “literal truth” issue in memoir. So, Hampl’s notion that imagination alters, even rearranges, our memory gave me permission to use my imagination more freely in composing my memoirs.