[box] Pure bliss is the only way I can describe the feeling when I get to thank the people who helped me in my career and life. So many people have shared and invested their time, wisdom, and expertise. Prior to starting this foundation, I spent most of my time tucked away in my office, writing. Then, without warning, something awful snuck up and polluted my creative ecosystem. The plug was suddenly pulled on my creative energy, and I hadn’t even completed my project. It was a ridiculous case of writers block! Desperate to get back the fire, I signed up for a class at Boston’s Pine Manor College MFA Program (founded by writer Dennis Lehane). The class was taught by a charming man named Michael Steinberg, who reviewed my writing, giggled at my frustrations and my plans, and told me that one of the “many” reasons my memoir wasn’t working “just yet” was—the end hadn’t taken place!
He told me to put my notebooks away and write something else for a while. He said that I couldn’t force my pages to fall into perfect alignment if I wanted any kind of authenticity, and that I could not cheat this project by crafting a quick (fictional) resolution. It was the hardest, most honest advice I ever got. I had to wait—patiently—for the story of my life to develop. To a control freak like me, this wasn’t easy. I nearly threw the manuscript off the cliffs of Zuma Beach. But I didn’t. Instead, I packed it away and fiddled with some lyrics, which eventually became songs, which inspired the founding of the Over My Shoulder Foundation.
It has been years since I looked at that manuscript. Last weekend, curiosity started to burn. I rummaged through the antique chest, that premature coffin to my thousands of pages of notes. A lot has happened since I last tried to write my ending, though. So now I’m searching for a completely different one, inspired by OMSF! Then, after dusting off the manuscript, a funny thing happened—I got an email from Mike. Since I started the Foundation, I have been begging him to share his story on our blog. And now, finally, ladies and gentleman, I am so pleased to introduce one of my most important mentors, Michael Steinberg!
—Dawn Carroll, Executive Director [/box]
We encounter our most influential mentors, it seems, when we’re ready to receive them. In my case, it happened shortly after I began teaching freshman composition. In the late 60’s, all comp teachers were required to plan their courses according to an outmoded, prescriptive syllabus, one that required teachers to assign their writing students to produce a series of papers. Among them were a narrative, a descriptive essay, an argument, an expository essay, a piece of literary analysis, and a final term paper based solely on library research. This methodology had been in place since the late nineteenth century. It is a narrow, wrong-headed view of what writing is all about. But back then, there was no other option.
Around that same time, I happened to come across a book, A Writer Teaches Writing, by Donald Murray, someone of whom I’d never heard. Murray’s book advocates an inside/out approach to teaching composition. I was immediately drawn to his philosophy. And it kick-started what would over time become my transformation from writing teacher to teaching writer.
Donald Murray was one of the first writing teachers in this country to suggest that the teaching of writing (and literature) had been, for far too long, the exclusive territory of professional critics, researchers, and literature teachers—many of whom, though they might admire writing and literature, do not themselves write.
We didn’t know it back then, but this was the beginning of what would evolve into both the writing process and teacher-as-writer movements. From the late 60’s to the early 90’s these movements changed the way that introductory college writing was taught. In addition, Murray’s work sparked a renewed interest in the teaching of the personal essay, which helped foster the rise of what we’re now calling creative or literary nonfiction.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Having abandoned my own literary aspirations, I believed that learning to write in prescriptive forms had hindered my own growth as a writer. I didn’t want to pass that approach on to my own students. So, with Murray’s book in hand, I converted my writing classes into workshops; and, as he suggested, I began writing personal essays—just like those I was requiring from my students.
For the next several years, I kept writing personal essays. I’ve come to realize that this form suits me—it came to me more naturally, more spontaneously, than either fiction or poetry did. For my writing and teaching, this was a significant break-though, a turning point, in fact. When I was growing up, fiction and poetry (and to some extent, drama) were considered to be the only legitimate forms of literary writing. And because I wasn’t much of a fiction writer or poet, I had convinced myself that I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer at all. But, in part because of Murray’s work, the personal essay is now considered to be a legitimate form of literature, and I was one of its earliest practitioners.
For several years, I’d run into Don Murray at conventions and conferences. When I’d ask him questions about writing and teaching, he was surprisingly receptive and enthusiastic. Knowing him well now, I believe that Don saw our dialogue as a lively give-and-take between two like-minded colleagues. Which is a flattering, generous way to describe our growing rapport. It was the kind of gesture that came naturally to him. But I knew better. To me, this wasn’t so much a meeting of minds as it was the beginning of a relationship between a mentor and a mentee.
I’d had a few mentors in the past. But what started out as a cooperative alliance often became a battle for power and control. These conflicts felt like petty skirmishes between brothers and sisters, rather than good mentorship.
With Don, it was just the opposite. He was, as all good mentors are, a permission giver, not a gatekeeper. I received nothing from him but encouragement and common sense advice. Once I complained to him about all the rejection slips my manuscripts were getting. His laughed and said, “Mike, the acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections. Just keep writing.” (It was something I didn’t fully understand until much later, when I became the editor of literary journal.)
When he passed away in 2006, Don and I had known each other for over thirty years. And even though my fortunes as a writer and teacher were on the rise, I still saw him as a mentor. Even today, I continue to be a strong advocate of his work. Curiously enough, by the late 90’s, several things he’d supported so passionately were just on the verge of fruition. The personal essay, for one, has become the aesthetic in composition classes, the same way that fiction and poetry are in creative writing classes. Moreover, dozens of creative writing classes and programs have placed literary nonfiction on par with the more traditional forms. And because teaching assistants in those programs often have to teach composition, they too have become more familiar with the essay. As a result, young teachers of writing are, as Don had always maintained, practicing writers themselves. Who’d a thunk it way back when?
Don Murray was the real thing. He talked the talk and walked the walk. Every so often, when I think of him, a specific passage from The Great Gatsby comes to mind. In describing his first encounter with Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s narrator says, “Gatsby concentrated on ‘you’ with an irresistible prejudice in your favor…. he believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that he had precisely the impression of you, that at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Don always had the knack of making me feel that way about myself. In return, the highest compliment I can pay him back is to acknowledge that I am not only a better teacher and writer because of his work, but I’m also a better human being from having known him.
As I’ve said though, I’m hardly the only one who feels this way. Don had a profound affect on so many teaching and writing careers. Were he here today though, I’m sure he’d disclaim it. But, this is, after all, a piece of creative nonfiction. Which means that I’ve got my version and he’s got his. And whatever he might or might not disclaim, it’s largely because of his influence that, today, in the latter stages of my career, I’m a teaching writer, a practicing essayist/memoirist, and an active contributor to the still evolving form of literary/creative nonfiction.
Our culture, our educational system included, too often rewards homogenous thinking, prescriptive formulas, and monkey-see, monkey-do tactics and strategies. Because of the standardized tests that rule our public school curricula, we seem to have re-entered the period in which I first encountered Don. Yet there are still innovative, independent thinkers out there. There are still writers and teachers who, like Donald Murray, want to change the existing landscape for the better.
I’ll miss his generosity of spirit, his encouragement, and his support of my writing. And, of course, the permission he gave me to take risks, both as a writer and a teacher. Now that I’ve become an elder myself, it’s my turn to be the kind of mentor to my students that he was to me.
[box]About the Author
Michael Steinberg has written and co-authored five books and a stage play. Still Pitching won the 2003 ForeWord Magazine /Independent Press Memoir of the Year. He’s founding editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. A co-edited anthology, The Fourth Genre, is now in a sixth edition. He’s currently writer-in-residence in the Solstice MFA program. [/box]