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  • Editor’s Notes
  • Michael Steinberg

At a recent AWP conference, work that Fourth Genre favors. a writer asked me to describe the kind of It’s not the first time I’ve had to field that question. But it somehow tripped off the memory of a conversation that associate editors Sue Silverman, Marc Sheehan, and I had in 1999 just before our inaugural issue came out. We were exchanging philosophies and impressions about the genre in hopes of finding an appropriate subtitle for our new journal. Marc came up with Explorations in Nonfiction. And we agreed it was an apt, open-ended description of what we stood for.

In the intervening years, we’ve read thousands of submissions and we’ve published hundreds of essays. But even now, I still can’t offer a hard and fast definition of what characterizes the kind of writing we look for.

One thing is clear to me. Whatever theories or beliefs we as editors might hold, the contributions of the writers continue to inform our sense of the genre’s variety, range, and potential.

I say that because each reading period brings fresh approaches and unexpected surprises—new experiments in form, voice, narrative presence, and language. In short, explorations in nonfiction.

As a way of describing the pieces in this issue, I’ll begin by quoting from Robert Root’s interview with writer William deBuys. “Almost any object of contemplation can be [a] vehicle for . . . discovery,” deBuys says. He goes on to add the following:

One of the things I discovered as I was going along is a certain paradox:The exploration of the familiar can lead you to surprising new places and new discoveries as easily as—or maybe more easily than—exploration of the unfamiliar. The familiar can take you into unusual personal territory faster and more deeply than the exploration of what you never encountered. [End Page vii]

The interview happened to be the last manuscript I read before writing these notes. And what deBuys said made me want to reread all the pieces in this issue. When I examined the selections more closely, I found that the majority were indeed about “familiar” subjects and topics. But they were also about so much more than that.

For example, smoking cigarettes created a previously undiscovered link between Bonnie Jo Campbell and her now deceased mother-in-law; Mara Naselli’s examination of sparrow eggs in a decaying field led to a thoroughly researched personal-ethnographic study of the effects of environmental pollution; a daily commute on the Boston “T” served as a catalyst for John Sheehy’s meditation on self and identity; attending a fairy convention (okay, I admit this doesn’t quite fit under “familiar”) set off Leslie Patterson’s speculations on why she didn’t have children; reading certain literary novels led Betty Ruddy to an important discovery about her relationship with her own mother; Linda Barrows’s piece about canning beans for a state-fair competition opened up into a reflection about the need for and importance of community; Priscilla Long’s descriptions of an old bucket served to counterbalance her thoughts and fears about violence and war; Meghan MacNamara’s experience as a dedicated, competitive boxer taught her a hard-earned lesson about coping with a serious disability.

In addition, Lisa VanAuken, Karen Lee Boren, Sonya Huber, Sara Lippmann, and Joe Oestreich, respectively, write about subjects, situations, and relationships as varied as how learning to outwit an army of cockroaches led the author to discover some previously overlooked life strategies; how finding an old record album brought to the surface a series of mixed feelings and unresolved questions about a reprobate father; how an embedded poem on a bridge came to symbolize an internal struggle to find a spiritual center; how a granddaughter’s observations of her dying grandmother developed into an understanding of her family’s legacy; and finally, how a tough-minded survivor of a rare physical condition became the unlikely subject of an homage.

On another note—beginning with the Spring ’09 issue, David Cooper, who has been our coeditor since 2001, will move on to other projects and undertakings. I’m grateful for...


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pp. vii-ix
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