Tag Archives: Lee Martin

Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

Lee Martin, speaking at Otterbein University on April 9, 2013

“Write what you don’t know”: Lee Martin, speaking to my class at Otterbein University, April 9, 2013.

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

I’m trying to learn from Lee Martin whenever and however I can, as a writer and teacher. I haven’t yet made it to his celebrated fiction—one of his novels was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—but I’ve read just about all of his nonfiction. His recent collection of linked memoir essays, Such a Life, is on my creative nonfiction favorites page, but it’s also on my private list of touchstone artistic works. Yes, it’s that good.

Such a Life is my personal textbook on how to write stand-alone memoir and personal essays. That’s how I’ve been using it this semester, in fact, as a textbook, reading it for the third or fourth time with a group of twenty junior and senior college students. The kids love the book, are fascinated by its stories, which are about Martin’s tumultuous growing up years and his middle-aged dilemmas, and some mix those two time periods. I pat myself on the back for choosing Such a Life and for starting my students off with its “Never Thirteen,” one of the most beautiful and affecting essays I’ve ever read, about Martin’s relationship with his first girlfriend. After reading that essay, my students were hooked. They’re still close to their first crushes, after all, and they found Martin’s depiction of the tenderness of the young sweethearts, set against the sour adults around them, thrilling and surprising. I think they’d never read anything like it.

Just as some fiction writers say they’ve typed up Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn to write, one of these days I’m going to type up “Never Thirteen.” Having already reviewed the book, I won’t go into more detail about Such a Life here, except to say that Martin is a master at exploiting the enriching advantages of the memoiristic dual narrator—him “then” as a character in the action, him “now” stepping in to comment—and at writing essays that, simply put, are interesting. When he graciously came to my class last night to speak with my students, in answer to one’s question about how he knows his family stories will be interesting to anyone else, Martin said, “If it interests me, I figure it will interest someone else.”

But that’s the end of his long answer and therefore misleading. He told my class he works on an essay for about three months on average; he’s exploring, discovering the whole time, working without a net, no outline (though he plotted during his long apprenticeship); when he writes he doesn’t picture a reader he’s confessing to or entertaining but feels he’s having a conversation with himself, with the different parts of himself. In this regard, one of my favorite quotes about nonfiction comes from him, writing on his excellent blog:

In an essay, I’m always interested in the opening to see what the writer wants me to pay particular attention to, and often that ends up being the layers of the persona which are in conflict with one another.

All semester, my students have been fascinated by Martin’s openness, by his willingness to reveal things that make himself look bad, and a couple asked about that last night. He pointed out that that’s his past self, that we all have faults and have made mistakes. When you portray other people in nonfiction, he said, you are inescapably going to write about their faults, so you’d better write about your own. Besides, he said, he forgives his younger self, or at least views him with some wisdom, from time and age. He writes about what perplexes and bugs him, past and present, testing possibilities and moving toward an understanding he didn’t have. “Write what you don’t know,” he told my students. A good example is Martin’s essay in The Sun, “No Ears Have Heard,” which was spurred by an incident Martin witnessed while waiting to check out at Wal-Mart and grew into an evocative portrayal of the hidden burdens people carry.

Martin told me that it took him twelve years after earning his MFA to pull all elements of craft together and to grasp the intangibles. Where does he stand in a fictional piece with a first-person narrator? How can he view life with Flannery O’Connor’s “anagogical vision,” which means seeing “different levels of reality in one image or one situation”? He said Richard Ford’s famous short story collection Rock Springs helped him find and free his voice. And along the way he learned with help from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction that a story is not just about a conflict or its resolution but about something else that, by the end, is rising. Call it implication, perhaps, in part. Martin’s persistence and study resulted in his first book, a collection of short stories, The Least You Need to Know.

As he explains in his most recent blog post:

This writing business takes a thick skin, persistence, a willingness to fail, to listen to why I failed, to figure out a way to not fail again while at the same time accepting that I will. Developing as a writer takes an intelligence, an ability to look at one’s work as if you’re not the one who wrote it, an acceptance that there are other writers who know more than you do, who are more talented, who are farther along. Steal from them whenever you can.

• • •

It took me six years to begin to answer these questions for myself:

1. From what world do I wish to speak? (the small towns and farming communities of my native Midwest)

2. What’s my material? What am I obsessed with? (issues of violence and redemption, the consequences of deceit and betrayal, the blending of the moral and the profane)

3. How is the person, Lee Martin, connected to the writer, Lee Martin? (I spent my adolescence balanced on the thin line between my mother’s compassion and my father’s cruelty; it finally struck me that everything I wrote was in some way an attempt to navigate that boundary.)

Lee Martin makes a point.

Persistence, acceptance, humility: Lee Martin makes a point.

I asked my students what they thought of Lee Martin after meeting him in person rather than just through the page. “He’s so soft-spoken,” one said—a few may have been concerned, after the darkness of some of his stories—“but he’s funny!” Yes, they agreed, he’s funny. He’s a lifelong teacher, and by all accounts a great one, so I must’ve expected humor to be part of his quiver of tools. Beyond that, he was funny like a Zen master is funny, which seems to involve laughing through well-dried tears. But they saw that too, my students.

The medium was, in the end, the message. Isn’t it always? Martin revealed himself in tangible and intangible ways—through his craft advice, his candor, and his persona, at once crafty, wry, and sincere. Through great effort, he’s made himself into an artist. Maybe that’s no more rare or precious than becoming a successful businessman or “learning to think like a lawyer,” though of course to me it is. And it was to a classroom of students, here at Otterbein University, who’ve been touched by his art.

Advertisements

16 Comments

Filed under essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, teaching, education

My top 12 books of 2012

From 30 finalists, a dozen memoirs, novels, how-to & history.

Bookstore in Mainex

While reading sixty-something books—those re-read I listed and counted again—I picked thirty favorites. I’ve now winnowed them to my top twelve. They’re listed here in the order I read them.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Black’s short stories are funny and wise. Readable from this collection on line is the fine “The Only Way Out is Through,” about a man trying to help his furious, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip; the story’s flash forward still thrills me. Another of my favorites is “Someday is Today,” based on the death of Black’s brother in law, in which a young single woman struggles to comfort her widowed sister and tries to help care for the couple’s three young girls. Review/Author Interview.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Crews depicts his life from age five to ten, the son of destitute sharecroppers in Georgia’s coastal plain during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Crews masterfully employs both his child and adult perspectives. Reviewed.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. This 2005 Pulitzer finalist is about the suffering and deaths among a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, is a poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is steeped in border culture. He exhaustively researched and fully imagined this tragic incident, producing a powerful and important book that soars lyrically and inhabits shifting points of view. Reviewed.

Such a Life by Lee Martin. These linked memoir essays are deliciously readable and inspiring—see him turn his life into art! And in Ohio, no less. My favorite essay, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures the sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them. He’s a master at moving between himself then and himself now. Review/Author Interview.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Impressively Woolf opens her wondering mind and wandering body to us. This book-length essay is always transparent and never didactic: surprisingly, she embeds most of her inquiry into sexism in scene. Her riff on what-if-Shakespeare-had-a-sister is witty and poignant, and the book peaks in conclusion with a Rilke-worthy mystical vision of the sexes’ ultimate unity.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. A blockbuster bestselling memoir I adored—my favorite memoir of 2012. For me it was a very comfortable book to slip into, and it also inspired me as a writer. I read it completely twice and its prologue about six times. Sales figures indicate I’m not the book’s only admirer—and Oprah even revived her book club with it. Reviewed.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Better late than never I read this masterpiece from 1985, and I’m still reeling from the prose, the story. It’s a bloody western, a historical novel, a revisionist history, an overly dark view of humanity, a master class in narrative technique. You don’t “like” this novel any more than you “like” Everest. You love it or hate it, but you must bow down before its grandeur.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. How to foster and feed and practice the writing mind that makes sentences lies at the heart of this hymn to prose style. Klinkenborg’s method is to gut it out, one sentence at a time. I was stirred by his hard-edged honesty about how hard it is to think. That is, to write. Reviewed. Another fine how-to book among my thirty finalists is Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball. A compelling story, beautifully written, about a young couple’s first year as full-time farmers. My desire to call attention to this fine memoir may be why it edged out on the top twelve list Philip Roth’s strong 1996 memoir about his father, Patrimony.

Canada by Richard Ford. In my favorite novel of the year, action is seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, though technically—and memoiristically—it’s narrated by his adult self. The story is how his middle-class parents committed a crime that wrecked their family and shattered his and his twin sister’s lives; it begins in Montana and moves to Canada, where the boy ends up, alone, living a Dickensian existence. A short third act is told purely from his perspective at age sixty. Reviewed.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Like Canada narrated technically by a middle-aged man about and from the viewpoint of his teenage self, this winner of the National Book Award for fiction is set on a high plains Native American reservation. A woman, a tribal record-keeper, is raped and brutally beaten, and her thirteen-year-old son sets out to solve the crime, as does his father, a tribal judge. It’s a detective story, a whodunit with high stakes, as well as a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of ongoing racial injustice. I also admired Kevin Powers’s celebrated novel of the Iraq War and its aftermath for one soldier, The Yellow Birds, which The New York Times has named one of the top five novels of 2012.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Millard depicts the shooting and lingering deathbed agonies of President James Garfield—killed by doctors who didn’t yet believe in European germ theory. Born to dire poverty in Ohio, Garfield was leading a college at age twenty-six; entering the U.S. senate to fill an open seat, he soon rose to the rank of general in the Civil War, and after the war was drafted as a presidential candidate against his will. Millard’s book, a carefully crafted narrative, is still history and harder reading than memoirs or fiction, but worth the effort to feel an America being swept into modernity as its physical frontiers shrink. Garfield was not only smart, he was good to the core, and Millard’s portrait of his noble character and his needless suffering is humbling and inspiring.

11 Comments

Filed under reading, REVIEW

A new manual for flash nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore. Rose Metal Press, 179 pp.

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well
C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

—Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell (Teenage Wedding)”

When I was in school I hated creative writing exercises. They were just diversions from what I wanted to write. Now that I’m a teacher I see their great value and wish more teachers had made me use them. They surprise the planning mind, which may be cunning but struggles to soar. So for my classes now I peruse my growing file of other teachers’ exercises or hunt inside Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis.

Before a prompt I like to play a catchy story song—for instruction and inspiration—because songs are so structural and so compressed (I make sure the students are holding a printout of the lyrics in their hands as they listen).

Now comes Dinty W. Moore with more helpful prompts in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. It joins the Press’s guide to flash fiction, a genre that, Moore notes, stimulated short nonfiction efforts as it expanded in the 1980s. In his helpful historical overview Moore defines concise creative nonfiction as that of up to 2,000 words, though most is much shorter, 500 to 1,000, and 750 is the upper limit he’s set for his own journal, Brevity. His new guide features exercises, thoughts, and tips by masters such as Lia Purpura, Lee Martin, and Sue William Silverman, as well as their own published essays.

Here’s Purpura’s twist on the usual read-aloud advice:

I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different than the environment in which they were initially drafted. In this way, I reconstitute the sense of essay-as-letter, even if it’s addressed only to myself and is in its infancy. Take an essay you’ve been working on and read it aloud to yourself in a fresh place. Reading in the car at a red light allows for an urgency of hearing, and a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of intimacy created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter feel different, too: almost chatty, in a private, slightly secretive kind of way.

As a writer I’ve found concise essays fascinating and challenging. They lend themselves to at least starting with prompts. In their imperative to make every word count, they underscore the affinity between poetry and creative nonfiction. Like great songs they often begin in media res and set in motion whole worlds in readers’ minds. While pulling off a publishable piece is as hard as for any form, they foster a freer and freeing approach. Writing that feels like cheating? That lightens one’s heart? Give me more.

And for anyone, success is apt to start in low-stakes exercises like those in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. You never can tell.

14 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-concise, experimental, fiction, freewriting, MFA, NOTED, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method

An essay of the empty nest

My “Wild Ducks,” a braided memoir essay, appears in River Teeth.

My daughter Claire, at eleven, sledding with her puppy Jack, two players in the essay.

The past few years, working on my memoir of farming in Appalachia, I’ve generated tons of material—twice, 500 pages—and have spun some passages into stand-alone pieces. The published ones include an essay on my hired hand who died; another about a legendary pond-builder with a tragic secret; one about the historic first meeting of my future wife and my father; yet another about my father’s return to farming in retirement and his decline and death.

When I first began adapting essays from the memoir, I noticed I had some vivid fragments of our kids growing up on our farm with animals. I liked the vignettes, chained them together, and told myself I’d written a postmodern collage. Here’s an excerpt from one, about hatching some wild mallards in an incubator:

      Claire and Tom and I watched the ducklings hatch. Wriggling like wet seals from the rocks, they emerged from their brittle cocoons. These were some sweet ducklings—literally: they smelled like maple syrup. I’d misted the eggs daily with water during incubation, using a recycled syrup bottle as a makeshift sprayer, and the incubator’s warmth had reconstituted a residue. The sugary scent had passed through the eggshells and coated the ducklings. All seven hatched, and when the black-and-yellow brood huddled in our children’s laps, the room filled with the smell of Sunday morning flapjacks.

In a more pensive scene I reflect upon a photo I took of our kids with a lamb that same spring. It was our first lambing, everything had gone wrong, and I felt I’d stopped getting the work-life balance right to boot:

Tom, nine, sits cross-legged and tries to smile, his mouth pressed into a downward line that bunches his pink cheeks. He wears a blue tee shirt with white bands, and he must have been in a growth spurt because his canvas pants ride up his legs. Tom scratches at his neck with his left hand—he’s bothered by his long hair, which forms a dark blond helmet on his head and hangs down his neck and in his eyes. His little face peers out as if from under a haystack. Our Saturday barbershop ritual has dissolved here, a casualty of house construction and farm busyness and new school routines and the unpredictable weekend hours of Appalachian barbers.

When I waved the kids into place that day for their portrait with a lamb, I wanted to capture a culmination, and I suppose I did. But now I can’t look at the photograph in its cherry frame on my desk without seeing something else. . . .

Editors I sent that essay to, the first version of “Wild Ducks,” schooled me with rejections. Apparently it didn’t work. And yet some of the rejections, weirdly for that genre, were complimentary and encouraging. I concluded the passages were fine but needed unifying, needed something more. I hadn’t a clue what, so I put the piece aside.

Then one morning the summer before last, as I was slaving away on a rewrite of the memoir, I began to tell a new story, about when my wife, Kathy, and I took Claire off to college in Chicago. The account, or much of it, was played for humor. How Claire was angered by our overbearing emotion; how my wife and I melted down differently, and at different times, locations, and rates, as we sent our first born over that threshold of adulthood; how I lost the ability to walk after our farewell restaurant meal—an allergic reaction to MSG—and how Kathy, lost in her own grief, ignored my crisis in our motel room.

I had it! The through-story. The foreground thread I needed to hang the baubles upon. It would be a braided essay, a structure I’d grown fond of unto obsession.

I’d read a neat essay by Heather Sellers, in a 2009 Writers Digest, extolling the form (and later I read her own braided essay she’d adapted from her fine memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know). The problem with many essays, Sellers said, is that they’re only telling one story and that’s boring. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing. Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.” (For more, see my post on her explanation.)

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

Braiding is just telling two stories (or more: see my post on how “Our Secret” by Susan Griffin employs three) by alternating between one in the foreground and one unspooling farther in the past. The structure is used in so many novels, narrative nonfiction accounts, memoirs, and movies because it works. A great example is Sean Penn’s movie based on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. The foreground story starts with the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, establishing his camp in the Alaskan bush; the movie alternates with scenes of the people he met on the way to getting there. The backstory is incredibly moving because even though we know where he ended up it shows how and why, and because we watch him turn his back repeatedly on love and hearth in favor of the spiritually purifying quest we’re watching, in the foreground story, slowly kill him. In fact, the backstory is more compelling than the wilderness thread, even though we know it’s “over,” in the past, because it’s populated with people and complex emotions.

I cast my foreground story in “Wild Ducks,” taking Claire to college, in present tense because I liked its immediacy. I liked too how present tense set the foreground events off from the past-tense thread of her growing up on the farm. Here’s the end of the essay’s opening passage, set on Claire’s campus in Chicago (which is followed by a line break and that story of the ducks we hatched):

      Outside Claire’s dormitory we perch on a bench in a patio’s nook. Coneflowers hang in the warm air around us like pink shuttlecocks; a fat bumblebee clings to the brown button eye of one wavering blossom. Kathy reviews the use of debit cards and fumbles a speech about making the most of one’s college years. Claire glances toward her stone dormitory. “Kathy,” I say, “if we don’t leave, she can’t miss us.” I hug Claire, then Kathy does, holding on longer. She pats Claire’s shoulder. “Call us she says,” turning away as her face swells with emotion. She’s looking in her purse for a tissue.

Claire stares at Kathy’s lowered head and throws out her arms in theatrical frustration. Parental emotion, especially her mother’s, is too heavy to lug into her new life.

I’d forgotten I’d sent “Wild Ducks” to River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative—they’d had it for about nine months—and when one of the editors, Joe Mackall, called me I was stunned. “It’s like E.B. White meets . . .” and he named two other writers, but I was too flummoxed to follow. “Regret runs like a thread through it,” he added. Or something. I was babbling my thanks.

Writer friends had worked me over for “Wild Ducks” good and hard since I’d sent it off so happily to River Teeth. One felt it wasn’t reflective enough, and she had a point—but now it was too late for a major recasting, just some tweaking. Another said I acted like a “big baby” in the MSG scene; but I’d inflicted the whole manuscript on her, and since she didn’t like my anxious persona, that scene late in the book of my flopping around and bleating for help apparently was the last straw. I disagreed: I couldn’t walk and was truly alarmed, plus I was playing the scene for humor. But I felt another scene, since cut from the book, where I tease Kathy seemed puerile. It was, however, an accurate depiction of my sometimes childish sense of humor. Truth in nonfiction!

Anyway, I’m thrilled to be in River Teeth. My fellow contributors include two writers I admire: author of The House of Sand and Fog Andre Dubus III, who writes about his surprise and vulnerability when he was confronted by people pained by his perceptions or by their family secrets being aired in his gripping and gritty memoir, Townie; and Lee Martin, novelist and memoirist, recently interviewed on this blog, who in “Selling Out in the Writing of Memoir” likewise explores hurting peoples’ feelings.

My own second-guessing aside, I’m mostly pleased with my essay, now available on Scribd, where I’ve posted some other memoir excerpts, even if neither Kathy nor Claire can bear to read it. For better or worse, a writer comes to regard with a cooler eye his raw material—the upsetting event, the nagging memory, the painful emotion—that he shapes into story. And he assumes the narrative’s other actors share his clinical view. They don’t; they can’t. My experience was not theirs, yet it triggers and perhaps threatens theirs.

I’m glad I memorialized that trip we took years ago with Claire. I made meaning from it, distilled something clear and hard from the murk of memory. And now I also have that day when I finally figured out, with a yelp of joy, how to tell the story.

33 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, film/photography, humor, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, structure

Klinkenborg’s hymn to prose

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s long poem celebrates short sentences.

The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Back Bay Books, 224 pp.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Veryln Klinkenborg. Knopf, 224 pp.

“You’ll make long sentences again, but they’ll be short sentences at heart,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing. Is that wise and poetic or opaque and unhelpful? This passage from Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, 2003, may show what he means:

The Fourth of July steals over a small town daydreaming the summer away. A young boy rides his bicycle in a serpentine pattern down the middle of a dusty street. Blue sky divides a broken pavement of clouds. The road out of town seems to stretch farther than usual before it fades out of sight between fields of corn or soybeans, alfalfa, or cotton. Near a railroad siding, the silence of noon is broken by the sound of a mechanic’s hammer ringing against steel in the darkness of a repair shop. An old horse sleeps in a small corral behind the drive-in. The mail fails to arrive. A firecracker goes off in the alley.

It’s hard to believe that such towns still exist. Harder still to realize how many of them there are, once you leave behind the cities and the suburbs and the unincorporated sprawl and break out into the open. But in those towns the Fourth seems to come into its own, whether it’s a hamlet like Texas, Ohio, little more than a bait shop on the north bank of the Maumee River, or a place like Lander, Wyoming, where the Fourth goes off like the crack of doom.

Here and everywhere in this book Klinkenborg showcases his spare declarative chops. Just when you think he’s risking syntactical repetition, he shifts. (As he says in Several Short Sentences About Writing, “Variation [in length and in structure] is the life of prose . . .”)

My wife gave me The Rural Life, and I avoided reading it for a year or two. I assumed it was another of those “I-live-on-a-farm-and-grew-a-tomato—aren’t I cute?” books. How mistaken I was. The book is organized by months, a new chapter for each. His activities and observations are shaped by the seasons. There’s a pleasurable lack of connective tissue; sometimes we gather that he’s traveled with his horses from the East, where he lives on a farm, to the West, where he rides and looks.

He’s in high reporter mode, his beat anywhere humans and nature intersect. There’s a somber, wistful meditation on America’s 1969 manned lunar landing. The Rural Life is no Norman Rockwell portrait: he views America as venal towards the land and rural folk. He employs metaphors and words that emotionally characterize: a berry is “mordant pink,” headlights cast a “nullifying glare,” a “predatory” snow falls “clumsily,” and another is “fox-deep.” His vignettes are precise, the result of looking at nature closely and of looking things up, the types of clouds and the parts of plants:

Along every road, every path, a fringe of opulent grasses grew, ligules shading into lacquered purple, blades into the blue of dusk, awns into an almost roanlike coloration. In the waste clearings grew foxtail barley—supple, iridescent. Sagebrush rose along the fence lines in sharp-scented thunderheads. South of Sheridan, near Ucross, the hayfields are edged with sloughs, and in uncut pastures, yellow-headed blackbirds hovered momentarily before settling onto grass heads that dipped slowly beneath their weight. A buckskin horse at liberty in one of the unmowed fields showed only his back and ears, an island of contentment.

From the time the dew dried in midmorning until full dark, the windrowers moved across the fields, following the curves of the creek bottoms and the sidehills, laying the grass out in narrow rows like the isobars on a weather map. The balers followed once the grass had dried, and for a few days birds gathered on the tops of the round bales lying in the fields, looking out over a terrain that had lost much of its softness.

One might call his writing in The Rural Life not just declarative and spare but lyrical and shyly romantic. We use terms like lyrical loosely. What I presume we mean is prose about the world’s beauty in which we sense the writer’s feelings: grass blades that carry the “blue of dusk” and how harvest changes a hayfield from soft to bristly. And it’s romantic to say a town “daydreams the summer away.” Yet we assume or intuit emotion and outlook and personality from what’s on the page. Klinkenborg doesn’t tell you what he’s feeling or ask you to share it; overt emotion is restrained. So is his persona—like Joan Didion whom he admires, he’s cool. He bares his intellect, not his soul. But the content and the shape of his prose say something else is going on, too, in a way reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. In all that buried feeling, a love for the green earth.

You may wonder, Who notices what he notices? How can I? His periodic columns in the Times are surprisingly diverse; in some of them his persona is warmer. Appreciations of John Updike and Jacob Riis and David Foster Wallace and John Lennon—and Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling. Meditations on e-reading and iTunes and writing on computers and overly polite female student writers—and Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson. Thoughtful and generous, his concise essays are models of precision, of how to distill an elixir from the slurry that overflows your ever-noticing heart.

Like all good writing, his makes you want to be more awake. Not just to write better but to live better. How to foster this quality of mind, the writing mind, lies at the heart of Several Short Sentences About Writing. As the epigraphs I’ve used show, his writing advice is presented like poetry. Technically it is poetry because often he’s controlling the length of his lines. This compulsively readable declarative poem runs for 149 of the book’s 204 pages, the balance being examples of prose, good and bad, and concise commentary. Here are some of his gnomic stanzas that interested me:

If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.

But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,

And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice

In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. . . .

Is it possible to practice noticing?

I think so.

But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning

And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.

Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world,

Rather than siphoning the world into you

In order to transmute it into words.

. . .

The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply,

And writing by implication should be one of your goals.

Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you . . .

 

Try making prose with a poetic seriousness about its tools—

Rhythm, twists of language, the capacity to show the reader

What lies beyond expression,

But with the gaits of prose and a plainness in reserve

That poetry rarely possesses, an exalted plainness.

Implication seems to be an aspect of writing that’s hardly ever discussed. Eudora Welty commented on it in One Writer’s Beginnings, discussing one of her stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude. Welty writes, “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication.” (Lee Martin has an astute recent post  on his blog about implication.)

As with any advice, in the crucible of your practice you must test the utility for yourself of  Klinkenborg’s opinions—he calls them “conclusions, not assumptions.” But he urges wariness about all dogma, even his. Contrary to so many process-based writing theorists, including the influential Peter Elbow, he says the creative and critical functions occur simultaneously. Elbow calls writing this way “the dangerous method” because it invokes the mind’s editor at the same time as it asks for creation.

Klinkenborg isn’t buying it:

Revise at the point of composition.

Compose at the point of revision.

Accept no provisional sentences.

Make no drafts

And no draft sentences.

Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can

Before you write it down and after.

Do the same for the next sentence

And right on through to the end.

Think of composition and revision as the same thing,

Different versions of thinking,

Philosophically indistinguishable.

Or as he said at Goucher College:

The critical and creative mind are not separate. I never write drafts. I write one good sentence to another. All writing is revision. The last piece you delete is the part you’ve been trying to save. You have no idea where you are going. I want to hear the voice of discovery. Writing is not cobbling things together. Every moment is an act of discovery.

See my previous post on him, “A Life Sentence.”

15 Comments

Filed under implication, REVIEW, style, syntax, working method

Review/Q&A: Lee Martin’s ‘Such a Life’

Stay in love with the journey.—Lee Martin

Such a Life by Lee Martin. University of Nebraska Press, 214 pp.

Lee Martin, an accomplished novelist, is also a master of life stories. His memoir From Our House focuses on his fraught relationship with his father, whose hands were mangled in a corn picker when Martin was a baby. Martin had been conceived accidentally to parents married late, his father thirty-eight and his mother forty-one, and his father had wanted to abort the pregnancy. Martin grew up in the wake of that impulse and of his father’s accident, suffering from the rage of a man with hooks instead of hands. As his father lashed him for misbehavior, a leather belt gripped in his pincers, Martin, a difficult boy, wailed in pain and terror, feeling abandoned by his meek mother.

The linked essays in Martin’s new collection Such a Life continue to explore his family, as well as his own adult life, at revealing yet ordinary moments. They show how people can love each other and constantly fail each other, how love can entwine with shame. This seems epitomized to me by how shy he and his father were with each other as they made up after beatings; each was ashamed of himself, the boy for being bad and provoking his father and the man for the rage he vented on the overly sensitive boy.

My favorite essay in Such a Life, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures such sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them.

An excerpt:

     That afternoon in Yankee Woods we stop on the trail, and there in the grove of trees, there in the dark, cool shade, she asks me if I have ever kissed a girl, and I’m so thankful for this moment—even now I remember with immense gratitude how she reached out and touched me, lightly on my forearm as if to say, It’s all right, whoever you are, it’s okay—that I can do nothing but tell her the truth, that I’m practically without experience; outside of a chaste kiss from my mother, my lips are virgin lips.

     “It’s not hard,” she says, and she steps closer. She gives me a shy smile. Her hair is thick and blonde and cut short, a la Mary Martin in South Pacific, and, like Nellie, Beth is kind and spirited, the girl next door and everyone’s friend, eager to be swept away by love. I can still see her in her white Oxford shirt, her blue culottes, her white sandals, her books cradled in the crook of her left arm. She lifts her chin, tilts her head to the side, and waits for me to take my cue. . . . 

     I don’t want my mother’s life to be mine. I don’t want to be old, not at thirteen. I don’t want to be unkissed. 

    “What about my nose?” I say to Beth. “Where do I put my nose?”

     I’m serious. It’s been a big concern of mine since seeing an episode on The Patty Duke Show in which Patty and a boy kept bumping noses when they kissed. I’m afraid that Beth will laugh at me, but she doesn’t. She explains patiently that she will tip her head to her right, and I will tip mine to my right, and everything will be fine.

The stakes are high because he has needed Beth’s kiss “since the first time my father whipped me with his belt and my mother did nothing to stop him.” And, in this aching puppy love, for the first time he becomes aware of his parents’ own loving intimacy: “[A]ll along their lovemaking had been present in the gentle way my mother touched my father when she undressed him, when she held a drinking glass so he could take it in his hook, when she shampooed and combed his hair.” There are flashes too in “Never Thirteen” of Martin’s own adult self, looking back ruefully and tenderly on his innocence and Beth’s.

Lee Martin, fiction writer, essayist, memoirist

There are other remarkable stories here, and they expanded my notion of how an essay could be used to capture and to reflect upon life. Martin is brave in his persona as well as likable, unafraid to show his own faults and fears as he encounters in boyhood a vicious bully, ponders an annoying neighbor as an adult, awkwardly tries to deal with his and his wife’s aging parents, and admits his regrets about his wife’s decision not to have children. His essays, with their candor, pathos, and wry humor, linger in the mind.

Many of the essays in Such a Life appeared first in literary journals, and some are available online. “Twan’t Much,” a concise essay about a lesson Martin learned, as a college student, from a poor coworker in a tire factory, appears in Brevity; Sweet published “Take, Eat,” about Martin’s mingled nostalgia and repugnance, as a vegan, for the farm food he grew up eating and about the difficulty he has in finding a decent meal on return visits to southern Illinois; The Sun offers an excerpt of “The Classified Ad,” about his efforts to help a woman find her brother, with whom Martin had fought as a boy; and Gulf Coast published “All Those Fathers That Night,” an innovative segmented essay about how a man, the father of six, killed himself in an alley beside the town’s barber shop, another haunting incident from Martin’s boyhood. In that essay, which closes the collection, Martin imagines the town’s fathers trying to grasp the tragedy; he misses his own father and imagines them reunited with nothing withheld between them, each his best self, each for once leaving nothing later to regret.

Martin writes about “All Those Fathers That Night” and creative nonfiction issues in an essay for Brevity. A creative writing teacher in the MFA program of Ohio State University, Martin writes about writing and teaching at his blog, The Least You Need to Know.

He answered some questions for Narrative:

Did you produce these essays as byproducts of other work, such as your two previous memoirs, or did they arise on their own, from questions that dogged you?

Richard, these essays were never parts of longer works. They were always meant to be discreet, stand-alone pieces, and, yes, they came from my attempt to respond to my life, focusing on matters that wouldn’t leave me alone over the past sixteen years or so.

You seem to have embraced fiction and nonfiction equally. How do you decide whether to explore something as a life story as opposed to in fiction, as a short story or novel?

When it seems important to me to claim the material as my own, I turn to nonfiction. I guess that means there’s something in the exploration of the material that seems important to my own development as a person. The nonfiction form allows me to announce that I’m using this material to think about something important to me. Of course, I often use fiction for the same purpose, but there’s something about the material for my novels and stories that doesn’t have that same urgent call to me. For whatever reason, it’s okay with me if no one ever knows where I am in that work.

With other material, though, such as the essays about my father, it’s crucial to me that I have the power of speaking directly about my own experience. Doing so helps me think about the complications of my life in a way that changes my relationship to them. I wrote a number of stories in my first book, THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW, that dealt with difficult relationships between fathers and sons. Even though I was obviously writing from the relationship I had with my own father, it was only after I wrote my first memoir, FROM OUR HOUSE, that I started to have any clarity about that relationship. Facing it directly was necessary for me to get beyond that experience.

I’m struck by the innovative structure and the everyday subjects of your essays, which epitomize to me the explosion of creativity and interest in creative nonfiction. How do you view this apparent surge in the genre?

One of the things that excites me about creative nonfiction is the elasticity of the form and how it can constantly reinvent itself. Even though I’m primarily interested in memoir and personal essay, I also write short, lyric pieces that appear in places like BREVITY, and I love sometimes immersing myself in voice and language and experiments with form just to see how all of that invites an expression of myself that I might not find in a more traditional essay form.

When you read memoir or personal essays, what are you looking for as a reader and as a writer?

As a reader, I’m looking for an emotional and intellectual connection to the material. As a writer, I’m hoping to be stunned, swept away, to the point that I say, “Damn, I wish I’d written this.” Then I take a hard look at how the writer was able to do what he or she did. In my teaching and my writing, I’m interested in how any artistic choice creates a specific effect. I’m interested in how those choices can be rethought if necessary. When I read other writers’ memoirs or personal essays, I’m looking for what I can learn, what I can borrow and put to use in my own work.

What lessons have you learned during the writing-reading-thinking process—whether in fiction or nonfiction—that have helped you the most?

When I started out as a fiction writer, I had to learn to trust my material, and I had to learn what my worldview was. The two things were linked for me. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Illinois, a farming community, and I spent too many years thinking, as young writers are apt to do, that no one was interested in reading about my world. Then I read the stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, who grew up not far from me in Mayfield, KY, and I saw that it was possible to write about the complicated lives of people who didn’t live in large cities. Richard Ford’s story collection, ROCK SPRINGS, was a big influence on me because, even though he was writing about the American West, I heard in his voice the voice I needed in order to access my material. When I applied that voice to my world, my view of how people interact began to come through. So I encourage students to write from the worlds that matter most to them and to listen to the sounds of those worlds.

You are known as a great teacher, and I’ve found the exercises for students on your blog very useful in the classroom. Are there some key points or lessons or ways of thinking that you try to give creative writing students by the time they graduate?

Thank you for that compliment, Richard. I suppose my answer to this question is partly contained in my answer to the one above—trust your material, write from the worlds that matter most to you, find the voice that best allows you to express your view of the way people bump up against one another—but I also try to impress on my students that writing is a life-long apprenticeship. Each piece we write demands we learn something new. We’re always in service to the craft, and we should stay focused on what brought us to writing in the first place—that love of the music language can make on the page.

I want my students to know that great disappointments and great victories await them, and that never changes no matter how long one’s career may be. Stay in love with the process, I tell them. Stay in love with the journey. Our obligation is to the piece we’re writing. The journey will take us to where we’re meant to be. Isak Dinesen said she wrote a little every day, without too much hope and without too much despair. That’s the approach I hope my students will embrace.

There’s another interview with Martin, by Dawn Haines, on the Brevity site.

9 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, memoir, MFA, REVIEW, teaching, education

Q&A: Gregory Orr on ‘The Blessing’

Orr has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones.—Booklist

The Blessing: A Memoir by Gregory Orr. Council Oak, 209 pages.

Gregory Orr’s The Blessing is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read. There are tons of good memoirs and more than a few great ones, but this one did it for me. It joins a select handful that thrilled me to my toes: Lee Martin’s From Our House, Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

In its subject, The Blessing is reminiscent of Darin Strauss’s fine memoir Half a Life—both authors caused a death when they were young—but The Blessing necessarily covers much more ground, involving as it does Orr’s family, especially his parents, on an extensive level. When Orr was twelve, he shot to death his eight-year-old brother Peter in a hunting accident. This horrific event shattered Orr; it may have shattered his parents, but it is hard for Orr to say, since they’d already lost another son, in a preventable household accident, and were troubled separately and together. They presumably also harbored their own guilt for both deaths.

Orr’s father, a charismatic and careless rural doctor, is a drinker, drug addict, and philanderer. He may be haunted by a tragedy that happened in his own childhood. In the wake of the family’s second boyhood death, if any comforting of Gregory Orr is to be done, it will have to come from Orr’s mother—but she fails to do so. He’s abandoned to intolerable and almost unbearable guilt and shame. Soon his father moves his family to Haiti, where they work with the poor, and there another tragedy befalls them. It’s yet another death that might have been prevented.

For all this, The Blessing isn’t accusatory, nor is it close to being ascore-settling expose. Late in the book, a fascinating stage opens when the teenage Orr, hoping to atone by serving penance, drives to Mississippi to help black Americans. It’s 1965, the year after the famous Freedom Summer, and overt law enforcement brutality has abated. Yet what happens to Orr, the humiliation and violence he suffers at the hands of state troopers and in a small-town jail, is hateful and shocking. And, in its coldly planned nature, evil. It all happens calculatedly behind the scenes after he’s arrested, and his account is the most moving and compelling I’ve read from the Civil Rights struggle.

The prose in The Blessing is spare without ever being jarring, evocative without being flowery. The book is concise, and broken into forty-five very short chapters, yet feels complete. Its structure appears straightforwardly chronological, with two exceptions, the second striking. After the shooting, discussed from the opening and which is shown occurring in the third chapter, the story flashes back to fill in family details. Then it moves forward to the eve of Orr’s departure for the South—but suddenly it flashes forward to show his nearly suicidal emotional state upon his return, before flashing back to show what happened. The Blessing concludes with Orr moving toward the art that might save him.

He became an esteemed poet, the author of some ten collections and also books of critical essays, the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships. He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded its MFA program in writing. I asked Orr some questions, below, followed by his answers.

Why did you write The Blessing?

I think I’m going to be answering this question later on. My wife had encouraged me to write it for many, many years. But I lacked the courage and only did so when I felt I needed to for my own survival. This had to do with my father’s illness around 1995. At the time of his diagnosis, he was told he wouldn’t live six months, though in fact he lived another five years in relative comfort. But our lives, my father’s and mine, were oddly entwined. We were opposite personality types—he a social extravert who loathed self-reflection (“navel-gazing” as he referred to it) and myself a brooder and shy introvert. I had my own traumas—my responsibility for a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve. But my father, otherwise so unlike me, had also, when he was about twelve, killed his best friend in an accident with a rifle. A bizarre and unnerving repetition across generations, further complicated by the (insoluble) question of why I was raised with guns in my childhood house. A tragedy, a mystery, a dark place in human brains or hearts. Who knows? But there we were—my father and I with the same burden or a similar one. I’d always hoped we could speak of this mystery and enter a mutual forgiveness pact of some sort, but my father wasn’t able to talk of his story and didn’t want me to talk of mine. Other than that, I think we loved each other a good deal—but that was a deep and unspeakable deadlock between us much of my life. When I knew he was dying and still wouldn’t speak of it, I got worried. I felt a need to untangle this thing between us before he died, because I didn’t want that guilt to weigh even heavier on me. I felt it I couldn’t talk it through with him, I needed to write it out and sort it out that way. And so, the book began.

When that need to communicate directly is balked in the world, as it so often is for so many reasons, then many of us turn to writing in order to relieve that need and also to understand ourselves and our world. How many memoirs must get written that way.

How did you decide on the book’s length and structure?

First, you’d need to know that I wrote it three times, so it varied as to what the length and structure would be. On the other hand, I think I knew pretty early on where the book would end. Shortly after I came back from working for the Civil Rights movement in the South and just before I returned to my sophomore year of college, my old high school librarian took me to visit the rural house and sculpture field of the recently-dead sculptor David Smith. The experience of those sculptures in that setting was pivotal for my sense of my life—until then I’d been drawn to political activism as well as writing, but after the trauma of my experiences in Mississippi and Alabama and the strangely moving positive experience of David Smith’s field, I knew that writing was going to be my main path. I wanted to end there. I also sensed that I needed/wanted to start with my brother’s death, in another field, when I was twelve and killed him in a hunting accident. I was very daunted by the idea of writing narrative, and so the idea of “framing” or structuring a book around two fields—a field of death and a field of the life of art (which moves beyond individual death)—that appealed to the lyric poet in me (we often make meanings bycreating imagistic “echoes”) and also reassured me that there would be some structure that I, as a poet, might be able to work with.

Did your voice and scenic technique develop, or were they as effortless as you make them appear?

That’s a joke, right? Remember the three (separate and complete) drafts mentioned above. What to say about technique? I do think that as a lyric poet I tend to take crucial moments in an implied narrative and dramatize them as vividly as possible. That may have led, in the memoir, to short chapters, concentrated events, and little commentary on the scene. I remember being very unsure of my descriptive technique and the rhythmic and sonic texture of sentences and paragraphs (as contrasted with the lines of a poem) and reading at random in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to saturate myself with someone who seemed to write a sensuous and observant prose that made for sinuous and interesting sentences. “Saturate” would be the right word—not an analytical thing, but an osmosis.

As an experienced poet, what did you learn about writing from The Blessing?

To be very respectful of prose writers for their descriptive skill, their ability to keep things moving, the whole art of story-telling in an extended narrative form. I never for a moment thought prose writing was easy, but there’s nothing like actually trying something for the first time to increase your respect for professional practitioners. I think I also learned that a lot of human experience is revealed more fully by following a thread (narrative thread, I guess) through time—that it takes much time and many different scenes to let certain major aspects of human experience accumulate their full power. Being a lyric poet, I’ve always wanted everything to be revealed in a single, crisis moment or a single focused dramatic encounter. Art (lyric art) can be like that, but life itself isn’t always that way. So, I guess I learned “patience” with a theme, letting a theme ease out a bit at a time. Patience is not an easily-acquired virtue or insight for lyric poets. We have very, very short attention spans.

How long did the memoir’s actual composition and editing take you?

I think it took about three years of sporadic work. Plus, I had been avoiding writing it for most of my life.

In writing so intimately about your family and about yourself, were you concerned about reactions to the book from friends or family, or about forfeiting your own privacy?

My own privacy didn’t concern me particularly, since I’ve written an autobiographical lyric for much of my life, so I am committed to the power and authenticity that can (theoretically) result from writing in that mode, writing about the incidents of your life and trying to wrestle them into meaning.

I began writing the memoir shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My whole life, I had hoped to talk with him about the early traumatic events, including my brother’s death. I had always imagined we might resolve some of that suffering in conversation, and I tried one last time after his diagnosis, but he was quite adamant that there was nothing he could or would speak about. I felt very uneasy about that stance. For one thing, I felt (irrationally) that my father and I were linked by my brother’s death and by the deeply uncanny fact that he had also killed someone in a hunting accident (his best friend) when he was around the age I was when I killed my brother. This unnerving fact was a kind of unbearable but also unshareable secret between us. No, I could speak of my experience but he couldn’t and wouldn’t speak about his. Which was his prerogative, but when his death approached, I panicked and felt I needed to try to tell the whole story out as I understood it, so as to untangle my identity from my father’s. I was afraid he’d take me to the grave with him. (That sounds a bit odd, but so be it). So, I began to tell the story so as to sort it out once and for all as best I could with what I knew and what I could learn. If you want to call that therapeutic, go ahead.

Of course, I worried about my family’s response, since the whole approach in my growing up was to hide the secrets and bear the shame of it all (whatever it was). There were complicated reactions from my family over time. My father lived long enough to see a draft of it, and was not happy about it, though in all other ways I think we parted with love, as best the two of us understood it at that time and in those circumstances. My siblings had understandably complicated responses, ranging from tears and gratitude to not speaking to me for several years as they worked through their feelings. The ethics of memoir is deeply complicated. I think I’d start by saying: I think everyone should have the right to tell our own story, the story of his or her own life. That said, things get complicated and concern for other people should be there also. The memoir of revenge isn’t very pretty, nor much of a gift to the world. What does Chekhov say: “compassion down to your fingertips?” That would be nice: compassion for others. But the lyric (poem or memoir) is also committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Were other memoirs helpful to you as models in writing The Blessing?

Steve Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind is a beautiful memoir and he told me he wrote it by thinking of the chapters as prose poems—I can’t remember if that was before or after my writing my own book, but it’s a wonderful way to think for a poet writing a memoir. Floyd Skloot has also written wonderfully in an autobiographical mode and he was very encouraging of me and to me—we first “met” through the mails when I had a year-long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and he wrote me with information, compassion, and a model of courage. I’m not as well read in the genre as I should be, though one of my favorite books ever is Maxim Gorki’s trilogy of autobiography/memoir: My Childhood, My Apprenticeship, My Universities.

Next: Gregory Orr on how memoir “connects the writer to the larger human community” and on memoir as therapeutic “lyric invitation.” Read Orr’s guest post here.

5 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, memoir, REVIEW, structure