Today we are pleased to share that past contributor Lee Martin has recently released a book titled Telling Stories. The book is intended for anyone interested in thinking more about the elements of storytelling in short stories, novels, and memoirs.Telling Storiesis now available for purchase from University of Nebraska Press.
In the Land of “If’s” and “Buts”:The Art of Empathy
When I was five years old, I told Santa Claus I wanted a model airplane for Christmas. I meant the gas-powered kind that would actually fly. To my disappointment, what Santa, aka my parents, left for me on Christmas morning was a metal toy plane that I could push along on its rubber tires, and lift into the air, and fly along with my hand while making the engine noises. Not what I had in mind at all. I whined and pouted and had a little tantrum, and my father said to me, as he so often did in those days, but perhaps never quite as appropriately, “If ‘if’s’ and ‘buts’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
His point was, of course, that sometimes we don’t get what we want. Sometimes life disappoints us. Sometimes our loved ones do, too—our parents, our spouses, our friends, our siblings. The world has a way of diminishing joy, of threatening or harming, of leaving us fearful and angry. Life often falls short of what we want it to be.
Perhaps this has never been so true as now. It’s November when I write this, nearly two weeks past the election. Many of us are trying to make our way through a world that has drastically changed. Here at Ohio State University, where I teach, more than a thousand students—Muslim, Black, Latino, White, LGBT, and Asian—gathered at our multicultural center last night to express their fears and to share their stories of the threats they’ve endured since the election. Here on our campus, students have faced acts of racial, religious, cultural, and homophobic terrorism. They’ve been taunted with calls of “Build the wall,” and “Go back to Mexico.” They’ve been physically assaulted, threatened, and intimidated, even in their classrooms. A Black female student told the story of expressing a point in a class, and a White student responding to her by saying “It’s n—ers like you that are the problem in this country.” And the professor said nothing. At another university here in Columbus, a female student, out for an early-morning walk, was beaten by two young men wearing Trump shirts and hats. Needless to say, these are scary times. We woke up on November 9 with the stark realization that our world was going to be very different from the one in which we thought we were living.
I’ve seen the effects on the students in our MFA program. In fact, in my creative nonfiction workshop this week, a student-led writing activity brought up questions of the efficacy of our words. A number of students talked about not being able to write in the days after the election and questioning the purpose of their writing. One student said she wanted to be a writer so she could have an effect on the world. Don’t we all write because we want to make readers feel and/or think something? I told my students I’d hate to see what happened with the election silence them. I told them that we need all their voices, especially now.
It’s times like these that challenge us—times of uncertainty, times of struggle, times of fear. I’ve always believed that the act of writing is essentially an act of empathy. We do our best to understand the sources of others’ behaviors, to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s skin, to see the world from their perspective. When someone or something comes along that’s so distant from our own experience, our own viewpoint, we find ourselves sorely challenged indeed. We need to use that challenge to ask ourselves whether the people we are match up with the writers we are. Do we only empathize on the page, or do we empathize in real life?
I grew up in the rural Midwest. An examination of the election returns from the precincts in my native county shows me what I suspected. Not a single precinct went for Hillary Clinton in the recent election. Worse than that, Donald Trump won by huge margins in every single precinct. This grieves me, not only because I don’t agree with the result of the election, but also because it places me on the divide between my values and the values of the people in the place I still consider home. Here’s a truth we may not want to accept right now. There are good people everywhere, even people who voted for Donald Trump. Do I think they’re complicit in Trump’s racism, classism, misogyny? Yes, I do. After all, they empowered him. But I also know the good hearts of people, who for a variety of reasons, truly believed, when they cast their votes, they were doing the right thing.
I grew up among them. My father, a life-long Democrat, was a farmer. My mother, a Republican, was a grade-school teacher. I grew up in the lower middle class. I grew up in the flyover zone. When I was a boy, I stood in line with my parents on Saturdays to receive government commodities: powered milk, sorghum, flour. I knew early on that we had little privilege in the world. Yes, we were White, and I was male, and that was something, but we had no status when it came to our soico-economic class, or the place where we lived, or the jobs that we held, or the schools we attended. I was one of the lucky ones. I had parents who believed in education, and I had a mother who loved books, and who taught me to love them, too. The one privilege I had came from the power of language.
Which brings me to the question of how we’re to use that power. My students wonder if words can make a difference. Here’s what we learn as we age. The tough times will come. We won’t always get what we want. But we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, and no matter how dark things get, there will always be some measure of joy in the world. We may have to look for it in the small blessings of our everyday lives, but trust me, it’s there. And whether from the darkness or the light, we’ll keep making art. We have no choice. We’ve been called. We’ll keep telling our stories, writing our poems, our novels, our essays. Words matter. We know this better than anyone. In the land of “if’s” and “buts,” we can never have enough voices. Let the chorus rise up. Let it start now.
We’re proud to feature Lee Martin as our first Authors Talk series contributor, with his podcast “Here in the Heartland.”
“Here in the Heartland” is the very phrase that opens this short and poignant talk, and the “Heartland” here refers to the Midwest. It’s a bold descriptor that counters an all-too-familiar perception of the region as flyover country, while simultaneously positioning the Midwest as the crucial element in a discussion about the complexities of character. As a Michigan native myself, it’s refreshing – and pleasantly surprising – to consider home as a crucial element of anything.
The podcast seems almost a reflective microcosm of its author: Lee grew up in rural Illinois, his novel River of Heaven is set in Illinois, The Bright Forever in Indiana, and his thoughtfulness towards the hues of character recall any one of his published work; the fictional novel Break the Skin is even dedicated to one of its main characters.
In the podcast, Lee likens teasing out the beauty of the perpetually-unappreciated Midwest to finding the same subtle texture in a writer’s characters. It’s interesting, useful – and also quite beautiful. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
Lee Martin is the author of the novels The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need To Know. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.
For several years, we have featured audio or video of Superstition Review contributors reading their work. We’re now establishing a new series of podcasts called Authors Talk. The podcasts in this series take a broader scope and feature SR contributors discussing their own thoughts on writing, the creative process, and anything else they may want to share with listeners.
As a person who uses a wheelchair, there are a lot of strangers who take great pains to acknowledge my bravery. You know, for having the fortitude to keep on rollin’. I simply smile and thank them, and maybe laugh a little to myself. But the truth is, I want them to be right. Bravery, it would seem, ought to be pretty standard issue for a person who considers herself a writer of memoir.
The trouble is that I’m not brave. Even those days when a storm blows just loudly enough to remind me how cozy my home is—the kind of day that’s made for writing and sipping tea—I have to coax myself to the computer. I’m likely to invent some horrible task to occupy my time before finally settling down to work, like scraping out the cat’s litter box or, heaven help me, exercising. Over the years, instructors and peers have repeated the same chorus: “Get your butt in the chair and the writing will happen!” Well, pardon me, but my butt’s always in the chair.
Assuming the position of a dedicated writer doesn’t seem to be enough, at least for me. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I find writing almost never comes naturally. What does come naturally is fear. In fact, I fear everything I write is the stupidest, most boring thing anyone has ever written in the history of the universe.
That’s a pretty heavy load to bear. To be the one person who has written the stupidest thing in the whole universe.
Yeah. That was me. Nice to meet you.
So, what can be done? How can I combat this overwhelming sense that I’m not good enough, that I’m not as talented as so-and-so, that I’m revealing far too much of myself and should be ashamed of every admission I make on the page? Even this one.
Well, I don’t know exactly. What I do know is that I want that thing I had when I was 8, sitting cross-legged on the floor writing stories by hand in a black-and-white composition notebook. Filling pages without stopping to question a particular phrasing or the impact my words may or may not have on posterity. Sure, maybe I spelled ‘they’ with an ‘a’ instead of an ‘e,’ but at least I didn’t toss a story in the garbage just because a bathtub floating in an ocean filled with pirates seemed too ridiculous. I just wrote.
My older brother once told me he wanted to become a chef. When I asked him why he didn’t apply to a culinary institute, he said, “Because it’s just easier to go home at night and play video games.” And he was right. It takes bravery to face failing at something you really want. Unfortunately, my courage in writing seems to share an inverse relationship with my age.
The good news is that, over time, I think I’ve discovered that I can substitute bravery with an equal measure of faith. The faith necessary to continue writing what I know is no good. Such faith allows me to tack the word ‘yet’ to the end of that criticism.
My mentor, Lee Martin, always tells me to drown out the critical voices and to just have a conversation with myself on the page. This practice reminds me that it’s okay—possibly even really important—for my ambition to outweigh my talent. It’s okay to hate what I’ve written. I have to remember that I love writing and that what I really hate is feeling inadequate. It’s okay if I’m not that brave. I just have to have faith that underneath the rambling is the germ of an idea that at some point, with weeks and months of revision, might actually become something I’m proud to say I wrote.
I’ve noticed among my students an increasing affection for the lyric essay, a form that requires the writer to trust in leaps and associations as he or she works with what may seem to be disparate images, details, memories, etc. In the act of considering, the writer invites the reader to follow the sensibility that will eventually find a moment that resonates with the significance that these particulars generate when held next to one another. That juxtaposition actually makes possible a conversation between the particulars, a conversation that’s taking the writer and the reader to a place neither could have predicted when the essay began.
To invite the lyric impulse, I offer this brief writing activity. Our objective here is to get down to the bare bones of a short lyric essay, knowing that we’ll go back later and fill in the connective tissue, the meditation, etc.
1. Choose a particular detail that has lodged in your mind, anything from the world around you: a dandelion, a crack in your bedroom wall, the man who lives in the house on the corner. Write one statement about this object or person. Perhaps it begins with the words, “I see it (or him or her) for the first time. . . .”
2. Quick! Before you have time to think, list two other particulars suggested by the one you recalled in step one. Write them in the margin or at the top of the page.
3. Write a statement about one of the particulars from your list. Perhaps your sentence begins, “One day, I notice. . . .”
4. Write one sentence, more abstract, in response to either or both of the particulars that have made their way into your essay draft. Let the gaze turn inward. Perhaps you begin with the words, “I’ve always wondered about. . . .”
5. Write a statement about a third particular. Put yourself into action. Perhaps you begin with something like, “Tonight, I walk. . . .”
6. Close with a statement of abstraction, a bold statement, perhaps. We’ll hope this to be the moment in which you discover how these three particulars connect. Maybe it’s a line like the one that ends Linda Hogan’s short essay, “Walking”: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”
Please feel free to take the sentences from the exercise above and expand your essay in whatever way pleases you. I hope the writing leads you to unexpected connections, becomes a process of discovery, forces you to “push through” material that may be a bit uncomfortable, and in general leads you by an indirect method to the heart of something you may not have approached otherwise. I’m hoping this exercise will be helpful for those writers of creative nonfiction who want to try their hands at forms that aren’t predominantly driven by narrative, but instead by the meditative leaps from one thing to another.
We are happy to announce the launch of Issue 8 of Superstition Review. Following are some of the artists and writers featured:
Art: Michael Velliquette is a mixed media artist who makes dimensionally complex paper sculptures and drawings. Museum exhibitions include Slash: Paper Under the Knife at the Museum of Art and Design (New York) and Psychedelic at the San Antonio Museum of Art. A monograph titled Michael Velliquette: Lairs of the Unconscious is currently available on Amazon.com through Devibook Publishers.
Fiction: William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of the novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled Books 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). His new novel titled The Bird Saviors is forthcoming in 2012.
Interviews: Chase Twichell is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2010) which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award from Claremont Graduate University, and the Balcones Poetry Prize. She is a student in the Mountains and Rivers Order at Zen Mountain Monastery.
Nonfiction: Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin. He has also published two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones, and another memoir, Such a Life, is set to appear in 2012. He is the winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.
Poetry: A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Dorianne Laux’s fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon (W.W. Norton), is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions, as well as Superman: The Chapbook and Dark Charms, both from Red Dragonfly Press.
Submissions Period for Issue 9: We publish art, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry twice a year in April and December. Our Spring submissions will open January 1 for Issue 9, which will launch in April 2012. We accept submissions online here.
Superstition Review is excited to announce our publication of Lee Martin for our next issue, due out this December.
Martin is the author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including his latest, Break the Skin, which was published by Crown in June 2011. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Click here for a trailer for Martin’s latest novel, and here for a brief clip of Lee Martin speaking about the story and characters he has created for it.
Superstition Review also had the opportunity to speak with Martin:
Superstition Review: What first made you fall in love with literature?
Lee Martin: I was an only child who spent a good deal of time sitting on porches, in kitchens, in barber shops, listening to the adults tell stories. I was always in love with language. My mother was a grade school teacher, and she had books in our home. She read to me when I was a child. When I started school, I asked my teacher for permission to take my books home to show my mother. I was so proud of them! Before those first school days, when I stayed with my grandmother while my mother was teaching, I would take books off the shelves in her bedroom and sit on the floor with them. I couldn’t read, but I loved the way the books felt in my hands. I loved the way they smelled. I loved the patterns the text made on the pages. All of this is to say, that from an early age I knew books and I had an aesthetic response to them. It was only natural that I would eventually want to write books of my own. I got serious about the prospect of that when I went to the MFA program at the University of Arkansas in 1982. Five years later, I published my first story. At the time, I decided to apply at Arkansas, I was coordinating an Educational Talent Search program that helped culturally or financially disadvantaged people get into college. I shouldn’t admit this to the taxpayers (we were a federally funded program), but I always found ways to spend some time working on my stories when I was supposed to be doing other things for my job. I knew, then, it was time to make a choice to either pursue my craft completely or to give it up. My decision to accept the offer from Arkansas sent me down a path that I’ve never regretted.
SR: What are some of the best things about being both a teacher of literature, as well as a creator of it?
LM: I do love to teach. I love the intense conversations we can have over the choices a writer has made in a story or an essay. I love seeing students develop their skills. I also love those moments of solitude when it’s just me and the page, and I have this material I want to shape, and little by little I do it, which makes me feel that I’ve reached into the world and done something with a little part of it. I like the uncertainty of that process and how it finally comes to something that coheres. Finally, I love doing a reading or talking to classes at the universities I visit. I love performing my work, and I love sharing what I’ve come to know over the years with writers who are just at the beginning of their journeys. I guess, to answer your question more pointedly, I love it all. I love everything about being a teacher and a writer.
SR: If you could offer your students–or any aspiring writers for that matter–just one piece of advice, what would it be?
LM: I think it’s so important to begin to read a good deal and to read the way a writer does–to read with an eye toward the various artistic choices that a writer makes and what those choices allow and, perhaps, don’t allow. Young writers in undergraduate programs will have plenty of opportunity to read the way a literary theorist does, but it’s important to remember that stories, poems, essays, and novels are made objects. If you want to write them yourselves, you have to start figuring out how they get made.
Look for Lee Martin’s work in the forthcoming issue of Superstition Review.