“An Artful Arrangement of Truth”: Interview with author Lee Martin (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

“When we announce [our experiences] through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.”

~ Lee Martin


leemartinYou used alphabetically ordered subtitles in the short memoir “Heart Sounds.” Why did you decide on that structure?

The stroke was an overwhelming experience for me, and it caused me to have to gather a large amount of information so I could better understand what had happened, why, and what to do next. I’m the sort of guy who doesn’t want to think about what goes on inside the human body, but the stroke required me to be informed. I needed the control that the form gave me in order to be able to rationally address the issues before me. I wanted to keep a narrative arc moving through the sections, but I wanted those sections as a way of sorting through all the facts. The added bonus for me was that the form also provided a nice entryway into the past. At the time I was working on this piece, I was also teaching the Dinty Moore essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers.” Dinty’s essay is in the abecedarian form, a form I’d never tried, so I thought I’d give it a shot to see if it might be a good fit for this material.

It was sometimes a challenge to come up with a word for each letter. I tried not to force anything. I wanted words that would move the essay along and would invite me to peel back another layer and see more completely.


Did you keep a journal after you recovered from your stroke and then flesh the story out from there? How much time should one let pass before writing about something so life changing?

For a couple of weeks after my stroke, I didn’t write anything. Then I began to write about it on my blog. From there, I started the essay “Heart Sounds.” I kept no journal. The time between a life-changing event and the writing about it varies for each person and each experience.


We have talked in Allyson’s class a bit about writing to heal. Did writing help you better cope with the experience of your stroke?

After my stroke my biggest challenge was emotional and psychological. Writing about the stroke became essential to my returning to a place of well-being. When we write about our experiences, we can’t ignore them. When we announce them through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.


You state in “Heart Sounds,” “I know that what we say is who we are, even those unspoken words that echo just beneath the sounds of the ones that we allow ourselves.” If you could remove the anger anaesthetizing your father and your mother’s practicality and preparedness, what words do you think they would use to explain who they are?

My father might say he was “wounded.” He might say he was “lonely.” He might say he was “sorry.” My mother might say she was “grateful.” She might say she was “lucky.” She might say she was “scared.”


What have you done throughout your career to improve your writing? And what has been most effective for you: classes, reading, writing groups?

I’ve always found that teaching is great for my writing because when I teach a particular piece, I have to figure out what the writer did to make it work, and I have to be able to articulate that to my students. I also have to be able to think about what might change in piece to make it even more successful. In other words, I have to do what writers do all the time as they develop their craft; I have to know how something works and how it doesn’t. I look at writing as a life-long apprenticeship, one in which we’re constantly taking apart what we read so we can see what we can steal for our own work. I advise students to read a good deal, not just primary texts, but also what writers are saying about the craft. Never read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners? You must. And that’s only one of a number of books that writers should read. But we can’t forget to live, too. Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone to expand our understanding of human behaviour. Travel is great for this, as is getting involved with activities that might seem foreign to us. The world is marvellously varied. The more corners of it we visit, the more we have to draw on in our writing. We should also immerse ourselves in the writing community through whatever means is available to us: writing groups, readings series, writing conferences, online manuscript exchanges — whatever we can do to keep ourselves involved in the “family” that writing creates.


You co-edited Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. Do you still have a mentor, and how has that process changed as you’ve grown as a writer?

My mentors are still the teachers I had even though most of them are gone now. I still hear their voices, their pieces of advice. I know what they wouldn’t let me get away from. They’re never far from me when I’m writing. My mentors are also all the writers I’ve read, for the very same reasons.


What do you believe are the most important characteristics of a compelling memoir?

You have to have a narrative that will hold your reader’s attention, but also a reflective voice that can make meaning from the storyline.


And what are three of your favourite memoirs?

I hate to have to choose just three, but, if I must . . . (ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably have three other ones!).

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington


Based on your experience in publishing, do you feel it’s difficult for an unpublished writer to interest a publisher in a book of essays?

In general, essay collections are hard sells. In fact, you may have noted that Such a Life was published as part of the American Lives series at the University of Nebraska Press — in other words, published as a memoir, even though it is, as you’ve seen, a collection of discrete essays. Many publishers don’t like the word essay because they think it’s off-putting to readers, calling up bad memories of the essays that one had to write and read in English classes.

None of this means, by the way, that someone shouldn’t write essays or try to publish a collection of them. Good work always finds a home. We should do the work we’re called to do and then let other people figure out what to name it.


For more about Lee Martin and his work, visit his website.


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  1. Mary says:

    Lovely questions, lovely answers. Honest and helpful. Thanks, Allyson and everyone else involved in the process – because it’s process I’m after and Martin gave me lots to think about.

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