Monday, November 28, 2011

Lee Martin and his memoir, "From Our House"

Martin was the keynote speaker at The Writers' Center annual Gathering of Writers. TWC always pulls in big names -- previous speakers include Alice Friman and Elizabeth Stuckey-French -- and although I always enjoy listening to authors discuss writing, Martin's words resonated with me in a way others haven't.

Martin began by admitting that he never meant to write memoir. He thought of himself as a fiction writer, but life took him to unexpected places -- a new job at a university teaching CNF (creative nonfiction, my genre of choice). Stepping out from the "scrim of fiction" for the first time, he was prompted to pen the essay, "From Our House." Martin said that writing the essay awakened something in him, and led him to arrive at these conclusions: "This is me. I'm here to tell the truth. I'm no longer keeping secrets." Compelled to leave the "safety of fiction," he "opened the door and stepped back into memory."

In writing and teaching creative nonfiction, Martin also realized these things: All lives hold private truths; memoir writers speak when they have a reason to speak; memoirists write to understand themselves and others. He encouraged us to write from what we don't know, saying that by investigating and digging into layers of memories we allow our former selves to come into focus.

Martin quoted the memoirist Patricia Hampl, saying that memoir is never about the past, but the future.

Writing "From Our House" opened the floodgates for Martin, who continued to write about his life and saw the arc of a narrative. This exploration led to his memoir, which carries the title of the essay.

After the Gathering of Writers, one of the first things I did was shuffle Martin's "From Our House" in my lineup of books, placing it on top. Good decision. The memoir is gorgeously rendered, the story of Martin's life as the only child of older parents, and his struggles with his father. Lee Martin's father lost both his hands in a farming accident when Lee was a baby, and although Lee's father sometimes displayed heart-melting tenderness toward him, more often than not he terrorized his son with an out-of-control rage.

Martin responded generously when I asked him if writing his memoir changed him. "Shaping that experience into something that I hope is artful required me to have a simultaneous immersion in memory and an aesthetic distance from it. By the time I finished, I knew the experience more intimately, and with knowledge comes control. Instead of that experience controlling me -- I'd had my own anger issues for years as a result of my father's influence -- I now in some way controlled it simply because I'd faced it and shaped it. I look back on my younger years now with much more clarity because I had to see it wholly and completely in order to write about it."

Just as Martin's speech did, "From Our House" spoke to me and left me changed. At the finish, despite not being overly sentimental, I wiped away tears. "From Our House" is memoir (and for that matter, storytelling) at its best. Move it to the top of your "To-Read" list. You won't be sorry.

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