Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life

Equal parts textbook, memoir, and reflection on the writing process, this is a cogent, realistic, and inspirational advice for professional and novice writers of all sorts.

Most writing about writing immediately runs the risk of straying into lonely territories where few travel and nobody really wants to spend time. The reader looking for a way to develop their narrative skills will often pay dearly — in money and time — for such pontification about the proper way to build their story. The worst of such textbooks preys on the possibilities of publication beyond Facebook posts and vanity presses. In other words, no matter the real quality of work brought to the collective workshop table (virtual or otherwise), there’s always a way to create something memorable and marketable.

Lee Martin’s Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life is sweet, tender, equal parts nostalgic and realistic. The premise is there in the title. It’s about craft, developing a process that’s demonstrably successful, and willingly entering the universal quest of searching for a voice. Whether or not it’s your own voice is a question for another teacher and a different day. Martin understands that quality is based on sincerity and humility. The act of digging into the past for self-absorbed memoirs or thinly-veiled fictional bildungsromans is universal and eternal. Prove willing to stand firmly and respectfully on the shoulders of the giants who wrote before you and your work will have meaning.

Early in his Introduction, Martin writes about his notion of voice. “Style has always seemed like an instinctual matter to me.” For Mavis Gallant, style should never be separate from structure and that’s at the heart of Martin’s perspective. Persuade through scene, characterization, detail, point of view, and language. If most readers remember the old adage to “show and never tell”, Martin specifies through remembering the great Flannery O’Connor:

“Don’t say ‘I’m going to write a story about the loss of faith.’ Instead, a la Flannery O’Connor in ‘Good Country People,’ say: ‘I’m going to write a story about a woman with a wooden leg. I’m going to see where that leg might take me.’”

Telling Stories is a comfortable, thoughtful text, and the way Martin develops it is consistent with the lessons he wants to teach. The first section, about establishing an opening, reminds us that the world a writer wants us to enter should be created in a prompt, efficient manner. Martin notes how the legendary Raymond Carver saw openings as the “scaffolding” of the story, perhaps even the solid framework outline. Carver’s “Cathedral” opens with a first person in which a man notes his wife’s blind friend is on his way over to their house. Martin adds: “Write a line that’s already moving forward, that contains the story’s premise.”

This book is separated into seven distinct sections, and in Part 1 Martin deals with all manner of structural issues. If we can’t accept Martin’s notion that the end of a good short story is always present in the beginning, he wisely supports this idea with more examples from Raymond Carver, from the disgruntled teen in John Updike’s “A & P”, and the 13-year-old in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, whose poor impulse control when it comes to eavesdropping and gossiping sets the foundation for the entire story. Personal narratives in the realm of creative nonfiction also need to make a scene. The essayist benefits from traditionally fictional characteristics like dialogue, but as with anything, use of such approaches will not always guarantee the end result of writing that matters.

The ideas here are important and clearly detailed. “The lesson, then, is one of establishing the parameters and then staying within the framed area through a sequence of events… chip[s] away at the material until something clearly defined and irrevocable emerges. Take your time.” The points here are clear and strong. Writing can be a magical spontaneous act of inspiration, channeling narratives from the gods and serving only as a vessel for something bigger, but depending on that as an approach will usually result in crushing failure. Martin proposes this establishment of guidelines from the beginning, but he doesn’t discount the importance of inspiration.

Much of what makes Martin’s approach special here are the moments of personal testimony, reflecting on the inspiration behind his own work, the memoir From Our House, in which he “…used geography as an organizing principle.” More than just a journalistic travelogue, though, Martin had a deeper agenda. He established the narrative arc of early childhood, a cataclysmic family event, and how it affected the rest of his young life. “When we write a memoir, we might want to think about what’s unresolved.” Simply put, a memoir solely of plot and without characterization triggered by reaction to conflict, will not survive.

In “The Layers of Memoir”, Martin powerfully demonstrates how to take one scenario (in this case Thanksgiving and family) through various perspectives. There’s fact and nostalgia, incident, thinking, connecting and questioning, and reflection on writing memoir. Writing about Flash nonfiction, Martin provides more cogent suggestions about proceeding in what may not seem to be an understandable manner: get comfortable, be urgent and brutal and open, surrender to the guidance of the voice, and see where it takes you. In “Shrinking a Novel”, he reflects deeper on the idea of miniaturized writing: “Perhaps writing in a short form can help us think about what really matters to us in the novels we’re drafting or have drafted…” Martin understands here that good work can sometimes be the bright jewel in an otherwise dark cave. Our job is to enter the space and pull it out.

Early in Part 2, “Characterization”, Martin notes: “I had a writing teacher once who said we should begin our stories as close to the end as possible.” Not only is it about complexity, but also “defamiliarization”. It’s this idea of “Contradictory Characters” that makes for compelling reading. Working from Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down the House Martin notes:

“Defamiliarization is the process by which the writer makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar.”

Whether it’s the deep and sometimes surprising sorrow of characters and situations in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, or the twists in James Joyce’s The Dead, it’s a useful technique. When developing characterization in the personal essay, Martin draws on reflections from Philip Lopate, who stressed: “the importance of the essayist becoming a round character.” Lopate continues: “‘What gives an essay dynamism is the need to work out some problem, especially a problem that is not easily resolved.’”

In Part 3, “Detail”, Martin draws on such disparate writers as American rocker John Mellencamp, whose Indiana credentials have always been at the base of his heartland songs. Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon might seem a strange example for those unfamiliar, but it’s a good choice when discussing details. Martin quotes Beattie:

“ ‘In writing fiction convincingly, what they [the writers] have to do is point to a specific literary sky… under which anything is possible, and move their characters through a landscape that’s right for them…”

Rather than approach this from a “know your place” perspective, Martin understands the importance of place. He argues for nostalgia and concludes, properly, that to deal effectively with that sometimes deadly voice, “…without becoming nostalgic, a writer has to be honest…” Too many who traffic in the hazy visions of an idyllic past where all was perfect tend to leave the darkness concealed.

“Admit it all, every aspect of whatever home we’re revisiting, and then state the details…simply and plainly without commentary.”

What works best in this book is not only Martin’s understanding of the past through examples from writers who have supplied the tools we’re all using (creative types or not), but also his sketches of modern masters like Richard Ford, whose Rock Springs was (and remains) a beautiful evocation of the American West. When they met, Martin notes, he “…didn’t make me feel that I was a nuisance or someone he had to make small talk with while he waited for the bigger fish to arrive.”

There are obligations in all writing textbooks to balance perspective, and Martin does so in sections like “Memoir and the Work of Resurrection”, the use of photos, connecting particular specifics, and making something of ordinary details. Most important, Martin notes, “Details are nothing without context.” The tendency for some writers to provide details as if their job is to simply warehouse a collection of product placement incidents can be overwhelming. A product, or a specific universally understandable “thing” is nothing without contextual purpose.

In Part 4, “Point of View”, the reader is deeper into the process. Martin opens with a strong discussion of William Faulkner’s use of the “we” in “A Rose for Emily”. Logically, Martin surmises how the “…lens through which we see a story creates a particular type of experience for us that couldn’t be replicated with a different point of view choice.” Our job as potential writers is to prove willing to find a different lens from which to tell our stories.

In “Communal and Personal Voices”, Martin writes of his contribution to Dinty W. Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Moore, another great writer and master teacher of Creative nonfiction form, function, and style, had asked Martin to contribute to a volume celebrating this particularly voice-driven form. How do we cut extraneous matter? How do we get to the point? Martin’s prompts for discovering and using voice are succinct. Write about something only in the voice of experience. Take the same topic, and use a descriptive voice, an innocent voice. Everything is open for consideration. In his brief section “The Kite”, Martin uses an innocent, sweet, nostalgic voice to bring home his lesson about connectivity:

“Still, that day, only a length of string between me and the sky, I kept faith. I believed in the miracle of flight. I held on.”

Revision is essential, and Martin provided some clear suggestions in Part 6. “Stop writing and give these questions some thought: What makes this writing interesting to me?” After Dinty W. Moore suggests a team-taught craft class that Martin details in “The Doorway between Memoir and Fiction”, the connections are clear. Martin notes: “Our objective was to explore what happens when we invite an exchange between memoir and fiction.” Recall a time you have lied. Write it in first person. Then, logically, re-write it in third person. What’s changed? What’s the same? It’s powerful in its simplicity. “To me all writing is thinking with language,” Martin concludes, “and writing in other forms can take our work to a fuller rendering.”

Writers produce, but they also procrastinate, and Martin effectively deals with that dynamic through advice on how to produce, how to maintain control, and how to read like a writer. Several other issues are discussed as the book comes to a conclusion. Writing is an act of preservation, and writing, in the end, is about balancing priorities. For all the beauty and grace in Telling Stories, all the cogent suggestions about how to write and why to write, Martin effectively ends with a reference to a line spoken by the adult education writing teacher (played by Billy Crystal) to Danny Devito in the 1987 film Throw Momma from the Train. This slapstick comedy was an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, but before the maliciousness commences, the teacher offers a simple piece of advice to the hapless writing student who wonders how to produce: “A writer writes.”

Telling Stories is a rich, sublime guidebook, part memoir, and part clear objective advice to the novice and seasoned writer. Its value should prove immeasurable for anybody willing to write without fear, write again, and write some more.

RATING 8 / 10