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How To Be a Writer

from WRITER, INC.

Sampling and Riffing with Michael Martone

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Claire Guyton

Demystification. If I used one word to label Michael Martone’s approach to the writing workshop,* that would be it. But why limit myself to one? Here’s another: Empowering. Michael demystifies the writing life and empowers his students because he talks about writing-related subjects that so many other writers and teachers seem to believe are beside the point. Craft, craft, craft—that’s what we’re here, for! they say. But of course we look for so much more from our mentors and teachers. We want to understand and own our writing process, we want to know how to navigate the world of publishing, and how to get beyond rejection. We want to know, in short—and here we have five additional words that describe Michael’s approach to teaching—How To Be a Writer.

“How To Be a Writer” was my working title for  “Writer, Inc.,” the feature my all-too-brief study with Michael inspired. I and my co-editor, Cynthia Newberry Martin, could think of no better way to celebrate the spring and honor a year of work envisioning, launching, and publishing The Writing Life than to spend a little virtual time with Michael. For this installment of Writer, Inc., we offer the following mash-up of bits from a recorded conversation with Michael (August 2010) and reactions to his comments from the Hunger Mountain community and beyond. Many thanks to Michael for his smarts, enthusiasm, energy, kindness, and, of course, his time. One last word: Generous

—Claire Guyton, Co-Editor of The Writing Life

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Michael on Writer as Author

When I was a student I read the essay, “The Death of the Author,” by Roland Barthes. The essay wasn’t saying the author is going to go away but it was pointing out that our idea of the author was, as in all theoretical thinking, a construction, a theoretical construction. The composition is a collaborative construction and there is nothing that is required of an author to make a piece of writing work or that decides how a writer is supposed to be, educate himself, perform, produce. But the culture decides on certain identifiers, certain kinds of norms for a writer and we all sort of forget that we’ve fabricated these ideas and conform to them. We decide on those things and decide in a way that we actually forget about it and they do appear to be normal and natural.

In my Construction of Authorship class, we read a variety of books that have authors as characters or that are about learning how to be a writer—Jack London’s Martin Eden, Heminway’s A Moveable Feast, Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. We watch movies like “Monster in a Box.” I force them in writing their assignments to collaborate as opposed to writing alone—that’s one of the tenets of construction of authorship, that writing is a solitary thing when in fact writers are constantly collaborating. They have to publish themselves. And we look formally at author photos—what are you trying to convey? How do you read a photograph? This is a staged thing—why? To achieve what impression?


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Erika Anderson

The Author Photo. If you’re indoors, and you’re a writer, you might have your likeness captured next to a window or before a bookcase; if you’re outdoors, and you’re a writer, you might get that shot snapped before a tree, a field, a bench, a brick wall—anything that says “natural” or “real.” Barn doors are appreciated, as are horses. Nothing says “I’m published!” like a horse. All this leads me on my own odyssey: What would my perfect author photo look like? (read more)

A Gallery of Michael’s Author Photos


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Michael on Writer as (Expert) Reader

Interviewers always ask writers what they’re reading. The implied question is, “What good things are you reading.” As opposed to all the things you read throughout the day—what is it that you actually read? The cereal box, a recipe… maybe that language influences what you’re writing.


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Elizabeth Mosier

Primary Sources. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, and her datebooks from 2003 – 2008 tell a heartbreaking story of her mental decline. 2008 is the last one, recovered while I spent a week in my childhood home, sorting through the flotsam of family history to prepare our house for sale. Within it is proof—despite my mother’s angry, fearful protests—that she used strategies to preserve what she couldn’t remember…. (read more)

What Writers Read


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Michael on Writer as Published Author

If you go to the websites of MFA programs to look at their list of teachers, they’ll say, “Michael Martone has published this, this, this, this, this, and this.” The implied contract is that if you come to this program, you, too, will publish. When I was at Syracuse, people would call up and say they want to study at Syracuse, and I would say, “Well, that’s great, why do you want to study at Syracuse?” and they would say, “Because Raymond Carver was there,” and I’d say, “Well, Raymond Carver is dead,” and they’d say, “Yes, but….” So Raymond Carver was published in a certain way and students wanted to get near it, they’d want it to rub off. Publishing is this kind of magic end result of what a writer is and what a writer does.

What is the connection between publishing and your self-conception as a writer? How important is publishing? Every new class I teach on publishing, I always open up with the question, “Do you want to be published?” And the students say yes. And then I say, I have a MacIntosh and I have the software, I can publish you today. They laugh and say, that’s not what I mean, so I say, okay, let’s talk about what you mean. And one thing that comes up has to do with authority or affirmation. Which again, goes back to writing and the whole notion of goodness and badness and a power which is in flux.

What role does money play? Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t get paid to write? Are readers important? Do you want to have a relationship with an editor? What exactly is it about being published that is important?


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Amy Souza

Do It Yourself. When a publisher puts out a bad book, it might get bad reviews, but those reviews focus on the work in question. When someone self-publishes a bad book, a diatribe ensues about the whole of self-publishing—oh these vanity presses! Somehow this bad self-published book (or zine or set of poems or whatever) stands as proof that self-publishing as a whole is somehow wrong, vain, insert your own negative adjective here. (read more)


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Michael on Writer as… writer

Another class I taught once: All the other stuff I write. Craft lectures, comments on student papers, e-mails, Facebook status updates, letters of recommendation, book reviews, blurbs… (and now texting). Michigan and Nebraska have a series of collected OTHER writing—that’s what [my book] Unconventions is. So we can think about mapping writers by figuring out what kinds of writing-chips are peeling off the writer. How do these bits and pieces contribute to the construction of authorship? I’m going to become a poet or a novelist—but what about all that other writing you’re doing, how does all that affect who you are as a writer?


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Andrew Scott

What I Wrote This Week. It’s hard to send a thank-you note without sounding sappy, but especially when it’s written for two writers who helped me eschew sentimentality in my own work. Maybe I should have sent a bereavement card, one that said So sorry for your loss, and then I could have added something like …of your free time, but thanks for writing those letters of recommendation! (read more)

What Writers Write


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Michael on Writer as Character

People don’t come to creative writing school to learn how to write a poem—they only spend two hours a week doing that. But the rest of the time what are they doing? They’re looking at their teachers and their behavior. And their teachers are wearing these particular clothes and reading these particular books…. How does a student think of him or herself as a writer and then from there, how does he or she become a writer in America? It says we’re giving an MFA in writing, we still pretend that it’s all about an actual written thing and not the actual creation of character.


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Writer-Crafting. The Writing Life asked three writers we admire to respond to a questionnaire designed to pull back the curtain, just a little, on the writer-character each is crafting.

Sophfronia Scott

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about your writing life and/or your writing self? “Special” is my word. Something in the universe helps me to make things happen with my writing: I can touch, affect, and move a reader which is truly an amazing thing. That motivates me to honor what I do because at the end of the day, it’s not all about me. (read more)

William Lychack

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Where do you feel most like a writer?
In a library—any library—wandering the stacks, decamping near a window, looking up at the clock, realizing three-and-a-half hours just passed.
(read more)

Robin Hemley

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How do you keep from going crazy?
I play Canasta every Tuesday night and watch reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show.
(read more)
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Michael on Writer as YOU

What’s your turf? What’s your worry? Your preoccupation? Make a list of associated words—you’ll find those preoccupations. Again: What is your goal as a writer writing stories? How does this affect your construction of yourself as an author? In a workshop, we’re discussing one tiny piece of the great big novel you’re going to write with your whole life.

—Michael Martone

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*I attended a week-long summer workshop with Michael in 2009 at VCFA’s terrific Postgraduate Writers’ Conference.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

marilyn pink October 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm

so, is one a writer with only one reader –
one’s self? or a perpetual wannabe?and is innovation the answer — whether it be of topic, or presentation?

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