How Lee Martin Became a Writer

August 26, 2013 — 2 Comments

I was a kid from a small town who felt lost in college. Lucy [Gabbard] taught Modern Drama, and she was the first teacher who made me feel that I might have something to offer. When I left school for two years to work in factories, it was the thought of not disappointing her that eventually brought me back to school. Sometimes it only takes one teacher to believe in a student and to invite that student to believe, too.

Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and three other novels, including Break the Skin. His other books are the novels, River of Heaven and Quakertown; the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. 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 The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Web site:

Read more by and about Lee:

Pulitzer Prize Finalist Novel: The Bright Forever

Memoir: Such a Life

Novel: Break the Skin

Memoir: From Our House

How Lee Martin Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Lee for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

At an early age, I was drawn to storytelling. I spent a good deal of time on front porches, in kitchens, at barber shops and pool halls, listening to my father and other men swap tales. I grew up in rural southeastern Illinois, and I quickly learned that stories could be currency. Whoever told a good story got the respect of his listeners in return, either in the way of laughter, or amazement, or the stone-cold silence that followed a story so remarkable, no one dared say a thing in response. My mother was a grade school teacher, and because of her, there were books in our house. Again, I was in love with the stories they told, but I was also in love with my mother and her thoughtful nature. Through her, I learned that words mattered. Somewhere along the line, I got the sense that a life could be made from what my parents offered me, and it could be a good life involving entertaining people and making them feel and think, all through the magic of words arranged just so between the covers of books.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I started writing. When I was a teenager, I wrote a lot of really horrible angst-driven poetry. Then I took my first creative writing class as an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University, and I was hooked on narrative. I said goodbye to poetry and started writing stories and plays. I didn’t stop writing even after I graduated and had a nine-to-five job. I always wrote. Then, three years after graduation, I was accepted into the MFA Program at the University of Arkansas. That marked the beginning of my serious study of craft. I stopped writing plays and concentrated solely on fiction. I just kept writing, and I read a lot of stories and novels, and also craft essays, and I learned to read the way a writer must with an eye toward how a thing is made through a series of artistic choices that create specific effects. I wrote and wrote, and finally I had my first story accepted for publication by a literary journal, and I just kept writing.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I had a number of excellent teachers who gave me some short-cuts in my development of my craft, but before those teachers, there was one who made all the difference in everything I’ve accomplished. Her name was Lucy Gabbard, and she was the first teacher to believe in me. I was a kid from a small town who felt lost in college. Lucy taught Modern Drama, and she was the first teacher who made me feel that I might have something to offer. When I left school for two years to work in factories, it was the thought of not disappointing her that eventually brought me back to school. Sometimes it only takes one teacher to believe in a student and to invite that student to believe, too.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’ve always found Tobias Wolff’s story, documented so artfully in his memoir, This Boy’s Life, to be an inspiring one. The story of how he escaped a dead-in life by reinventing himself (granted, through devious means such as forging transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.), is remarkable. His escape from a brutal stepfather, his triumph over all that threatened him, the odds he had to overcome to become the magnificent writer he is, pleases me. I like stories of underdogs, those folks who aren’t supposed to amount to much, rising up and following their dreams. We can take control of our lives. Stories like Wolff’s prove it time and time again.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be sure that you want to do this. If writing gives you pleasure, and if the identity it gives you connects to the way you want to see yourself in this world, then throw yourself into it with all your passion. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Have patience. There will be times when you’ll want to stop—times when you’ll think you’ll never publish, times when you’ll be envious of others who have had more success than you. None of these things matter. The journey is the thing. If you take the advice of Isak Dinesen to write a little every day, without hope and without despair, you’ll stay true to what you love about the process—the music that language makes on the page—and eventually the journey will take you where you’re meant to be.

2 responses to How Lee Martin Became a Writer


    Reblogged this on Pamela Paraison.


    Yes, the journey is the thing . . . provided you have a bank account from enough book sales to allow you to reflect on that journey. Otherwise, if you’re talented, but starving and struggling with little to no support mechanisms at all, the journey is the last thing. Food and shelter comes first.

    I love reading your “How” author monthly blog posts, Kelcey. But one thing always sticks out as missing in the author’s responses to the same questions, that we don’t want to be disillusioned by, and that is, to know the real struggles or eases of these authors you choose for your series. I want to know which of these authors paid their own rent or mortgage and where that money came from (jobs, inheritance, scholarship, trust fund, etc.), as well as which ones had the roof over their heads taken care of by someone else, along with all the other bills to get by, before you can get to writing. This all seems to be, at best, vaguely brushed over within your author’s responses, though it could be due to the 5 questions themselves directed slightly away from that inquiry.

    The reason I ask is, I don’t want to be reading the answers of your chosen authors just to maybe find out later on through another channel or through their own writings and books or website, that they’ve received all the ground help in their personal lives and connected step-up help in their professional/writing lives from many others, yet they try to maintain some sort of struggle to others like me, that they effectively never really had to any crying degree at all.

    I think you should have a 6th question titled “How did you get by to where you are with your writing today. Who supported you or did you financially support yourself ?”.

    I’m sure this is a question that some authors would never want to divulge. My reasoning for this is, I would not want to read any responses by your chosen authors if they had it easy, and were secretly hiding it, because they know how people would react to it.

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