Jennifer Jordán Schaller interview with Gregory Martin

The next installment of the Bad Mouth Reading Series features a rockstar line-up of writers and music, featuring Cathy Strisik, Christina Yovovich, Greg Martin, and musician Zack Freeman. Friend of Bad Mouth, Jennifer Jordán Schaller interviewed the smart and compassionate human Greg Martin to talk more in depth about his writing and creative process. Martin is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico.

For a little context, I’ve known Greg for almost twenty years. I took a workshop with him as an undergraduate, and he was the first teacher who told me I should go to grad school. To say that Greg had an influence on my academic career is an understatement. I interviewed him for Bad Mouth because I still keep in contact with him, whether he wants me to or not. Twenty years later, I still ask him questions about writing:

Jennifer Jordán Schaller:  I remember the first class I took with you. I was an undergraduate in a class with mostly graduate students. Every day I walked into class, I worried I would be outed as an impostor pretending to be a writer, when I was a 22-year old pizza-throwing restaurant manager. As the class progressed, you set the tone for a dynamic and welcoming class, where I felt comfortable to express my ideas.

How do you welcome writers, people who often alienate and isolate themselves behind computers and journals, into a community where they feel like they belong? Go. Answer. Now.

Gregory Martin: I try to acknowledge that everyone has impostor syndrome. Still. Absolutely. Most writers do, and it doesn’t matter how successful they are. We’re all beginners. Just because you’ve accomplished something, doesn’t mean you don’t have doubts and anxieties about doing the next thing.

As a teacher, I try to make sure there are no false divisions. Everybody in the class belongs and everybody in the class has a valid story to write and a story in them.

I’ve seen it too many times, where someone who isn’t in the MFA program in the class publish something.

As a writer, you never receive that master certificate. Who is a master, really? And if anyone was to go around and say I am a master, that is suspicious, dubious, problematic.

Any student usually has an arsenal of skills. You take what they have, and then you provide the instruction that says here’s how to make a story have structure. Here’s how to build a rising action sequence, here’s how to develop conflict, here’s how to suffuse the story with meaning. All those things can be taught. Try to let the student know what they’re doing well, because that’s important, without it being about false affirmation.

JJS: You were the first teacher who encouraged me to pursue writing as though it were work and not a fun, artsy hobby. You even developed a journaling assignment for grad students called “The Treadmill Journal” which treats writing like a job and it requires that students track their writing time, like they would clock in at a job. Where does your work ethic come from? I thought writers were supposed to be lazy drunks.

GM: When I was a graduate student I had that attitude: go with the muse. Inspiration came and went; motivation came and went. I had a lot of peers who regularly didn’t go out at night and didn’t play nine ball and drink beer because they had to work on their story for three hours. Even in school, they were getting their work in The Atlantic Monthly. It dawned on me talking about being a writer and being a writer are different things. I had been an athlete, and I knew about practice and breaking through plateaus in performance. Turning the treadmill journal into a regimen and having the work come out of that, whether the work was radiant or beautiful or good—I could get to the end of the day, and put the self-loathing at bay because I put in the hours, not because it got published or someone gave me praise.

Most writers suffer from self-loathing. This is an informal sample. They struggle with liking themselves and liking their work. It’s like a wolf at the door and it howls. It’s not so much that self-affirmation comes from within but the self-loathing gets set aside. You can turn the volume down on the wolf. Everyone struggles with you’re no good at this, the internal talk, the negative chatter. If you don’t write, the volume goes up on that, and if you have eleven days of three hours in a row of work, you don’t hear it. It’s not that it goes completely away. It becomes an inaudible sound. You are in the flow of your own momentum.

I always talk about Wynton Marsalis’s process. He says the test of mastery is the mastery over self. That’s not usually technical mastery. That’s not understanding plot or narrative design; it’s a kind of psychological mastery in which you give yourself permission to do the thing you want to do.

But if you’re not writing, this is not a barometer of your self-worth either. You move in and out of these periods in which you’re doing the work, but it doesn’t make you a bad person and it doesn’t make you not a writer if you aren’t writing. It just means that now is not the time. When I was younger, 20’s and 30’s, my sense of self as a writer was tied up with ambition and my self-worth was related to whether I was writing every day, producing every day, publishing regularly. That makes the writing all about the self.

Really, the writing is not for the writer. It’s for someone else, and often for someone you didn’t meet. I’ve had enough experiences where what I’ve written has meant something to someone, and they let me know and got in touch with me. It gives me a sense of why I do this and what it’s for. My writing isn’t driven so much now by achievement and ambition.  We’re making a contribution and it’s for the audience and it’s for the reader.

JJS: When I was in class with you, I remember you very often stressing structure and plot in writing longer narratives. I remember you telling more than one person in class that they “did not yet have a story.” Maybe students had beautiful phrases and imagery, but the story itself was lacking. What do you think is the single-most important element of a story?

GM: I think it’s true that having a sense of what a story is and isn’t is really important. A lot of times, you have a person who writes a draft, and a character wants something really bad, then they get it, and that’s awesome. That’s not a story. Stories are about yearning and conflict and not getting what you want and getting something else and being forced to change. And if you have a draft where the protagonist is the same as at the beginning, it’s not yet a story.

In my classes, I ask do we have a character who yearns? Who faces difficult choices? Do we have a character who changes? And still there’s all kinds of things we can do to make it better. A lot of apprentice writers don’t have that basic plot structure. If you can show someone in the most simple way how a children’s story operates, and that this is just a skeleton to hang on all these other elements that make us want to write in the first place: like being sensitive or a beautiful image.

There’s plenty of nonfiction that is poetic or philosophical. I try not to force students into the box of writing narrative when they want to explore an idea. My default temperament is to drama, conflict, and story. That’s what I look for to read. Every teacher has their aesthetic and their preferences. What I try to say is that you are going to be the artist that you are going to be. This is sixteen weeks. Take what you can and move onto the next teacher or book, and be the artist you are going to be.

JJS: Can you describe your writing process?

When things are going well, I can write anywhere from three to eight hours a day. If I have a big chunk of time, I have a lot of stamina. I don’t tell myself that I can only write for a couple of hours. I just stay in it. I tend to write in the mornings because that’s when the world doesn’t want me, the university is closed, and I don’t have obligations to students. I just try to get to it and get my coffee and go to the computer, and open the file.

5. This is an easy question. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I got my first rejection from Random House when I was eight, so I was always that kid who went to the library all the time. I would check out a big stack of books. I was also that kid who sat in the library and sat next to the paperback rack and read for hours.

I went to this place in Lincoln and I would sit in the comic book area and I would sit on the linoleum floor. It was also a pharmacy. They had comic books, and I would sit and read. There really wasn’t a time when I was reading. I was always that kid who was writing stories and illustrating them.

I think a lot of kids do that, and then middle school, high school, college classes crush that with the five paragraph essay. But I just kept doing it, and it never really went away. I played the piano seriously, when I was seventeen and eighteen, and I came to understand how to make a work of art half-decent: you have to put in this many hours and then you have to subject yourself to a teacher who will make it better. Even when I was fifteen, I was familiar with taking something that sounded like crap, to sounding good, to something that sounded like a person would pay money to sit and listen to it. The steps and process of making it worthwhile to others, I had that before college.

JJS: When do you know that you have a story?

I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer to that question. I’ve written a lot of stuff that has never seen the light of day. I have at least two books that went to four hundred pages and multiple drafts that are in a draft stage. I’ve written as many essays that haven’t been published that have been published. I have two different drafts of a novel that may never see the light of day. The hard thing is being in the space of doing something and knowing it might not work and still doing it anyway. If I abandon something and go work on something else, if it’s still calling to me, I’ll return.

JJS: Can you talk yet about your latest writing project? When are you ready to share what you’re working on with other people?

I have three different things going at once right now. One is a very familiar kind of vein, which is a personal essay about family. And then I have two different drafts of a novel. They are the same characters in the same family. One is set when the children are younger, in elementary school, and the other is set in their mid teens. Both drafts explore difficult choices in parenting, and difficult times in kids’ lives.

I don’t feel particularly confident about either one. They both started out as memoir, and I made a conscious decision that I had to turn away from memoir to give my own kids their privacy. Then I had trouble transitioning it to fiction because it’s not enough to change the names and deeply imagine characters that are truly not people in your life, not facing the same dilemmas. I spent the last year doing that. I think one of those novels has 180 pages, and the other has seventy, and there’s all kinds of things in both of them, passages, characters, sentences, that I like. But the temptation to abandon and do what I already know how to do is really powerful.

I can easily start thinking this isn’t going anywhere. I don’t make it about the particular work; I make it about the life. It’s about putting in the hours. Doing this hasn’t gotten easier. It’s gotten harder. But then when I spend the two or three hours writing, I feel pretty good about it.

JJS: You’ve lived in Albuquerque nearly twenty years. What drew you here? Why Albuquerque and not somewhere else, somewhere cloudy or watery or beachy?

GM: I was offered a job at a pretty elite East Coast university for about 10,000 more a year and I took this job because I wanted to come to New Mexico and Albuquerque. I turned down job interviews and jobs to other places because I wanted to be here. I knew Albuquerque because my mom was a Dean at Eastern, and I went through U of A, so I drove through Albuquerque. I liked the fact that the student population didn’t have silver spoons in their mouths. I very much thought that I wanted to work with the student population, and I wanted to teach in an MFA program. I knew the southwest. I knew I would have Basque students, Native American students, Hispanic students. The student population at UNM has been a source of fulfillment.

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