What I’ve Learned from Michael Martone

Screenshot 2013-10-27 15.43.25For the next few weeks, I’m going to devote my “Teaching Tuesday” posts to some of my teachers (in and out of the classroom) and what I learned from them.

Lesson 1: Advocate For Your Homestate

Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired.

–August Wilson

On Saturday night, I went to the Indiana Author’s Award, which is also a fundraiser and swanky dinner. The event is intended to raise awareness of Indiana authors, encourage reading throughout the state, and raise the profile of the Library Foundation and its many good programs.

There are three award categories: Emerging, Regional, and National. The award amounts are substantial and on par with such national author events as The Story Prize, etc. That such a snazzy and well-funded event takes place at all in my state both astounds and delights me. It’s only been around for five years, and I hope to God it continues, because it makes a significant cultural impact in my homestate. Praise the Lord.

The award didn’t exist when Michael Martone embarked on his literary life, but you might say he’s been working towards winning an award such as this for many years. He gave a wonderful keynote which brought tears to my eyes.

Michael recounted how, every fall for many years, he’s returned to Indiana for what he’s dubbed the Double Wide Tour of Indiana. He’d fly into Fort Wayne, borrow his mom’s red VW bug, and drive to colleges and libraries and literary centers around the state, giving readings and teaching classes for little or no money.

Which means that he’s been in a perfect position to observe (and encourage) the growth of literary culture in the state of Indiana. Much of this activity has originated within creative writing programs–and he named many college and university writing programs, my own included–but also organizations like the Indiana Writers Center in Indianapolis.

Michael probably knows the name of almost every writer in the state–from South Bend to Evansville, from the Region to Richmond. And last night at the Central Library in Indianapolis, he rattled off these names like a train conductor recounting all his well-traveled routes.

He also talked about his mother, an educator and activist, who died this past year. Before his speech, I told Michael I’d been talking with someone recently who was from Fort Wayne. When I said the name “Martone,” this woman couldn’t stop talking about Michael’s mother Patty and all her good works. Michael showed me a pin on his lapel, his mother’s Kappa Alpha Theta pansy pin, which he wears in her honor. Clearly, he’s followed in her footsteps.

But what Michael has achieved, I think, has been to make Indiana cool.

  • To people from outside the state who think this is just a nowhere place, just flyover country.
  • To people in the state who have gone to his readings and classes and thought, “Hey, maybe I should write about this weird place I call home, too.”

So many people associate “Indiana” with Michael’s work. I approach Indiana in a much more earnest and realistic manner, but so what? All that really matters to me is that someone, anyone write about Indiana in a way that’s not sentimental and nostalgic (although I am often sentimental), not about barns and basketball (although I love both of those things). Indiana needs writers who are interested in something more than the homey truths of Reader’s Digest and Guideposts.

But that’s another essay, perhaps.

Lesson 2: It’s not all about you

I was never Michael’s student in the classroom, but he has mentored me over the years–and for no other reason than because I was born in Indiana.

When he started teaching at Alabama, I’d already graduated, but I was still around, working as an instructor. When I got a campus interview for a tenure-track job at Mankato State University in 1997, I asked Michael if he would help me prepare for my first big break. And he did.

Only now that I’m a busy, mid-career professor myself do I fully appreciate that generosity.

I was most worried about the required teaching demonstration.

Michael said that if it was his interview, he would talk about how there’s no such thing as bad writing. He described a variety of contexts in which “bad writing” might be considered good.

Now, I’d never had him for a class, and so I didn’t understand that this is a very Martone-like strategy: to go meta, to zoom out a bit and question the very nature of the endeavor. In an interview, he recently said,

“I am not that kind of master teacher where I know something and transfer that knowledge to students who don’t know. Instead, I guess, I teach curiosity.”

However, to young, earnest me, it sounded a bit blasphemous. I remember saying to him, “But I think there is a difference between good and bad writing.”

He looked at me for a second, and then he said, “Ah yes, you were a student of…” and he named some of my teachers at Alabama, most of whom were gone by then. He said, “So what are you planning to do?”

I told him I planned to distribute a story I’d written and submitted to Quarterly West, then show the feedback I’d gotten back from editors. I’d discuss what advice I took, what I ignored. I hoped this would generate a discussion about workshop feedback and revision.

Michael listened and then said, “Well, the problem I see is that it’s so relentlessly about you.”

Trust me, I’ve never forgotten that zinger.

I went ahead with the teaching demonstration as planned and got the job at Mankato. Whew. But that sentence–offered privately, kindly–has stayed in my head for sixteen years. That it hurt so much at the time–I was 29–spoke to its essential truthfulness.

Honestly, it had never even occurred to me that my approach might rub anyone the wrong way. So, thank goodness he said it.

That comment pops into my head

  • whenever I blog
  • when I’m teaching and pause to offer an anecdote
  • when I start talking in a meeting

I ask, Is it appropriate in this moment to turn the conversation towards yourself? Sometimes the answer is yes, but often it’s no.

If you know me–in person or online–then you know I have this tendency. Perhaps you’ll find me easier to bear if you know how often that sentence plays out in my head.

You might say this blog of mine is the digital expression of that exact same impulse. Even though I offer these posts because I want to be helpful, I know that they’re often relentlessly about me.

Even this post, which is supposed to be about Michael Martone, has become about me.

So let me end with a list of ideas I’ve borrowed/stolen from Michael, and I’ll explain them in more detail in future posts.

The Town Class: the class creates a town and writes linked stories that take place in that town.

The Hypoxic Workshop: a true writeshop in which students write a story a week and focus on production rather than criticism.

A number of great anthologies that have forced me to re-think how I teach fiction writing:

What about you?

If you’ve got a Martone anecdote, something to share about what you learned from him, please share it here in the comments.



  1. No anecdotes, as I’ve never met him, but I remember being so excited to find a writer from Indiana, who wrote about Indiana. Shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but unfortunately it was and still is.

  2. Thanks, Cathy. I don’t know Michael, but I have had the pleasure of hearing him read at AWP one year. Such a smart, witty, inventive, and very real person. Indiana is really lucky to have him. I can only assume that he’s a fantastic teacher.

  3. CD Mitchell says:

    Michael Martone is selfless. I was a little nobody, hired as an instructor to teach at Alabama. I had been after Michael for three years to submit his work to “the Pinch” at the University of Memphis. When I learned I had the job and a teaching schedule, I was fascinated to see he taught a nonfiction workshop. I asked if I could sit in, and he gracefully allowed my intrusion.

    I had three essays I knew were good, but I couldn’t seem to place them anywhere. After work-shopping the essays, I conferred with Michael like any of his other students. he made suggestions about the essays. I followed his suggestions and all three pieces were published before the end of the semester.

    The greatest lesson I learned from him was about beginnings. On the first essay, he explained i was beginning with too much back-story, instead of going to the heart of the conflict. That lesson has affected my writing on a daily basis.

    When my contract was over and I was leaving Alabama, Michael bought my lunch one afternoon. I will always remember his generosity with his time.
    I will be a better writer because of his words and lessons, but I will be a better teacher and mentor because I have learned how important it is to be selfless with those who believe you may be able to help them.

  4. Mary Collins says:

    Thank you so much for introducing me to this lovely-sounding man and his work. And for giving voice to the anxiety over a tendency to bring the ME into so much. I have struggled with this myself, and yet draw hope from the fact that since I do not in the least experience this in you, perhaps I am over-anxious about its effect in myself. From your post, the “I” spoke only of a sharing of insight and not in the least of digression away from the source of your learning. You honored both your mentor and yourself in the process. I’m pleased to have discovered your post, recommended today in Erika Dreifus’s blog. I am from England myself so can perhaps be forgiven for being familiar with Martone’s name but not his nature. Though, being married in fact to a Hoosier, I am keen now to delve into the Indiana canon. Thank you for writing.

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