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Fiction Without Narrative, Teaching Without Grades, Indiana Beyond Sugar Cream Pie

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Michael Martone:  Writers and artists come into the university. And the university, I can remember them saying, "We want you to be crazy!" Oh yeah, like, "Can you give grades? We really need grades."

Alex Chambers:  Michael Martone taught creative writing for 40 years. At first, he tried to teach his students to write better stories. By the time he retired in 2020, he had spent decades challenging his students to write badly. This week on Inner States, Michael Martone and I talk about how the rise of MFA programs and creative writing shaped American fiction, why it's helpful for writing classrooms to avoid praise and blame and grades too, and, what it means to be an Indiana writer. That's all coming up right after this.

Alex Chambers:  Wikipedia lists 31 published works from Michael Martone. But that number is fuzzy. We tend to think of writers' works, their oeuvre, as books of their own original writing. There's plenty of that in Martone's list, but there are also anthologies, collaboratively written works and more. Writing, for Martone, is about a lot more than publishing capital-L literature. It's also about exploring how we frame the frame itself, to engage a Martonian phrase. He's interested in what makes us consider a piece of writing literary or not, fiction or not, real or not. A couple of examples. One book is called, Michael Martone by Michael Martone. It's a collection of contributors' notes, also known as author bios, that he published in literary magazines, even if he hadn't published anything else in that magazine.

Alex Chambers:  They're little stories, mixtures of fiction and fact. There's also The Blue Guide to Indiana. It's a travel guide to Indiana. He published some of the descriptions in local newspapers, got a few people excited to go get their hair done at the convent in Jasper called, Our Lady of the Big Hair and Feet. You can also get information there about the Tomb of Orville Redenbacher and the Trans-Indiana mayonnaise pipeline. I'm not sure they exist. A couple more things you should know about Martone. He might be the writer who's written the most about his birth state of Indiana, at least since James Whitcomb Riley and Gene Stratton-Porter. He was born in Fort Wayne and, as the contributor's note says, went to the public school there. Alongside all this writing, he's been teaching a few generations of writer in graduate writing programs.

Alex Chambers:  The last one he taught in was at the University of Alabama, which he retired from in 2020, and where it's time I admitted I was a student of his in the late 20-teens. He was a formative teacher for me. Maybe you've heard of him, maybe you haven't. He's fairly well-known in the writing world, and, as far as I can tell, unfairly unknown outside of it. He's been a beloved teacher to 40 years of writing students. He came to Bloomington recently for the Granfalloon Literary Festival, where a few of his works had been adapted for the stage. We talked about how the rise of creative writing programs, shaped the style of American literary fiction, about how Maria Montessori shaped his graduate classrooms, and what it means to be an Indiana writer. We started with the plays. He was happy with how the productions turned out, but he said when he'd first had his work adapted for the stage, it made him a little nervous.

Alex Chambers:  He's a fiction writer, yes, but he doesn't really write stories. He's a lyrical writer, and that doesn't lend itself so well to drama, rising and falling action, conflict, resolution. He knew early on that he wasn't writing that kind of fiction.

Michael Martone:  I went to Johns Hopkins. My teacher there was John Barth. And in one conference after I had written one of these collage pieces made up of little sort of voices from all over, he said, "You know Michael..." and he was speaking very technically, " don't write stories." And I said, "I know that, Jack." He said, "But that's okay, what we'll call them is not stories, but fictions. You write short fictions, not short stories."

Alex Chambers:  In your desire to be a writer, was that ever a dilemma for you, especially fort of like trying to figure out, "I'm writing fiction, but I'm not really writing stories"? Was there tension for you in that, or was that just something you were like, "This is what I'm doing and I'm just going to do it?"

Michael Martone:  Well, I mean, you know this too. You find what it is you want to do, what's driving you. But the tension came in the historical moment that I became a writer who is going to go out in the world, and that was in 1979, 1980. I was really on the cusp of a cultural transition that the writers, American writers before me in the '70s and the '80s and the '60s, tended to be writers who were doing the kind of things that I ended up doing. So, those are writers, say, like Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover. They were later then called post-modernist, but they were interested in creating fictions. I mean, it all goes back to Borges. There are no characters in Borges, there's no learning, there's no rising action, you know, the sort of classic thing.

Michael Martone:  Barthelme said that the reason that they were writing that way, had to do with the change of technology. So, Barthelme said, "Let's look at painters." Painters in the 19th century, if you could paint a horse on a two-dimensional space, and it looked like a horse, you were a great painter. Then Eastman Kodak comes out with the Brownie camera, and any idiot can make a picture of a horse. And so the painters said, "Oh, what we're going to do now is only what paint can do." And so, abstract expressionism, cubism, I mean all of the things that could not be done by the photograph. And Barthelme said, "In the 19th century, if you were Dickens and you were doing a realistic depiction and telling a story, who are your competitors?"

Michael Martone:  Well no-one! Maybe the newspaper, but Dickens was writing for the newspaper. And so the 20th century comes, and the first narrative delivery device that gets invented, is the movies, and then radio, and then television and then cable. And all of these narrative delivery devices compete with a writer thinking of, "Well, I am a narrative writer." So, in the '60s and the '70s, the writers began thinking, "What can I do that all these other things can't do? What can print do? What can writing do that movies can't do?" And so you look at the stories of Donald Barthelme, or you look at my stories, the only way this works is if you read it. It is about that. So it was interesting that when I started teaching then, there was a cultural revolution of writers that moved away from the experiments of Barthelme and Barth with writing as writing into, "Oh, we're going to go back to writing realistic narrative in the 19th century," and Chekhov became sort of the model.

Michael Martone:  And so, the question about tension was, I now was going out into the world, into the explosion of creative writing classes where most people were now using, say, John Gardner's book on how to write, and championing the notion of realistic narrative, and actually sort of poo-pooing and denying the kind of writing that Barthelme did, and sort of like I do. It's only sort of literary games playing, and it's too cerebral, there's no heart to it. And so there was a tension, culturally, that really what you should be writing are these stories, but I, you know, was still in the tradition of the kind of lyric fiction-making, as opposed to narrative story-telling.

Michael Martone:  In the larger culture, I don't think people make a distinction. "Oh, he's a short story writer." And it's always been there, in writing, the sort of self-conscious textual interest writing, as opposed to this other writing which its main thing, its main strategy is to be transparent. Orwell talks about it, other people talk about it, that you want your reader to go into a kind of waking dream. And so, if you're that kind of writer, anything written that the takes the reader out of that position of being in a dream, and I'm there, and I can see it, you want to get rid of it.

Michael Martone:  But, in this other type of writing, my type of writing, I am constantly telling the reader that the reader is reading. So there's a tension culturally about that. And I think in 1980, there was this change, and one of the things that changed is the explosion of creative writing after 1980. All of a sudden now, you had to have teachers who could teach you how to write. I don't know if you know a Barthelme story, or a Barth or a Robert Cooper story, but those are conceptual stories, or a Borges story. That can't be taught, but I can teach you the conventions, because they're stable, of how to do a narrative realistic story, with a ground situation, an inciting incident, rising action, climax, and I can teach you, "Don't use exclamation points. You don't call attention to this printed thing."

Michael Martone:  And so, with all of teachers now teaching how to write, we're going to go back to the time before television, before movies, before the internet. We're going to go back and teach you the 19th century story-telling.

Alex Chambers:  Because that's what's teachable.

Michael Martone:  That's what's teachable. Because its conventions and its strategies of how to put together a thing like that, are stable.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Michael Martone:  And so, I think a lot of people said, "Yeah!" And a lot of administrators, a lot of colleges said, "That's great, you now have a subject matter." But you could have conceived, and I conceived of the classroom differently. That is, here it is, here's a space, you figure out what you want to do and I'll help you go wherever you want to go, as opposed to having very strict rules about composition that you followed.

Alex Chambers:  And rules that are assumptions, actually, often unspoken.

Michael Martone:  Oh yeah. And, of course, all those rules filter down into, let's say, freshmen composition in high school things. When it comes to things like, "Use strong verbs and nouns, don't use adverbs or adjectives, " those kinds of rules were already in the culture, because again, they're teachable. And so when you adapt those composition rules up to now the creative writers who are coming into the university, made for a heady thing. That really held sway from 1980 to around the early '90s, approximately 15 years. Most creative writing programs privileged narrative realism, and most of the literary fiction that was being published, was narrative realism.

Michael Martone:  But two things happened in the '90s or so. One was the writer, Kelly Link. Kelly Link was not in the university, and there were other people, too, around her at that time. She began writing non-realistic story-telling, non-realistic narrative; that is fairy tales, genre. All of a sudden, that was happening. On the other side, in my side which was non-narrative realism, a magazine began called McSweeney's, and McSweeney's also was outside of the university. And both of those things became incredibly popular, and gave the culture an alternative to what one should aspire to, plus, it was addressing students that now were coming out of homes that had always had the computer.

Alex Chambers:  And so, part of what you're saying is that there have been stylistic changes as a result?

Michael Martone:  Yeah. It's interesting to say when was the time in our literary history, that writers stopped using a pen and started using the typewriter? Mark Twain is a kind of point there. And, you know, he was working at a time where you were being paid by the number of words, so the books were fat and all of that. And famously, you know, Hemingway's style supposedly was derived from another technology. Hemingway was in Europe using the telegraph to send stories back, and you wanted to use the fewest words in order to save money. So, the technological connection of how writing is written actually influences the style. It isn't so much that Hemingway said, "Well, I'm going to do this and all these these brief things," he was forced to do that and create a style out of the technological way he was writing.

Michael Martone:  Another good example, I think, is Gravity's Rainbow. He wrote that on a typewriter. I was writing on a typewriter. I mean I was amazed by Gravity's Rainbow. How in the world did he gain all this knowledge, this encyclopedic knowledge, how did he do this? And then when he got to Mason Dixon, I was on a computer, he was on a computer. And, like, oh, I wanna know whether or not tinsel is in the forest, I just, you know, open a tab. And it transformed the writing, even of a writer like Thomas Pynchon.

Alex Chambers:  I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Infinite Jest; I got kind of obsessed with David Foster Wallace for a while. And one of the reasons that I was so interested in him at the time was that I had also been reading some of these writers that you're talking about as well, Pynchon especially and DeLillo. And I had felt like it felt so heady and intellectual, like these games that you were talking about earlier on. One of the things that I at least found in David Foster Wallace was also the heart piece, you know, the desire to work through feelings and to think about human experience in a way, that's not just like an interest in the text. I kind of argued in my thesis that he was doing an interesting job of bringing those two things together. So, I'm curious. You're interested in textuality and I also feel like you're interested in feeling as well, right? Totally?

Michael Martone:  Oh definitely. And that for me, was the interesting question. If the attack is that this is cold, textual and heartless and too brainy. In fact, Raymond Carver, in, the one essay he wrote about writing fiction, he said, "No more tricks. No more tricks." And of course, he's got the biggest trick of all. So, Barth had an interesting response, as far as, if the attack is going to be that you are non-emotional, that you're too brainy, too intellectual, too trickery, he said, "Okay, wait a minute." He said, "One of the most emotional realistic depictions in all of literature, is when Priam, in the Iliad, goes to Achilles, and he even did it in the movie with Brad Pitt, on his knees, and begs Achilles for the body of Hector his son, back.

Michael Martone:  Everyone agreed, incredibly emotional, it's done realistically, you forget that you're there, you're in the dream. It's very emotional." He said, "But, there's another thing that we can think about. In the Aeneid, Aeneas, the other son of Priam, has escaped Troy and they're going to eventually go to Rome, but they end up in Carthage. At Carthage he leaves Priam. Instead of carrying him on his back, he leaves Priam back on the shore, and he goes inland and they're building a Temple. And in the pediment of the Temple, they're putting up the statues, and the scene they're using is Priam on his knees, begging from Achilles the body of Hector back from being dragged around the city, an Aeneas falls on his knees.

Michael Martone:  Now, Barth said, that's not only an emotional scene, but it's a more emotional scene, because it's self-consciously about literature. So, he would argue that you're bringing various kinds of synthetic emotions or creating various kinds of synthetic emotions, not only the actual emotion of Priam begging for Hector's body back, but the reading of that scene. So, that was his argument for this. And I think that was what David was doing, and what I was trying to do is, in some ways, admitting that the emotion of writing and the emotion of reading is a valid emotion as opposed to just the actual emotion of say, a fist fight, or of an argument.

Michael Martone:  You know, in recreating a real sort of conflict and emotion, creates a synthetic reaction that if you double it, or triple it, it actually is a different kind of emotion, that you can get to the heart through the head, not just through the gut. But again, narrative realism and that style of writing emphasizes sensory detail, try to get the senses involved, and we don't trust the brain. Don't tell, show. But the real trick, I think, which I believe that's what David was doing, and what I was trying to do, is to tell and show.

Alex Chambers:  If you're just tuning in, you're probably listening to the radio and not the podcast. This is Inner States, from WFIU, and we're talking with writer, Michael Martone. Martone lives in Alabama, but he's from Fort Wayne and the bulk of his fiction is based in Indiana. It's time for a break. When we come back, we talk about how his approach to teaching changed over his 40-year career. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. We're talking this week with Michael Martone. He's a Hoosier, a writer. In 2020, he retired from a long teaching career that included me as his student. Let's get back to it.

Alex Chambers:  So, thinking about teaching, you've been teaching for...

Michael Martone:  40 years.

Alex Chambers:  ...40 years. I imagine you got clearer about what you were trying to do as a teacher over the years?

Michael Martone:  Yeah. I think there were a couple of turning points. But one thing I'd like to say, and I might have said that to you before, when you were a student, is that Hopkins was a one year program. I don't know how I wrote a book in nine months and, of course, it wasn't even in nine months because we were still typing at the time. So, it really had to be done in six months, so it could be typed perfectly for the thesis. Then, I was hired as an instructor at Hopkins for one year. And then, because it was all do, and this expansion was happening, I got hired at Iowa State University in 1980, so I was 25. But I got hired, and it's hilarious now, because usually it now takes two books to even be considered. I got hired on having published two stories. I know, I know. Well, in a lot of ways I feel like I was at the gateway of this cultural phenomena, the MFA Program, but also sort of at its ending point too.

Michael Martone:  Anyway, so I was at Iowa State and I was beginning to teach my workshops, and I honestly remember doing this, that a student came in with a story. You know, in a workshop it is that way. You don't say, "Do this, this and this and write a story." You say, "Write your story, bring it in and we'll look at it." So, the kid brought in a story that had to do with Gundam Wing. Do you know who Gundam Wing is? It's Japanese anime, mechanical suits that type of thing, so it was a fan fiction. This is in 1980. I remember myself saying this, because this is what I thought I had to do, and that was, "This is really interesting, Billy. Have you read Chekov, though?" And so, even though the advertised position of creative writing was "We're creative, anything can be art", I already was not just in a position of thinking I knew more than the student writer, but I had things that I thought it was really important he should know and should have read.

Michael Martone:  And I think I was young, and that was what was around. It was only later, and I think had a lot to do with the election of George Bush, and the return in education generally to an idea of assessment and judgment and standards, that got me thinking about being a teacher that is what I call a fiduciary. You know fiduciary, right?

Alex Chambers:  Remind me?

Michael Martone:  Well, usually people think of fiduciary when it comes to economic stuff, banks or fiduciaries.

Alex Chambers:  Right, like a trust.

Michael Martone:  Yeah, and that's what it means. It's a trust. You put your money in the bank, and you trust them to hold that money safely until you identify yourself and you get it back, and maybe with some interest. Well, the university is a fiduciary. It holds knowledge that I don't know. I don't know calculus, I gotta go to the fiduciary, and this is why college education makes sense. You go to the fiduciary, you sit in a lecture hall. The fiduciary, the person who has the knowledge, lectures and transfers that knowledge to me, and that knowledge transfer can be examined, how well that was transferred. And you can make a grade on that, that makes sense. Now I have the degree, or I have the knowledge transferred to me, and what the university can do is raise you by degree.

Michael Martone:  That's what it is. Now you're raised by a degree to a fiduciary. Okay, so, that's ancient and that makes sense. It makes sense in biology. I don't know that stuff. Math, I almost failed finite math at IU three times! But, then for some crazy cultural reason, writers and artists come into the university. I can remember them saying, "We want you to be crazy. But can you give grades? We really need grades." There's just an institutional, and it's ancient and it's important disciplines, hierarchies, all of that operates in the institution. And then all of a sudden, you're an artist in the institution. What I came to realize is, I know nothing that is going to help a writer become the writer they want to be.

Michael Martone:  There's nothing I know that I can give you, or that I gave you, that will make you the writer that you are. What I needed to do was provide a kind of protected space for you to do that, and for me to be available to you in any way I could. So, with the onset of the return of education back to standards, and you know, all of that during the Bush administration, what I became really interested in was a kind of alternative, and not just in university, but in alternative education that comes out of Montessori, and the whole idea of the Montessori classroom. There were huge differences, right?. In a fiduciary model, the professor stands at the front of the class and the desks are like this.

Michael Martone:  In the Montessori model, the classroom is arranged with various areas of stuff, of play. And Montessori famously said, "A child's play is his work." So, over here is a kitchen, here's a library, there's a sandbox with manipulatives, here's a dress-up place. And I did this with my undergraduate students. A Montessori teacher will meet the child at the door and say, "Bobby, what would you like to do today?" And Bobby said, "Well, I think I'll be in the kitchen today." "Great! I've got some new grapefruit." You'd go in there, the assistant will help you cut it open. "Well, we'll talk about it later." Then, you can maybe introduce math concepts, whatever.

Michael Martone:  But the whole thing is, is that the child leads the exploration and the teacher helps in that exploration. A lot of universities said, "Oh, yes, we're student driven." But not really. So, it was at that time that I began thinking about that, and especially the interesting phenomena that I saw in those early years, of students who have gone out of their way to apply to schools, and they've been writing their entire lives, and they think they're going to find the community. And then they get to the university and they can't write. I told you, it took me six months to write a book. But I had a four year program, and I had students who took all four years and maybe couldn't even do their thesis yet. They were completely frozen. And they were frozen by this notion that there was a right way of doing a story, and a wrong way.

Michael Martone:  And now that they were in, even though it didn't seem to be, they were just so conscious of it being a competition, and being that we were no longer a creative writing class, but a critical writing class. That's where I said, what is it that is causing my writers not to write? One thing I did, is I stopped calling them students and they were writers. What is causing these writers, who love to write, but now they don't love to write? And at the time too, there was a thing called the Pizza Hut Reading Program. Were you in that Pizza Hut Reading Program?

Alex Chambers:  No. But I know the reference because of Alfie Kohn.

Michael Martone:  Alfie Kohn! I was reading Alfie Kohn. And yeah, that anecdote actually happened to my son too. He knew how to read, he loved to read, he got into second grade, we're going to put him in the Pizza. And we said, "No, we don't want him in that." He said, "Oh no, he'll love it. He'll read far more." And, no.

Alex Chambers:  And just so people know, if you're not familiar with the Pizza Hut Program. It's a situation where kids are supposedly motivated to read by getting pizza at the end of having read a certain number of books or pages.

Michael Martone:  Yeah. And then you got a point and the point led to pizzas, and the kid would love the pizza. And we said, "No, that's not going to happen." And so Kohn says, and it actually happened to our kid is that all of a sudden reading became very difficult. Because adults had told him, that what you should aspire to is the pizza, as opposed to the book, which earlier had been the pizza. He read the book because it was the reward. And so, the pedestrian notion of education of sticks and carrots to get a kid to do what you want, is not looking at the kid saying, what is a kid wanting to do, and helping him to do that.

Alex Chambers:  And I think also, so many people who end up in MFA programs, I would think, are probably people who were like me, who were very good in school and very good at getting good grades, and doing the things that the teachers wanted us to do.

Michael Martone:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  And so we came with the sense that, "Oh, now I'm going to learn to be a writer, and I'm going to be taught the skills that it takes to be a writer." I mean, I was frustrated at times as a student in your program.

Michael Martone:  Yeah. Exactly, but it's the same thing as the pizza. That all of a sudden these writers, who had written journals and stories and all of that, are now in a situation where it's like, "Well, what I should really, on the basic level, desire is an A. What I should really desire is publication. What I should really desire is not publication but publication in this specific magazine, as opposed to this magazine."

Alex Chambers:  And one way to know that I'm on the way there, is to get the teacher the credential teacher in the workshop to say, "Your story is doing well, your story is good."

Michael Martone:  Yeah, yeah, that's right. So, what happens is people don't write, because it all either has to be great or it's nothing. And so at the same time I was reading Kohn and Montessori, I was also interested in William Stafford and Stafford's ideas of the workshop. I had already moved into a descriptive workshop, where I didn't do, you know, "This is good, this is bad." And also the writings of Carol Bly and examining the idea of the gag roll. So, the workshop had evolved to the point, as I inherited it, to wanting to be a simulation of an editorial board, and the writer, in submitting the work, has now submitted to this magazine editorial board.

Michael Martone:  The reason that then the writer in the workshop is told to be quiet as people talk about the writing, so as not to enter in with if somebody said, "Well, you didn't do this here," then the writer has to sit quietly to hear that criticism, and can't say, "I was going to do that." You were supposed to say, "No, we're not going to have arguments about what your intent was." And so, I was interested in the frame of what the workshop was, and what the workshop had evolved to was this editorial board. But actually, the good model for the workshop was what those writing students did after the workshop and that is, they all got up, they went to a bar, or they went to each other's houses and they sat around and talked about their writing.

Michael Martone:  The writer they were talking about wasn't staying quiet. The writer would say, "There's this point where I'm trying to get this person from this room into this other room, and I did this, but what do you think I should do to do that?" Then you're friends, you're in the community, they say, "Well, have you thought about that?" You could actually break point of view there. That is what a workshop should be, and the way it was set up, it wasn't set up that way. It was set up as a transaction, which also damaged the people who were not the writers. They were put into the role, not as writers, they were put into the role as critics and editors. And so the Hypoxic Workshop came about, when I realized that if you have a class of 12, the tradition would be to break into four groups of three, and every fourth week you will have a story up, but the other weeks, you operate as a critic.

Michael Martone:  So, here you have a creative writing workshop, in which most of the time the people who are in the class, are criticizing, they're critics. They're not operating as writers. So, I had a whole department filled with critics. Why was I training these writers to be critics? That's what that class was all about. So that was the end result of a lot of things.

Michael Martone:  Going back to Stafford. Stafford also said, "No praise, no blame." That is, everybody looked to the head of the table, to me, as the final critic. And Stafford was very good, and I tried very hard to do this, not to say like the writers in a workshop, "Well, we could be really hard on each other, but we have to say a good thing, too, about this piece." But Stafford points out, "No praise, no blame." And so, my response was always, You're doing this, you're doing that, this is interesting. I'm not clear here. What's going on there?" Asking a writer who is not gagged, to take me through the story and this is what I'm responding to, and this isn't what I'm responding to. But not saying, this is good or this is bad.

Michael Martone:  Because as he points out, it doesn't matter if I told you, as a writer, you know, that you're great, you're terrific, or, if I say to you, "You're bad, this is really awful, this is a piece of crap." And if you're whining about it, you know, "Buck up fella!" It doesn't matter. Because all the student will hear is, "I am your teacher and I have the power to say this or that. It's only something that I am using, to actually show the distinction between me, the teacher, you, the student." And that's another reason why I stopped calling my students, students. Because they were not students, they were writers.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a break. You're listening to Inner States. We're talking with writer and teacher, Michael Martone about, well, writing and teaching. When we come back, we'll talk about what it means to be an Indiana writer. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. We're talking this week with writer, Michael Martone. He retired in 2020 from teaching in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama. Martone was influenced early on by Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift, which is about how art needs to be shared freely, not commodified, not graded.

Michael Martone:  And that's what's so interesting about the cultural history of creative writing in the university. My view of creative writing and creating this, or making art, is that it is horizontal, it spreads. But the university is just existentially involved in a vertical structure of hierarchies. In my undergraduate class, I would be at the door welcoming them into the classroom on the first day. And the first thing I'd say to them is, "You all get A's. There's nothing you can do in this class." It's an elective class. "You've elected to come here to this writing class. You all get A's, there's nothing you can do that will make me change that grade. You can sleep through the class, you can not show up."

Michael Martone:  And I said, "So this maybe is a very easy class. But here's the hard part of it." I said, "Really, perhaps, the only thing you've learned in the 12 years of your school experience, as you've been sitting in a classroom forever, is to come into a classroom and as quickly as possible figure out what I want, so you can get what you want, which is the A. And the hard part of this class is, I don't want anything. No skin off my nose. I mean, I still get paid. I might get a little buzz from the Dean that I'm giving too many A's out, but I don't care. Because I'm not interested in educating you that way. So, I don't care. But I don't care carefully." And what was really amazing is that I would get two or three people drop the class, because they did not know what they wanted. They had been so trained, of course, to want the A, but they were also existentially sort of faced with their own, "What do I want?"

Alex Chambers:  So, in the MFA program at the beginning of the year, we would have this big gathering, where everyone who was in the program would gather in the one room upstairs, and I'm forgetting the name of the building.

Michael Martone:  Well, it used to be called Morgan, but it has been renamed The English Building.

Alex Chambers:  The English Building, yes!

Michael Martone:  But I like to call it, The Mildew Hall, because it also was pretty mildewy.

Alex Chambers:  So that big room on the third floor of Mildew Hall.

Michael Martone:  301.

Alex Chambers:  301. We would all be in there. And I remember one year, someone gave the prompt, maybe you, for all of us to go around and say something we liked. And it got to you and you said your name, "I'm Michael Martone, I like liking things." And then maybe you listed trains and some other things too. But I just wonder if that liking of liking things has been a part of your approach to writing and art, and thinking about your relationship to making things, and to teaching?

Michael Martone:  I think it has, in that going back to what we were talking about with workshops and teachers and actually training critics. I don't know if you were there, we brought in Janet Burroway. She has a famous series of how to write textbooks, and she was giving a lecture about that. And one thing she said was, "When I enter a text, I begin immediately to say whether this is good or bad. I begin to make judgments about it." And she was making that as a kind of general, yeah, everybody's agreeing with that, sort of thing. And in the question and answer thing, I said to her, "Janet, I beg to differ. When I pick up a text, something that I'm reading, I don't pick it up to make a decision about its quality. I pick it up because I'm curious. Now I may lose interest, but I'm reading a text in a curious way."

Michael Martone:  I think it had to be, and maybe that's why is it that I talk so much about trains, or I talk so much about peonies that I love. When I do that, I think if I am a teacher and one of the things I wanted to teach you was to see the world in a curious way, as opposed to a critical way, and that is incredibly difficult when you are embedded in a huge ancient critical institution. It wants to do that, it wants to say, "This is no good, this is good, this is right, that is wrong," and you're trying to teach young artists how to be curious in the context of incredible, critical thinking.

Alex Chambers:  Okay. I need to jump in here and say something to you, listener, rather than Michael Martone. There was more to our conversation. From the critical apparatus of the university, that brought on a discussion of the challenges MFA programs are facing now and why Martone thinks they may be on their last legs. Interesting stuff. But, as you know, Inner States is partly about the mid-west and what it means to live here, and write, and make art here. I've already said that Martone is very interested in place, Indiana in particular, so I asked him why place has been such a focus for him.

Michael Martone:  It's interesting having lived in Tuscaloosa for 26 years, but still my writing is mainly about Indiana. If I'm in Indiana, as I am now, and even in your introduction you were hedging that way. That is, if somebody on the street on Kirkwood says, "Well what do you do?" I say, "Oh, I write." And, "What do you write about?" And I say, "Well, I write about Indiana." Usually the response will be, "Well, why? There's nothing here, so how interesting is that?" But the notion of what an Indiana writer is, is interesting. Because, my undergraduate students in the south for example, if somebody says, "I'm going to write about Alabama," everybody says, "Well what took you so long? Of course you'd write about Alabama, because we're so interesting."

Michael Martone:  And so, what was interesting to me, being a mid-western writer, and committing myself to writing about the mid-west and Indiana, is that particular notion, that our stories, our culture, isn't worthy of artistic production. That choice of writing about Indiana actually probably hurt me when it came to, say, reviews by the New Yorker, you know what I mean? Because regionalism, or writing about a particular region, without also making gestures to a larger modernist idea of a kind of world literature. Maybe if I'd made certain other decisions, I'd be more better known, as you were saying, that I'm known in the writing world, but not maybe out of it.

Michael Martone:  Or, if I wrote realistic narrative and that could be made into a movie at the end, then alright. But the funny thing is, I've been on panels with other Indiana writers, and they complain, "Well, we don't get reviewed by the New York Times or all that." And I said, "I don't care if the New York Times reviews me or not. I really want the Indianapolis Star to review me. Not only that, I want people in Indianapolis to read me." But the interesting thing is, of course, probably people who've read me are more outside of the state of Indiana, than in the state of Indiana. So I think it's disingenuous to say, "Oh, the larger culture in the world doesn't care about us Indiana writers," I'm fine with that. I think it's sad that Indiana readers don't care about Indiana writers, that we have to work hard to even do that..

Michael Martone:  Or, we wait until someone like Vonnegut is recognized by the cultural centers of the world, to say, "Oh now he's worth reading," but, that we have our own particular stories to tell each other. The south doesn't have that problem. The south, they don't care. They are all into their culture.

Alex Chambers:  It's great to hear you talk about that actually, I'm glad we got there. Because I've been thinking about that with this show, too, of wanting to do a show that really is about Indiana and the mid-west. And not always talking about Indiana in the mid-west explicitly, but that lives here and is based here, and that it doesn't necessarily need to speak more broadly.

Michael Martone:  That's the interesting puzzle to me my entire writing life. I guess this also goes back to John Barth as well, who is a Maryland writer and he uses Maryland a lot, and what I learned from him a lot, was writing about plays, though, you know, a lot of people know him more for his experimentations and other things, but he is a regional writer. But it was interesting that I was there at the same time that Michener was there doing his book, Chesapeake, and Barth was writing about Maryland. So, it was very instructive because Michener would use things like, you know, crab cakes and duck decoys, and all the sort of received notions of what a place is. And Barth was very good at finding its real uniqueness, not the things that were in the airport souvenir shop.

Michael Martone:  And so it's always interesting to me, to try to find, in Indiana, what I think in the mid-west, are the real unspoken invisible things, as opposed to just saying, well, "Here they are sitting at the kitchen table eating sugar cream pie, and watching a basketball game, and, you know, there's corn out in the field." Those things, I think, in media of course, it's very important to make those kinds of references to help us so, "Oh yeah, I'm not in Kansas anymore. Kansas is where the weed is." But if you're going to really write about a place, what is it that has really shaped something that is so Indiana, that it isn't even recognizable? It's the water of Indiana and you're going to fish in it. You know, and how is it that you can get to that?

Michael Martone:  Like, the Great Migration of 1920 and earlier, that brought African-American people up from the south, through Indiana, is there, but it's not so much in the sugar cream pie, and the usual thinking of Indiana. We talk about crossroads, but we don't really examine that, which I think is uniquely Indiana, this cross mixture of things. Instead, we again sort of want to hold into a kind of early 1900 time that never was, but we want to believe.

Alex Chambers:  Right. I'm just thinking of a million more questions, but this is great.

Michael Martone:  Well, maybe we can do it again some time.

Alex Chambers:  Great. That sounds great. Thank you so much.

Michael Martone:  Yeah, well thank you.

Alex Chambers:  That was writer, Michael Martone, in Bloomington, Indiana for the Granfalloon Festival in last June. Martone's latest book, Plain Air, came out last fall.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits. Innerstates is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Or theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from Amy and Justin, and the artists at Universal Production Music.

Alex Chambers:  Alright. Time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was part of a very long train, crossing a road in Arba in Indiana, just north of Fort Wayne. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.

Michael Martone

Writer Michael Martone outside the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Jeremy Butler)

Michael Martone is not your typical fiction writer. He doesn’t tend to write stories with characters who go through some sort of conflict and come out changed on the other side of it. He’s more interested in playing with the frame of literature. His latest book, which came out in September from Baobab Press, is Plain Air: Sketches from Winesburg, Indiana. It's a series of monologues from various inhabitants of this fictional town based on another fictional town. He’s written what might be the only science fiction book based in Indiana: The Moon Over Wapakoneta: Fictions and Science Fictions from Indiana and Beyond. He wrote a book imagining an archive of writings by Art Smith, a pioneer of skywriting from Martone’s hometown of Fort Wayne. For a while, he sent contributors’ notes to literary journals, asking that they be published in the “Contributors’ Notes” sections, even though he hadn’t contributed anything but the note itself. Those short fictions (and nonfictions) are collected in Michael Martone by Michael Martone. And, of course, there’s The Blue Guide to Indiana, a travel guide featuring destinations like the Tomb of Orville Redenbacher and the Trans-Indiana Mayonnaise Pipeline. He published a few of those descriptions in local newspapers, and once got a phone call from people who’d gone to get their hair done at the convent in Jasper called Our Lady of the Big Hair and Feet. They couldn’t find it, because it didn’t exist.

Writing, for Martone, is about a lot more than publishing capital-L Literature. It’s also about exploring how we frame the frame itself, to engage a Martonian phrase. He’s interested in what makes us consider a piece of writing literary or not, fiction or not, real or not. Teaching writers to explore those conceptual questions is a lot harder than teaching them how to write a conventional narrative, with characters and rising and falling action. That might be why he’s an unconventional teacher, too, although he’s not ultimately trying to create writers in his mold. His goal is to give writers the space to figure out what they want to do. He starts all his workshops telling his students they all get A’s, and there’s nothing they can do to change that.

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne and, as the contributor’s note says, went to the public school there. He might be the writer who’s written the most about his birth state of Indiana, at least since James Whitcomb Riley and Gene Stratton-Porter. Alongside all this writing, he’s been teaching a few generations of writers in graduate writing programs. The last one he taught in was the University of Alabama, which he retired from in 2020. Maybe you’ve heard of him, maybe you haven’t. He’s fairly well-known in the writing world, and, as far as I can tell, unfairly unknown outside of it. He’s been a beloved teacher to forty years of writing students. He came to Bloomington recently for the Granfalloon literary festival, where a few of his works had been adapted for the stage. We talked about writing lyrical vs. narrative fiction, how the rise of creative writing programs shaped the style of American literary fiction, why he doesn’t give grades in his classes, and what it means to be an Indiana writer. 


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from Amy and Justin, and from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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