When pursuing an art, sometimes the most intimidating parts can be the simplest: how does one start, how does one keep at it, what can one do to optimize what one has created. As in any pursuit, when looking for answers we look to those that are currently doing it, and even excelling at it. Gregory Martin is the author of Stories for Boys and Mountain City, both highly acclaimed memoirs, as well as many different essays appearing in magazines and publications like The Kenyon Review and Creative Nonfiction. Mr. Martin teaches Creative Writing at University of New Mexico, and even taught our very own Jeremy Collins. Our conversation with Martin covered questions of writing, the process, and what we can learn to become writers. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions:
C: What was your writing schedule like in high school, when and how long would you write?
GM: I didn't have any kind of writing schedule in high school. But I did write a lot for school—mostly the standard kind of analysis of literature / history papers — but when I was given a creative assignment (like a play or a short story) I went after it with a lot of energy and effort.
C: How did that schedule change transitioning and advancing through college?
GM: In college, I didn't have any writing schedule, either. But I did take a creative writing class as a sophomore, and that really gave me a sense of the different genres, especially a better sense of poetry, which I started writing a lot of after that—mostly melodramatic bad poetry. At that time, I didn't write much unless I felt melancholic, sorry for myself, or deeply moved by what I took to be the absurdity of the world around me. It had to be past midnight and cold and raining out the window. I didn't value then writing about a wide range of emotions, like gratitude or bemusement. I wasn't nearly as interested in making fun of myself as I am now. I took myself very seriously and was somewhat difficult to be around, I suspect, in the way that young writers sometimes can be—full of their own sense of high purpose.
But back to the subject of a schedule: I didn't get serious about any kind of schedule until I got to graduate school. It was my peers who motivated me to do that. The good writers—the ones I admired—were always writing every day, reading every day. They had goals for the weeks and months ahead that they had set for themselves, that weren't set for them by a teacher or semester. They had their own vision of what being productive meant for them, and so in a very gradual way I made a whole series of decisions over the course of a couple of years to up my game, to take myself and my writing more seriously in a very different way than I had before.
C: When did you create your Treadmill Journal schedule? What were the influences?
GM: I created the Treadmill Journal for Jeremy Collins and for his peers and friends when they were my graduate students. I thought it would be a good idea to give them a model of what I thought a serious amount of writing per week looked like. 18 hours a week. And I wanted them to know themselves better—to have a better sense of how their passion and commitment were translating into hours of their week, into how much they were giving to writing compared to how much they were giving to other things. This is important in the long run, because you can be very passionate about writing—you can have it as your life goal—but not actually put all that much time into it every day. The whole goal of the Treadmill Journal is to take inspiration out of the equation. You write because you're a writer and it takes a long time to get something good done—not because you happen to feel inspired or motivated on a particular day.
C: How well have you in the past and do you currently follow your treadmill journal? Were there times you let it go?
GM: The truth is that when I'm really going well, I'm much better than the Treadmill Journal. When I'm motivated and committed, I can easily write 5-8 hours per day, 100 days in a row. When my life allows for it, I can write for 12 hours in a day, no problem. I don't ever think, now, "Well, I've put my three hours in. I better stop now." I just keep going. But it's also true that I take longer breaks than I did when I was a younger writer. I took at least a year off after I published both my books. For me, this is pretty necessary—to recharge the batteries and to figure out what it is that I might want to say, to write about. After the first book was published, and I wasn't writing, I felt guilty, disappointed with myself, like I was letting down “the muse.”
After the second book, I didn't feel bad at all. I savored my time away from writing. I binge-watched Mad Men. I watched a lot of ESPN. I got into professional soccer and learned a lot about the different rules and structure of the English Premier League, so that now, when Chelsea or Everton comes on cable, I know a handful of players on the team and have a rooting interest. I think it has everything to do with relaxing somewhat into my craft and my vocation.
I have less to prove now to myself, or to anyone else, so I don't have to constantly be giving myself a pep talk. I know how to dive back in and flip the switch and get things done. My goal is to have a book manuscript about every 5 years or so, and that gives me some time to goof around, to keep things fun, to have a sense of play about the work, to not always be trying to achieve, but rather to be trying to have something interesting to contribute to the culture.
C: What have been your biggest sources of inspiration, either for topics or for style?
GM: When I was in high school, I loved everything that John Steinbeck wrote. I loved his combination of moral seriousness and justice and his sense of humor and wit. I also loved the landscape he was describing, his affecting and affinity for the underdogs of the world. I can't tell you how many times I read Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row. Now that I think of it his journal that he kept during his writing of The Grapes of Wrath was a real inspiration for me about how any writer really gets the work done, day after day. It taught me intellectually the value of momentum, which in my own writing life, experience has taught me as well.
C: Who are your favorite authors, and what have you learned about writing habits or styles from them?
GM: I'm reading and teaching Alice Munro in my graduate class that meets tomorrow. She's definitely one of my favorite writers, one that I return to again and again. I love the inventiveness of her plots and narrative structures. Her subjects—ordinary family life, domestic life, how time shapes a life and perspective—resonate with me and my own aesthetic more than any other writer I've read. I think the best American writer going today is Dexter Filkins, who writes now for The New Yorker, but who was an embedded journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq with The New York Times. His book The Forever War is excellent, and his essay Atonement is the best thing I've read, in any genre, in the past ten years. I could go on and on because I admire so many writers and reading is one the great joys of my life.
C: Have you ever changed your writing to more closely match other authors, and is that good or bad?
GM: I've changed my writing to emulate other writers so many times on so many occasions that it's impossible to quantify in any way. Basically, that is something that I'm always doing. I'm always being influenced, making conscious and unconscious choices to imitate and emulate and steal from other writers. That's what all writers and all artists do. We're constantly borrowing and sampling one other, constantly making a collage of our own vision and other artists' visions. That's what art is, that's what art does, that's what originality is—knowing the tradition, emulating it, contributing to it.