Over twenty years ago, when I'd just started to publish a few short stories, my aunt told me some things about my father and the farming accident that cost him both of his hands. I'd later use that information in a short story called "Small Facts" that I published in Yankee, a New England magazine that I didn't think my aunt, who lived on a farm in southeastern Illinois and who didn't read much of anything, would ever see.
Then came the day when my aunt said she'd been talking to a neighbor who'd been on vacation in Vermont, had stayed at a cozy bed and breakfast, had found a copy of Yankee magazine in her room, had read a little story called "Small Facts," and oh, by the way, she said to my aunt, isn't Lee Martin your nephew?
You have to understand that my family in their rural part of southeastern Illinois could be as fenced in and taciturn as the landscape where the roads ran straight and intersected at right angles. My aunt felt that I'd betrayed her, yes, but most of all she felt I'd betrayed my parents by putting their story in print. She said to me, "I'll never tell you any family stories again. You've got no business broadcasting them to strangers," which is something I've done yet again as I've told you [End Page 121] this story. Which proves you can never trust a writer. Even as a fiction writer, someone who . . . wink, wink . . . made things up, I was already suspect. My aunt didn't know, nor did I, that I'd keep selling out the family, having just now published my third memoir. Had she known what was coming down the pike, she might have shot me. If I'd survived, I would have told that story, too.
I never meant to write creative nonfiction. As I said, I was a fiction writer, but when I got my first tenure-track teaching position and had to teach a graduate workshop in creative nonfiction, I thought maybe I should try to write some of it before I tried to teach others how to write it. So I wrote an essay called "From Our House," about my father's farming accident, the angry man he became, the difficulties he and I had, and the years it took for us to reconcile. It was the first time I'd faced the story of my father head-on, the first time I'd stepped out behind the scrim of fiction and claimed my experience as my own.
The only way I knew how to proceed was by putting to use everything I knew from writing fiction. I knew how to pay attention to details, to trust that the particulars of a world would eventually reveal that world, not only the surface but also the more complicated narratives of what Faulkner called "the old verities and truths of the heart." I'd been doing my best to do exactly that in my short stories, but when I began writing that first piece of memoir—when I spoke directly from my own life—I immediately felt the power that can come from narrating one's own experience, from saying, in essence, "This is me. I'm here to tell the truth. I'm no longer keeping the secrets."
So I began with a simple fact. My father's name at birth was Leroy Martin, but when he started learning cursive handwriting in school he had, for whatever reason, difficulty forming the capital "L." His solution? He dropped the name he would eventually give me, Lee, and became from then on Roy Martin. From that fact, the narrative of his life, and in many ways, of my own life, began to emerge. I opened myself to what it could show me. I did what I knew how to do. I told a story.
I thought I'd write this one essay and that would be that. I'd go back to writing fiction. But a curious...