Writing to Preserve

I lost a pocket comb yesterday. It exists somewhere without me now. It was a black pocket comb, purchased in Anchorage, Alaska, to replace another comb that I lost there. I usually don’t lose combs, but now I’ve lost two in two months.


Loss informs so much of my writing. I’m forever interested in what’s been lost, or what might be lost. Maybe it’s because my father lost his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old. He became a different man, a man of temper, a sometimes violent man. While he was in the hospital, I stayed with my aunt and uncle. She told me in her late years how she would take me to the waiting room at the hospital, and my mother would come down to see me. I wouldn’t let her hold me. I clung to my aunt. I suppose my entire world had been disrupted. I had a home and then I didn’t; I had a father with hands and then suddenly I didn’t. Loss is the legacy of my family. I come back to it again and again in my writing.


I wrote my first novel, Quakertown, because I was fascinated with a lost African-American community in 1920s Texas. A renowned gardener, Henry Taylor, lived in that community before the city of Denton forced it to relocate to inferior land a few miles east of its location. I started my novel with the desire to figure out what it meant to call someplace home and to what lengths someone might go to preserve that place and the family that he was a part of there. I’d just moved to Texas, and I missed my native Midwest. I missed my connections to family members who had passed on, to those who remained, and to the places we’d always thought of as home.


The house where I grew up in the small Illinois town I’ll always think of as home is vacant and in disrepair. Like so many of the homes that I remember from my boyhood, it’s disappearing. Shrubs grow wild around its foundation, the grass is long and in need of mowing. Someone has taken a chainsaw to a fallen tree and left it in sections in the driveway. The garage is falling in on itself. The town itself is disappearing. . .at least the town as I recall it. My high school is gone. I was a member of the last graduating class before consolidation with the school in the next town over. The school building now houses an elementary school. The barber shop where I got my hair cut is gone as is the sundries store where I bought candy and comic books, and where my mother bought my first baseball glove, making the mistake of buying a glove meant for a southpaw, thereby making me ambidextrous. The nursing home where my grandmother lived the last years of her life is gone. The hardware stores where my father went for whatever he needed are gone. I can count at least five grocery stores that no longer exist, and the list goes on. I like to think of all those places and the people who passed through them.


Which leads me to this: Writing is an act of preservation. No matter if we’re creating fictional worlds, we’re saving something, holding onto something, honoring something even if that something is roughed up and ugly and scarred, even if it’s something we wish we’d never known. When we write, we invite some piece of life to return. We’re not just telling stories–real or fictional–or working with language and image in poems. We create in order to contain something, so a reader can say, “Yes, yes. This is how it is, was, will be.”


  1. Ben Greenfield on July 18, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    I suspect, Lee, that the pages we write are the sum of our experiences, in one way or another. Yet, the most “honest fiction” must be divined by parting from our learned realities and giving our characters strong wings to fly, with quirky, colorful feathers to loft, and unique calls for voice.

  2. Richard Gilbert on July 22, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Thank you for this reflection, Lee. So true. Many think writers are propelled by ego, but, really, I agree, it’s loss.

    • Lee Martin on July 23, 2014 at 9:39 pm

      “All art begins in a wound.” Who said that?

      •  Mary Collins on August 2, 2014 at 10:21 pm

        I believe it was John Gardner: “Art begins in a wound….It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work…”

        I shall be at VCFA for the Summer Conference (in Joan’s CNF group). I’ll pack a spare comb, just in case….
        Very much looking forward to attending your craft talk and reading. I get so much from your blogposts. Thank you.

        • Lee Martin on August 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm

          Of course, Mary! Many thanks! I look forward to meeting you at VCFA. Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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