Facing Intimidating Material: How Tall Are You?

When The American Scholar invited the essayist, Brian Doyle, to write something in response to the horrific events of 9/11, Doyle’s replied, “No, there is nothing to write. The only thing to say is nothing. Bow your head in prayer and pray whatever prayers you pray. There is nothing to say.” But, as Jennifer Sinor reports in her piece on voice in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, the events of 9/11 wouldn’t leave Doyle alone, and eventually he realized that in order to move on into the future, he would have to meet that day on the page. The result is the stunning essay, “Leap,” that focuses on a man and a woman who, hand in hand, jumped from the south tower. Sinor rightly tells us that voice results from a writer internalizing his or her subject and then being willing to be vulnerable on the page. Doyle’s essay is a marvelous example of exactly that in the way he immerses himself in the subject matter through research and the way he finds his own stakes there—his sense of his humanity and the human capacity for love.

Whether our subject matter comes from a large national stage as Doyle’s essay does, or whether it comes from something smaller and more individual, as is the case for countless memoirs in which family provides the drama and complexity, all of us who write creative nonfiction face material that is of monstrous size, power, or appearance. We all face our behemoth subjects.

T.S. Eliot once said, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” We should all feel as if we’re in over our heads when we write; that’s how we know we’re writing about something that really matters. So it takes either courage, self-deception, ignorance, or some of all three, to knowingly put ourselves in this position. It takes an endless supply of hope. Writing anything is ultimately an act of faith and love.

Here are some strategies that have helped me face difficult material that threatened to overwhelm me:

  1. A gathering of facts. When I wrote my first memoir, From Our House, I realized that there was so much I didn’t know about my father’s accident that happened when he tried to clear the corn that was clogging up the shucking box of his picker. I didn’t know, for example, what kind of picker he’d been operating that day. I found that information in a news article from the local paper. A Wood Brother’s picker with six snapping rollers. I didn’t know the extent of his injuries. I found that information in the surgeon’s report. The first amputation took the right hand and the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of the left. Three days later, gangrene set in, and then the surgeon had to perform a second round of amputations: three inches above the right wrist and two inches above the left. Facts such as these allowed me to internalize the accident without dealing with the emotional consequences. I was merely reporting.
  1. Small Details. When dealing with large and emotionally charged subject matter, I find it useful to narrow my vision so I’m not intimated by the scope of the material. It’s much easier to describe the card my parents sent to family and friends my first Christmas than it is to write about my father’s violence and temper. The larger subjects are always contained in the smaller ones—paper sacks of Christmas candy, a St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball game on the radio, a pair of P.F. Flyer sneakers. Writing about the small details tricks us into eventually facing the large subject matter inside them.
  1. An attention to landscape. Writing about the physical world is another great way to immerse yourself in your subject. In From Our House, I write early on about a landscape of corn and wheat and bean fields, about the way our gravel roads ran straight and intersected at right angles, about how I, an only child, would stand in our farmyard and watch clouds of dust roll up along those roads as cars drove down them, and how I wished one of them would turn down our lane and pierce the isolation I felt. The landscape holds our emotions, too. Just write a clear description and listen to all that it expresses.
  1. Telling Stories. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. Tell a story. Tell it simply and directly. Tell us what happened.
  1. Writing from the interior. Sooner or later we have to face who we are in the world around us. We have to respond. Eventually, we have to speak from the truest parts of ourselves. When these moments come up in my writing, I have to believe I’m writing to myself. Just me writing to me. That’s how I get the level of intimacy that such writing requires.

Eventually, we have to find out how tall we are. We have to jump in, trusting that through craft and courage we’ll find a way to stand up, not to tower over the behemoth, but to look it in the eye, to know we’ve given it some sort of meaning that respects but also controls its strength.



  1. Bren McClain on September 21, 2015 at 8:35 am

    You continue to inspire me, Lee, with just the right wisdom at the right time. You are one awfully tall man.

  2. Lee Martin on September 21, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    Bless you, Bren. I actually think age has taken almost an inch off my full height 🙂

    • Bren McClain on September 26, 2015 at 7:25 pm

      Actually, Lee, I think age has added an inch to your height.

      • Bren McClain on September 26, 2015 at 7:26 pm

        ….to your FULL height.

      • Lee Martin on September 27, 2015 at 10:22 pm

        You’re so kind, Bren. Thank you!

  3. Britton Swingler on September 22, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Bren said what I was thinking. Having just stepped into the raging yet intoxicating waters of creative nonfiction, I have not yet earned my sea legs. I have a feeling it will take a long while. This, and the post I read the day I submitted my first piece of creative nonfiction, are so timely.

    Now I must depart…I am 2/3 finished with “The Bright Forever,” and am eager to finish it. If I could have read it straight through, I would have done. Masterful, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on September 23, 2015 at 11:17 am

      Britton, thank you so much for the kind words about my post and about TBF. Blessings!

  4. Sharon Gibbs on September 27, 2015 at 5:12 am

    Lee, This post, and like your others, inspires me. Love your writing! I am currently taking an essay writing workshop through Tweetspeak Poetry, and started blogging recently. I will definitely use your strategies. In fact, I will paste your last paragraph near my writing table so I will always remember to grow taller.

    • Lee Martin on September 27, 2015 at 10:22 pm

      Hi Sharon. How kind of you to leave this comment. Thank you! I hope the essay writing workshop goes well for you and that you’ll stop back by from time to time. Thank you so much for reading my blog. Keep doing the good work!

  5. Fanaka on September 30, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Very nice insight and wisdom as to executive a piece of writing. My English Professor had my class read this for homework. I am an (music) artist based in Minneapolis, and also write Poetry. I’m always looking at different & effective ways I can tackle song lyrics and this is very relevant when doing so! Awesome!


    • Lee Martin on September 30, 2015 at 10:11 pm

      Hi, Fanaka. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad to know that this post helped you think about your song lyrics. Keep doing the good work!

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