Dislocation and the Birth of a Writer

I imagine that most of us, given our druthers, would choose to live an orderly, measured life, but, of course, we know that isn’t possible. Something always goes wrong, either a small bump, or a life-altering event. I’ve come to think that such changes are necessary to the writer. Some sort of dislocation occurs, and we write in response to it.

At least, it’s always been that way for me. As many of you know, when I was barely a year old, my father lost both his hands in a farming accident. My mother took me to live with my aunt and uncle while my father was in the hospital. When he finally came home, carrying with him a deep anger, and I was reunited with my parents, the lives we lived as a family were forever changed. I grew up with a sharp awareness of how life can separate into before and after. I also knew early on the desire to return us to a stable place. I couldn’t articulate any of this then, but surely I felt it deep inside me—the feeling that we were in trouble, that my father’s accident and his subsequent anger made loving in the way we had before that day impossible. Our day to day lives would always be shadowed by the accident and all it had cost my father, my mother, and me. We’d literally been lifted from one life and set down into another.

Isn’t this what narratives do? Don’t they usually open in the midst of some sort of instability, some sort of trouble—some sort of dislocation, if you will? Don’t our characters—whether they be ones we invent, or whether they be ones we represent in memoir—strive with their words and actions to return to a place of stability?

It’s interesting to me, then, to think about the role dislocation plays in the process by which we become writers. I should say here that dislocation doesn’t always come from large events like my father’s accident. Sometimes it comes from something smaller and more manageable. For instance, I moved with my parents from our farm in southeastern Illinois to a southern suburb of Chicago when I was seven. Suddenly, I was the new kid in a land very culturally different from the rural home I’d left. Or how about the time when my father took me into the small town closest to our farm one Saturday so I could watch the cartoon shows at the high school gymnasium. How foreign the other kids seemed to me even though we lived only ten miles apart. In all of these cases, my senses became heightened. I watched closely, observing the way people behaved, the clothes they wore, their mannerisms, etc. I cataloged everything I could that might be useful to me if I wanted to fit in. My desire was to be normal, to feel that I belonged, to believe that everything would be all right. In a way, I suppose I started constructing narratives in my mind that convinced me that life could return to a safe, familiar place. I could stop my father’s accident from happening, I could keep us on the farm, I could be a kid just like the kids I saw around me in that gym.

I suppose I’ve always written to try to save someone. Narrative exists for me because I believe in redemption even when, often, life itself doesn’t seem convinced such salvation is possible. I obsess over my father’s accident. I’m sure some of you think I write about it and the aftermath way too much. But, you see, I can’t stop, and I guess that’s because I don’t want to accept the fact that the accident happened and threw my parents and me into a different life, one more challenging and difficult. I keep trying to write my way back to a better place. I do the same when I write fiction. I create characters who have their own troubles, their own dislocations, and I tell their stories in hopes that they, too, can return to less troubled lives.

The point of all this? To invite you to think about your own moments of dislocation, large or small. To recall what it felt like to be the person you were at those times. To think about how you tap into those feelings each time you write.

Stay tuned. I’m feeling my way through these thoughts, and I have more thinking to do. Please feel free to help me with your comments. Perhaps next week I’ll have a writing exercise to help us put to use the sorts of things I’m asking us to do.


  1. Roy Bentley on July 24, 2017 at 7:58 am

    A big thanks, Lee, for continuing to put what we do into words. (My guess is, we have an expectation of delight too, as humans, that keeps colliding with those dislocations.)

    • Lee Martin on July 25, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      Roy, I’m fascinated with your thoughts about the expectation of delight that collides with dislocations. Could you say more about that?

  2. Katie Andraski on July 24, 2017 at 9:25 am

    I have been wondering how does a person write about suffering without it turning into a victim story. I like how you talk about dislocation as something to write about because you’re not asking us to write about our secrets. This is more doable. I

    • Lee Martin on July 25, 2017 at 3:38 pm

      Thanks for this comment, Katie. It helps take my thinking further. I think you’re right that if we write about the dislocation itself–the details from being the new kid at school, for example, we invite the darker, more secretive aspects to reside inside those details. Thanks!

  3. HeidI Stauff on July 24, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    I don’t think you could write enough about your father’s accident and the effects it had on you and your family. I find people’s lives so intriguing and multi-faceted.

    Often, when I am talking with other writers, their backgrounds are more fascinating than anything they could make up, but they don’t realize it because it’s their normal.

    I would love some writing exercises! Most of the writer groups I’ve joined are the blind leading the blind. It is rare to find experienced writers willing to share their knowledge outside of an MFA program. Someday, when my kids are older, I hope to get my MFA. In the meantime, blogs like yours are very helpful! Thank you for taking the time!

    • Lee Martin on July 25, 2017 at 3:40 pm

      Hi, Heidi! It’s a good point about writers sometimes not trusting that their own experiences are interesting. I think it was John Updike who once said if you can’t make something memorable out of the teacups and the jam and the butter knives (the small things), then you’ll never be able to make something memorable out of the large things. I plan to have a writing exercise in my next post.

  4. Maureen on July 24, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    Once again thanks Lee for revealing yet another layer in writing. Todays blog brings to mind “Felt Sense” a term i first became aware of in an older blog of yours.

    In that blog you had written, ” Often the thing we´ve come to say in an essay hovers just at the periphery of our first drafts and in us as well”

    I believe one way we can locate our moments of dislocation, especially the very small ones, could be an awareness of felt sense – that subtle and vague feeling of discomfort we encounter in life , many times oblivious to its origin.

    • Lee Martin on July 25, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      Yes, Maureen! I like what you say about felt sense. I think just writing about the details around one at a time of dislocation will touch that felt sense of what that experience was like.

  5. Evelyn Krieger on July 24, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Hi Lee. I recently wrote about how we write hard stories, also related to trying to put the unthinkable into words. I like the idea of “dislocation”. Thank you for sharing this and giving me more to think about.

    • Lee Martin on July 25, 2017 at 3:42 pm

      Thank you, Evelyn!

  6. Sue Smart on July 30, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    My first response to the word “dislocation” conjured up images of extreme pain, like a dislocated shoulder. I checked the dictionary and sure enough, the medical definition was the second meaning: “Injury or disability caused when the normal position of a joint or other part of the body is disturbed.”

    Ten years ago, I suffered a torn rotator cuff on my right shoulder and underwent surgery a few months later to repair the damaged joint. Even though it was not a dislocated shoulder, the pain was quite intense–yes, excruciating at times–and my recovery was difficult and extremely slow.

    I believe this “sense of dislocation” you have described for the writer encompasses probably some of the most intensely painful and agonizing times in our lives.

    I value your insight on this topic of dislocation (and have to admit I had a very brief flashback to that painful experience with my shoulder injury)! Thanks again, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2017 at 11:14 am

      Sue, it’s the normal being disturbed that so often brings us to the page.

  7. Moments of Dislocation on July 26, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    […] We spend a lot of time in our lives and in our writing ruminating on such moments, trying to make them turn out differently. These are what writer Lee Martin calls a moment of dislocation—when people are “lifted out of one life and set down in another.” The one that preoccupies Martin came when his father lost both hands in a farming accident, something he’s written about, directly and indirectly, in memoir, essays, and novels. He says: […]

Leave a Comment