The Artful Use of a Wound

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher told me I had no imagination. She’d asked us to draw something appropriate for Christmas, and I’d drawn a nativity scene—Joseph and Mary and the Christ child. My teacher, when she saw it, wrinkled her nose. “Clearly,” she said, “you have no imagination.” I’ll admit I never had any real talent for drawing, but I was impressed with this one. In fact, I thought it was one of the best drawings I’d ever done.

My teacher’s comment devastated me. No imagination? I was an only child who often had to entertain myself. I was an avid reader, and I loved television because each medium invited me into imaginary worlds. I used them as inspiration for my own creative works whether that meant trying to write the next Bobbsey Twins mystery or playacting imaginary scenarios that might have easily been episodes on The Rifleman or Combat. I was, like all children, capable of great flights of fancy, but perhaps I was even more inclined to use my imagination because I spent so much of my time alone. I’d always thought of myself as being extremely imaginative. I wrote poems, I wrote songs, I did oral interpretations of notable speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Now to be told I had no imagination? I never forgot my teacher telling me that. I could imagine (yes, I intend the sarcastic use of the word), had I been a different kind of boy, that such a comment might have kept me from ever becoming a writer. Somewhere inside me, though, was a spirit that couldn’t be suppressed. I became that writer, partly because I wanted to create more fiercely than I wanted to stop, and partly because I had no choice. I was merely following my natural talents to see where they might take me.

Even now, whenever an editor or an agent or a friend points out the shortcomings of my art, I remember that moment when my fourth-grade teacher said the hurtful thing she said, and I think how lucky I am to have used her insult to armor myself against the inevitable disappointments that were to come. There’s a lesson here about knowing yourself and not letting anyone else divert you from the path you know you’ve been chosen to walk. There’s a lesson about perseverance and how to use our wounds to make ourselves stronger, more determined, more dedicated to the necessary work.

There’s also a lesson for those of us who write fiction and/or creative nonfiction. Often, a character operates behind a façade, one they may not even know they’ve constructed. They think of themselves as a particular kind of person, only to have someone break down that façade and show them another aspect of the self that they’ve hidden or denied. Think of Gabriel at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and how the story of his wife and her past love, Michael Furey, punctures Gabriel’s inflated sense of himself and shows him just how ineffectual he actually is.

When my teacher told me I had no imagination, perhaps it was true that I was too wedded to realism, too somber, too earnest. What she couldn’t see was the fact that I wasn’t afraid to feel and to try to shape a piece of art in a way that would make someone else share my emotions. Of course, I couldn’t have said any of that then. I only felt angry and humiliated, but I’ve used that anger and humiliation over the course of my writing career to challenge myself to write things so imaginative and yet so real they can’t help but move a reader.





  1. Nancy Welch on July 31, 2023 at 8:45 am

    This post reminds me of an exercise a graduate student introduced me to: When you sit down to draft, think of your inner critic (e.g., that fourth-grade teacher who said, “You have no imagination”). Then imagine where you can send that inner critic so they can’t muck up initial drafting. That place might be one of punishment (a locked basement), or it may be someplace diverting and enjoyable for the critic. (The fourth-grade teacher might enjoy a week’s vacation at Dollywood.) The inner critic can be invited back after drafting in case their biting and possibly discerning perspective could be helpful in revision and editing.

    Thanks for this post, Lee. It also reminded me very much of my college senior year fiction-writing instructor, a visiting writer whose name I won’t mention here. At the end of the semester, they took me aside and said, “I know you’re very serious about writing fiction, but I think I should tell you that you probably aren’t going to be successful.” Not sure what their definition of success was, but I’m very glad I continued and have continued to push against that counsel!

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2023 at 11:08 am

      I love that, Nancy. I always put my critics in a glass jar where they can scream all they want, but I can’t hear them.

  2. Rhonda Hamm on July 31, 2023 at 2:38 pm

    There’s a lesson here about knowing yourself and not letting anyone else divert you from the path you know you’ve been chosen to walk

    Wow. That has been my message today. All of us have experienced this. Like you it motivates my stubborn spirit to push forward. But if , like you, it is a calling, we must. I don’t know who wrote this but I loved it.

    Keep being faithful without an applause. Keep being faithful without everyone being for you. Without everyone understanding what you’re called to do. Keep being faithful. Without knowing how God will make away; Without knowing what the results will be on the other side of your yes. God sees. God knows. God provides. His ways are better. His thoughts are higher. He sees the greater picture and the one who calls you is faithful.

    And look at how much you help and what you have accomplished ❤️

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2023 at 11:07 am

      Thanks for sharing that, Rhonda. I love the thought of being faithful to our craft without the applause, etc.

    • Ellen cassidy on August 2, 2023 at 8:32 am

      Rhonda, thank you for that quote. I’ve been feeling pretty unmotivated (this does come and go) due to poor book sales and begging for reviews from those that do read my work. I need to remember about God’s ways…thanks again!

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