"Joe Wilkins has a big, true, highway-running American voice. When you see a new book of his, you should celebrate. Just buy it, put down the window, and let the music blow back your hair. It's nothing but alive." – Luis Alberto Urrea
As a teacher of creative nonfiction writing, I spend a good portion of my time trying to convince my students that the best memoirs and personals essays are never about what happened—but about what the author makes of what happened.
This, I would like them to understand, matters a great deal, as it then opens up for exploration all the mundane, pedestrian, and, to use a word they often us, “normal” parts of our lives. Took a walk across town the other day? Called your older sister for the first time in a few months? Remembered, for some reason, that big camping trip your family took when you were seven? Write about it. There is a richness there; something you, and the reader, might discover.
The converse of this axiom, of course, is that if you do happen to lead a particularly fascinating life or have gone through something terrifying or wild, you still can’t ride on just what happened. You have to try, no matter how particular or terrifying the story, to make some kind of sense of it all.
Which is why I so admire Gregory Martin’s new memoir Stories for Boys. Consider the sequence of events: Martin gets a call from his mother: his father has just tried to commit suicide. Later, talking with his father in the hospital, Martin finds out two things: 1) that his father was molested as a boy by his own father and 2) that his father is gay and for most of his adult life has been having anonymous affairs with men at rest stops and in parks. Martin’s parents subsequently divorce, Martin struggles to support and understand both his parents during this process, and Martin’s father then moves across the country and attempts to begin another life. Whew.
But here’s what’s so admirable, so affecting: Martin lays out these plots points just about as fast as I have right here, and then he gets down to the real work—trying to make a story of all this that he might believe in and be able to share with his own young sons.
The story in Gregory Martin’s Stories for Boys is the making of the story. Using photographs; email transcripts; psychological research; Walt Whitman anecdotes; treehouse blueprints; careful, restrained scenes; and good-old-fashioned thought on the page, Martin details his years-long search for a way to make of all that has happened a new story, a truer story, a story that he, his sons, and his father can live with. And in the process he has written a beautiful, truth-full, hope-filled memoir.