Michael Martone, an experimental fiction writer, spoke April 26 at Drexel’s Barnes & Noble bookstore as part of an event co-sponsored by Painted Bride Quarterly and the Department of English and Philosophy.
His informal lecture, titled “Homer on Homer, Or a Bunch of Stuff that Happens,” is formulated into various pieces and read at random, so each lecture Martone gives is unique. He usually focuses on coincidences, accidents, plots and story creation.
Martone is an English professor at the University of Alabama and teaches a creative writing class. His classroom is unstructured, and he allows his students to choose how they spend their time in the classroom.
On the first day of class, Martone tells his students they will all receive A’s no matter what because he feels there is no true way to judge creative writing. The assumption about creative writing is that there is a teachable set of skills, which is limiting.
“In a world where education is put in a box, he actually has more interest in building up the student’s creative mind as opposing to making sure they get a good grade at the end of the quarter,” Rachel Major, a sophomore biology major, said.
Martone has been writing fiction for 35 years and has published hundreds of fictional pieces. In his latest piece, “Four for a Quarter,” the number four in all of its forms is featured prominently.
“He is a writer that has an incredible theoretical grasp of American fiction,” Dan Driscoll, associate teaching professor of English and associate director of the Drexel Writing Center, said.
According to Martone, readers tend to think about the sequence of events in fiction and how they are always leading up to a bigger event that will change the characters.
“Our existential problem in media is that our media is sequential and wants to go in a line,” Martone said.
The first piece of the lecture focused on “The Simpsons” and nothingness, setting the precedent for the rest of Martone’s talk. He explained that at the end of an episode, the characters are attempting to figure out the moral they should have learned from the events that occurred, and then Homer admits that there is no moral and that the episode was the result of a bunch of stuff that just happens.
“Real life is where we believe, we fear, a bunch of stuff nearly happens,” Martone said.
According to him, people are attracted not to character change but to character stability, which allows television shows to create a problem that is solved in a 30-minute time span. Martone noted that the audience does not care if characters change as a result of an event, but the audience is attracted to the fact that characters are stable and able to make it through the events.
“We see a story, and one of the first things we figure out is the plot, so I thought it was nice that Martone disrupts that and tries to show that what happens isn’t the only significant thing in the story,” Driscoll said.
Larry David knew this well when he was creating “Seinfeld.” He wanted to create a story of plot rather than a story of character, omitting hugging and learning from the show.
“We watch not for its character development but for the characters’ stabilities — their resilience and resistance to change. Nothing happens to the characters while around them everything is happening. Things flux, and it is the flux that attracts us. The adventure, the twist and turn, the pure plot and the coincidence,” Martone said.
Martone said he believes that when writers sit down to write a story, the plot should come naturally — it should not be forced. This is how he writes, ignoring the typical Freytag structure of plot: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement. Instead of putting all of the emphasis on one major event, Martone focuses on the smaller parts of the story.
Martone is currently working on a book of science fiction titled “Amish in Space.”