Esther Martinez is the co-producer (along with Sliver of Stone contributor Andrea Askowitz) of Lip Service, a Miami-based, true-story, live-reading series. Since its inception in 2006, Lip Service has grown into a bona fide literary happening, one which attracts several hundred people to its raucous quarterly events. Recently, Lip Service was acknowledged for its contribution to Miami’s cultural scene with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Martinez’s nonfiction has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsday, and others. She lives in Miami with her two loves—her husband Sean and their new daughter, Lilou. We asked Esther to talk to us about how her experience with Lip Service—and motherhood—has affected her writing life.
Nicholas Garnett: You receive more than 70 submissions for the seven reading slots available at each Lip Service. What are some of the most common problems you see in those submissions?
Esther Martinez: One of the most common problems is the easiest to fix: not enough people read the submission guidelines. We have three requirements for submissions: the stories must be true, they must be personal, and they must be 1200 words or less. We also want stories that are—well –stories. We want a narrative arc; we want a character with a problem who goes through some experience (physical or emotional) that changes them in a significant way. We’re not interested in polemics, opinion pieces, stories about something that happened to someone else, or stories in which there’s no meaningful change. Plus, the stories have to work on stage. That means they have to be engaging. And, since the stories are read to a listening audience, they can’t be too long. We often receive stories that go over our word count, which automatically disqualifies them. So, the one bit of advice I would give to anyone submitting a piece of writing, anywhere, is make sure you follow the submission guidelines.
NG: What is the difference between writing that is intended to be spoken versus writing that is intended for the page?
EM: The thing that matters most in written stories is the same thing that matters most in spoken stories—the story has to be good. It has to be remarkable. And though the stories we feature at Lip Service are personal stories, they have to have a significance that extends beyond the storyteller’s personal life. That being said, there are some things that work beautifully on the page but not so much out loud. Subtlety is one . If your audience is reading your story, they have the opportunity to take their time, linger on the details and descriptions, and reread lines. With a live audience, you have one shot. If the listener misses something important, he might miss the whole heart of the piece. That’s why Andrea and I favor clarity over lyricism. The audience has to be able to follow along. In our collaborations with radio professionals, we learned a trick or two about what works for the listening ear: one idea per line, one adverb or adjective per verb/noun, and being more overt than you are on paper. A listening audience, especially one hearing eight stories back-to-back, is in serious danger of “listening fatigue.” The best way to avoid it is to be brief, direct, and make every line as interesting as possible. The story has to keep moving. The ear wants action more than reaction.
NG: Has your participation in Lip Service changed your own writing style?
EM: It definitely has. I’ve gotten really good at reading a submission and knowing right away what’s “missing.” It’s one thing to have a feeling that a piece doesn’t work; the hard part is to figure out why and how to fix it. The stories we feature in our shows are all different—different situations; different characters; different voices, and styles. But underneath all the decoration, the framework of the stories is pretty much the same, and that’s very much on purpose. So yes, having to craft stories out of our submissions has made me more self-conscious about my own writing. That’s great in some ways, but can also be stifling. I used to just write what I felt and wait for the revision process to give order to the chaos. Now, I’m really slow and deliberate. I already have the shape of the whole piece in my mind and can’t move forward until each line is just right. I think editing other people’s writing is definitely helpful and strengthens your own writing. But switching hats between the editor and the artist is hard. I can’t turn the editor off. It’s always two lines forward, one line back.
NG: Seven months ago you became a mother. How do you think that has changed your writing?
EM: I have a lot of new “material,” though I’m not sure people want to hear about breastfeeding and burping and postpartum hemorrhoids. Seriously, I don’t think being a new mom will change much of WHAT I write. Writers are an obsessive bunch. One of my obsessions is my mother. Now that I’m a mom, I do have a different perspective about my mother. I’m less angry at her, but I’m also terrified of letting my own little girl down. So I’ll probably go on writing about mothers, though now that I’m in the club, I imagine I’ll be a lot more forgiving. Motherhood really does change everything. Before, I used to worry about what my mom thought about my pieces. Now I worry about what my sweet Lilou would think. I don’t want to self-censor, but let’s be real. The stories people want to hear—the saucy, perverse, scandalous ones—are exactly the ones I wouldn’t want to share with my daughter. And she WILL hear them one day because everything ever written or spoken is one Google search away. Andrea has a nine year old who recently told her, “You’re one of those people who says inappropriate things on Youtube.” So, yeah, now I have that to think about. All of my writer friends say you can’t worry about what other people think, not even your kid. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry. Instead of censoring my writing, I’m hoping to use that concern as a way to explore other sides of my stories. I will try to see situations and people through my daughter’s eyes. That can only make me a better person, and hopefully, a better writer.
For more information on Lip Service, visit www.lipservicestories.com. Lip Service is always looking for good stories. But remember, read those submission guidelines!