Tag Archives: Domingo Martinez

How to Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

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How to Build a Political Argument around a Personal Story

24 Jun
Domingo Martinez' memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, "Quarantined," appeared in The New Republic.

Domingo Martinez’ memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, “Quarantined,” appeared in The New Republic.

It’s no secret that personal stories can fuel political campaigns. The most successful example is the first campaign run by President Obama, but John Boehner does it as well (from a saloonkeeper’s son to the Senate) and so will/does Hillary Clinton. Watch the next presidential conventions, and you’ll notice that almost every single speaker crafts a political message from his or her life story. Some will be quite compelling, and others will come off as dull at best and crass at worst.

One of the better political/personal essays that I’ve read recently is by Domingo Martinez. His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award and will soon become a new TV series from HBO. But before the memoir, he wrote “Quarantined,” a short essay that you can read now at The New Republic.

How the Story Works

The essay is about the Affordable Care Act and was published in February, 2012, when the fate of the Act was still in doubt. So, Martinez had a clear goal for the piece: to explain why the ACA should be passed in its strongest possible version. He also knew that, to explain his argument, he wanted to talk about the people he grew up with in South Texas. The problem was how to connect the two without falling back on the usual talking points that every politically-engaged person in America had heard a thousand or more times. His solution is to find a third thing to spend most of the time discussing. Let’s look at how this works.

The essay begins with the author calling his grandmother in South Texas. Like many grandmothers everywhere, she ends up talking about her health. But, unlike most grandmothers, her medical treatment takes an unusual twist:

I tuned out her blessings and her current list of maladies until she told me about her terrible arthritis. I shouldn’t worry, she said, because, between the power of prayer and WD-40, her joints were working fine. I asked her, in my halting Spanish, to repeat what she had just said, especially that bit about the WD-40. “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los truckos?”

“Yes, that’s the stuff,” she said (en español). “I just say a prayer over it and spray my knees and my elbows, and, in the name of Jesus, the heat from the WD-40 loosens my arthritis.”

The interpretation begins at the end of the essay’s first section:

My grandmother’s not dumb or losing her mind. Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions. Anything, so long as it does not cost money. Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.

The essay, then, becomes about poverty and the methods a particular group of people have developed for living without some of the basic necessities that most Americans take for granted. He talks about his grandmother, who acts as a bank for her neighbors, who “hock pistols and rifles for small loans.” He explains the “cultural isolation and fundamental lack of understanding” that make delivery of government services a challenge. Because of those challenges, he explains the attitudes that develop around seeking out help, especially medical help: “If you’re not hemorrhaging or suffering from an embolism, then you don’t get to see a doctor.”

Eventually he zooms out from these fine-grain details:

Cameron County, where my grandmother lives, boasts one of the highest ratios of uninsured in the state; one in three people have no coverage. In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.

He mentions the ACA briefly but then explains the cuts to medical services already made by Texas’ governor, Rick Perry. These cuts have affected his parents and grandmother, and they worry about what future cuts may mean for their health. By this point, Martinez is firmly within a political mode, explaining the necessity of the law. But this is not where he ends the essay. Instead, he returns to his point about the region’s poverty and challenges due to cultural barriers: even if the ACA is passed, will his grandmother take advantage of it? Or will she continue to treat her arthritis with WD-40?

Martinez writes, “Few people who speak their language have the time or inclination to try to persuade them—and even fewer are willing to pick up the phone and call.”

Rather than sticking to the well-worn arguments about expanding health care, he makes a larger argument about the political disenfranchisement of an entire group of people. In this way, by revealing the real issues faced by his family, he honors his personal story rather than simply making political hay with it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a political argument with a personal story, using Domingo Martinez’s essay, “Quarantined,” as a model:

  1. Choose the general political argument that you want to make. It can be something that, when you hear pundits on TV talk about it, your blood starts to boil. Or it can be a more local issue that is usually ignored by national politicians. If possible, choose an issue that is personal to you. Doing so will help you avoid the typical arguments that everyone has begun to tune out.
  2. Choose the personal story you want to use. It doesn’t have to be a story, per se. A detail or series of details can work as well. Martinez uses the fact that his grandmother treats her arthritis with WD-40 and prayer. In short, you can use a detail or story that stands out to you or that you struggle to wrap your head around. Most of us have details about our childhood or the place where we’re from that we enjoy telling to people in order to get a reaction. Those are good details to use for a political essay because they’re usually rough-edged, whereas most political discourse tends to be polished and generic.
  3. Tell the story. Forget the political angle. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You want to tell your story in a true, authentic form, and that’s not possible if your point is already evident; the reader would become suspicious of your story. Use a basic structure: set the stage (when and where and who), what happened, and how this made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel now.
  4. Analyze the story. Why does this story stand out to you? Why do you still think about it? Martinez expresses disbelief at his mother’s use of WD-40: “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los trucks?” Then he offers an explanation for why she and others like her do such things: “Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions.” While it’s true that there is an implicit political argument in this sentence (why does the U.S. not provide more assistance to immigrants?), it’s also true that Martinez is simply explaining the way things are. So, spend a few sentences explaining the behavior that you’ve just described.
  5. Analyze the story in greater depth. For Martinez, the paragraph mentioned in the previous step is just the beginning. Because he’s established the behavior and the reasons for it, he can elaborate on other types of the same behavior and other illustrations of the reasons. Try to do the same thing in your essay. Are there other things that people did/do that are like the story you told? Are there other ways to illustrate the reasons you’ve given?
  6. Zoom out from the story. Your story is almost certainly not an anomaly. But can you put numbers to it? Can you write a sentence like Martinez’s: “In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.”
  7. Make your political point. Now that you’ve established the larger trend or picture as well as the personal element of the issue, you can make a suggestion for appropriate political action.
  8. If possible, move beyond the immediate politics. Martinez makes a point about the ACA, but then he makes a larger point about the reason his grandmother uses WD-40 for medical purposes, a point about political disenfranchisement. He’s explaining the deeper issue, the one that creates the need for the ACA law. So, if you can, think about what deeper political problem necessitates the law or action that you’re prescribing. You might not be able to do this, but it’s always worth a try.

Good luck!

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