What a Writer Can Learn from Martha

If I’m at the gym, working out, I appreciate a distraction.

I am especially pleased when Martha shows up on the screen. I have a personal interest in Martha, as she was once a client of the law firm where I practiced. She was not Martha then. She was Andy Stewart’s wife. Andy wanted to start a publishing firm. Martha had only just quit the stockbroker business and sat in on the meetings. Andy talked. Martha didn’t. Like Princess Di, like Jackie O, she kept her head titled at a modest, downward angle, a polite smile on her silent lips.

Andy built his publishing house, and it was a good one. His launch parties, filled with publishing icons nibbling on Martha’s canapes, gave genesis to her first book, a smash hit. Through the years, I’ve watched her go from books, to television, to merchandise, to prison stripes, and back again. And now, there she is, cutting out paper decorations and icing cupcakes.

I turn off the sound and watch her work. I turn on the sound and listen to her voice.

Like all well-branded, celebrity chefs, she gives us viewers what we want:  a recipe, and the confidence that, with Martha’s help, we can frost cupcakes with the best of them.

We writers try to provide something similar for our readers—diversion, entertainment, encouragement, information, authority . . . .

But there’s still more that we can learn from Martha.

All characters have full and complicated lives. As writers, it’s our job to understand what’s behind the Mona Lisa smile of a character who might, in a scene we’ve created, sit demurely in a room, adding nothing to the conversation. What secret dreams, what luck, what curse, what past, what future? This is where the richness lies—the difference between a cardboard figure and flesh and blood—whether we use it in an overt fashion in our work, or not.

The most important lesson we can learn from Martha is that there are no bit players. Every one of them has a story—if you know it, it will show.

Photo credits: Martha Stewart by David Shankbone; Mona Lisa by artelista.com