TCR Talks with David Martinez, author of Bones Worth Breaking

By Jackelin Orellana

UC Riverside-Palm Desert MFA alumnus David Martinez wrote his debut memoir, Bones Worth Breaking, while grieving his brother’s death. With a background in writing fiction, David never intended to write a memoir. One day, he got hit by a car, and that experience made him take a deeper look at the scars that life had left on his body. Each scar turned into a story, and each story eventually evolved into a book-length work. Martinez writess with uncensored honesty about drugs, mental health, and his experience growing up Mormon. He challenges readers to look deeper into the invisible wounds that, left ignored, can cause dire consequences.

The Coachella Review sat down with Martinez to talk about death, drugs, religion, and his writing process.


The Coachella Review: Bones Worth Breaking is a unique title. When I read it for the first time, I wondered if there were experiences in my life that were worth the pain of a broken bone. Please tell me a little about why and when you decided on the title of your book.

David Martinez: Interestingly enough, I suck at titles, and I always had a hard time with that. It was my agent who discovered the title. I wrote the line in the book.

TCR: Yes, it’s the title for one of your chapters.

DM: Yes! In that chapter, I talk about skateboarding with [my brother] Mike. She found that line, and we went with it. But I think there are bones worth breaking; it just depends on who we’re breaking them for. There are definitely people I would break a bone for, some I would give my life for.

TCR: When I pick up a memoir, I often expect the story, even if it’s a compilation of essays, to be chronological. But you take us back and forth between your life experience and your brother’s death. Was this the original intention when you sat down to write the book, or did it develop organically?

DM: It happened organically. One day during [grad school] residency, I was crossing the street to the plaza across from the Omni Resort, and I got hit by a car. I was so pissed off about it that I started writing this rage-filled thing, and it didn’t work. It just didn’t work. Then, I saw this little scar on my hand and started writing about it. That led me to other things. I skipped from scar to scar, and it wasn’t in chronological order. I was writing exactly how my memory was working. We don’t always remember things chronologically. I was just writing, and slowly discovering what each scar meant. It just felt right. To move like that. Not chronologically, but rather by theme.

TCR: In the first chapter, you describe wounds you hid from adults and eventually became [infected]. In another chapter, you say something to the effect of, if there is no scar, did the injury really happen? Visible or not, many of us are guilty of neglecting our wounds. You write that even your grandmother cut off a part of her finger and didn’t [get] medical attention. When I read these stories, I felt they added a complex layer to the memoir. But it also made me wonder why, even as a child, you felt the need to hide the parts of yourself that were hurt.

DM: Growing up, I felt responsible for how my parents felt. If I messed up in any way, like getting hurt or what have you, then that was my fault. I think that’s why I felt I had to hide [my injuries]. As far as why it’s important to have a scar, I think it’s something that a lot of us who are high functioning but have mental health issues or addiction issues need. People often will want to pretend that you’re okay, especially the people who are raising you. And so if you don’t have the scars to prove that you have issues, people will see what they want to see.

As far as my grandmother, she proudly showed everyone her thumb after it healed. [It became] a story and an intense one. But after it’s a scar, it’s no longer something that can cause problems… Once I was over the initial fear of, “Oh my god, I’m gonna lose my leg,” then I would show [the scar], and I would talk about it because I was no longer responsible.

TCR: I agree. People often want to go through life pretending everything is okay when it’s not. But we don’t just lie to people, we lie to ourselves. “I’m okay” is such a common thing to say, and you highlighted this phrase in your memoir. The repetition of the words “I’m okay” was very impactful, letting readers see how not okay you were. As a writer, why did you choose the repetition?

DM: That is the way we always respond; everybody [says] it. When you ask somebody how their day is going, you generally don’t expect them to stop and say, “Oh my God, let me tell you about my morning.” It would be nice if they could be honest, but it’s not something we expect.

I like repetition. I grew up with a lot of music in my life, so repetition is a way of building and maintaining rhythm. It’s a short phrase. What does it have? Three syllables? So, it works to create rhythms. But you’re right; reiterating it shows how not okay I am and how not okay everyone is. The truth is, if you ask somebody, “Oh, hey, how are you doing?” And they say, “I’m okay,” they’re not okay.

TCR: I agree. It’s almost an unconscious response. This is part of the complex layer I was talking about earlier. So many of us are carrying around emotional wounds that no one can see, and because no one can see them, we can deny their existence and tell ourselves and everyone around us that we are [fine]. The repetition, for me, was a great instrument, bringing us into your story and making us reflect on our own wounds.

These wounds were a theme you wove through the memoir, but the book had several [additional] themes that I want to touch on. [Like] death. Early in the book, you write about your fear of dying, but it’s not so much that you are afraid of death, as [that] you are scared of dying without having served your purpose. This is a common fear. Have your feelings on death changed after all you have been through and after writing this book?

DM: Well, I’ve never died before. But I’m not afraid of it. As I was writing the book, I was going through a lot of grief with my [brother’s death], and I think, as far as death goes, it’s not necessarily a fear of death but more of a fear of not being heard.

One thing that comes to my mind a lot, too, is the notion of time. I always have this feeling that everything exists all at once, if that makes sense. So, the past is happening now as well as the future. In that kind of context, what does death even mean? Is it just a continuum? I don’t know, but it isn’t easy to comprehend.

TCR: Do you think this memoir is a way of being heard, and maybe that’s giving you a sense of peace regarding death?

DM: It’s not about whether I can die in peace, but I do hope I’ll be heard. I’m glad that I’m able to speak, and as far as whether I’ll be heard, it depends on [the reader] and what their reaction is. But a lot of the book talked about what you’re not supposed to talk about, the things you don’t generally bring up in everyday conversation. Although, if you speak to most people who know me, I bring up this shit all the time. You never can tell exactly what I’m going to say.

TCR: One of my favorite parts was your explanation of saudade: the sweet sadness that comes from knowing there is never a chance of going back. Later in the chapter, you say, “I no longer know how to form intimacies with anything. Instead, I’m dependent on the saudade that I know will always be there.” Can you explain intimacies vs. saudade for us?

DM: I have felt so much saudade in my life that when I come across something new, I know it’s impermanent, and that knowledge informs my relationship with everything. Because, again, going back to death, we are impermanent; everything around us is impermanent, and that’s not necessarily bad. It brings more importance to some things and removes the importance [from] others. I want to spend time with the things that I know I will miss and that will form the deepest saudades. It was an interesting chapter to write; it had a lot of negative space. As a writer, I found playing with the negative space fun because we always talk about the things that are. It’s hard to talk about the things that aren’t.

TCR: Returning to your comment about things we keep out of everyday conversation, I want to discuss your experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given the level of power religions hold over friends and family, and even the overall power of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did you have any fears or reservations about speaking so openly about your experience with the church?

DM: I don’t think the church cares one way or another what I do or don’t do. The church isn’t going to come after me. It’s more my family, because they are deeply connected to the church. I don’t know their reaction, but even that doesn’t bother me so much that I wouldn’t publish the book. At the same time, my family would have a much bigger impact on my choices than the institution. Institutions don’t mean much to me, but individuals do. I don’t think I attack the church or anything, but I do essentially say the religious formula doesn’t work for me.

TCR: Nothing ever felt like an attack against the church, but in telling us about your experience, you exposed a lot of hypocrisy. It certainly felt like religion was one of those wounds that you pretended didn’t exist [and] eventually manifested into something much more significant, particularly [your] use of drugs. You mentioned that you were using daily before you left for your mission to Brazil. Other than over-the-counter medications, you were otherwise clean on the mission. Was that a difficult transition for you to make?

DM: I was using opioids before. I took my dad’s pain pills, I took a lot of stolen morphine, but I didn’t shoot up until after the mission. Not that it’s a huge difference, honestly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I was using something every day, it got way worse after I came home from the mission than before I went. I did lie [in order] to go on the mission. But there’s a reason that people use in the first place. I was using to be functional, so the drugs didn’t impede me in any way because I was using them to combat my bipolar disorder and depression and all the stuff at home. It was a way to function—not a healthy one, but it worked. That’s why it was easy to lie and say, no, no, I’m fine. I’m okay to go.

TCR: One of the most powerful moments in the book is when you explain how the church tried to erase [its foundational] racism. You described it as an accident, which was an excellent callback to the accident you had been in at the beginning of the book. “If someone is hit by a car and is maimed, it doesn’t matter if the driver repents or even if it wasn’t the driver’s fault; the results are the same: …damage done is damage done.” It was a realization you came to during your mission. Can you talk a bit about how this affected your recruitment, and how you came to terms with bringing more people to the church (if you brought people to the church), understanding the amount of shame they would be taught to feel because of their skin color?

DM: I didn’t think about it too much when I was there…It wasn’t [until] later that I pondered on it. I think that where I was a missionary played a big part in how I felt about it. As far as the people who were baptized [as a result of] conversations with me, many of them, despite the difficulties associated with the strictness of the church, have better lives. Many people were able to get educated because the church gave money to people to go to college and do things like that. How I see it, for the people that stay, and it works for them: beautiful, absolutely fantastic. Let it work for you. For the people with difficulties: beautiful, leave it, it’s fine. I don’t think, even now, that I feel guilty about bringing people to the church as much as I feel the ickiness of preaching things I didn’t necessarily believe.

TCR: I appreciate that sentiment, because it’s true that religion doesn’t work for everyone. What was beautiful in your writing is that despite it not working for you, you still took a moment to be grateful for the good things the church taught you. Yet, you still recognize the potential the church has for harm. The memoir illustrates how even something small, like telling a child that Jesus/God will be upset with them if they sin, can cause deep shame and fear that can lead to detrimental consequences. You had a lot of guilt regarding sex and sexuality growing up, and it made you feel a lot of shame. It became something that you kept hidden, [and] eventually turned you to drugs. It was, again, one of those wounds that you did not tend to, and you pretended to be okay because you knew how much religion meant to your parents.

DM: Yeah, you’re not supposed to talk about all these things…. When I started talking about racism in the church, I found a sermon these missionaries had been passing down to each other for years that perpetuated all these racist beliefs. The fact that they are taking the time to print this section of a book—and it’s a big-ass book—to give out to other missionaries, says a lot about the culture. What that tells me is that there are some deep cultural wounds within the church that counter-reflect the same cultural wounds in the United States. The problem isn’t the history. The church acknowledges the history…. The problem is the people who still buy into the history that Black people are the children of Cain. That’s where the danger is, in individuals. Don’t get me wrong; the church is not clean either. Church leadership has as much influence on the culture as anyone else. Institutions have the power to influence individuals, and those individuals can perpetuate very racist ideas that [take on] a life of their own within the culture.

TCR: While we are on the topic of religion, you mentioned in the book that, at times, you wished that you could have followed a more spiritual path. I can relate. I grew up within a very strict religious organization, and even when I left the church, deep down, I needed to believe in something bigger. Not necessarily God, but something. As humans, sometimes we need that. Do you feel like you have been able to transition into a state of spirituality, or do you feel like it is still too close to religion for comfort?

DM: There is a level of spirituality that I am comfortable with. I’m really into meditation. There is a part in the book where I talk about being ten years old and going into the closet to be alone. That’s when I was learning to meditate; I could watch my thoughts while sitting silently. There’s a lot to say for silence. Our heads are so cluttered all the time. We’re bombarded with news, or we get lost in our phones. We have other people to think about—kids and what have you. Sometimes, silence is hard to come by. But silence is where you can find true enlightenment. If you look at the grand scheme of things, what you believe doesn’t matter. What matters is how you are interacting with the world around you.

It’s strange to say that if everybody doesn’t believe the same way, then everybody else will suffer. Spirituality can be connected to religion, but it doesn’t have to be. I saw this physicist on Instagram who said that we are made up of pieces of the universe. We are formed from carbon, which is part of the sun, and we are what we eat, so we are literally made of the earth. Then he said that because we are part of the universe, it means that we are the universe experiencing itself. I liked that idea. I like latching on to the feeling of something bigger. That’s great.

TCR: You mentioned earlier that the book was written in the way that memory worked, and that themes, such as drugs, religion, sexuality, and mental health, came into the book almost organically. Many of these themes and experiences could produce another book. Do you have any thoughts about your next project? Do you plan to return to fiction?

DM: I have a couple more things I am working on. Writing for me is thinking and thinking and thinking, and then eventually sitting down and writing a little bit here and a little bit there. It takes a minute for things to click into place, but I have two projects that I’m thinking about. One is fiction. It’s very weird. My fiction is always weird, like Kafka-esque weird. I do have another nonfiction project that I’m working on. It delves more into the indigenousness and Blackness on my mom’s side. So, I have this nonfiction piece and a novel I’m obsessing over lately.

TCR: These sound great, and I can’t wait to read more of your work.

DM: I’m excited about both of those [projects]. My head keeps going back and forth between them. I like the idea of working on a couple of things at the same time. You can tell from the book that it’s hard for me not to be all over the place all the time. With the novel, everything is linked and linear, so having the second project helps to balance my personal headspace.

Jackelin Orellana is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at UC Riverside Palm Desert. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor for The Coachella Review. Her work has been previously published in the Los Angeles Times.