Here's my July interview on Grace Van Akin's monthly Book Talk on her Whimsy & Joy blog.
Welcome to Book Talk! This month's guest is writer and musician Nancy McMillan, owner of Whistling Hawk Studio and author and recipient of the 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award for March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Farm.
Grab a cup of your favorite coffee or tea, settle in to your most comfortable chair and join me as I learn about what Nancy is reading right now and more!
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Less by Andrew Sean Greer. A delightful romp of a romantic comedy about a gay novelist who leaves on a gallop across the world to avoid his former lover’s wedding. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year.
Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George, a historical fiction novel I’m reading for my book group. We’re focusing on the Divine Feminine this year.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This one is still sitting on my nightstand. It’s my reward for when I finish the first draft of my novel, hopefully by the end of the summer.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I’m impressed by the important work Brene Brown has down around shame and her guidance in living wholeheartedly. She does great Ted Talks, too.
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer, a travel writer who decided to explore the power and pleasure of stillness. This is on my to-read-next pile, along with Doerr.
The Time In-Between by Maria Duenas, a transporting piece of historical fiction featuring a seamstress whose life becomes enmeshed in politics during the Spanish Civil War, leading up to World War II.
What book first got you hooked on reading as a child?
It had to be Winnie the Pooh, read to me as I sat on my father’s lap in the wide armchair in our living room. For my own reading, it was probably Charlotte’s Web. To this day, I cannot kill a spider. They must know that because they frequent my studio. And I’ve read that they’re the animal totem of writers, with their weaving skills.
How do you choose what to read?
For fiction, recommendations from friends and other writers who know my tastes. I always pick up the free magazine Book Talk at my local library and find interesting new reads there. I also pick up Indie List, a list of chosen by independent bookstore folks, at the wonderful The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot. We are so lucky to have this treasure in our corner of Connecticut.
For non-fiction, I let my intuition guide me. I don’t read a lot of memoir, but the last one I read, Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser, was outstanding. There is usually at least one book about spirituality on my nightstand.
Which genres are you drawn to and which do you avoid?
Although the first book I wrote was non-fiction, my first love is fiction, and I mostly read novels and short stories. I’m in the middle of writing a novel, so I choose carefully, to avoid either being intimidated or unconsciously stealing ideas from other authors.
I do not care for science fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. The exception is the Harry Potter series, which I loved. I began reading H.P. because my piano students were all raving about them, and I was hooked immediately.
Do you reread books? Which ones and why?
Oh, how I wish I had time to reread books. I will mark sections to return to, especially if the author was able to accomplish something I’m trying to work out in my own writing.
In the early eighties, I read a book called Departures by Jane Bernstein. When I finished it, I opened to page one and reread the entire book. I was going through a rough patch in my life and that book spoke to me in a way that gave me comfort and hope. I even wrote the author a letter--you can tell this was a while ago--and was thrilled when she answered.
If you could be a literary character, who would it be?
Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird, for her intelligence, and perhaps because I was a tomboy, too. There’s a part of me that still longs for the freedom of that age.
Are there any authors whose work you have read completely? What about their writing appeals to you?
I’ve read almost all of Ann Patchett’s books and love every word she’s written. I fell in love with Bel Canto, went on to read The Magician’s Assistant. By then I was hooked. State of Wonder is a miraculous book. Her two non-fiction books, Truth and Beauty and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage are exceptional. I love that she owns a bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books, and blogs about books.
Her writing is natural and elegant. She has great insight into human nature and creates complex characters who are so real you feel like you know them. Her writing is seamless, which is my favorite adjective to describe both my beloved novels and pieces of music. Patchett’s books read like they were delivered to her in one piece. I forget I’m reading when I’m in the middle of one of her books, which is the experience I strive to give my readers.
Which three authors (living or dead) would you invite to join you for dinner and why?
Ann Patchett, to be in her presence and absorb some of her writing mojo.
Geraldine Brooks, an outstanding historical fiction writer, whose brain I would pick for how she writes her extremely well-researched books.
William Trevor, the master of the short story, to pick his brain on how he creates unforgettable, sometimes haunting, stories. Plus, he’s Irish, so he’d liven up the party.
Was there any time in your life when you felt as if a book guided you in a profound way?
A Wrinkle in Time, which I read when I was about ten, set the course for the way I lived my life. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time. A few years ago, I reread it and was gobsmacked with how much the message of the power of love, and the idea of multiple dimensions beyond what we experience in our daily lives, put me on the path I’ve tread all my adult life. I was excited to see the film version released earlier this year, and ultimately disappointed in it.
Are there any books on the craft of writing that you recommend to others?
Yes. Here’s the list I recommend to my writing students, in this order:
The Elements of Style, E.B. White
(A wonderful illustrated children’s biography about EBW called Some Writer came out this year. Highly recommended.)
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
And the best way to learn to write: Read. A lot.
I'm taking a Fiction Workshop at Manhattanville College this spring. We're reading five books that develop setting especially well. At our first class, we discussed the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, a unique literary novel that describes imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Khan implores Polo to describe the cities of his empire that he has seen, but the conversation ranges far beyond that, into philosphy and consciousness. A fascinating read.
Then, as common in writing classes, we did a free-write, with the prompt of creating our own invisible city. We read them aloud. My classmate wrote about Mozartina, a city where the children drill their piano exercises, and the work is all drudgery. The adults in Mozartina understand that someday, although unhappiness will come to each student, the "night music," a play on Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music - you know the catchy theme, it was used on Nickelodeon) will carry them through.
Music is invisible when it's performed, and its effect is mostly invisible, too. Yes, there are written notes on the page, but the actual sound can only be caught in the moment. Music was the perfect choice for building an invisible city, and, to be honest, I wish I'd thought of it it.
That week after class I kept thinking about what my classmate had written, how the drudgery and repetition involved in piano practice described in Mozartina was true for my own piano students. The students' parents and I work together to keep their child engaged. I find myself saying to my students, "You'll be so glad you stuck with it," even though I know they dislike hearing it almost as much as I dislike saying it. It's something, at their young age, they cannot possibly understand.
A few days later, I remembered the words on a piece of artwork that hangs in my studio waiting room. The piece, called Night Demons by Brian Andreas, was given to me by a teenage student years ago, after she failed her college music audition.
Although this student's ambition exceeded her talents, by age seventeen she understood the most important aspect of music: its power to soothe, elevate, and expand. She had experienced the way it can shift the invisible inner landscape, and strengthen her ability to face her life.
I felt in giving the art to me, she recognized herself in the piece, that she'd learned her own night demons could not help but sucuumb to the beauty of music, having "no stomach" for their work after hearing her play.
In the midst of grappling with the final revision of my novel, long in the making and even longer in the rewriting, I turned desperately to an inspiring read. I asked myself, what character remains with me, after years of reading? The unforgettable character that sprang to mind was Fenno, from the middle story of Julia Glass’s 2002 National Book Award winner, Three Junes.
I turned to this section as a way of immersing myself not only in wonderful (understatement) writing, but to revisit this complicated character. I remember disliking him intensely on my first read, then slowly turning in my affection until, by the end, I loved him. When I went back to reread, I wondered what I had found so objectionable in Fenno the first time round. Yes, he was flawed, fallible, tripping himself up, but certainly not hateworthy. Perhaps it is the fourteen years that have passed since my first reading that make me a more compassionate reader.
When I reached the end, the crowning sentence (spoiler alert--if you haven’t read this novel stop reading my blog and go directly to your indie bookstore to purchase a copy)--I wept the way you do when you lose someone. I cried when his friend Mal died, but it was later, in the scene when Fenno is in the attic of his childhood home with his niece, after he has agreed to an unthinkable sacrifice in order bring happiness to his beloved sister-in-law, it is there that Glass slips in the clincher, the sentence that brought me to grief.
In this scene Fenno is thinking about his New York apartment, directly across the street from where Mal lived and died, and where he now watches the new tenant arrive home late.
“If I look out my front windows, stare right across the street, I sometimes see a young woman. I think she works long hours, as she is rarely there, coming home after dark in conservative, mannish suits. When she turns on her lights, I see a poster of orchids where Mal put his Chinese carpet. That carpet through that window, on that night of sleeplessness we shared before we even met, was my first glimpse of a life I might have shared, a love I managed to lose without knowing it was mine.” (Three Junes, p. 264)
I felt overwhelmed by this sentence. It contained the culmination of Fenno’s self-realization, encompassing our human folly. How we try so hard to be good, to be aware, to do the right thing, but we cannot see for our own blindness what we are doing or not doing, what we are missing out on. How life is right there in front of us, the blue jay splashing in my birdbath in the golden afternoon light, the wonder in the eyes of the toddlers in my music class, the sweet gesture of my friend who always stands by her door and waves as I drive off, and how I do not see it, how it doesn’t always register, how I can be oblivious.
What I realized is that this why I write fiction: so I can see what it is I don’t always see in myself and my life.
Fiction, in the hands of a skilled and committed author, gives us an opportunity to understand and know a character in a way we can’t know another person. And for anyone who craves understanding, this feels like heaven.
I remember reading a spiritual book, the title now lost to the river of forgetfulness, whose premise was that our wound is our gift. In other words, whatever it is we think we have suffered, whatever it is we think we haven’t received from life, that is the thing we need to give to the world. So if I feel misunderstood, not seen or fully appreciated, then it is my task to do that for others, to give them what would feel the most luxurious and comforting to me: the gift of being seen, appreciated, recognized. And by doing this I can heal, or at the least, turn my pain into something useful to the world.
And I’m here to say it actually works.
The fabulous Ann Patchett says that she writes the book she wants to read. From my corner, it appears I write the stories I need to read. I can only hope my readers feel the same way.
How excited I was when I enrolled in a graduate writing program last year. "I'll write a lot," I said. "And I'll post more often than once a month on my blog."
I find it quite easy to operate in fantasy land.
Yes, I did write more: essays, short stories, young adult novel revision, academic research paper. And read more. And I'm still doing it.
The first year of school I was able to keep up, for the most part, my monthly posting schedule. But now I'm in my second year of school and it's become, well, near impossible to maintain that schedule. Unless I want to lose sleep, and sufficient sleep is the most critical element of my "must-do-to-keep-going" list. Other items on that list: good food, supplements, fire cider, kundalini yoga, meditation. And, of course, understanding friends.
Which you, dear readers, I count as part of that group. I may not know all of you personally, but I do think of you as friends. Friends of my writing, and hence my thinking, and hence me.
So thank you for understanding.
And look for a resurrected blog (perhaps even with a new look) in June of 2016.
In the meantime, you can keep up with me on Facebook (Nancy L McMillan) and on Twitter @NancyLMcMillan.
See you round the bend.
I am grateful that I came to writing after years spent as a practicing musician, where I learned perspectives that make my writing life easier, and I came to understand the core secret behind any creative endeavor. First, the perspectives.
1/Practicing is an act of faith
When I grew frustrated in my piano lessons with Maria, one of my most important teachers, she would say that sitting down every day at the piano is an act of faith. Some days it goes well, my hands feel great, the phrases come together with ease, and I can stay at my instrument for long stretches without feeling distracted.
Other days, I look down at my hands and wonder who they belong to.
On those days, my fingers feel stiff, I'm fighting the piano, my mind drifts off, and the music seems boring. But I stay anyway. I've been in this place before and know that tomorrow, or the next day, or perhaps next week, I will feel connected and fulfilled. I know that the music will eventually yield to the repeated application of hard work and diligence.
And that if I stop, the ground will be steeper when I return.
2/ Daily time is a necessity
I often tell my piano students, "Even concert pianists practice every single day." Cellist Pablo Casals said he had to find the E in first position on the cello daily, a simple task that beginners face.
The difference between writing and playing an instrument is that I write every day for many different reasons, so it is easy to lull myself into complacency because I don't feel a physical disconnection from paper and pen, the way I do from the piano, or cello. For writing, it's the connection between my hand and brain that needs to be sustained; the connection to my characters and my story that benefits from the consistent attention. I want to stoke that sense of living in my characters' heads, of hearing their voices, of watching them come alive on the page. They will sulk in the corner if I ignore them, and the music I'm working on does the same thing.
Yes, life sometimes interferes, and I miss a day of practice or writing, but I never think about stopping. In fact I become irritable when I cannot get to the writing, and the playing. It's a physical craving that is only soothed by engagement with my art. I come back to the instrument and the writing, and start again
In my studio I have an engraved stone sitting on the piano. When a student comes to a lesson ill-prepared because of a skimpy--or non-existent-- practice week, I pick it up to remind them: Begin Again.
3/ The beauty is in the details
Once I learn the basics of playing a piece of music, i.e., the notes, rhythm, fingering, then the music making begins: working out the phrases, refining the sound, working on technique to create the sound "image" that's in my head, experimenting with the dynamics, grasping the inner story and emotions of the piece.
It's the same with writing. Every sentence, every word, is crafted until there is nothing that stops the flow of the words. I don't know who first said "Writing is revision" because I've heard it so many times, but it is true. When I came to writing, I never had a problem with this because I know how long it takes to polish a piece before it's "performance ready". The repetitions required to master a piece of music are like "piling hairs", another teacher told me. At first the difference is imperceptible, but eventually it adds up.
Bottom line: a first draft is the starting point, not the finish line, just as the first run-through of a piece is the beginning of the journey, not the destination.
4/ The commitment is to something bigger
My teacher Maria once performed the four Chopin Ballades by memory. For those not familiar with piano repertoire, rest assured this is quite a feat. After the concert, an audience member came up to her, score in hand, and pointed out a few measures where she had missed notes. I would have been furious. All she said was, "It just shows us that the music is greater than us."
Whenever I open a new piece of music, I think about the thousands of players who have done the same thing, who learned and performed these notes in front of me. I sense the presence of a long line of people behind me who have learned and loved this piece. With my writing, too, I am participating in an act that others before me have, as well as others that will follow me. It gives me a sense of belonging to something greater, a sense of being part of a larger, unseen community of seekers of self-expression and beauty.
When I participate in making art of any kind, I belong to a greater community.
And the secret: Making art is, in the end, an act of devotion. I give myself over to the mystery. The commitment is not just to the page, or to the music, but ultimately, to my connection to that sustaining power.
I honor that commitment because I know it's the only path to the treasure.
Hello readers. What fun to be interviewed by Jack Sheedy, award-winning journalist and author of the engaging memoir Sting of the Heat Bug. I've known Jack, and his wife, poet, editor, and journalist Jean Sands, ever since I started writing seriously almost 15 years ago. In fact, it was Jean who started me writing in the first place. I have many happy memories of the now sadly defunct Shepaug River Writers Group. Click here to read the interview on Jack's blog, where I talk about writing March Farm: Season by Season on a Connecticut Family Farm, as well as my writing life, music and, of course, pies sneak in, too.
And be sure to check out Jack's book. Using crisp, witty, and moving language, Jack recounts growing up in Litchfield County in the post WWII era. At the heart of the story is the love between Jack and his sister, Peggy. If you want to read the sterling reviews, here's the Amazon link. You will laugh and cry when you read this beautiful book.
I’ve heard repeatedly from other writers that at some point in a birth of a book, it’s helpful to get away for a few days and focus solely on the project. I’m at the tail end of doing just that and I’m here to say it works.
Since I started writing seriously in 2001, I’ve attended different writing conferences and workshops, such as the Wesleyan Writers Conference, International Women’s Writing Guild Conference, Ridgefield Writers Conference, as well as workshops at theHudson Valley Writers Center, Westport Writers Workshop, and various local classes. All of them were helpful and enlightening in different ways. This workshop was different and in many ways, more valuable than any of those.
Eric Maisel is a writer, creativity coach, and family therapist (www.ericmaisel.com) His 40-plus published books deal with the artist’s life. I’m familiar with Fearless Creating, Living the Writer’s Life, and Deep Writing. His gift is applying his skills as a cognitive therapist to the creative life, which he does in a gentle, wise way, while hewing closely to certain ideas which support a life in the arts.
At our first session on Sunday evening, Eric immediately began to use the language he has created around creative work. As writers, we write because it’s a “meaning opportunity” in our lives. He suggested that we take this week, while we’re away from the demands of our usual routines, to establish a first-thing-in-the-morning writing practice. Making room for a meaningful experience before the rest of our day descends on us allows us to deal with the other parts of our life while knowing, okay, I’ve got my writing done. I can deal with the other things in my life, some of which have meaning, and some of which may not.
And we were all to try out sleep thinking.
Sleep thinking (Maisel wrote a book about this called The Power of Sleep Thinking) begins by going to bed with a question in your mind about your project, a “light wondering” about some aspect of your book, e.g., I wonder how the next chapter could be shaped; or I wonder what my main character will do when faced with his loneliness, etc. The answer may not appear when you first open your eyes, but I did find that answers came to me about my wonderings, sometimes later in the day. And, as Maisel said, wondering is better than going to bed worrying.
Every day, after Eric talked a bit and took some questions for about 45 minutes, he glanced at the clock and said, “Okay, now write for 40 (or 50 or 60) minutes”. And we did. It didn’t matter if we were finishing a draft, in the middle of project, not sure what we were writing about, or uncertain if we wanted to write at all. We just wrote, knowing, and this is the important part, that we were not going to read our work to anyone, not going to get any critique, nor need to give feedback to anyone else.
What freedom! It was a relief to sit in a room with twenty other writers and just work, with the knowledge that what you wrote was for your eyes only. The silent energy of minds engaged was supportive and sustaining.
And so our days went: three-hour morning sessions with a “lesson” each day, then a writing session, a break, some discussion, another writing session. After a two-hour lunch break, we had an afternoon session in the same format. We averaged three solid hours of group writing each day.
Not to say that it was all easy. Sometimes I sat down and didn’t feel like writing, or wasn’t sure where to begin, or was just tired. I never sleep well when away from home and I was sharing a dorm room with seven other women. But I stayed with it, as he encouraged us to do, and found it easier to drop into the work. I came up with a tactic I learned from my years of studying piano and cello: when I end a practice session, I make a note of where to begin the next day, providing me an easy entry point for the next writing session.
The group results were excellent. By Friday people worked out whatever they were grappling with. Some figured out what form their project would inhabit; others discovered that they wanted to continuing writing; one person finished his ten-minute screenplay. Along the way, Eric offered us bits of wisdom from his life as a writer and as a creativity coach. He understands the anxieties artists face and has tactics for dealing with them all.
I brought to the workshop a rough draft of my biography of mantra musicianGuruGanesha Singh, hoping to pull it together, find places to incorporate research material, and bring the draft closer to completion, so I can hand it to my first reader. I’m going home happy with the results. And I started writing for an hour every morning, with the intention to continue this once home.
There was only one downside: I knew Eric offered these Deep Writing Workshops around the country. What I found out after I arrived was the June session is in Paris. If only I’d waited.