Writing Rich and Complex Lives: Mary McMillan’s Writers Circle

Mary McMillan lives and works in Lake County, California. She has been facilitating the Writers Circle, a monthly free public writing workshop sponsored by the Lake County Arts Council and supported by Poets & Writers, for more than five years. She worked as a journalist for several years, and has written novels and creative nonfiction. In 2010, she was selected as Lake County’s Poet Laureate and published This Wanting, a poetry chapbook, as well as the textbook Get Inside Your Relationships, related to her work as a marriage and family therapist. Along with a private psychotherapy practice, McMillan works as a mediator for family court and teaches parents in the court system how to communicate better with their co-parents.

Mary McMillan and RosieSince fall 2008, I have been funded by Poets & Writers to facilitate the Writers Circle, a free public writing workshop that meets once a month in the Lake County Arts Council gallery. Located in rural Northern California, in a valley isolated by mountain ranges, Lake County is both cursed with the problems that come with extreme poverty, and blessed by clean air and breathtaking scenery. Many artists, writers, and professionals retire in Lake County, where they can enjoy mountain trails and the largest natural freshwater lake in the state. Centuries ago, a now-dormant volcano created rich soil in the valleys—soil that now attracts small family farms growing organic produce, walnuts, pears, and wine grapes.

Since I took over the position of workshop facilitator, I've been fascinated and moved every month, as participants have brought in material often hoarded and hidden for years—and I have watched these writers bloom into confident authors of exquisitely funny, terrifying, or touching stories and poems.

Ten years ago, Fran Ransley began writing her memoir, This House Protected by Poverty, about being a welfare mother. This month she is preparing to submit the final version of her manuscript to Amazon’s CreateSpace to print her first edition. Each month, when Fran read her stories of frustration laced with irony and wit, participants practically fell off their chairs laughing—appreciating the absurdity Fran saw in every situation— yet offered constructive criticism. For instance, when Fran rambled into interesting or thoughtful digressions, we helped her construct ways to weave those observations into her central narrative.

Writers CircleIn 2010, participant Lourdes Thuesen started writing a short story about a developmentally delayed girl whose mother was addicted to methamphetamine. As we continued asking her questions about this mother and her history, Lourdes ended up writing a compelling novel with the addicted mother at the center of a complex web of relationships. And, recently, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair has joined us, keeping us enthralled with excerpts from his memoir, So You Want to be a Quadriplegic.

Over the years, I have offered an encouraging ear, and ensured a safe place for people to bring sensitive material and tell their stories. I have always felt impressed with the fine quality of both writing and listening that participants bring to the workshop, but even more, I have felt privileged to witness the rich and complex lives they have come to share.

Top: Mary McMillan and her dog, Rosie; credit: Patty Dalton. Bottom: The Writers Circle; credit: JoAnn Sacato.
Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Costumes

4.24.14

There are several holidays that incorporate dressing up in costume: Halloween, Purim, and Mardi Gras, to name a few. On these occasions, the goal is to look like somebody (or something) else. But on the days that aren't dress-up holidays or occasions, there are times when you put on a certain outfit or a particular style of clothing and it can feel like you are putting on a costume. Try writing about an experience you've had when you dressed yourself in a way that made you feel like a different person. Was it a pleasant or uncomfortable experience? Did people recognize you? Describe what it felt like.

Multi-Sensory Feasts of Flavors and Words: Lynn Ciesielski on Buffalo's Literary Scene

 P&W-supported presenter Lynn Ciesielski runs the Circleformance Series in Buffalo, NY. Her background is in special education.  She has an MS from SUNY College at Buffalo and taught in city schools for over eighteen years.  When Lynn retired, she turned most of her energy to poetry.  She is currently working on her first full length collection to follow her chapbook, I Speak in Tongues, released by Foothills Publishing in 2012.  Lynn's work has also appeared in Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Nerve Cowboy, Slipstream, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Iodine Poetry Journal and many other periodicals.

Lynn CiesielskiWhat makes your reading series and its events unique?
I regularly introduce poets new to the Buffalo literary scene, whether it be due to their youth, out of town status or lengthy dormant periods. By pairing these artists with those who are well-established here, I am able to garner a welcoming audience for them. Additionally, with the help of Poets & Writers’ financial support, I am able to give many of them their first opportunity to earn money doing what they love best.
These measured risks I take have proven very successful.  Many of the local poets I know fairly well, who come to the readings, have pulled me aside to mention how much they enjoyed the new writer. They ask where I have found these talents.
Another factor that makes us unique relates to the venue. Our readings take place in my co-host’s art gallery. This provides a visual backdrop which fits nicely with the poetry.
 
 
What recent project and/or event have you been especially proud of and why?
On August 13, 2013 I hosted Sara Ries and Elaine Chamberlain. These poets have several things in common. They have strong family ties, they are both phenomenal poets with good standing in our community and most memorably, they travelled to India together the prior winter.  Because I know both of them, I was aware that they had written a fair amount of travel poetry related to their trip. I requested that each poet choose their selections from that repertoire. A lot of the attendees and I were especially interested in the section during which each poet read their own poetic version of specific incidents from the trip. These pieces really highlighted their individuality.
As a special treat, I prepared a vegetarian curry and nan khatai (Indian shortbread with coconut and cardamom). The poets and audience members enjoyed a multi-cultural and multi-sensory feast of flavors and words.
 
What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
We generally have a musician who plays before the poets begin. One month he did not turn up and though we were disappointed, we did not make too much of it. Right as the first poet began, the musician called the gallery to speak to the proprietor (my co-host). He did not realize he was on speaker phone and proceeded to explain why he had been unable to make it to perform that evening. The audience burst with laughter and, though the proprietor and I were embarrassed, there was little we could without being impolite.
 
How do you find and invite readers?
I have a pretty big network of poet friends/ acquaintances in Buffalo and Western New York and surrounding areas. When I run out of ideas, I consult with my co-host who is not only a visual artist and gallery proprietor but a poet and writer as well.
When I am interested in featuring a poet I generally contact him/her via email or telephone.

How do you cultivate an audience?
At each reading I announce the next several dates along with the features. We advertise in local papers and on the Meridian West Art Gallery’s facebook page. I also send out a mass mailing to everyone in my poetry network.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Buffalo is a very depressed area which has experienced a mass exodus. However, our arts community continues to thrive. I think literary programs elevate morale and give people varied opportunities to communicate and share at a deep and cathartic level. The literary arts encourage those who feel dismay and enhance joy with profound beauty.

Photo: Lynn Ciesielski  Credit: Nicholas Todaro

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Like a Tourist

4.17.14

As the weather gets warmer, more and more people are getting outdoors to do some sightseeing. After all, with the trees budding and flowers perfuming the cool breeze, how could anyone resist a little adventure? This week, write about being a tourist. Think of a specific trip you took. Where were you? What did it feel like to be a visitor there? Do you enjoy being a tourist? If not, how come?

Going it Alone

4.10.14

There are certain events and activities that can feel odd to do alone. Going to the movies, attending a concert, and eating in a restaurant are common things that people would rather do with a buddy. But what about the times when you simply can’t find anyone to go with you, for whatever reason, or when your buddy backs out at the last minute? Write about an experience you’ve had when going by yourself was the only option. How did it make you feel? Did it turn out all right in the end? If going to an event or engaging in a typically social activity by yourself is not a big deal, or you happen to prefer it, write about a specific instance that exemplifies why you feel this way.

Encuentro: An Encounter With Difference by Sueyeun Juliette Lee

Poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee reports on her P&W–supported reading and workshop with the experimental Houston collaborative Antena. Lee is the author of Underground National (Factory School Press, 2010), That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut Books, 2008), and Solar Maximum, forthcoming from Futurepoem Press. In addition to her writing, Lee publishes innovative work by multiethnic authors through Corollary Press. She also edits for The Margins, the web magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts.

Antena, made up of Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, is a language justice and experimentation collaborative, currently in residence at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. In addition to curating an immense exhibition of book arts and small presses from the Americas (North, Central, and South) alongside text-based visual work by eleven artists from Latin America and the U.S., they also pulled together artists, small press publishers, and writers to convene this past February for a weekend of workshops and dialogues about community and art in a multi-national exchange. I was one of the invited artists.

Encuentro participants

In order to facilitate this cross-cultural exchange, Antena utilized real-time interpretation, which required all participants who weren't comfortable in both English and Spanish to wear headsets and radio receivers. Bilingual interpreters were present at each event and interpreted live for the participants by broadcasting on different radio channels. Though it was often challenging to listen through the headset, the experience underscored and manifested the obstacles we must wade through if we want to have a true encuentro, or encounter, with difference.

Block print

The workshops ranged from creating language-oriented artwork together, such as making a massive collective block print with Nuria Montiel of all of our favorite phrases, or participating in performance experiments led by Autumn Knight, who invited us to engage each other in playful new ways. The evenings were devoted to performances of all the featured artists’ work.

I was incredibly impressed by the audience’s diversity. There were of course many undergraduate students there, since we were located on the University of Houston’s campus, but Antena’s commitment to community and access was evident in the range of other workshop participants and attendees from all walks of life. One older woman approached me and told me she was not a “poetry type,” but was profoundly moved by all the things she had heard that night. She was clearly deeply affected. Isn’t that the greatest feat we can hope art will accomplish?

I was astonished by the cross-arts resonances that emerged between us. For example, I met Guatemalan visual artist and indigenous activist Benvenuto Chavajay, who asked me about the kite I had made for the exhibition. His country has an annual kite celebration, and we discussed the ways that kites impact national and cultural identities. Though I am a Korean American, raised outside Washington D.C. by immigrants, and Chavajay is of Mayan descent, we had very similar understandings about the kind of transformative work we wanted to accomplish through our art, and the way that we understand our relationship to our heritages and histories.

There are many moments from the Encuentro that I will never forget—especially watching Stalina Villarreal toss her “bouquet” of poems into the air and hearing Ayanna Jolivet McCloud’s skin as she rubbed the microphone across her body.

Top: Encuentro participants; credit: Pablo Gimenez Zapiola. Bottom: A collaborative block print; credit: Sueyeun Juliette Lee.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Deadline Approaches for A Room of Her Own Foundation Book Prizes

A Room of Her Own Foundation is currently accepting submissions to its annual book prizes for women writers. The To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize is given annually for a poetry collection; the inaugural Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize will be given annually for a book of “everything but poetry.” The winner of each prize will receive $1,000, publication by Red Hen Press, and up to $1,000 in travel expenses to promote the book. The deadline is next Tuesday, April 1.

Kate Gale, the managing editor of Red Hen Press and editor of the Los Angeles Review, will judge the Clarissa Dalloway Prize. C.D. Wright will judge the To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize.

Women poets may enter the To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize by submitting a manuscript of 48 to 96 pages (two-thirds of which must be unpublished); women fiction and nonfiction writers may enter the Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize by submitting a manuscript of 50,000 to 150,000 words. Novels, novellas, memoirs, biographies, young adult literature, and graphic novels are eligible. The entry fee for both prizes is $20; entrants may submit using the online submission system or by postal mail to A Room of Her Own, Attn: TTL or CD Book Prize, P.O. Box 778, Placitas, NM 87043.

Sarah Wetzel won the 2013 To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize, judged by Tracy K. Smith, for her collection River Electric with Light. The winner of the 2012 prize, chosen by Evie Shockley, was Leia Penina Wilson for her collection I built a boat with all the towels in your closet.

Founded in 2000, A Room of Her Own is a nonprofit organization that works to support women writers. Their mission is “to inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women.” AROHO, which is committed to Virginia Woolf’s belief that “women need money and a room of their own if they are to write,” has channeled more than $1 million into awards, fellowships, and opportunities for women writers. Visit the website for more information.

Editor's Note: As of April 4, 2014, the deadline for both the To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize and Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize has been extended to July 31.

When You're a Stranger

Children are often reminded not to talk to strangers, and for good reason. As we get older, communication with strangers isn’t as dangerous, but it can still be uncomfortable. This week, think about a conversation you have had with a stranger in an awkward situation. Who started it? Did you feel safe? After talking, did you feel like you knew this person any better? Did you ever see this person again, and if not, would you want to?

Earliest Memories

3.27.14

This week, dust off your earliest memories. Why have those particular images stuck in your mind over all these years? Are they related to a specific event or chain of events? Try to write about and connect these moments in a short essay.

A Public Space Launches Emerging Writer Fellowships

Brooklyn-based literary magazine and publisher A Public Space has announced a new international Emerging Writer Fellowship program for fiction and nonfiction writers. Three winners will receive $1,000, publication in the magazine, and a six-month mentorship with an established author.

In addition, fellows who are based in or visiting New York City will be given optional access to workspace in A Public Space’s Brooklyn offices for the duration of the six-month fellowship. The application deadline is April 15.

Writers from any country who have not yet published or been contracted to write a full-length book are eligible. Fiction and nonfiction writers may submit a previously unpublished short story or essay in English and a cover letter via Submittable by 5:00pm EST on April 15. Cover letters should include a short biography and discussion of a piece of writing that has been influential, along with contact information, the title and word count of the submitted work, and publication credits. There is no application fee. Visit the website for complete submission guidelines.

Winners will be notified by June 20. The fellowship period will run from September 1, 2014 to March 1, 2015. 

Established in 2006 by founding editor Brigid Hughes, A Public Space has published the early work of writers such as Leslie Jamison, Nam Le, Corinna Vallianatos, and Jesmyn Ward, who have since gone on to win major literary awards. “These fellowships continue that tradition,” the editors write. “Our focus when reviewing applications will be on finding writers who have not yet published or been contracted to write a book-length work, but whose writing shows exceptional promise.” 

A Public Space plans to award the fellowships twice yearly; the application period for the next cycle of awards will be September 1 through October 14. Visit the website for more information.

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