Here’s your chance to see two laureates in one post – 2017 Piedmont Laureate Mimi Herman, and 2018 Piedmont Laureate Nancy Peacock– in Mimi’s final post and Nancy’s first.
Welcome Nancy! We’re all wishing you a fabulous year of sharing your gifts with the writers and readers of the Piedmont.
How would describe yourself?
Mimi Herman: I’m a writer who brings out the writer in others, an inventor of ways for people to learn, and someone who can’t resist finding useful solutions to problems.
Nancy Peacock: When I think of how to describe myself, pairs of words come to mind. Reverent and irreverent. Serious and funny. A hard worker and lazy. I don’t see these paired words as opposite of each other. Irreverence is bred of knowing what to be reverent about. Humor is spawned by seriousness. A writer must be a hard worker, and, in order to avoid burnout, enjoy a fair amount of “moodling” time as Brenda Uhland called it in If You Want to Write.
What matters to you in your own writing?
Mimi Herman: I want my writing to be as evocative and engaging as possible – and to be of use to readers. I hope my writing will help see people through difficult times and give them ways to understand the world in which we live. I would love for people to say, “That’s how I’ve always felt, but I’ve never been able to say it.”
Nancy Peacock: Telling a story that wants to be told. Working with a character in a way that honors his or her voice, and his or her needs. This means that with each draft, I, the author, disappear more and more, and give over to the character.
How do you think poetry and fiction are connected?
Mimi Herman: I’ve always thought that poetry and novels – both of which I write – are somehow linked. Maybe poetry is condensed, freeze-dried fiction; maybe novels are what happen when you add the water of extended time to poems. In both, paying attention to how the world works is essential.
Nancy Peacock: When I was younger I wanted to be a poet. Not having any real knowledge of what it means to make a living or pay rent, I imagined what I thought would be a poet’s life: living in a big yellow house with my loving partner and a cat. Not having a job. Spending every day, writing and then taking care of cozy domestic things, like baking bread (which in my imagination was always warm, fresh out of the oven, and the dishes were cleaned), producing wonderful meals (ditto the appearance of food and absence of clean up) shared with a plethora of brilliant friends (never mind that I was very shy and had only a few friends). As I matured, I maintained this fantasy but transferred it to writing novels. And as I matured even more, I recognized that it would never pan out this way (exactly), and that this is okay. Good even.
While my desire to write poetry may have been more driven by fantasy than anything else, I did write poems. I like poetry for its succinctness and punch. I think my early efforts as a writer of poems helped me a great deal in learning to say a lot with only a few words, and in being precise in my use of words when telling a story. It also helped me learn to notice many small things in life that now feed my fiction. Poetry helped me appreciate the world I live in. This is a practice I think is very important to anyone who wants to write anything.
What are some ways you tempt people to become writers?
Mimi Herman: I like to get people thinking about the experiences and ideas that matter to them, and help them find the words to describe these things. We all share our five senses. When these are translated into images through writing, the words come alive on the page.
Sometimes, when people are struggling to write anything at all, I ask them to tell me what they want to say. Then I write it down for them until they’re speaking too quickly for me to write—at which point I hand them the paper and pencil and tell them to keep going. This ends up being pretty much irresistible for even the people who consider themselves complete non-writers.
Nancy Peacock: Writing from prompts in a group is one of my favorite things to do. I offer a free prompts class the second Saturday (10 to 12) of every month at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, starting at the old Borders Bookshop, and migrating around different meeting places until the group landed such a great home in Flyleaf Books. I witness a lot of magic in this process of writing from prompts in groups. It’s wonderful to sit with a group of people telling stories. How often do we get to create something and immediately share it, without criticism? This temptation I offer is not so much about “becoming a writer” as it is about tapping into the subconscious and finding unknown stories inside, which we all have. It’s a lot of fun. Y’all come and join in.
What do you do when you can’t write?
Mimi Herman: I read. What I really like to do is to read someone else’s poetry until I get interested – then use the energy and fascination evoked by another writer to launch into my own poems.
Nancy Peacock: For me writing is a little dance. I have to make myself walk across the room and ask the partner I think I’m interested in to dance with me. That’s the going forward part, the making myself sit down at the desk even when I don’t know what I’m doing, or have a full plot or character in mind. Once the partner and I get out on the dance floor, I sometimes find that this person didn’t want to dance with me after all, in which case I drop the project. Or sometimes I find that this person isn’t so sure about me, in which case I try to prove my interest in her by showing up every day. Sometimes though the partner and I enter into a difficult relationship where we’re stepping on each other’s toes. When that happens, I back off from that particular material. Maybe it will hold something for me at some future date, and maybe it won’t. I move on. I ask someone else to dance. If this difficulty continues with other characters and projects, I know it’s time to just take a break from writing. I read. I take walks. I weave (I have a small tapestry loom). I clean the house (or plan to). I try to replenish the well by just being. I’m happiest when I have a writing project though, and feel a little bereft during this time of not writing. That’s the hardest part.
How can writing help people through challenges – both internal and external?
Mimi Herman: One of my favorite phrases is E. M. Forster’s “How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?” I think when we’re struggling with something, the process of writing it out helps us understand it – and perhaps even solve it.
Nancy Peacock: Writing in my journal always helps my state of mind, and helps me process what is going on around me. My journal is the place where I get to have an uncensored voice. If I’m grumpy or pressed for time, it helps to just write that I’m feeling grumpy and pressed for time. It allows it to be, and I don’t feel like I’m faced with fighting against it. The page holds my grumpiness and busyness for me, and allows me to move through it. Yet it remains a place that will also hold the spaciousness needed for art. Writing in my journal has been a way for me to learn to trust my own voice, and trust my own thoughts. I know artists in other mediums who also keep journals as a way of working through the daily onslaught of events and energy, and as a way to work out thoughts and insights on particular pieces of art they are producing.
And then there’s reading. Reading is so important. Stories help us become more empathetic to other people. Period. This is the most important life skill you can ever have, and you can hone it by reading fiction.
Why do we need laureates?
Mimi Herman: I think the job of a laureate is to open a door for writing and invite the community we represent to the party. We are ambassadors, helping people not only understand the country of poetry and prose, but inviting them to visit and even become citizens. Citizenship in the country of writing is open to anyone who has something to express. All are welcome.
Nancy Peacock: I think we need laureates now more than ever, to remind people of the written word and of storytelling, and to celebrate the work that has come before us, the work that writers do now, and the work that is not yet written. We need laureates to encourage people to read books other than those on the bestseller lists, and books that are not written by celebrities or about celebrities. Novels and stories reach deep into the human condition, the human experience and human nature that we all share. A laureate’s role is to spread this magic about as widely as possible. We need that.