Monday, June 25, 2012

My First Time: Claire McMillan

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Claire McMillan, author of Gilded Age, which has just been released by Simon and Schuster. The novel takes Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and recasts it in contemporary Cleveland.  Library Journal wrote: "McMillan cleverly uses Wharton’s classic novel to draw parallels between the social mores of two starkly different centuries....An engrossing first novel."  McMillan grew up in Pasadena, California, and now lives near Cleveland on her husband’s family’s farm with their two children. She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College.

My First Writing Critique

The first time my writing was ever critiqued seriously, Alice Mattison told me to take what I’d written, place it upside down on my desk, open a new computer file, and rewrite the whole thing without looking at the old piece.  "Maybe you can peek once," she’d said. I was at Bennington College in my first writer’s workshop. 

In the Bennington MFA program, you attend a ten-day residency and then exchange packets with a faculty member for six months until you are in residency again for ten days and are assigned a new teacher.

I took Alice’s advice and diligently rewrote the piece and, as per requirements, I submitted a new story.

With the new story, she suggested, maybe I put it outside in the hall while I rewrote it.

Or in the trash can, I thought.

Alice was my first serious writing teacher.  The first one who would just tell me something was bad.  Yet she managed not to crush me when she did it.  She has some mix of world weary been-there-done-that with a touch of sincere optimism that keeps you going.

As the semester wore on she advised me, as she is famous – to “get sleepy and stupid.”

I spent the bulk of my days then as an attorney writing legal briefs, a very particular type of writing, almost like technical writing.  I was too locked-in and confined by it.  She advised me to try actually writing in bed, first thing if I could.

When stories stalled out she would encourage me to come up with five things that could happen, always starting with an asteroid hits Earth and everyone dies.  Don’t keep it too precious, she was saying.  Let some air in.

When I was writing my novel Gilded Age, which is inspired by Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, I wrote most of it in bed in the mornings, as Alice advised and as Edith Wharton herself wrote her books in bed.  And though the thought of rewriting her revered classic was intimidating, I told myself that when things got sticky, an asteroid could kill them all.

All these years later, it is an act of synchronicity that Alice and I share a publication date.  Her latest novel, When We Argued All Night, was published on June 12, as was Gilded Age.  It’s an amazing feeling to share this date with Alice, the first person who took my writing apart and helped me put it back together again, the first one who took it seriously.

1 comment:

  1. Memory is so strange. At first I recalled none of this, though I distinctly remember my initial experience of reading Claire McMillan's prose. I was on the admissions committee for the Bennington program, and reading great stacks of submissions, each 25 pages. The task was so large, it was a relief to come to the end of even the good ones. But I became so engrossed in Claire's submission, part of a novel, that when I finished it I pawed around in the pages on my desk, wanting more.

    Now that she talks about her difficult experience of learning to write well consistently, I remember it too. I guess I knew that sooner or later she'd find and sustain the story-teller's confidence that I'd already witnessed. I'm thrilled that she has a book, and that our books came out together.