Behind the Words: Gayla Mills

Posted by on May 30, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

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Gayla is the author of “The Last Day”, as well as published features, reviews, and flash fiction, all which can be found atgaylamills.comGayla also teaches writing and directs the writing center at Randolph-Macon College. Her essays have appeared in RED OCHRE LiT, Prairie Wolf Press, Skirt!,The Truth about the FactGreenwoman, The StylusAgenda: The Magazine of Politics and Culture, The Hook, and the Richmond Times Dispatch. Her chapbook of personal essays, Finite,won the RED OCHRE LiT Chapbook contest and was published in April 2012. In addition to writing, Gayla plays stand-up bass in a bluegrass duo with her husband, hikes with her dogs on city and country trails, cooks on a woodstove in the winter, and enjoys watching butterflies alight.

 

Your Flash piece “The Last Day”, was featured in Spry’s second issue and was exceptionally heart-wrenching. As the writing was so emotional and personal, was this story based on true events? If so, do you find that it is easier or more difficult to draw upon real experiences and emotion? How are you able to write so openly, knowing that readers will be judging you personally instead of a fictional character?

Yes, “The Last Day” was a true story. I find it much easier to write nonfiction than fiction, though I do both. I generally write three sorts of nonfiction: telling a story, reflecting on an idea that’s grabbed my attention, or trying to make sense of some strong emotion that has me in its grip. I don’t think about how readers will react while I’m writing; that comes later, when I’m crafting and deciding whether to send it for publication. Some topics reveal too much about me or people I know, so they stay on my computer. Others I can modify to hide the identity of someone or to leave out a detail I don’t wish to share.

 

“The Last Day” beautifully weaves nature and narrative together. Do you believe that scenery plays a large part in telling a story? Or does it play a secondary role to the narration?

I don’t think explicitly about the relation of scenery to narration when I write. Things spill out on the page, and I edit as needed based on what bores me or what feels right. If I’m impatient getting through a section of description, I figure there’s too much. If my brain has thrown a tangential thought into the mix that adds little to my main point, it gets chopped. And I edit for wordiness, of course. “The Last Day” ended up with a lot of choppy sentences because that reflected my feelings: everything was blunt. If I were to write about that same walk up the hill on a beautiful day, the sentences would be more leisurely and the writing more languid. But the scene itself, the hill and the beaver sticks and the heat, was quite vivid and memorable. It played an important role in how all of us were feeling, so it had to be there.

 

A large portion of your work, including “The Last Day”, is in the form of an essay, written in first person. What draws you to this style of writing?

I want to record what I’m doing, thinking, feeling. My motive to write often starts as a kind of journal. I also find it much easier to explore thoughts on a page than in some abstract sound board in my head. Plus, my memory for details is really poor. It’s exciting to reread something I’ve written that’s full of details that I recall on reading, but would have forgotten otherwise. Although I love sharing my writing, having that written record of my life matters a great deal. Lastly, I find the essay format comes naturally, and I admire its simplicity and versatility.

 

A large portion of your work is also short and sweet. Do you follow the old adage that “less is more”? Is conciseness part of your editing process or does it happen organically? Why do you prefer flash to a longer, more traditional essay style?

Okay, so there are several reasons for writing short. One is practical. The majority of my work comes from writing in twenty to forty minute blocks in my weekly writing group. We write together until everyone is at a good stopping point, then read aloud. I don’t know of other groups that work this way, but it works well for all of us. I write quickly, and it all spills out, and I revise later. I also find that much of what I have to say is best delivered in short sections. I don’t need ten pages to convey a simple point or feeling. Short works for me.

 

Your personal website’s biography mentions a wide array of odd jobs, from bicycle mechanic to crossing guard. How has this affected or inspired your writing? Was there ever a time you were discouraged from writing?

I was fortunate to spend much of my life uncertain about what I wanted to do. This gave me the confusion and freedom to try lots of different things. Since I have only one life, I’d like to experience as much variety and depth as I’m able. Obviously one needs to be awake in order to find things to write about, but it would be more accurate to say that while awake I sometimes write about it. I’ve never been discouraged from writing, but for many years I simply didn’t write.

 

I love the work you’ve done on “A Dog’s True Tale”. I’m very curious about the subjects in each piece. Are they dogs that you have personally found and rescued? How do you get inside a dog’s brain and create a personality for them? Will dogs always be a source of inspiration for you?

Because of my love for dogs, I worked for a couple of years at an SPCA, supervising volunteers, giving humane education talks at schools, and helping with adoptions. I wrote those pieces for the quarterly newsletter I created in order to provide supporters with an easy way to imagine our dogs and cats more fully. I began with what I thought was the most salient quality of the animal and then exaggerated it. So an Australian shepherd had to be from Australia, and that meant I needed to do some research on how such a character would talk and think. But the pictures on my website are of the actual animals, and the facts about what the dog or cat went through before being adopted are true. It was a lot of fun to write these. The newsletter was successful in raising money for the shelter and helping with adoptions, and I believe those columns were one reason people read it.

One of my greatest pleasures in life is sharing it with dogs. I try to give them both outdoor freedom and good couches so they can enjoy the world fully with me in a dog-friendly way. Giving them a respectful last day at the right time is also a gift we can offer them and part of the burden we bear.

 

You have spent a lot of time helping other writers and students. Has working with others improved your own writing? Is it more difficult to shape and sculpt your own work or to guide the words of another person? Do you have a basic curriculum to help everyone from inmates to school children learn or do you improvise based on their needs?

Of course teaching writing has improved my own. It’s much easier to see problems in the work of others, but doing so helps shine a light on how I do similar things. Although teaching and writing are two different things, both provide a high when going well and misery when going badly.

I’ve used all sorts of methods for teaching, but I find personal essays the best fodder for instruction. Not only do I feel comfortable with the genre, but people often write their best with it. They’re emotionally invested in things that happen to them, and they have vivid details to draw on in constructing their piece. So the raw material is there, and whatever comes out of it, the writers are usually happy with it. I can’t always say the same about argumentative or expository essays, which is mostly what I teach now. I enjoy the challenges of that too, though.

 

 

You have had such a wonderfully long and successful career. How have you developed as a writer over the years? Do you remember what first sparked your interest in writing? Do you have any advice for those seeking publication for the first time?

It’s nice to hear the words “successful career” to describe my life, but I really don’t think of it that way. I’m on a great adventure with lots of curves in the road. Sometimes I’ve been paid. Sometimes I’ve pulled my hair out. Sometimes I’ve marveled at how those words got on that page, because surely they can’t be mine.

I didn’t think of myself as a writer for the first few decades of my life. There’s nothing like creating a website and business cards to help you attach the word “writer” to yourself and make that move from verb to noun.

I help people publish their first work all the time. I suggest new writers begin by submitting to easier places: local publications, school literary magazines or newspapers, neighborhood or work related newsletters, newer online journals. Don’t start with the Kenyon Review or the NYTimes. Once you have two of three acceptances, you’ll have a list of successes you can mention in your cover letter when you submit to more competitive places. Keep a list of what you submit and to whom, embrace rejection as the first step in the road to success, and edit between submissions so the piece keeps getting better.

 

Do you have any news or projects you would like to share with the public?

I have a couple hundred essays waiting for attention once the semester is over. That’s about it. My garden needs attention too.

1 Comment

  1. Gayla – your comments resonated with me so much, I had to go back and read “The Last Day.” As I suspected, it touched my heart. Because of this interview, I will be exploring your website and look forward to reading more of your work.
    Thank you for a large burst of inspiration.

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