Meet Nancy Slonim Aronie
Nancy Slonim Aronie is best known for her book Writing From the Heart and her commentaries on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Nancy is the owner and facilitator of the Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha's Vineyard where she offers weekly workshops each summer. She served as the keynote speaker for Story Circle Network's 2008 Stories from the Heart Conference. An inspiring speaker, commentator, writer, and workshop leader, Aronie shared some thoughts on what drives her with SCN's Lisa Shirah-Hiers, in an interview originally published in The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 11, No. 4, December 2007).
Visit Nancy's website.
Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 12/15/2007
Tell me about your busy life. How do you juggle it all?
In the 1970s, I read Be Here Now, Ram Dass' book, and it changed my life. I try very hard to be here now. If you are in this moment, then you're not thinking of what you should have done a minute ago or what you're gonna do in three minutes...you get the full moment. I make lists; I prioritize. Eating is always at the top of the list. While I'm eating I do stuff.
How do your workshop participants lives change when they find their voices?
It isn't just that they find their voices. They transform because people listen to them. People go very deep because they feel safe. They get insights they wouldn't ordinarily get. When you're just writing or thinking, you're not hearing yourself, but when you read your work out loud, you are literally listening from a different part of your brain. You get very real, very truthful, and the language is your own, and the rhythms are your own, and you tell the truth about your story.
How do your various roles—wife, mother, writer, facilitator—feed each other?
I think being the mom of a handicapped boy keeps my heart open. In my workshop I talk a lot about what's going on in my life and because a lot of it is hard and I cry easily, I think I model that it is OK to cry in front of people and not look too attractive. (I've checked myself out in the mirror in the middle of a cry and it's not a pretty picture!) Many, many people are frightened of crying because they think they won't stop. Or they're ashamed. Or they grew up in a family that said "You better cheer up. Don't come out of your room until you're smiling." But here whatever you feel is welcome, respected, and, in fact, cherished. I have hard stuff in my life with this kid, and then I have incredible celebration with him and my husband and my other kids. That feeds into it as well. The work I do definitely helps with the family because I'm so filled. The room is filled with love. When I go out into the real world and see how cynical, angry, empty and sad people are, I'm so grateful that I live in 'La La' land. Most of my time is with people who are searching, opening their hearts, deepening, wondering, healing. You can't really beat that for spending your time.
Has listening to other people's stories changed your life?
I think the group is what changes my life—over and over again watching people fall in love with each other, cheerlead each other. I've heard awful, awful ruptures that people have lived through—abuse and emptiness and tragedy. [The stories] reinforce what I already know—that everybody has something that breaks their heart. Everyone.
What advice would you give new writers, teachers and workshop facilitators?
To writers I would say just keep writing. If you get into a class or workshop where you do not feel safe and you suddenly get a constricted throat, and your shoulders are tense, and somebody in the room says, "You know I heard something just like that," or, "You know how you should end that...", if there is anything that doesn't feel right I would say, get out. Drop the class, leave the workshop, get away from this teacher. For teachers and facilitators I'd say go from the brain into the heart. In the embryonic stages of creative work, what we really need is nourishment. You plant a seed. If you start chopping at that seed it cannot grow. But if you water it, put some food on it, and get some sunshine on it, that's gonna turn into a flower. If you are a teacher you are a gardener.
I was once on a softball team. I loved it. My husband bought me this beautiful glove for our twentieth anniversary, and he was teaching me to catch. I was really getting good. [At practice] the coach would make fun of me. "Come on molasses legs! Move it!" Well I'm a terribly slow runner. I [asked] the guys on the team, "When he insults you, does that motivate you somehow?" They said, "I'll show the jerk. That's what it does to me." I thought, maybe that's the difference between guys and gals. I don't need to be told what's wrong with me. I don't get motivated by that; I get stopped. I would advise teachers to find the good stuff. If you have to tell them about grammar, find something great in the same paragraph. Comment on that first. You can hear anything after somebody says something good to you.
What do you wish you had known before you began?
It's what I still need to know, which is how to listen better. Listening is a skill. With my kids I was an entertainer and a cheerleader. I was gonna give them all the encouragement that I didn't get, but I didn't get quiet enough to hear who they were. They will defend me. So will my husband. But I have moments when I think if I had just had some wisdom or some advice from somebody! It was the same thing with the very first workshop that I did. (I'll probably talk about this at the conference.) I was clueless. I learned by seeing it done wrong, then I did it wrong, and then I did it right. Facilitating is about being skillful at calming down the insecure ones who are the first to beat up somebody else because they're not feeling very good about themselves. I'm really good at that now. I can get a group safe.
Sometimes it takes time. My [summer] workshop [sessions are] Monday through Thursday. My husband calls me every Monday night and says, "So how was it?" I'll either say, "Unbelievable," or, "Nah. It's gonna take 'til tomorrow." If I say, "It's gonna take 'til tomorrow," that's because there was one person who was just not quite able to go with their heart. By Tuesday, everybody melts.
Tell us how you came to write your book Writing from the Heart.
This is a funny story. I had called my college's alumni office trying to get some kind of publicity for the workshop. I asked [the person I spoke to in the alumni office] if she would come to the workshop and write about it if she thought it was worthwhile. She loved it. She wrote this amazing piece.
So [I got a call from a] publisher who had gone to the University of Virginia. She said, "I've heard you on NPR. I've just got my alumni magazine [and read the article about you]. Would you like to write a book on writing?" And I said, "Oh, thank you. I don't think so." And I just figured—I don't know what I figured. But I wrote her name and her phone number down.
For the next three days I kept talking to myself saying, "Are you an idiot? Someone is asking you to do what you know how to do. You know this." I finally called her and they answered, "Disney productions." I thought I had a wrong number, so I dialed it again and they said, "Disney productions." When she came to the phone I said, "You're like...ah...big!" She said, "Yes..." And I said, "Well I was thinking about it and I think I wanna do it." She said, "Great. Send me a proposal." I asked her how to do that and she got very cold. She said, "No. I think you should find out." So I found out. I wrote the proposal. I sent it in. She called me two weeks later and said, "Everybody loves it. We're giving you a $25,000 advance." Can you even imagine such a thing? We were completely broke so it was a miracle.
What makes you really feel alive?
I love dancing with my husband. I love when I am rewriting something (which is funny 'cause I never knew how to rewrite before). I feel very alive when I'm writing. It's so present, you know? You're just totally there. What makes me feel really alive? Walking in the woods, being with my kids, my family, friends, ...and chewing.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell SCN readers?
I'm very, very grateful that I get to do what I do. Every time the school year comes around I thank God that I'm not going into a building, wearing panty hose, standing at a blackboard, even though I loved every kid. I am so lucky to have so much autonomy. I am married to the most easy, Zen, funny, wise man. I have gratitude for the people in my life, the place I live, health, and my teachers. I have a lot of good teachers.