Peggy Tabor Millin
Peggy Tabor Millin is the author of Women, Writing and Soul-Making: Creativity and the Sacred Feminine. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, she is a writer, writing guide, retreat leader, and owner and founder of Clarityworks, whose mission is "to offer programs in the written word that guide women in developing their voices so they can stand in their power and inspire positive change in their world." This interview was conducted for the Story Circle Journal.
Read Lisa Shirah-Hiers' review of Women, Writing, and Soul-Making: Creativity and the Sacred Feminine for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 06/03/2010
What made you decide to write Women, Writing and Soul-Making? Who were you writing for?
I wrote the book for myself to discover what I have learned from almost 15 years of leading writing groups for women and I wrote the book to tell women that given a feminine approach (rightbrained and body-centered) and a supportive community of women they can write and can write their truth. Writing in groups empowers individuals. It does not matter what we write about or whether we are conscious of our process; writing heals and changes lives.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
One of the first comments I get from readers is "this book made me cry." Women cry because in telling my story, I have told theirs. For the first time, they feel that their creative struggles have been understood. Their hearts open to themselves. That's really the lesson of life: to learn to hold our own selves in our hearts.
In your book you describe having to start over when you realized you had written to publish rather than writing the book that wanted to exist. What was wrong with this approach?
In trying to write what publishers wanted, I produced a how-to book that depended a great deal on what other people said. It might have sold, but wasn't mine. After the rewrite I submitted to agents without success, I came to understand that their criteria are money-based, while my desire is to share a truth I deeply hold. I felt strongly that women would respond to my book if I told my story and what I have learned. This has definitely been the case so far.
Describe the process of finding your own way to structure your book.
[W]hen I started to rewrite the book from an outline, my stomach clenched. Finally, I closed my eyes and said, "Okay, book. You tell me how to write this." Almost instantly I knew I had to use Centered Writing Practice, which is a feminine approach and the one I teach. I had to let go of what I thought the book should be and let it emerge as what it wanted and needed to be. The book was saying "Practice what you preach." This process was all very intuitive. I went through journals and picked out writes I liked that I'd done in classes with my students. I would choose one and use it as a prompt with the intention of connecting it to writing and women.
In your book you describe the "Power Principle" (a more accurate, purely descriptive term for patriarchy) and how this has dominated the publishing field. As you say, "To the degree the Power Principle prevails, the language of books, as well as their content, will be subject to its standards." Given this, what advice do you have for women writers seeking to publish?
First, write for yourself, not for publication. Write the book that is yours to write. Second, there is no harm in trying for an agent and acceptance by a large publishing house, but don't give up if you don't get a bite. Third, if this fails, look for small publishers who publish the kind of book you have written. Fourth, self-publish—there are many ways to do this. The bottom line is that no matter how you publish, you have to be prepared to do the marketing yourself. Only on rare occasions do publishers pay for book tours or marketing. Also, with big publishing houses, you generally have only three months to make your book sell a quantity large enough that the publisher will keep it on their list. Small publishers usually keep books on the market longer and if you self-publish, it's your choice.
In your book you describe "Centered Writing Practice" (CWP) which comes "[w]hen we combine physical centeredness in the belly and free writing to neutral prompts with active practice, both solitary and in community..." Describe the journey you undertook to discover and teach CWP.
CWP emerged gradually and is still emerging, especially as I understand more about the role of the body. Beyond being aware that I gave a name to the process we were using I doubt that my students noticed. I focus on writing. I don't spend time explaining the process or the possibilities for healing or spiritual growth. I feel that the experience of using CWP itself is the teacher. It meets people where they are and it works whether or not they understand why.
I had no idea of the power of the process until women started telling me, "You saved my life." Although I feel it is the process, not I personally, that "saved their lives," I accept that the leader of the group is responsible for the emotional safety of participants and that this is something I do very well. The feeling of safety allows participants the space to be them selves and to write their truth. Learning how to hold a safe space was a long process for me, one I began before I started teaching writing classes. I had to learn to be safe with myself first.
Another theme is what you call "the wisdom of fierce compassion" which combines compassionate love and personal power which you call "power to" rather than "power over." How do you see the role of women in claiming "the wisdom of fierce compassion"?
Compassion means "shared suffering." To have compassion for others, we must have compassion for ourselves. Fierce compassion means we do not avert our gaze from suffering. This is our most important action because by looking straight at what is before us we accept our responsibility in the matter. There's a line from my book Mary's Way, "We never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace." When we look on a person or an event with fierce compassion, we touch them. We join humanity rather than trying to separate ourselves from the "other." In order to change anything, we have to see it clearly first. Then we have to be willing to open our hearts to what we see including our part in it. Only then should we engage our minds to examine what actions might meet the need of our hearts to respond.
Pelted with so much information about so many catastrophes, it is not surprising that we want to turn away. Women especially turn away, because it is painful to see suffering through the heart. We can't all travel to disaster zones and, if we're honest, a part of us wants to leave it to the men to fix. We feel powerless to "do" anything. Fierce compassion asks us to thoroughly experience all our feelings related to our own and others' suffering. Our action then comes from our hearts as a donation, a direct service, a prayer. The prayer of fierce compassion acknowledges the pain in our hearts while asking for the relief of suffering for all of us. Tonglen, a Buddhist technique used by persons of many faiths, provides a specific practice to develop fierce compassion.
Do you think women see things differently than the way men do?
Generally, yes, though there's a whole range within each gender. Is there such a thing as a "female" culture or aesthetic? Yes. Just think of how all-male or all female-groups behave. If someone of the opposite sex enters, the group dynamic changes. What's more important is not to divide by gender so we start thinking in terms of right/wrong. Feminine and masculine are different energies and each has its positive attributes and its shadow side. We must learn how to select the attributes we need in a particular instance and then to synthesize the feminine with the masculine. For example, as a leader I might need to learn the masculine skill of discerning right action and synthesizing it with my feminine skill for nurturance. Why are people so resistant to the idea that women and men think or experience things differently? When all the equal-rights movements effected change in the sixties and seventies, perhaps we over-generalized the word "equal." Usually when a new concept comes into a culture or system, it is over-generalized before it swings back to center. I think we're moving back to center on this one. Women really do not want to be like men nor men like women.
Underlying your book is a call to "claim one's voice." Is this particularly problematic for women?
I can't speak for men, but I know many of us women have difficulty accepting that we have the right to speak our truth. All those centuries of being ridiculed, punished, even killed for our words. In many cultures, women weren't allowed to speak at all; their only power was whatever influence they could have on their husbands. I don't think we can appreciate what the American suffragettes endured to give us the right to vote. Younger women cannot imagine a world in which they would not have the right to play sports or run for congress or go to medical school. Why is it so challenging or even frightening? This is probably a simplified answer: Women are all about relationship. Our psychological safety lies in our relationships with other women; our physical safety (at least in the past) has relied on men. To claim our voice, we have to move out of these safety zones and out of socially accepted roles in order to stand alone in our own power.
Speaking out can threaten relationships and not just with men. Other women and whole families can shun a woman who steps out of her expected place and speaks her mind. I think the fear women hold is not "Who will I be if I take the risk of speaking my truth?" but "Who will be with me?" I notice that this is not a fear common only to women over forty. I have heard the same fears from women in their twenties and thirties. This surprised me because I perceived younger women as more confident and self-assured than I was at that age.
Do women creatives have an especially important role?
I want to holler YES! Because we are all creative, we just have to claim it. The nature of the feminine is to create and to give the gifts of creation to others. We then receive back what we have given.
What do you hope your own legacy will be to the next generation of women?
What a profound question. Every woman has to learn her own lessons. I am sure of that. But what I hope is that my book, my work, and students will inspire women to choose to forge their own heroine's journey.
To find out more about Peggy Tabor Millin's books and workshops and her 7-day Fearless Writing at the Beach retreat in South Carolina April 18—25, 2010, visit her website.