1 post tagged Priscilla Gilman
Priscilla Gilman and I “met” on Twitter many months ago, and have been talking about doing this interview since; therefore I am very excited and honored to be featuring her on my blog today. I feel I know Priscilla and her sweet son Benj, after following her Facebook posts and reading her book, which I loved and highly recommend to all parents and teachers. Priscilla is a very warm, patient, and obviously brilliant woman. I hope to one day meet her in person!
Bio: Priscilla Gilman is the author of the acclaimed memoir The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (Harper), a beautiful exploration of our hopes and expectations for our children, our families, and ourselves, and the ways in which experience may lead us to re-imagine them. Using literature as a touchstone, Gilman reveals her journey through crisis to joy, illuminating the flourishing of life that occurs when we embrace the unexpected. The Anti-Romantic Child was excerpted in Newsweek and featured on the cover of its international edition. It was an NPR Morning Edition Must-Read, Slate’s Book of the Week, and selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by both The Leonard Lopate Show and the Chicago Tribune. The Anti-Romantic Child was one of five nominees for a Books for a Better Life Award for Best First Book.
Gilman received her B.A. summa cum laude and with exceptional distinction and her Ph.D. in English and American literature from Yale University. She was an English professor at both Yale and Vassar before leaving academia in 2006. From 2006-2011, she worked as a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, representing a wide range of literary fiction, inspirational memoir, wellness, and psychology/education books. She has taught poetry to inmates in a restorative justice program, to public school students, and to adult learners. Gilman writes regularly for The Daily Beast, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, MORE magazine, and Huff Post Parents. A prize-winning teacher and with a background in the performing arts, Gilman is a captivating speaker whose warmth, dynamism, and accessibility make her highly sought-after by schools, conferences, and organizations. She blogs at www.priscillagilman.com, and maintains an active Facebook page with over 32,000 fans. She lives in New York City with her family.
Peggy: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Priscilla: When I was born in May 1970, my parents lived in a small rental apartment in a Federal townhouse on Charlton Street in Soho; when I was 1 and my mother was about to have her second girl, we moved to a larger apartment at 333 Central Park West on the Upper West Side. The apartment was what’s known in NYC real estate lingo as a Classic 7—3 bedrooms plus formal dining room and maid’s room (my father’s office)—, and the living room, my parents’ bedroom, and my bedroom all looked out onto Central Park, but it was a rent-controlled building and they paid about $300 a month for it! When I was 8, my parents bought their first apartment, on West 77th Street across from the American Museum of Natural History, and that’s where I lived until I went to college. When I moved back to New York City in 2006, my boys and I lived in a small apartment just a few blocks from 333 CPW, but oh how the neighborhood had changed! A few months ago, my new husband and I bought and combined two apartments in Upper Manhattan (Washington Heights). We have 3 kids and needed more space. The neighborhood up here reminds me of the Upper West Side of my childhood: diverse, warm, liberal, artsy, and affordable, with beautiful parks, lots of teachers, therapists, performers, and families.
Peggy: Priscilla, let me just tell you…writing interview questions for a former Yale English professor is a bit intimidating! ;) This question is about your impressive education. You have Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Yale. At what age did you know you wanted to study literature, and did you always plan on attending Yale?
Priscilla: I was always a passionate reader and literature student, but I didn’t even decide to major in English until my junior year of college. My freshman year, I was in a special honors program called Directed Studies, in which we studied literature, history and politics, and philosophy from the Greeks to the present in year-long interdisciplinary courses. I declared myself a Humanities major my sophomore year, and at the beginning of junior year, thought I’d be a history major, but the two incredible professors who taught me Major English Poets inspired me to pursue a career studying and teaching literature. As far as always planning on attending Yale, there’s no way to plan for such a development! :) No-one in my family had attended an Ivy League School, and neither of my maternal grandparents had even graduated from college. My father began teaching as an adjunct professor at Yale Drama School in the fall of 1969, just around the time I was conceived, and I did grow up wearing little navy blue hooded Yale sweatshirts. I visited Yale for the first time during my junior year of high school and I fell in love with it. I applied for Early Action to Yale, and when I was accepted in December of 1987, I withdrew all my other college applications. My Dad was thrilled; my mother, who didn’t relish the prospect of visiting New Haven, less so.
Peggy: Congratulations on your new book, The Anti-Romantic Child! I read your memoir, initially thinking it was not going to apply to me, as I don’t have a special needs child. I found your book to be incredibly inspiring, though. I came away wondering how you got through it all: realizing your first child has hyperlexia, finishing your dissertation, moving several times, having a second baby, working, getting divorced, losing your beloved father… You are obviously an incredibly strong woman. Are you naturally a positive person? How did you get through that period of your life?
Priscilla: Thank you so much, Peggy! I love hearing that my book resonated with people who don’t have special needs children. My editor once said, ”The book isn’t only about a special needs child or even parenting per se but rather about the curve balls thrown by life and how we respond to them,” and I think that’s a pretty good summary!
Wow was that a hard time- when I think back on it, I sometimes wonder myself how I got through it all! As far as your question about my strength and positivism, yes, I am naturally a very positive person. My parents say I virtually never cried as a baby, slept through the night easily, and was always smiling. In grade and high school, I was the one who cheered up sad people, counseled those going through difficulty, and put smiley-face stickers on all my notebooks. My father struggled with depression, and from a young age, I was the sunny, reassuring, happy presence who buoyed and comforted him. In many of my romantic relationships, I’ve been the light-giver and the one who brings a can-do spirit of pluck and hope to seemingly overwhelming situations and predicaments. My new husband calls me his ”Girl of Silver Linings”. I’m very fortunate that way- my temperament is naturally buoyant and joyful. But I am also a very pragmatic, clear-sighted person who puts a lot of stock in rigorous honesty and authenticity, and I have a strong resistance to any kind of positivism that involves denial or blind, unrealistic faith in the face of evidence to the contrary. With the help of a great therapist and great books by therapists and spiritual teachers including Edward Hallowell, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Pema Chodron, I actively banished excessive worrying and unproductive ruminating from my consciousness. I worked very hard to be more in the moment and to focus on the good, the positive, the gifts. I sacrificed a lot: I never went out socially during the first years of my children’s lives and I never took a vacation. That approach didn’t ultimately make for a good balance, and ultimately I changed careers when it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to be the kind of mother I needed to be and work as a tenure-track English professor. I tried to eliminate toxic people from my life and focused on building the strongest relationships I could possibly have with the people who really mattered and whose presence was uplifting rather than enervating. I read voraciously and relied on authors and thinkers as sources of insight, ideas, support, and reassurance. As a result of all the essentially simultaneous crises in my life (Benj’s diagnosis, my marriage’s disintegration, my father’s terminal illness, career and housing changes), I learned how to ask for help and how to say no. Most of all, I strove to keep foremost in my mind at all times the innumerable blessings of being these boys’ mother and the awareness that difficulty and challenge give us our greatest opportunities for growth and happiness. Toni Morrison’s sage counsel “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” is one of my go-to affirmations. I’m fortunate in my family who uphold me with their rock-solid love and fortitude. Finally, I’ve been lucky enough to know several extraordinary people— my other mother Mia Farrow, my former client Sunny Schwartz, my stepmother Yasuko Shiojiri—whose own resilience in the face of tragedy and challenge serves as an example and a beacon for me. So I guess I’d say the sources of my strength are wide and varied: the blessings of genetics, a belief that realistic optimism itself can change our experience for the better, literature and quotations, excellent role models, an active gratitude practice, and the insights and empathy of my family, friends, and now, readers!
Peggy: It seemed like you reached a turning point the day your pediatrician, Dr. B, said to you, about your son Benj, “This child has been given to you, Priscilla, for a reason.”. True? Why was that statement so important to you?
Priscilla: I think a passage from my book will help explain why:
Dr. B could not have given me a greater gift than his intuitive belief that I would be able to help and make a difference in Benj’s life, that simply to love Benj was thereby to ‘treat” him. He didn’t scant the value of a clinical evaluation and he expressed his firm belief that therapies could help Benj live a more fulfilling life. But he also made it clear that the most important treatment for Benj was love. He set up the act of evaluation not as a cold clinical process or as an admission of failure or disorder on Benj’s part but as still enchanted. All the questionnaires, the tests, the bubbles I’d filled or have to fill in or checklists I’d filled or have to fill out, were retrospectively and proleptically explained as ways to appreciate Benj, not to dissect him. This was so important. Evaluation and therapy and intervention were defined not as harsh and distanced and aggressive acts of interrogation and classification but rather as investments of love and energy, care and attention. Dr. B revived our romantic vision, but in a deeper way, in his office. This child is going to prosper from your caring, Priscilla, he told me. This is not about a label or a diagnosis. It’s about both unfolding and preserving the mystery of his self.
Peggy: You ended your book with this, from Wordsworth’s “The Sparrow’s Nest”:
[He] gave me eyes, … [he] gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love, and thought, and joy.
Please explain what these words mean to you.
Priscilla: Oh how I love this amazing stanza!!! These words summarize, in the most beautiful way, the myriad gifts Benj has blessed me with. They’re from a relatively obscure Wordsworth poem, and they only came to me very late in the process as the perfect way to end the book. I love their simultaneous simplicity and profundity and the way they celebrate the complicated gifts of being a parent. Benj has helped me to become more mindful, more appreciative, and more grateful. Being his mother has brought new sources of care and fear into my life, but I love the way Wordsworth describes cares and fears as ”humble” and “delicate”- not overwhelming or draining. Benj has made me think in new and deeper ways; he’s taught me the true meaning of love, and he’s given me joy, in this sense:
Joy is appropriate even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of pain . . Joy is that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens. Normally, we are happy when something good happens, and we are unhappy when something happens that we do not consider good. We pick and choose. But joy is our wholehearted response to whatever
opportunity is given to us in any moment. It does not depend on what happens.
Peggy: Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Priscilla: I do, absolutely! Every writer does, I think. There are several ways that I cope with feeling blocked. One is to simply take a break from trying to write: to recognize when I’m pushing too hard or straining too much and turn to something else. Another is listening to music; in this interview with Poets and Writers, I talk about the specific music that helped me write The Anti-Romantic Child:
And finally, I do really well with deadlines!
Peggy: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Priscilla: I think the most helpful advice I could give them would be this passage from May Sarton. I discovered it only recently, but it could have been my motto while writing The Anti-Romantic Child:
“At some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come
out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition,
and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt,
extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to
its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as
artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be
willing to go naked.”
Peggy: Who is your favorite author, or poet, and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Priscilla: Wordsworth is my favorite poet, and his poetry is threaded throughout my memoir. I also adore Jane Austen- I wrote my dissertation on Wordsworth, Austen, and a strange, fascinating 18th century poet named William Cowper. Other favorite authors include Marilynne Robinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kazuo Ishiguro, E.B. White, Alain De Botton, ee cummings, John Keats, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf. What qualities do all these ostensibly very different writers share? A precision and grace with language, a rigorous commitment to honesty, a searching, curious, ardent sensibility, and a capacity for wonder.
Peggy: Is there something you do every day (meditate, pray, exercise, read) that helps you stay balanced?
Priscilla: I do meditate every day; I took a course in Transcendental Meditation the summer before I started graduate school and I truly believe that it made the difference for me in terms of being able to get through both the rigors of academia and the challenges of parenting, a divorce, and a career change. I make sleep a top priority. I eat a very healthy diet with minimal sugar and no dairy products. I don’t exercise every day, but I always feel better if I’m able to take a nice walk. I try to read something every day that makes me feel calm, centered, peaceful, and grateful. That means that I read an awful lot of poetry, spiritual non-fiction (recently I’ve been immersed in Thomas Merton), and inspirational self-help (currently obsessed with Brene Brown).
Peggy: Dark or milk chocolate? Do you have a favorite brand?
Priscilla: Dark, always dark. I love Dove Promises (I eat on average 5 pieces a day), Lindt 99% for a jolt of intense energy, and the Jacques Torres Gift Box of Dark Chocolate- my husband’s go-to gift for me on special occasions. I also love to make cocoa with soy milk, good old Hershey’s cocoa powder, and apple juice!
Peggy: Priscilla, thank you so much for your time! I’m honored. :)