bill berry, jr.:
Millie Chapman, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. As I was thinking about how I wanted to get our conversation started, an idea hit me. I end each of my interviews with 10 random questions where I ask for an immediate, first thing that comes to mind, quick response from the person I am chatting with. No thinking is allowed. (However, you should feel free to ponder and try to interpret the meaning behind the questions at your leisure.) So my dear Ms. Chapman, with you, I want to start out with ten questions. Here we go!
N.B. Millie’s responses are in red.
oatmeal or raisin bran? oatmeal
junk food or granola bars? junk food
roller blades or ice skates? ice skates
July or October? July
mountain climbing or hang gliding? mountain climbing
wine or beer? wine
Performing Arts or Visual Arts? Performing Arts
bacon & eggs or franks & beans? bacon & eggs
forest or mountain range? mountain range
hope or desire? desire
Often the inklings of a creative personality starts to surface during childhood and not by inferring personality traits from mindless questions (though I am sure some psychologists would elect to differ.) So, what was your first acknowledged expression of creativity and how did this trait develop from that particular point in time to now? When and what prompted you to write stories?
I would say my first acknowledged expression of creativity came alongside my inability to apologize as a toddler. When asked to say ‘I’m sorry’, I would replace the word ‘Sorry’ with any closely rhyming word. I would also set up elaborate scenes with my Barbies and make my mom repeat and change her character’s dialogue until it matched the emotions I wanted to express in my head, but couldn’t convey because of my limited four-year-old vocabulary. Playing Barbies with me was later described by my mother as, “a fate worse than death.”
Eventually, my mom threw in the towel. So, I packed up the Barbies, picked up a pencil and started writing. I would fill up entire notepads with stories (I’d like to think of them as my little Latin epic poems because both are difficult to read and, for the most part, completely devoid of punctuation). I would write songs, poems, stories, and plays, which included contracts I made my little sister sign agreeing that I was older and therefore much cooler so she had to follow my directions to a T. It gave the term Life Size Barbie a whole new meaning to me.
Well, you may know from another “Conversation” that I have a keen interest in and appreciation for childhood personal memorabilia. If there are existing expressions of your creativity from your younger years and one of those older sister contracts, please share. Material like that is priceless! And our readership will welcome seeing and reading your early creative period. So, you were enchanted by Barbie and the creative world that “playing and making up stories” created for you. What happened when you reached high school, and was middle school a challenge to your creative spirit? I will ask about your younger sister further into our chat…because I wonder how she survived her older sister!
I have a stash of old journals somewhere. I got into the habit of hiding them early, so I don’t know exactly where. Maybe someone will find them one day. Hopefully, by then Lisa Frank will be back in style and the ink from the gel and milky pens I insisted on using will have faded out most of my spelling mistakes.
I was able to find a picture of the contract I made my younger sister sign. I think I was about eight when I wrote it. It was written with a green Crayola Marker (not the scented ones, those didn’t feel official enough). It isn’t a great photo. This is my best guess as to what it says…
I Sarah Chapman will
obey and not wine when Millie
picks a part for me. I MAY
ask Millie CALMLY to change
my part. But if Millie says no then
I will ASK for another less “uncool”
part. But I will take in note
that someone has to be the “loser”
or the “stick” and if that is not
me or Millie then “loser”
or “stick” will not exist all together.
So if I do not favor a part I
will not freak out over it. I will simply
[suggest] to Millie that I get
another part. And then I will tell Millie
in detail why I do not want this part.
When I reached middle school I was much less diplomatic. Instead of writing, I used my creativity to come up with better comebacks during recess. Luckily, I was so small no one ever tried to beat me up.
Around that same time, I started taking piano and then ukulele lessons. (I played ukulele because my hands were–and still are–too small to play guitar.) As soon as I had my first four chords memorized, I started songwriting, like any Nashvillian wanting to feed an overused stereotype. I think I still have most of them stashed in the bottom of my ukulele case here in New York.
Just before my freshman year of high school I met my mentor and writing Yoda, Myra McLarey. I had always been given praise and encouragement by teachers, family and friends, but after a while all of the kind words lost their fire and just became recycled not air. (I realize that makes me sound like an asshole.) Myra encouraged me to not only become a better writer, but a better creative thinker as well. She introduced me to free-writing, which eventually got me to stop editing every word I put down, and helped me find my literary voice.
Are you still in contact with Ms. McLarey and when was the last time you picked and strummed your ukulele, and is Nashville completely out of the question for you at this point in time? It appears you have been delving into your creative spirit since a young age. And while I do not know your age (though you can share if the spirit moves you,) your writing is mature with the wisdom of diverse, intriguing experiences and a keen understanding of the human psyche. Where does that come from?
Yes, I’m still in contact with Myra. I try to see her whenever I go back to Nashville, which is once every few months. I like visiting home, but I’m not sure I’d want to move back yet. So many people are moving there, it feels less and less like home. There are probably more migrators than natives now, and they’re not hard to spot. If someone’s wearing two of the following clothing items, cowboy hat/boots/belt buckle larger than their fist, or anything from lower Broadway, they’re probably not from Nashville.
As far as my understanding of people or my overall maturity, I don’t know where I stand. I was always described as an old soul, but I think that’s just a nice way of saying you’re anti-social. Because of my parents’ careers, I was always traveling and meeting different types of people. I was shy, so I’d usually just watch them, which was fitting since my freakishly large eyes covered about half of my face. They all seemed so peppy and excited when they came backstage; I just developed a slightly dark, sarcastic, dry sense of humor to balance out the lighting. It was also interesting to see how people would treat my mother versus how they would treat everyone else. I think that was probably when I started to identify some of the masks we all wear. It made me wanted to start peeling them off like scabs and expose the raw parts beneath. People are so fascinating. A fake person is about as useful as spork at a steak dinner.
Well, I know a few people who I would describe as “old souls” and they are not anti-social but just into thoughts, ideas and atmospheres and ambiances generally associated with an older generation(s.) What did your parents do, though I would guess they were involved with the theater or performance in some way? And how was your mother treated differently and do you often face similar treatment even though you developed your own mask of sorts? I found your use of the word “spork” interesting since I have never heard the phrase or the word used in New York and knew you did not mean the other meaning – lol.
My parents are both musicians. My mom, Amy Grant, still tours off and on, but when I was younger the touring was a much bigger part of our lives. I actually learned to walk on a tour bus. Anyways, she does a lot of Christian music and is the most positive and loving person I know. (One Thanksgiving she invited so many people over for dinner, we had to wear nametags. These were people she just met in the grocery store that day who didn’t have plans.) Her enthusiastic energy must be infectious because she has a lot of gay fans (you don’t have parades and claim the rainbow if you’re not an enthusiastic bunch). Sadly, some of her other fans aren’t as loving. This is how I encountered the first mask, the “Bad Christian”. A “Bad Christian” is someone who vomits hate and discrimination Monday through Saturday thinking it’ll help cleanse them on Sunday. Now, while regurgitation might help purge, it doesn’t cleanse, it just relocates the problem.
Seeing the looks of disapproval and the discomfort those fans felt just by being in the same room as some of my mother’s more colorful fans was very disturbing to me as a child, but what was even more disturbing was how quickly their faces changed the second she walked in the room. Their judgmental scowls were instantaneously replaced by plastered on smiles. They loved her while hating what she loved.
Now, I think everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, whether I agree with them or not. But, when your beliefs drive you to discriminate, dislike, or dehumanize others, I have a problem with you. On the flip side, if I’m discriminating against people because they’re being discriminatory, what does that make me? This twisted moral pretzel is what opened up the complexity of characters to me. No one is purely good or purely evil. The same should go for fictional characters. Some of my favorite characters to write are those I wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life.
And yes, I mean this spork 😛
I remember and knew of your Mom via TV appearances, as well as her music, especially a duet with Pete Cetera who was a vocalist with the Chicago Transit Authority, better known as Chicago unless I am off-base on the Grant/Cetera Grammy-winning collaboration!? (What instruments did your Dad play?) I understand better now the association with the ukulele, Nashville, and the real and symbolic sense of masks for you. I suspect a central part of your personality was shaped by “being on the road” as a youngster, and I am also sure your reaction to the “hurtful” and hate discrimination exhibited by others is not necessarily “reverse” or reactionary discrimination. But that discussion of nomenclature and the symbolism of words is another chat for another time between us.
With the totality of your life experiences, what are you writing about at the moment, and does the ongoing scope of your experiences still get infused into your fictional characters?
I’m working on my first novel at the moment. It’s a very daunting task, so I’m not sure how far I’ll get before I file it away in the To Do list that never gets done. I would love to finish it. Maybe one day.
I think it would be difficult to write any character without having part of your life infused into theirs. Whether you develop a character based on someone’s annoying quirk that randomly pops into your head or you completely mirror them from someone you know, you and/or your experiences are in everything you write, even if we don’t want them to be.
Writing is both creative and cathartic for me. For example, I based the character Iris off of my grandmother, who had recently passed away from dementia. Even though Iris turned out to be much more outspoken and wacky than my grandmother, who once scolded my cousin and sent him home for saying “the F word” when she overheard him say “fart”. Some of the quotes used were from condolences my family received after she’d passed. I don’t remember if I included the part about wiggling your toes if you want to keep yourself from crying, but that’s one that Sheryl Crow gave my mother before the funeral. These little bread crumbs of real life helped me navigate through the story and the inner workings of each character.
It appears to me that your life is rich with varying experiences that can enrich characters and provide them with the full range of human interactions. How would your life be if you were exclusively a writer, musician, or some other vocation that would be purely creative? And what are you currently doing professionally and how do those experiences shape or influence your character as a person?
I need structure. I think if I was just a writer or another type of artist, I would probably go through bursts of creativity and then lulls without any consistency. If I have a set schedule for work and other things, it makes it easier to put time aside for writing. Also, if I had to rely solely on writing as a meal ticket, there would be too much pressure attached to it.
Right now, I’m a Project Manager for an educational publishing company, more specifically, college level foreign language textbooks. Through my role, I’ve been introduced to several different people and cultures from around the world. Surrounded by different languages daily has made me much more linguistically curious. It has definitely broadened the way I see the world and it has inspired me to see more of it. So far, I haven’t written any characters from other countries because I don’t think I’m familiar enough with any one in particular, but it’s something I’d love to eventually be able to do.
And I am confident that when you do, you will imbue such characters with a rich cultural and ethnic complexity. Well, Millie I know you are busy and even though I want to continue chatting with you, I remember my Mom’s words regarding “not wearing out your welcome.” So, in closing, I want to say, “Thank You” to you for taking the time to converse with me, and if you have any words of wisdom for our readership before you “hang up,” please tell them.
Thank you for your encouragement and your patience throughout this whole interview process. I wrote my short story two years ago for a college course the night before it was due (in dry erase marker on my bathroom mirror). Needless to say, I work better under pressure. So, although I don’t think I have much wisdom, I can say that writing is supposed to be fun and no two people have the exact same process. Find what works for you—under pressure, in a quiet room, on a bathroom mirror, with scented markers, on an old typewriter or whatever—and don’t ever let it stop being fun. If it does, read the book Lit by Mary Karr for some humor and perspective.
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.