Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Interview Series Kick-Off: Amanda Miller

With today's blog post, I hereby begin a brand new No-Alternative Interview Series, which I hope to update often!
I'll be taking my music/culture journalism skills and  focusing on some very talented people I know, support, and admire. It's my goal to share and expose their art --- be it writing, photography, visual art, music, lifestyle choices, etc. Living a life full of creativity and meaning, and doing what you want regardless of societal expectation, has always been my modus operandi, and the same is true (if not more so) for those I will be spotlighting in this new Series.
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To kick off the series, I am overjoyed to share an interview conducted with a very good friend, and a very good writer, named Amanda Miller. 

She recently completed her memoir, One Breath, Then Another, after earning an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School (which is where we met!). A chapter from the memoir has already been published in Underwired Magazine and another will appear in a book-length anthology by Telling Our Stories Press.

Amanda also holds a BFA in Acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is the co-creator and performer of Please Don’t Let Me Die Alone, a theater piece that has been presented twice at New York’s Tank Theater. She's a member of the interactive, improv performance company Playing With Reality, and of an all-girl long form improv comedy group called Tom, Dick and Harry. Amanda is also a yoga instructor and a nationally certified massage therapist.
Quick Look:
Birthday: September 2, 1983
Living in: Brooklyn, New York
Originally from: San Diego, California

No-Alternative: How did you come to write your first memoir, One Breath, Then Another? What parts of your life does this book encompass, and is any of it gleaned from journals or other writings?

Amanda Miller: started writing pieces of the memoir during my first year in the MFA program at The New School, back in 2004-2005. My father passed away in 2001 from lung cancer and I had been plagued for a long time by the self-hating self-destructive tendencies I had inherited from him, so my first bits of this book had to do with our parallel issues, as well as his death and the effect it had on me. I had written several journal entries on these matters, as well as a solo show that I performed in college, so I referenced these materials for inspiration. But at the time, I had no idea that what I was writing would actually be part of a full-fledged book.

In Spring of 2005 I had a mental breakdown and wrote several journal entries about this experience that would later also become a part of the book. My breakdown turned out to be so severe that I had to take a leave of absence from the MFA program. I returned to The New School in Fall 2008 and worked on more pieces as well as editing and expanding earlier material. I still didn’t know all these pieces would eventually join together to become a book. For a long time, I thought they would just be a series of related personal essays. But then I realized I was writing bits that fit a linear chronology so it made sense to join them together.

This book encompasses parts of my life from age three all the way to twenty-six. The last third, which takes place in India (a trip I took in the Fall of 2009), is almost entirely derived from journals. When I planned this trip, I knew it would take up a substantial amount of the book, so I was prepared to record my experiences there daily. Parts of the rest of the book did come from journalistic bits or other shorter pieces of writing that I expanded. In general when I write, I usually create longer works by merging things together.

Can you discuss some of the themes in One Breath, Then Another --- did these themes sort of find you while you were writing, or have you always been aware of them, even before starting this project?

The overarching theme is that, as human beings, our greatest enemies are often ourselves and if we don’t work to overcome the negativity running our minds, we will cheat ourselves out of a meaningful existence. I watched my father commit a slow suicide as a result of his own self-destructive mind, which scared me. He was a heavy smoker with food issues and he starved himself until he was skeletal. I, in turn, developed a severe case of anorexia that led to hospitalization. Nearly a year after I recovered, he died of lung cancer. His death propelled me on a vigorous mission to live my life to the absolute fullest, thereby defying that what happened to him could ever happen to me. I fled San Diego to pursue acting and writing in Manhattan, but I was pushing myself so hard that I crumbled under all the self-induced pressure, had a mental breakdown and had to move home. Eventually I found massage therapy and became a yoga teacher, and discovered that easing the pain of others was a powerful way to find my own healing.

The book is essentially about learning how to get out of our own ways and support each other so we can make the most of the time we have. These are themes that were dominant in my consciousness as I was putting this book together, but they were deepened and explored more fully through the process of writing and editing.

What was the most painful part about writing this memoir? And what was the most enjoyable?

The most painful part was reliving my anorexia, my dad’s illness and death, and my breakdown. I had intense visceral emotional memories as I recounted these experiences and I cried a lot. But ultimately I found the process of writing the memoir cathartic and empowering, and that was most enjoyable.

Do you have any particular writing habits --- good or bad? Do you find that a certain setting, schedule, or personal attitude helps the words and thoughts flow?

When I was writing the memoir I had much more disciplined writing habits than I do now. I wrote every morning in my apartment for at least an hour first thing after coffee and breakfast. Now that I am not working on such a big project, but rather shorter things like essays and short stories, I am more erratic as far as a schedule. I try to engage with my writing at some point in the day at least four days a week, but I would like to try to get back on a more regular schedule. I think that is the best way to be most productive.

My teacher Jonathan Ames said the best thing a writer can do is devote an hour to sit at the computer, without the pressure of producing a certain amount or quality of writing. I would like to make that hour start happening more regularly on a near daily basis. Also, I would like to emphasize the importance of relieving myself of these pressures. Writing is a long process and involves a great deal of revision, so when faced with a blank page, the best thing I can do is get my ideas out without censoring myself, remembering that I can edit and shape it all later. I find I work best in the morning and usually best in a private setting with instrumental music playing low in the background.

Has writing so openly changed you, or your self-awareness, in any way? Can the act of writing about a situation make that situation easier, or make you more accepting of it?

Writing so openly has absolutely changed my self-awareness and general openness toward others. When I first finished the book I was most nervous about family and relatives reading it (particularly the parts about sex and masturbation). Writing about painful things from the past has definitely made it easier for me to accept them and let them go. I was driven to write this memoir so I could reflect on difficult experiences and gain important perspective to be able to live an empowered life, and I hope it will inspire others to do the same.

In addition to writing, you also act, teach yoga, and work as a massage therapist. Do you ever feel that you shape-shift and become a slightly different person when performing these separate roles? Or are they not really so separate?

I don’t think I become a different person when performing these different roles. I just access different parts of myself, which I find really fulfilling. They are all related practices, in that they all involve human connection and aim to access the deeper parts of consciousness to facilitate a cathartic experience. These interests all grew out of each other and continue to inform each other.

Can you discuss your two-man show, Please Don't Let Me Die Alone? How did this develop, and does it also serve as a form of "nonfiction" for you?

This is a darkly comedic theater piece I wrote with my collaborator, Shawn Shafner, about love and dating in New York City. It’s about neighbors Susan and George who brave psychos, stalkers and sex addicts through speed dating, online dating, and matchmaking services only to find the love might be right next door. It draws out the humor and pathos associated with love and dating, particularly exploring desperation and vulnerability.

Susan and George discover that they have a genuine connection, but because they are neighbors they assume it won’t work out and things will end up awkward and uncomfortable, so they make things more awkward and uncomfortable by looking elsewhere for something that already exists and cannot be replicated. The piece exposes the ways that while people claim to be seeking true connection, they are often afraid of the vulnerability it brings, so when they find it, they often avoid it and create a lot of suffering for themselves in the process. (Again, there’s that theme that our worst enemies are often ourselves.)

Shawn and I met in college at NYU in 2002 where we performed improv and studied experimental theater together. We have always had great rapport as friends and improvisers so we wanted to make performance pieces together. Initially we thought we were writing sketch comedy, but realized it was becoming more of a play. We like to think of it as a sketchy play. It does serve as a form of nonfiction, in that I draw heavily from real experiences I have had with love and dating.

What do you hope people who read your writing, catch your performances, or experience your yoga classes or massage sessions come away with?

My goal with everything I do is always healing and empowerment. At minimum, I hope to give people positive memorable experiences and at maximum, transformative ones.

And finally, what have been some of your strangest acting experiences?

I would say my strangest acting experiences have more to do with actor training than any actual performance. At NYU, I studied for a year in the Experimental Theatre Wing, the philosophy of which was based primarily on the teachings of Polish Theater director, Jerzy Grotowski. He spawned a whole new approach to acting, believing that memory is in the muscle and movement connects the body with impulse. I had several strange experiences there, but one in particular stands out…

There was an exercise we practiced one day in class called plastiques, which begin with physical isolations and lead into a sort of current of impulses in the body. My teacher turned off all the lights in the studio and covered all the windows with black curtains. There were about fourteen of us in the class and we were all given our own space in the room in which to practice the exercise. We started lying on our backs and our teacher gave us a phrase to initiate our first physical impulse. “Get away from me” was the phrase. We were instructed to go deeply into the emotions that the phrase and its resulting movement inspired. We were given permission to make as much sound as we felt necessary, as long as it was organic, not forced. So the dark room was filled with thrashing, screaming, crying people under some sort of attack via their imaginations. I imagined I was being raped. That night when I got home, I was distraught and teary. When my roommate asked me what was wrong, I said I had been raped by my imagination.

Please visit Amanda's website: http://onebreaththenanother.com/

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