Where the Stories Start: Marly Youmans on Music & Writing

Marly Youmans is the author of Val/Orson (novella) and the forthcoming The Throne of Psyche (poems) and Glimmerglass (novel), among other books.  A poet, fiction writer, and mother of three teenagers, she lives on Main Street in a historic village in a house filled with noise and constant commotion.

Below, Youmans answers the following questions about the relationship between music and her writing life.


In what ways do you or have you used music to enhance your writing and creativity?   And/or what has music — listening to it, seeing it live, playing it, writing it, whichever — taught you about writing fiction?

Marly Youmans: Surely music and all the sounds of nature inform our childhoods and give us an extraordinary freedom that we can barely understand—give us strange longings that point the way toward the sources and joy of art.  A small child dancing with abandon to Swan Lake, twirling with arms flung outward, is a child awakening.  In this way, I was shaped by music as by many another element of the world.

I can’t say, however, that I have “used music to enhance . . . writing and creativity.”  For me, that seems to diminish the luster of each activity.  Sure, I have been swept away by music and have written poems or passages of stories that sprang from that sense of being pushed into another and an unfamiliar place.  But such responses happened as a simple, natural response to one of the marvelous parts of the world:  in this case, music.

Every way of writing is different, and I don’t suppose one way is better than another since it’s not the process but the end result that can be judged.  I happen to have a fairly deep level of concentration in which everything other than the story or poem seems to move to a distant room.  Any woman with children will recognize that such a trait is valuable to a writer who is also a mother.  So I tend not to be fully aware of the noises around me, whether they are children’s shouts or music or traffic. All I have left is mother-radar:  awareness of certain kinds of sounds and silences that feel dangerous or ominous.

But my children are nearly grown and seldom need such radar any longer.  Because I have three children of various ages—the youngest having just become a teen— there’s always a lot of music in the house.  My younger son plays the drums, and my daughter plays piano and organ. If she’s at the piano downstairs, she might be playing Mozart or Erik Satie or Greta Salpeter’s “Lighthouse.”  All three are likely to have music streaming out a door, so I might be overhearing Patrick Wolf or Owen Pallett or Fleet Foxes or Andrew Bird or The Last Shadow Puppets Show or whatever singing wolf, bird, or fox is the interest of the hour.

Occasionally what the three choose to hear or play seeps into fiction. Last fall I wrote a children’s novel, a three-part adventure in which the young hero was a drummer.  He tended to drum on his enemies when they needed it.

Having performers in the house is always enlivening.  Since one of the great goals of art is to make creations that seem to have a living force of their own and do not die in time, it is good to have live music pulsing through one’s rooms. But I would say that what music and all the non-verbal arts have to “[teach] about writing fiction” is simply experience that, at its best, shows the way to the fount of things where the stories start.

Dressing Up Like a Girl: Two Guys Talk about Writing the Other


Jeremy L. C. Jones

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I pitched a fit over my Halloween costume.  I wanted to be a hobo* and there was something about the way the overalls fit that just wasn’t right.**  I don’t remember the exact problem, but I do remember totally melting down—tears, screaming and yelling, finger pointing, the whole bit.

My mother came up with a last minute solution.

“It’s perfect!” she said.  “Just perfect.”

She dressed me up as a girl.

Mom had given birth to two sons, but she always wanted a daughter.  She used to tell me often enough how she’d “carried me like a girl” when she was pregnant.  My name would’ve been Meredith.

Minutes before we headed off to school, Mom put me in a slate blue suede skirt, a puffy white blouse, and heels.  I’ve blocked out the color of the heels. All I know is they were high and they clunked loudly everywhere I walked.  There was a faux pearl necklace, and my long blonde hair was pulled up in pigtails.

School was a nightmare.  Lots of jeering and teasing in home room, and it only got worse when we marched through all the classrooms in the costume parade.

I figured maybe I’d get to take my costume off at lunch time, but, no, we had to keep them on until after the assembly during which they’d announce the winners of the all-school costume contest.


In retrospect, I can see it coming, but back then it caught me as a total surprise.  Up I went onto the stage.  In front of the whole school.  Even the high-schoolers were there.

In my mind’s eye, I can watch myself from the audience: chubby, shy, well dressed, and kind of cute.  At the time I was totally and utterly traumatized.  The word terror comes to mind.

This all happened at the tail-end of the 70s and it took until the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 before I ever felt comfortable wearing clothes – any clothes, boys’ or girls’ – again.  From then on, it was khaki pants, plain button down shirts, and brown leather shoes.  Simple, rugged, manly clothes.

Still haunted by my first and only intentional experience wearing women’s clothing***, I was both delighted and a little startled to meet fiction writer Danny Pelletier who once…  well, I’ll let him tell you about that below.

Pelletier attended the Goddard College MFA program and he now teaches at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pear Noir!, Quarterly West, Monkeybicycle, and Night Train.


Danny Pelletier

One of my earliest memories is begging my sister to dress me up like a girl. I’ve always had a fascination with the female mind and body, something I eventually confused with sexual desire, since I spent my years in college desperately trying to get any warm body under my covers. But by my senior year, with Mrs. Dalloway sitting dog-eared on my bookshelf, I realized I was more interested in what it means and how it feels to be female.

I’d been writing female characters, and been thoroughly ego-stroked about how well I did so, as early as junior high. Classmates attributed this to my complete disregard for sports, my love of poetry, and my desperate need to succeed academically. But these are all stereotypes.

I spent two years at Goddard trying to put my fascination to good use. About my thesis, my advisor wrote, “That a male has written so thoughtfully and accurately about female experience and the female body is nothing short of amazing.” My second reader wrote that it was “an intense exploration of what it is to be female, nuanced and balanced and astonishing from a young male writer.”

Out of idle curiosity, I once pasted a few excerpts into an online gadget that claimed it could identify a writer’s sex by using some sort of algorithm. Two out of three times I was female. The catch? The two “female” excerpts had male narrators. And the “male” excerpt was a story with a female narrator that I labored over for years.

So my two years in grad school were both my best and worst experience writing the Other. Though I enjoyed my experience at Goddard, immersing myself in the female psyche, I can’t help but wonder if I really explored what it means to be female. My main character, Margaux, had a complete disregard for sports, loved poetry, and had a desperate need to succeed academically. Sound familiar?

Both of the excerpts the online program listed as female were stories about men coming to terms with female sexuality. And though I’ve been praised for writing women so well, I’ve yet to publish any story about what it means to be female. My only honest explorations have been male characters with the same desire as me to blur the gender lines. No, I don’t mean begging, like my four-year-old self, to be decked out in a dress and high heels, but to look beyond clothes and body and skin. Maybe the real question I should ask myself and my characters is what it means to be human.


Jeremy L. C. Jones

My experience being dressed up like a girl and winning the Halloween costume contest doesn’t have a whole lot to do with writing.  Or it didn’t really at the time.  Back then, I was deeply engaged in writing a series of space stories about flying fruit and ray guns.  My astral lemons and oranges were all male.

Over the years, though, I have struggled with writing female characters.

I grew up in a mostly male house, lived on a mostly male street, played male sports and games, and had very few female friends until later in life.

Yet, today, I live in a house with two women, my wife and daughter.  One of the greatest joys of my life is being there as my daughter grows up.  It’s like getting to re-live a childhood, this time seeing the world through the eyes of a girl.

When we’d found out my wife was pregnant, I just knew our child was a girl.  Just knew it.  I was beside myself with joy.  I so wanted a daughter, and we were going to have one.  Perfect!

But I was a little nervous, too.

“I don’t know how to raise a girl,” I said to my wife.

“Don’t raise a girl,” she said.  “Raise a person.”

Something clicked–as a writer, as a father, as a person.

No longer would I try to write female characters.  I would write people.


Danny Pelletier

Post-Goddard, my writing has evolved from exploring gender to exploring gender roles. One of my characters, a tomboy who loves basketball, gets pregnant and must confront female gender roles head-on. In the first draft of my thesis, her abortion leaves her ruined. I even publicly read a god-awful story I’d penned about her angrily trying to come to terms with her decision.

I knew this was the wrong reaction when I read Lauren B.’s essay “Roe vs. Wade vs. My Boyfriend”, in which she writes about her abortion being “no big deal”.

“My abortion had basically been the uterine equivalent of minor knee surgery,” she writes, “annoying and a bit painful, but not soul-destroying or existentially angsty.”

I felt as if I were reading the words of my character, as if she had taken life outside of me—as all good characters eventually do. And I knew I’d been cheating myself, writing toward some clichéd idea of female hysteria.

The last lines of the god-awful story are, “We killed our baby.” But my character, I knew, was adamantly pro-choice. I’d seen a video online once of a punk-fab looking girl confronting a pro-life protester, explaining that he didn’t know what it was like to have to make that kind of decision. She was visibly upset about his protesting and perhaps regretful about her decision, but she was confident about having made the right choice.

Again, I felt as if I were watching my character speak for herself.

Although the god-awful story remained in my second draft, I’d done some damage control elsewhere, making her a more confident, self-assured character in the story I eventually published in Quarterly West and in a revised first chapter, in which both she and Margaux became more fully developed characters.

But all this is necessary. Writing badly is an important part of the process. We must first misjudge ourselves and our characters before we can truly know one another as people. Your characters will misread you and you’ll miswrite them, just as two people who have known one another for a long time squabble over petty misunderstandings.

In other words, the arguments make the marriage work.

By revising “What I Should Have Done” for publication, I learned a lot about keeping part of my characters in shadow. You can’t let all of your characters wear their emotions on their sleeves. I think now of my characters as a crescent moon—reflecting certain societal expectations, like gender roles, and keeping most of themselves hidden. When writing badly, we tend to focus on the crescent, since that is the brightest part, but the shadow is what’s important.


Jeremy L. C. Jones

When my mother was a little girl, she stuffed half a dozen kittens into a cigar box.  By opening and depressing the lid, rhythmically, she made a sort of squeeze box.  When I first heard about her making music with a box full of kittens, I thought it all sounded like something a boy would do – not a girl.

Around the same time, my aunt carried a mushroom-shaped bullet around in a sock.  It was the slug from a stray rifle shot that almost killed my grandfather.  Carrying that thing around seemed like something I would do.

I combined these two oddities in a short story and I learned that girls aren’t just girls, they’re people, too.

My six-year-old daughter, Molly, has a stuffed animal named Bug Eyed Monkey with a Shirt On.  He has big eyes and wears a leopard print shirt with a pink collar.  He also wears an expression that suggests he just did his monkey business on the carpet.

A while back, I called Bug Eye a girl.  It was a simple slip, an inadvertent use of the feminine pronoun.  Maybe it had something to do with the leopard print and pink collar.

“Daddy,” Molly said, with equal emphasis on each syllable.  “Bug Eye is a boy monkey.  He just likes girl things.”

Molly takes make believe very seriously.  She immerses herself into scenarios of her own creation with astounding intensity.  She will sing, dance, and narrate as she goes.  I call it Extreme Pretend and I admire the heck out of it.  I hope she never forgets how to access her imagination so fully.

Since Molly was born, I have learned a lot of very important lessons about writing, but none of them teaches me as much as Molly’s ability to dive headfirst into her imaginings—to all-but-become someone other than herself, to stretch the boundaries of possibility well beyond their limits.

Writing has to be more than merely dressing up like a girl or acting like a fictional character.  The writer must believe in characters as individuals.

Writing can put us in our mother’s heels or our sister’s dress, can bring an inanimate monkey to life, but it must also must make us all feel that the person in that dress is real.

We can never completely know each other.  There is a limit.  If we could know what it was to be another person, know what another really felt and thought – if we could actually see through the eyes of another, we wouldn’t need art so desperately.

Art thins the veil between us.  It cannot remove the barrier between us fully, but it is the closest we can get.  We will always need each other, you and I, to satisfy our desire for connection through conversation, love, and art.


*I was and still am a big Woody Guthrie fan.  And I still like hobos.  However, my daughter tells me that my wife likes hobos better than I do, because she bought a hobo a hamburger once.

**The problem, according to my mom, was that I wanted to wear my t-shirt over the bib of the overalls.  Stretched tight by the pillow I was wearing to form a hobo belly, the buttons on the overalls made “nipples” on my chest and under the shirt and I thought it made me look too much “like a girl.”  Maybe this is what gave mom the idea?

***I have nothing against cross-dressing.  It’s just not my style.  Not that I really have a style.

Notice Anything Funny About That? Morning Grammar Lessons with My Dad

The morning heat was thick enough to clog a drinking straw.  The sun had just risen and already was lifting steam from the grass beyond the porch screen.  Our Brazilian parrot whistled and trilled a stream of Portuguese profanity in his cage.  I’d awoken early after staying up most of the night reading in order to sit on the screened-in porch with my father.

Beside me, dad folded the newspaper into fourths.  He’d been up for hours.  I’d heard him stirring as I was drifting off “last night”.  He had already made coffee, fed and walked the greyhounds, showered, dressed.  He smelled of lemon aftershave and soap, chicory and cigarettes.  His clothes were neat and tidy, a blend of prep school teacher and boot camp graduate.  I planned to read myself back to sleep after he left for his first period class.

Neither of us was doing much talking on this porch in south Florida on a late fall morning.  We’re never all that chatty together, either of us.

My eyes burned from lack of sleep and too much reading the night before.  It must’ve been before my 26th year, because I hadn’t quit smoking yet and I hadn’t started teaching English at a prep school in Kentucky.  That made it 1995 or earlier.

Soon, my job would evolve into his job; my course reading lists would look more and more like his, more and more like the courses he taught me at home and in school when I was his student in English classes.

My memory might be mixing things up, might be blending all this together, but even on that morning I felt a deep sense of comfort and familiarity. This had happened before, would happen again, and was who we were as father and son.

I wasn’t fully awake yet.

He clicked his four-colored ballpoint pen and slid it back into his shirt pocket.

“Here,” dad said, handing me the newspaper.  He had circled a paragraph in red ink.  I read the paragraph with a strange little thrill in my gut, looking for the misprint, the error, the inadvertent innuendo.

This was how I learned grammar.  Sure, I was taught the rules in a classroom or across the kitchen table, but I really learned grammar on these mornings when dad marked a passage and said, “Notice anything funny about that?”

Notice anything?


The newsprint.  The paper.  The red ink.  The way the words moved and slid around the page under the pressure of possibility and my gaze and dad’s authority and soon of my authority and his gaze.

No one taught me more about writing than my father.  Long before I was dad’s student in the 11th and 12th grades, dad taught me the mechanics of writing.

“There’s a rabbit and there’s a hole,” he said, by way of explaining prepositions.  “The rabbit can go in the hole, down the hole, up the hole…”

No one enjoyed grammar as much as dad.  Grammar made him giggle.  Turned him on.

Dad also taught me about style.  “Maybe using a comma as a conjunction so often is a little confusing for the reader,” he would say.  “I get what you’re trying to do, just be careful and be clear.”

Be careful.

Be clear.

Great advice at any level.

Every morning for two years and the summer in between I had my dad for class first thing in the morning.  Expository Writing, American Lit, American Studies …  I came away from them all with a head full of Sandburg and Steinbeck and the sound of my father’s voice and a burgeoning sense of my own.

At a time when school was a growing aggravation between awkward dates and increasingly frequent drinking binges, I used to sit front and center in dad’s classes.  I heard — really heard — every word he said.  Looking back on a time filled with anxiety and drunkenness, the mornings in dad’s class are illuminated in a soft light.

Dad had his share of quirks in class.  He tended toward oddball metaphors about “the bird of paradise” and “the glass bicycle with the jelly seat.” He demonstrated flicking cigarettes like Walter Mitty by using his thumb, forefinger, and a piece of chalk.  Most of all, he relished reading out loud the descriptions of women from the books he’d assigned us.

He’d read a description of Hester Prynne on the pillory or Rose of Sharon saving a starving man, and every guy in the room would be blushing and clearing his throat.   He turned me and a lot of others on to reading and writing.  Though he assigned mostly books written by men, he loved strong, beautiful women characters.  (Later he’d introduce me to a strong, beautiful character, my future wife.  It was the one and only time he intervened in my dating life.  The man has good taste.)

When I received an invitation to drop out of college and work on a newspaper in an Alaskan fishing village, dad said, “Sounds like something Mark Twain would do.”

He quoted Emerson like other parents quoted the Bible or their parents.  Quoted Emerson, explained Emerson, lived Emerson.

Thanks to dad, Natty Bumppo ran beside me in the woods long before I’d read any of Cooper’s novels.

Mostly, though, dad taught me that writing is fun and important.  That reading and writing are a way of life.  That words change lives.  He taught me that narrative has the power to guide and to heal.

In 2001, while training for an AIDS benefit bicycle ride across Montana, my dad was struck by a van.  The driver was stoned and drunk.  Vomit covered his feet and the floor of his vehicle.  Dad was up before dawn, riding and riding and riding.  One of the accident investigators suggested that the driver had seen all the lights and reflectors on dad’s rig and was drawn toward them, across three lanes.

The doctors weren’t sure if dad would come out of the coma.  They weren’t sure if he’d ever breathe on his own.  They weren’t sure if he’d remember his family.  They weren’t sure of a lot of things.  One doctor compared dad’s brain to a desktop computer.  “If you drop a PC from a second story window,” the doctor said, “you can’t put it back together again.”

Dad put it back together again by telling stories, long, rambling, delicious stories.  As soon as he got that breathing tube out of his throat, he started telling stories.  They didn’t make much sense at first, and many seemed to be more about fear and anxiety than any narrative, but pretty soon he started getting the hang of it again — started being clear and careful with his words.

The more dad talked, the more he remembered.  The more he remembered, the more he talked.  In those early months after his accident, I’d stay up all night with a novel on my lap and a hand on his arm, watching him, listening, making sure he hadn’t pulled out the tubes or stopped breathing or fallen out of bed.  When he wasn’t sleeping, he’d sip thickened water through a straw and talk and I’d listen.  If I noticed anything funny, I’d point it out and we’d both laugh.  Every once and a while I’d give him a nudge or a bump with a piece of information, a reminder, a correction, a little verbal red ink to keep the stories flowing.

Less than 12 hours after dad’s accident, I had been sitting in small, private waiting room reserved for the families of people in the trauma unit.

“We got very lucky today,” someone said.

I just stared in disbelief, simmering.

“He could’ve died,” I said.

“But he didn’t.”

We did get lucky.  We were blessed.  Are lucky.  Are blessed.  Dad pulled through, battered but not broken.  He’s still with us nine years later.

“There’s a rabbit and there’s a hole,” I imagine him saying every day.  “The rabbit can go in the hole, down the hole, up the hole…”

Or the rabbit can do something wholly unexpected with the hole or to the hole.

It was Father’s Day recently, and like many sons and daughters I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad.  He’s neither perfect nor horribly flawed.  He’s simultaneously my hero, my friend, and a guy I don’t see nearly often enough.  I have regrets and I am sure he has some regrets, but everyone does.  He’s one heck of a teacher and a man.  He’s survived a stroke, heart attack, brain damage, and the loss of his ability to do the thing he loves, classroom teaching, and through all that he’s lived by stories and taught by stories and loved by stories.  And this one’s his.

Careening off Each Other: On the Bus with Peter Conners

In Growing up Dead: the Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead, Peter Conners tells the story of coming of age in the suburbs in the 1980s and discovering the music of the Grateful Dead.  Starting in high school, Conners followed the Dead, learned to dance without inhibition, and discovered the joys of living a creative life through making music and writing.  Those first Dead shows started a lifelong romance that has permeated every aspect of Conners’ life.

I love Growing up Dead.  Not just because Conners and I are the same age (we were born within two weeks of each other), and not because we went to some of the same Dead shows (most notably Silver Stadium June 30, 1988 which gets a chapter in the book).  I love Growing up Dead because it is beautifully written — Conners has a poet’s grace, a seeker’s heart, and a musician’s ear. 

Maybe, too, I’ve been carrying this book around with me so much lately because Conners answers the question a lot of Deadheads, myself included, have struggled to answer over the years – why the Grateful Dead?

As a writer, Conners moves around a lot, from project to project, genre to genre.  He is the author of Whiskey and Winter (poetry) and Emily Ate the Wind (novella).  His next book, White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, is due out from City Lights in November 2010. He’s got a collection of poems, The Crows Were Laughing in Their Trees, on the way from White Pine Press in spring 2011.  There are rumors that he has two music-based novels hiding in his desk drawer.

“I hit fewer dead ends [these days] because I’ve tried just so many different approaches and found out what works best for me,” said Conners. “That doesn’t mean I don’t try new things, but it does mean that I can sniff out the fruitless ideas faster and move on to more fruited plains.

“Writing keeps me from looking at the world the same way every day.  I see things through the filter of my writing and as long as I’m working on different projects, I’m seeing the world in different ways. It’s a great way to get high and stay that way without being arrested.”

Below, Conners and I talk about creativity, dancing, and riding the bus.


How’d you come to write Growing up Dead?  What sparked it off after all these years?

Peter Conners:  I’ve been writing and publishing poetry and fiction since I was about 20, but other than book reviews and the occasional essay, I hadn’t tried nonfiction. So, in some ways, it was just time to try that genre and see how it worked, how it felt, etc. It also seemed like the right time to capture my touring years. Many of the experiences I wrote about in Growing up Dead are from the 1980s and, frankly, my memory isn’t getting any better. I’m also still in touch with a bunch of people from those days and, like memory, people don’t last forever. So I was artistically in the right place and also chronologically in the right place to write Growing up Dead.  Then I just had to do it.

You write poetry, fiction, non-fiction.  What is it about the memoir form that appealed to you?  That suits this material – the story of your days on tour – more so than, say, fiction or poetry?

Peter Conners:  I’ve touched on the Dead scene in some of my fiction, but nothing as in-depth as Growing up Dead. I certainly could’ve tried fictionalizing the story and it may have made certain things easier (i.e. “I didn’t really do all those illegal things… it was purely fiction!”). It was important to me to really own this story though. To tell it as I remembered it and as my friends and I lived it. The experiences I wrote about were so powerful for me, so formative, that fictionalizing it would’ve felt a bit like copping out… or selling the story short. If I was going to do it, I was determined to do it as true as possible. Ironically, for the screenplay of Growing up Dead, just the opposite was true. The best way to tell the story was to turn it into fiction.  

Surely, it was a challenge to bridge the gap between worlds, between the world of Deadheads and the uninitiated.  How’d you keep the book from being inaccessible or too cryptic for the non-Head?

Peter Conners:  A lot of the book relates to the general experiences of growing up in the suburbs in the 1980s. That might sound limiting, until you think about how many people in this country had that experience. Once you isolate those factors (teenager, suburbs, 1980’s) you can approach the material from a sociological standpoint – what was the culture, the clothing, the traditions, the underpinning of the relationships, and, of course, the music? In that way, the book can strive to illuminate a unique social experience with the potential to be just as fascinating as the study of a remote village, or an Amazonian tribe, or Paris in the 1920s. If an author finds his/her subject matter truly relevant and fascinating, then he/she will communicate that. As unhip as it may be, I grew up in the suburbs in the 1980s. That was my life. No apologies, no regrets. So for people who aren’t into the Dead, the book offers insights into a more familiar time and place – and those insights can, in turn, be a doorway into understanding what attracted many suburban kids to the Dead scene. 

Being “on the bus” grew out of the days of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.  In “That’s It for the Other One,” Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Bob Weir write, “The bus came by and I got on/ that’s when it all began.”  What does it mean for you – as a writer, a father, a husband, a man, a human being – to be “on the bus”?

Peter Conners:  It’s an inextricable part of who I am. I’ve been on the bus for 20 years now and I’ve got a pretty good window seat. I’m on the bus as a Deadhead and I’m also on the bus as a writer and artist – and that combination keeps me grounded and also reaching for constant growth (as Bob Dylan says, “ He not busy being born is busy dying.”) To me, being on the bus is about movement and not settling for a mundane point of view. It’s a state of mind and I wouldn’t want to live any other way. 

How much of the prankster do you reveal in your writing?

Peter Conners:  All of my previous answers are lies.

Growing up Dead alternates between first person past tense and second person present tense, from “I was” to “you are.”  What prompted you to make this decision?  What were the limitations?  What did it allow you to do? 

Peter Conners:  The second person allowed me to do a few different things. First of all, it kept the structure of the book from getting too staid. It’s one thing to sit around telling “war stories” with your buddies, but on paper, that gets old pretty fast. You want to tell a good story in an interesting, fresh way. So the second person point of view helped me structure the book in way that kept the reader engaged, not lulled. Along those same lines, there’s an immediacy to the second person – it’s not “me” telling you about my experiences all the time. It’s “you” – the reader – getting put into the middle of the scene. I found that certain experiences – for example drug-infused ones that cause the mind to race and search for traction – can be better communicated by foisting that confusion upon the reader rather than telling them about your befuddlement. The second person also allowed me to bring more of my lyrical, poetic bent to the writing of the book. I’ve spent a lot time writing, reading, editing, and studying prose poetry and that’s a tough habit to break. So the second person allowed me to take off onto poetic flights without abandoning the heart of the story.  

You describe the freedom of dancing at Dead shows, the safety, the using of your hands to direct balls of light and energy… What did dancing at a Dead show teach you about writing?

Peter Conners:  Fluidity, experimentation, freedom, not worrying so much about what other people think, creating beauty even in ugly places (next to garbage cans in a coliseum hallway), valuing individual expression – my own and other people’s – and seeing what stifling that expression can do to people, how to find joy, the importance of release, the value of repetition (you become a better dancer by dancing… and so too with writing), and the importance of being simultaneously present and completely gone when creating.

Some of the most compelling sounds at a Dead show come when the band doesn’t stop between songs, during the fade into…  the gloriously improvisational exploration of possibility between recognizable songs.  Is there an equivalent in writing for you?

Peter Conners:  There is, but – for me anyway – those parts get edited out before the final piece of writing is published. Jack Kerouac is the best example of a writer who communicated at his best when leaving those parts in. I learned a lot and found a lot of joy by swimming through his “tuning” sections. But other writers have tried the same only to come off indulgent and tedious. For my own work, I’d say those sections can warm me up as I find the true subject, the true pulse, of a piece of writing. But then I’ll go through and trim them out before the work is published, so the reader can get right to the jams. 

At any point during the writing of the book or after its publication, did you worry about your kids reading this stuff?

Peter Conners:  Oh sure. All the time. I still do. But, you know, Daddy’s a writer, he’s an artist, and that means he’s walking a different path than some of the other Daddies. Eventually, we’ll have to have more in-depth talks about what that all means. But one good thing about coming clean like I did in Growing up Dead is that my ability to bullshit them just got slashed. And I choose to see that as a good thing. That said, my kids are eight, six, and three. Talk to me when they’re teenagers and I may be whistling a different dirge.

You mentioned that you’ve adapted Growing up Dead for the screen.  Was this your first go at a screenplay?  How’d the material adapt to the new form?

Peter Conners:  Yes, this was my first screenplay. It was a real challenge and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just like with trying nonfiction for the first time – I was eager to tackle a new way of writing, and this offered that opportunity. Growing up Dead didn’t convert easily to screenplay because there isn’t a strong, distinct narrative arc to the book. So I had to pull out some key characters (Harry and Peter) and focus on a succinct period in time (their senior year of high school leading up to 1988 spring tour). The film will bring out those sociological aspects of 1980s suburban culture I talked about in the book while shaping a story that rings true, even though it’s 90% fictionalized. The screenplay is very much “based on the book” or “inspired by the book” as opposed to a pure adaptation. But the main thing is that – within this particular art form, the film form – the piece works. I think that it does. Now I stand back a little bit and learn about the collaborative nature of filmmaking. I’m working with some really sharp and passionate people who are as dedicated to bringing Growing up Dead to film as I am. It’s gonna be a good ride. 

What are you working on these days?

Peter Conners:  I’ve been swinging back and forth between working on the Growing Up Dead screenplay and finishing up my next nonfiction book which has been heavily research based. The book is called White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg and it will be published by City Lights in November 2010. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just paste in City Lights’ description of the book below. I’ve also recently finished my next poetry collection, The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees, which will be published by White Pine Press in spring 2011. As usual, I’m juggling projects and enjoying how they careen off of each other and what that does to my brain, my perspective, my life. That’s my window seat on the bus.

Here’s how City Lights describes my new book, White Hand Society:

In 1960 Timothy Leary was not yet famous — or infamous — and Allen Ginsberg was both. Leary, eager to expand his experiments at the Harvard Psilocybin Project to include accomplished artists and writers, knew that Ginsberg held the key to bohemia’s elite. Ginsberg, fresh from his first experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico, was eager to promote the spiritual possibilities of psychedelic use. Thus, “America’s most conspicuous beatnik” was recruited as Ambassador of Psilocybin under the auspices of an Ivy League professor, and together they launched the psychedelic revolution and turned on the hippie generation.

White Hand Society weaves a fascinating and entertaining tale of the life, times and friendship of these two larger-than-life figures and the incredible impact their relationship had on America. Peter Conners has gathered hundreds of pages of letters, documents, studies, FBI files, and other primary resources that shed new light on their relationship, and a veritable who’s who of artists and cultural figures appear along the way, including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Thelonious Monk, Willem de Kooning, and Barney Rosset. The story of the “psychedelic partnership” of two of the most famous, charismatic and controversial members of America’s counterculture brings together a multitude of major figures from politics, the arts, and the intersection of intellectual life and outlaw culture in a way that sheds new light on the dawn of the 1960s.

Lastly, what’s some of the best writing advice you’ve received over the years and how did you use it?

Peter Conners:  It’s sort of bleak, but my favorite college professor told me not to be a writer. He told me I was too smart for it and it was road of misery. I used the advice by ignoring it but never forgetting it. It has evolved to this little gem: If you don’t need to write, don’t do it. It’s sort of a mini-MFA course in 9 words. Young writers will either heed it or they won’t. It doesn’t much matter. If you don’t need to write, then don’t. But if you do, then do. And good luck to you.