Formerly a writing professor, Gayla Mills now publishes personal essays and flash fiction. Her essays have appeared in Spry, Prairie Wolf Press, Skirt!, Greenwoman, and more. Her chapbook of personal essays, Finite, won the Red Ochre Lit Chapbook contest. Her book Making Music after 40: Jam, Perform, and Share Music for Life will be published by Dover in the summer of 2019.
Q: The title of your book next year reminds me of the content of “A Future Imagined.” Was that nonfiction piece part of the process for your whole book (not, of course, that it was necessarily A to B)?
“A Future Imagined” describes a sliver of my experience as a budding musician. In Making Music, I offer information and advice based on my own experiences, but add research and interviews I’ve conducted with scores of music teachers and learners. I originally thought I could use my music essays to introduce my book chapters, and “A Future Imagined” could begin my chapter on music camps. But I quickly realized that I needed to develop a more direct voice, in a feature-writing style, for a how-to book.
In both the essay and the book, as in much of my writing, I use myself as a character. The details I choose should serve some purpose beyond the fact that I experienced them. I’m going to discuss how I switched from guitar to bass only if I’m suggesting to readers what switching instruments can offer them.
Q: On your website you state, “I’ve learned that teaching, writing, and doing go hand-in-hand, each informing the other.” Could you elaborate?
I’ve found the old cliché true, that if you want to learn something, the best way is to teach it. I’ve taught various subjects while learning about them, from feature writing to Medieval history to personal finance. I think that writing a how-to book about music is also a kind of teaching.
In the process of preparing to teach, you learn infinitely more than what you’re passing on. You might read a book or two to create a ninety-minute lecture. You might need to spend a month building a brick walkway in order to write a one-page essay on how to do it. You might need to spend half a lifetime learning about music before you feel it in your bones deeply enough to pass it along to others.
Q: Has songwriting influenced your prose at all?
I’m a real beginner at songwriting, still at that early learning stage. The better question is whether prose has influenced my songwriting, since I’m a more experienced writer than musician. I’ve written some prose poems and essays that I think would make good songs, so I’d like to work them into verse.
Q: How about music more generally?
Getting experience in two fields can help you be creative, because the two sets of experiences and skills collide to give you fresh eyes. The inventor of the stethoscope, René Laennec, was trained as a doctor but was also a flutist. I love writing about my musical experiences, and I think my interest in words affects how I hear lyrics.
Q: What did you think of the other readings at the launch? Maybe you could pick out a favorite?
It was a real pleasure to hear so many different voices, and I got something from each. My favorite, though, was Wallace Lane’s “Groceries.” His depiction of his encounter with his grandfather—“his touch more silent than soft”—was incredibly moving and fresh.
Q: Random question: could you tell me about a dog you loved?
There are too many. Besides my husband, my dearest companions have been Tasha, Dory, Riley, and Zoey. We’ve chosen where to live and when to move based on their needs, shared countless walks and swims, missed every fourth of July to comfort them during the fireworks, shared the good days and the rainy ones, and buried them deep in the earth when their time had come. I hope to live long enough to add a few more to that list. Dogs add goodness to the world.