"Inviting the angels in"
an interview with poet, writer, and professor Jane McCafferty
Hi everyone! Today, I’m excited to share our first interview at Be Where You Are, which digs into the writing and mindfulness practices of writers, teachers, and artists. I’d love your suggestions of other people I might feature here, so feel free to email me with ideas. You can just reply to this newsletter.
I met Jane McCafferty through her writing long before I met her in person. I read her novel One Heart just after I’d graduated college, and was struggling to find my path. Jane’s writing made me fall in love with words again. Her gifts for voice and resonant detail made me start looking for beauty in the ordinary moments around me. Years later, I worked on staff in the English department at Carnegie Mellon, where she teaches, and we’d have conversations about writing and life while she was making copies. She was always kind and so real about her life, and it really mattered to me that someone I truly admired, who clearly had more power than I did in that space, didn’t seem to care about those divisions. When I taught at Chatham University, I taught her second short story collection, Thank You for the Music, and we started meeting for coffee. Jane quickly became a model for me of who I strive to be. She is a brilliant writer with seemingly no ego who is unfailingly generous and open-hearted. You’ll see in her answers below, that Jane is incredibly wise about her writing and mindfulness practices. She also shares with us a prompt and a gorgeous poem from her very first poetry collection, coming out next month.
What is your writing practice like?
Whenever I have time, I seize it and write. Writing has been my way of anchoring myself in the world. I used to be a morning writer, but now I write whenever time allows. I lose myself entirely when writing, and I guess this is the flow state people talk about. That doesn’t mean what I write turns out well, though. I am always revising and I love revision. I do think it can be really helpful to show up for your writing on a daily basis. My friend Mary Anne wrote a draft of a novel working for 15-20 minutes a day, when that was all she had, and I read the draft this summer and it’s really good.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I love rituals. I always have a hot mug of something. I usually meditate each morning, and before I write, I often say a little prayer to invite the angels in. They don’t always come, but sometimes it does seem like I’m getting some help from beyond. I guess most people would call the angels “the universe.” The point is, you can feel less alone, less cooped up, if you connect to something larger as you begin. And there’s also dark chocolate.
What kind of writing are you working on? Are you working on specific projects or journaling or something else?
I’m writing poems, and revising a novel I worked on for five or six years, a novel that is with my agent and not selling. I wrote to her and told her I was re-writing it after I had an epiphany about why I was never perfectly happy with the book, despite the generous support from trusted readers. And as for journaling—I did this so often when young, and I really want to become more of a journal writer as I grow older. For one thing, I really admire those who can write about their lives without fictional characters carrying the story. But also, it’s scary how much of our lives we forget. If I go back to journaling, I’ll be trying to capture what happened in a given day—who I saw, what I saw, where I saw it…all the concrete stuff.
What helps you when you get stuck with your writing?
Three tips I can offer:
1. Give whatever sentences you do have—whatever images or ideas—to a trusted friend—someone who is an essentially enthusiastic reader. That can help you feel that writing matters. Often we get stuck when we feel it doesn’t matter.
2. Hand copy a poem or paragraph of a writer you love, then extend the poem or paragraph for at least five lines.
3. Go for a singing walk. Yes, that’s a walk where you sing. You can sing homemade stuff about what you’d like to write about, or you can sing a song you’ve always loved. I guess you’d need some empty streets or woods or you might be too self-conscious. But singing really is medicine for when you’re stuck.
What are your mindfulness practices?
I meditate 20 minutes a day, in the morning. Also in the morning, and sometimes evening, I walk and keep my eyes on the sky and the trees. The sky is especially helpful.
How often do you practice mindfulness and when/where?
Usually on a walk I am mindful—but not always. It’s hard roping in the mind, as we all know. I do try to keep my mind on my breath throughout the day, especially when I’m in a difficult situation, or juggling tough emotions. A friend’s daughter just shared an app with me called simply “The Breathing App” which is really helpful, and actually fun, so I recommend. Even kids could enjoy this one.
What do you do when a mindfulness practice doesn’t seem to be working?
So often my meditation has seemed fruitless—I ignore that feeling and just keep sitting there. And again, I try to return to the breath. “I breathe in, I breathe out…”—simple but profound Thich Nhat Hanh advice.
Do you see your writing and mindfulness practices as connected? In what ways?
I do think being where we are, in any given moment, can shape a writer’s mind more than anything—the world can make a deeper impression on us if we are present. Really present, in mind and heart. That kind of presence takes practice. But the impressions we receive when we are really present feeds our imaginations, and fuels our work.
Jane’s debut book of poetry, The Sea Lion Who Saved The Boy Who Jumped from the Golden Gate, is coming out in October from Saddle Road Press. Pre-order your copy here! Below is a poem from the book:
Do You Speak Hafez?
It was the year we conceded we’d be in recovery
for the rest of our lives. We dressed like twins in coats
made of quivering blackbirds. Their furious heartbeats
warmed our skin, we thought this might be enough.
The poet Hafez whispered in your ear: “It is not possible
to complete yourself without sorrow.”
Later one by one the birds took off with pieces
of our faith in their beaks. You could see the bare patches
of our flesh like islands. Then they all were gone,
and the sky was their new home, so many birds above us
singing as we walked naked, nearly subsumed by fear.
And Hafez whispered in my ear:
“All your problems can be solved if you just untie the sun
that somehow got leashed on a pole inside you.”
Do you speak Hafez, you said, and I who took Hafez
to bed at night said yes I speak Hafez, I try to speak Hafez.
And you said long live Hafez whose heart is always dying
To get close to the Mercy, may we pass it on to the imprisoned.
May we pass it on and on when darkness comes.
—from The Sea Lion Who Saved the Boy Who Jumped from the Golden Gate, Saddle Road Press, October 2023.
A prompt from Jane:
As a poet or prose writer, imagine that you have a magic wand, and you can make one of your darkest memories into something that gives you some radiant joy, deeper compassion for yourself, and/or highlights your own courage. Include a body of water.
Jane McCafferty is the author of four books: Director of the World and other stories, winner of the Drue Heinz prize and The Great Lakes New Writers award; One Heart, a novel, which won the Book Sense award and was noted by Paul Ingram on NPR as one of the top novels of the year; Thank You For the Music, a second book of stories, highlighted on NPR’s Sunday Edition in an interview with Cheryl Corley; and First You Try Everything, another novel, which was an Oprah book of the week. She also writes nonfiction and poetry, and her debut poetry collection, The Sea Lion Who Saved the Boy Who Jumped from the Golden Gate, is out this fall from Saddle Road Press.
She’s worked with photographer Charlee Brodsky on projects that bring writing and photographs together, including a show at the Pittsburgh Center for The Arts called Faces, and written the introduction and an essay for a book entitled I Thought I Could Fly, which tells stories of those suffering from the experience of mental illness. She teaches creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University, for The Madwomen in the Attic Writers Workshop at Carlow University, and in the community of Pittsburgh.
Be Where You Are is a newsletter about how to use writing and mindfulness to be where you are. I’ll be back on Thursday with a prompt. You’re always welcome to reply to this email, comment below, or find me on instagram (@mohnslate) or elsewhere. If you enjoyed this, I’d love it if you would subscribe, share this post online, or send it to a friend.