After college, I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school in English at UCLA. Except for one year as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, I’ve lived in California ever since—San Diego, the Bay Area, and then back to L.A.
I teach high school English at an independent (K-12) school in a rustic canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, and my students are bright, inquisitive people who make every day interesting. I am also the poetry director of the Napa Valley Writers Conference, a summer conference for adults, where I get to help create a community of writers every year.
Right now I have about two dozen books out of two libraries, our school library and the excellent Los Angeles Public Library system. They’re pretty evenly divided into four categories: poetry (just now including Sharon Olds, Jericho Brown, and Brian Turner), memoir, YA and adult fiction, and nonfiction, including books I’m using to study for an appearance on the TV game show Jeopardy! in May. I just finished the engaging and provocative Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, which was a faculty book selection at our school; on top of the stack I hope to read over spring break is the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
I’m working on a poetry collection that has much more of an overarching narrative than either of my previous two books of poems. So it’s something of a departure from my first two collections, and a big challenge. At the same time, I notice that the obsessions of my writing have stayed remarkably consistent—time, love, the unknowability of other people.
My second book of poems, Unfinished City, just came out—twelve years after my first, Rope Bridge. The book is in conversation with the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which is obviously a tremendous, ancient, complicated, irresistible text, and it took a long time to find the shape of the book and the right relationship between it and its source material. Also, while I was in the Stegner workshop at Stanford University when I wrote much of Rope Bridge, most of Unfinished City was written outside a writerly community while I worked full time and, with my husband, raised a daughter. I benefitted so much while writing my first book from workshops and community with other writers, but felt more on my own for this one (though I did have an NEA Fellowship, which was a great encouragement and financial support). So to have completed this project, and eventually to have found a publisher for it, feels important to me.
YWW gave me the invaluable gift of community with other young writers. It also gave me what every young person needs—to be taken seriously and treated as if what you care about matters. I was lucky and had that in other parts of my life, but to have it among people who loved poetry and writing was such a delight. In a way almost all the best parts of my life, as a teacher and as a writer, are at least a little bit like YWW. Even my name is partly because of YWW; when I went to college, I decided to return to the nickname Nan, which I had rejected in childhood in favor of the dignity of my full first name, Nancy. My changing feelings about it were because of two people: the ACLU attorney Nan Hunter, whom I heard speak when I was in high school, and poet Nan Anderson, who was one of our counselors at YWW, and whom I greatly admired.
Do take yourself seriously! Expect a lot from yourself—read everything, and try to fail better, as Beckett said, with everything you write. At the same time, try to have a sense of humor; it really helps with those failures. There’s a Hasidic teaching about a rabbi who carried two notes, one in each of his pockets. When he was feeling small and low, he would take out the note in the right pocket, which read, “For my sake was the world created.” When he was feeling important, he would take out the other one, which read, “I am but dust and ashes.” Both notes are true—sometimes you need one, sometimes you need the other.