PictureWriting Out of the Worlds You Know: An Interview with Ann McCutchan

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters

​Ann McCutchan is one of those enviable people who has managed two artistic careers. She started musical studies at an early age and worked professionally as a clarinetist for many years.  But in her mid-30s, writing began taking over her life, by way of a job as music critic in Austin, Texas. The first of her five books was Marcel Moyse: Voice of the Flute (1994), a music biography.  Her second book, The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak About the Creative Process, quickly found readers interested in all sorts of creativity.

In her third book, Circular Breathing: Essays From a Musical Life (2011), McCutchan wrote of, among other things, the small Florida Space Coast town in which she spent her teens, and how she yearned to leave it for a more culturally rich environment. In Where’s the Moon?, a memoir and her fifth book, released in October 2016, she revisits that town, which she had avoided since age 23, when her parents died in a car accident.

Where’s the Moon? traces McCutchan’s childhood and coming of age, and the ways her adolescence in the 1960s intersected with the Space Race that for a brief time, made Titusville, Florida, nationally significant.  When Ann was in Denton for a book launch party in November 2016, she and I discussed the new book, and other things.

Clinton Crockett Peters: Please talk about the origins of Where’s the Moon?

Ann McCutchan: It started with an essay published in 1997: “Circular Breathing,” about my parents’ death in a car accident, and my response to it. They died in 1974, my first year of grad school. Two other essays having to do with my Florida upbringing were included in the collection, Circular Breathing.  But it wasn’t until 2010, when I was finishing River Music, a book about Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, that the notion of a Florida memoir arose. At the time, I was in the Davis Mountains (west Texas), at a residency for environmental writers and thinkers. When I got there, I had one chapter to go on the Atchafalaya book. The first week, I had a dinner conversation with Dick Bartlett, the gentleman who provided the residency, and it turned out he had grown up in the same part of Florida as I had, about fifteen years ahead of me. We reminisced about the area. I went back to my studio that night and said, “This is it; I’m doing it.” I didn’t know what I would write, or what form it would take. I just knew I wanted to investigate that time and that place, figure out how my experiences, and my family’s, fit into it. So I sat down and Googled the Apollo Space Program.

In the midst of writing River Music, I’d had a feeling there was a memoir coming on. My subject, Earl Robicheaux, and I, both had memories of the Space Coast’s natural environment, and my imagination began to drift in that direction.  But it was talking with Dick Bartlett, and later, his wife Joanne, that got me going.

That was the genesis of it. Over the next few years, I wrote bits and pieces. I couldn’t
possibly impose a form on this project; form would have to evolve. But I knew it wasn’t a Me-Moir, limited to I was there or this happened to me. It was a time and place book, and I was a character in it, and my friends and family were characters in it, and so was the community, and world politics and geography and so on. I had to think about how all those themes and layers would progress contrapuntally — several stories, voices, moving together at once – even though, strictly speaking, they’d be presented sequentially.

I like to imagine writing as more than a progression of words on a page — as a solid, three-dimensional object you can view from more than one angle, for instance, or as an orchestra, which produces music in time, not in a simple linear stream, but with a rich verticality that informs and transforms the horizontal line. One of my practices, adopted from a composer, is to print out whole essays or chapters and tape the pages to a wall. With that sort of distance, I can more clearly see and feel, for example, run-on paragraphs or breaks in narrative rhythm.  I can move along the wall, reading aloud, and hear any wrong notes, awkward phrases, or where the equivalent of a chord progression needs to swerve.


Anyway, I tried something new with this memoir. I happened to be at another residency, in Woodstock, and the first morning in my studio started writing quick prompts on little strips of paper, like Chinese cookie fortunes – whatever came to mind. They ranged from small memories, like “the time Dad cut down the holly tree,” to broad historical events, like “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Tiny things and large concerns. I just wrote them quickly and taped them to the wall.  I did this for about a week.

When I got about a hundred of them, I began every morning asking myself, “What would I like to write about today?”  It was a game, a pleasure.  No pressure.  I’d walk along the wall, pick a slip that interested or compelled me, and write, or research. At one point, a composer friend came to town, visited my studio, and took photographs of my wall. By then I had close to two hundred little white paper slips fluttering up there; he said they looked like birds’ wings.

When I left the residency, I transferred the slips to 3X5 cards and taped them up in other places, developing some, adding more and trashing others.  Eventually I had a lot of writing and had to make order out of what appeared to be chaos – a collage, really — which took a lot of time, but was also fun. I had several voices going: a personal, intimate voice, the long-view historian’s voice, the snappy reporter’s voice. Those had to alternate in satisfying ways. I kicked out a lot of stuff. In the end, I probably kicked out about a third of what I wrote.

CCP: I am really interested in the blend of the personal and external. You say that research triggered the book with that Google search at the Davis Mountains residency. What is it about the external that led you into the memoir?

AM: The personal was always there; that is what led me in, had been leading me in for years, not the research. I had already written about my parents and, to an extent, Florida, in other essays. Googling the Apollo program was just something I could do late at night – an easy task after a big meal and lots of wine.

And, I knew I would not remember enough. I was a teenager during the Apollo missions, unaware of everything going on. I needed a historical framework. There would be no reason, for me, to write a memoir unless it was part of a larger story, an inquiry on more than one level. We all exist in a larger context, and failing to understand that is to risk misunderstanding the self. I was curious about the whole picture. That was the picture I wanted to try making.

CCP: How did you come to return to Florida to investigate the time of your memoir?

AM: I first went back a dozen years ago for a high school reunion. I attended out of curiosity, wasn’t really interested in renewing ties. Yet to my surprise, I connected with old friends, as well as classmates I hadn’t known well.  Our class, 1969, had a special bond; Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon a month after we graduated, and many of us had witnessed the Apollo 11 launch. Our families had been part of the whole run-up. I was also amazed by how beautiful the natural areas around the town, Titusville, were. The undeveloped beach, protected by NASA, was the same. The wildlife refuge that had become a public attraction was very well maintained. I took the Space Center tour. It all stuck with me when I decided to write the memoir.

In 2011, I had a sabbatical and rented a place for a month in Titusville. I wrote, talked to people, visited old haunts.  Later, I went back for another reunion, and in 2014, when I began to research Marjorie Rawlings’s life in Florida, I returned to the town again, several times.

CCP: We have talked about the impact of the natural world on your work, for instance, on River Music. Could you discuss that in relation to the new book?

AM: Well, the natural world is a significant layer. Florida has a huge environmental story, to say the least – a saga of the natural world ruined by human development. The Florida dream and the commercial forces behind it have compromised the state’s lush beauty for well over a century.  On a personal level, my mother, an outdoorswoman from the northeast, was drawn to Florida’s wilder landscapes before my sister and I were, because as youngsters, we took it for granted.  When our family moved to Florida, from Washington, D.C., our mother took a position as director of camps for the Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale area) Girl Scouts.  As part of the job, she visited campsites or rural land the Scouts were considering for use. The swampy wilderness fascinated her. My sister and I often got dragged along – no baby-sitters for us. But those experiences were invaluable, and though we didn’t know it, they would shape us, to some degree. First landscapes are like genetic material.  I haven’t lived in Florida for decades, but when I visit, it’s as familiar as grandma’s house.  Like our mom, my sister is an outdoorswoman. You can find her on the trails and rivers of western Colorado, active in land conservation and protection.

CCP: Thinking about that and River Music, which is about a musician/natural historian, do you consider yourself a “nature writer”?

AM: No. I abhor genre and marketing labels. How limiting and misleading they are!  I often shy away from “writer” because it leads to inevitable, unanswerable questions, like, “How do you become a writer?”  If I had to identify myself in familiar terms, I’d say, “I’m a classical-type musician who writes books and essays,” because I still consider myself a musician and think of musicians as my family of origin.  Better yet, “I’m a person who enjoys making stuff.”  “Author” works, because it refers generically to books that are finished and published – in the past.  Well, you can see how uncomfortable I am with the whole idea of public definition.  I come from a long line of reserved people. One of my aunts even specified in her will that her death be kept secret, even though she named heirs, who would have to be informed.

CCP: Would you talk more about how your development as a musician led to your development as a writer?

AM: I started learning the clarinet at 11, but also enjoyed reading and writing. A lot. Yet music won out. Hands down, no contest.  Because even though you’re not composing the music you’re playing, you are interpreting or even reinventing it, and it requires the whole body to do it. There is no substitute for that full, visceral engagement, and you share it with others, even if you’re performing with just one other person for an audience of three. It is the most transcendent practice I know. And, music does not nail down specifics, the way writing does. It encompasses far more, immediately, expressively, without the machinations, trappings and entrapments, of speech. It really is a universal language.

The writing came first as a daily journal, which I started before age 11. The entries from those early years didn’t help with the memoir, by the way, because they were so shallow. Want to know what shampoo I tried on a given day? No, you do not.

This is how the writing work began: In 1982, I moved to Austin, was teaching private lessons and playing in chamber groups. One day, my husband said, “Look here, in the newspaper — the music critic has retired.” He suggested I apply. So I called the Austin American-Statesman, and the arts and entertainment editor said, “Come on over!”  I went down with my academic CV listing music degrees, performances, a few yawn-worthy publications. The editors I met with took a look and said, “You’re hired; would you review the Vienna Philharmonic tonight?”

That first gig was easy because the concert was so great there was nothing to criticize; all I had to do was say how wonderful it was, and why. I managed to make a short deadline that night, which was important. Carolyn Chute once said journalism is boot camp for writers, and it’s true.  You have to focus, think swiftly to the point, write in your head, get it down fast with no fat in it. This I could do, and might attribute it to many years of disciplined music practice.  If you have 30 minutes before rehearsal to master that thorny passage, by God, you focus and nail it.

I wrote for the Statesman seven years, and as I did, one thing led to another, flowing, overlapping, creating a very interesting work life.  For ten years, for example, I wrote an art and antiques column syndicated through Gannett News Service.  And there was magazine work, and other kinds of journalism, travel writing, public relations, editing.  It all became an income stream, and I enjoyed the variety.  Although I was still performing, playing with the Lyric Opera, chamber groups, and a new/experimental music ensemble I started in the warehouse district, writing took over.

And, it took over at a particularly good time. I was beginning to have physical problems with my hands, so I was damn lucky that I had a backup obsession.

A lot of musicians have physical problems. When my hands (and back) started bothering me, the music-medical specialty was in its infancy; now it’s well established. Musicians’ physical problems often stem from unhealthy habits they’ve been taught or have developed on their own.

A simple example is excessive repetitive motion – practicing the same little passage over and over until something hurts. Or, a musician may have been born with a slight physical irregularity that doesn’t show up until adulthood, under pressure. In my thirties, I discovered I have slight scoliosis, plus problems with two fingers of my right hand morphed into Dupuytrens contracture, a genetic condition requiring surgery. I have two cellist friends that after years of performing have major shoulder issues. The stories go on.  Musicians with physical ailments either keep playing, dealing with physical problems through improved habits, drugs, physical therapy or surgeries, or they find other ways of making a living.CCP: It sounds like you get a lot of writing done at retreats. What is it about a retreat that helps?

AM:I’m there to do only one thing. No distractions. For me, it doesn’t have to be a colony. I’ve done good work in those situations, but have preferred in the last few years to find my own inexpensive place to rent and just go with my dog for a month. Or a friend will offer me a place. Several times, I’ve done self-styled retreats with an artist friend, Pat Alexander, who I met years ago at a Hambidge Center residency. We respect and admire and learn from each other’s work, and have collaborated in multi-disciplinary projects.  Now that I’m not teaching, I don’t need a retreat so much. I work well at home. I don’t have to go away, unless it’s to work in tandem with someone like Pat, or write about a particular place or person.

CCP: Can we talk about the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings biography you’re writing now?

AM: It’s a big book.  Rawlings accomplished much more than the Pulitzer for The Yearling. Her archive at the University of Florida is enormous.  I don’t how many trips I’ve made to Gainesville over the last two years! I have a smart research assistant there who pulls materials, makes copies, sends them to me. The gathering, the examining, continues.

And the gathering involves more than the Gainesville archive. There have been other alleys to explore.  For example, as I’ve read the Rawlings correspondence collected at UF, I’ve realized I need materials from others archives in, say, Georgia or South Carolina. I spent a week in Rochester, New York, just going through newspapers. I’ve had research assistants in Rochester and Louisville, where Rawlings spent her early years as a journalist.  This is the way it goes with such a project.  I began drafting the book last February, and like any deep inquiry, it’s been a constant back and forth of putting words down, seeing the need for more information, finding more materials, writing again.

CCP: What was the inception of this book?

AM: The gentleman who established the residency in the Davis Mountains had a huge library, including lots of Florida books. He died two years after I was there, and his widow, Joanne Bartlett, offered me those books, including nearly everything Rawlings wrote.  I was so grateful – I’d grown up with The Yearling, and re-read both it and Cross Creek, with admiration, while I was writing the memoir. Later, she suggested I write Rawlings’s biography. I think she knew more than I did what a good subject-writer match Marjorie and I would be. The notion arrived at a perfect time, toward the end of the hardest work on Where’s the Moon?, and I’d had it in mind to turn to biography again. Someone else’s life, not mine. The whole idea seemed quite serendipitous.

CCP: You were working on this while still finishing Where’s the Moon?

AM: Definitely. I work better that way. I’m a cook with several pots on the stove. All this time I’ve been working on opera libretti, too. One, Swan’s Inlet, is for/with composer Mark Alan Taggart, and based on an original story. The opera will premiere soon.  At the moment, I’m completing work on Purewater, a chamber opera adaptation of André Gide’s novella Symphonie Pastorale.  The composer is Andrew Rudin; Purewater will premiere next fall in New York at the Center for Contemporary Opera.  And I’ve just begun sketching a church opera libretto, commissioned by
the music director of a large Methodist church in Atlanta.

My musical life has never gone away. There were eight musical text projects before these operas, most commissioned or otherwise funded, all performed. Projects like this don’t always “count” in an English Department, so you, and my colleagues at UNT, might not have been aware of that part of my work.  But it was never my goal to make of academia an oyster shell, so it makes little difference to me.  Of college teaching, I never thought, “This is exactly what I want to do” and took precise steps towards it. Opportunities for all sorts of work have come through a series of doors opening, skills developing, and at a certain point, when teaching appeared to be the right way to support myself, I was