Resler taught memoir writing at UC Davis Extension for many years and now lives in Woodland, California. Growing up in Denver, Resler leaned into and then ultimately found the courage to resist her master teacher’s extreme manipulations. I talked with about Resler about the book and her writing process.
KM: Can you talk about your writing process in working with this memoir?
NDR: It took me a long time to begin. Finally, I realized that I had a lot of information and that I had to, in some way, organize it. I spent a good deal of time drawing up a chronological log for both Dr. Brico and for myself. I was interested in the relationship and how I felt there might be an overlapping of experience in some way.
Then it was sifting through the ephemera: program notes, letters from Dr. Brico, newspaper clippings and so on, and, of course, that period of my life remained mostly very vivid to me. Still, it required more than I expected to pull it all together.
KM: How long have you been writing?
It wasn’t until after my daughters left home that I began to explore creative avenues again. At first, I took design and advertising classes, but soon rediscovered my passion for literature and from that to writing. In 1984, I transferred to San Francisco State University and met professors and like minds that inspired me, especially my long-time friend, Cynthia Ford, who gave me Tillie Olsen’s book I Stand Here Ironing and urged me to write. The encouragement of that time was elemental, and without it I would never have had the confidence to really write.
KM: What was the most insightful thing you learned about yourself in the process of writing?
NDR: There were so many flashes of understanding during the years of writing. Dreams regularly provided guidance and insight. It was only after finishing, though, that I felt the writing had provided a more complete understanding of those years and, in some ways, reconciliation.
KM: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book?
NDR: The mountains of resistance that regularly stalled the writing. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the cause. Later, I could see how I really resisted diving back into that pain. This is why the writing took so long to complete.
KM: Do you have any regrets now over not continuing a musical career?
NDR: Yes, at times. I think that there is, as I read somewhere, a conflicted combination of regret and indebtedness that forms any contemplative individual’s relationship to her past. And yet, I would not have given up my two daughters and our family life to have had it. And, too, I don’t think that the relentless performances and travel would have suited me.
KM: Did you ever see Antonia Brico later in life?
NDR: Yes, my husband wrote to her asking for a picture for my birthday. She wrote him a lovely letter and enclosed an 8” x 10” portrait with a touching inscription to me on the back. She begged to see me when she came to California. I didn’t want to see her. But over the next couple of years, we met her twice — once for dinner and once we took her to the San Francisco Symphony to see Seiji Ozawa conduct. I remember how sad and wistful she was, watching Ozawa, his youth, his energy, his success and his maleness. She was in her ‘70s at the time. For a few years after, she sent me her annual Christmas letter. I remember as we drove up to the hotel to pick her up that first meeting, I was surprised at how small she looked.
KM: Now that the memoir is finished, what’s next?
NDR: I have half a dozen ideas for short stories that I want to write. Also, I have been playing around with a couple of interesting novels — one, about a composer and his struggles in creating, and the other, a story about an aging sculptor who slid so far into the margins that she became a bag lady. I have a sitcom I would love to write! I have always had problems choosing. The possibilities always so much brighter than what might be possible, and I would have to live to be 110 and work with a fever to manage even half of it.
KM: Have other more contemporary writers and poets been an influence on your writing?
NDR: Yes, certainly Carole Maso and writers like David Markson, Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, and several others who “broke rules”, rebelled against the traditional form of telling.
KM: What predisposed you to move from a traditional narrative form to a hybrid, or “post-modern” form?
NDR: Toni Morrison has said that every subject matter requires its own form. I wrote the first draft in twenty-five prosaic chapters that, when I finished, bored me in the extreme. It took a long time of reading and a couple of classes in experimental writing before I found my form. For me, I think form has a lot to do with music – from playing compositions of varying lengths and moods; as a pianist, my repertoire over the years ran from one page preludes to book length concerti. The vignettes in my memoir, too, vary in mood and length. The form for the book, when I found it, felt natural to me.
KM: Do you think that your musical background affects the rhythm of your writing?
NDR: Yes, definitely. I want to feel the rhythm in the writing. Otherwise, I’m not happy with it.
KM: What is your writing schedule? Do you write every day?
NDR: I’m not a particularly disciplined writer. I have thought it is a very late rebellion against all of those years I practiced two hours before school and again in the evenings (I wonder how my family stood it!); and summers, I would often practice seven or eight hours a day before recitals, then after a week or two break, practice maybe six hours a day to memorize all of the new music which was to be done before Dr. Brico returned from Europe in late September.
Of course, until recently, I worked full time and for ten years, during most of the work on the book, I taught two or three creative writing classes online through UC Davis, Extension. So I was busy and there were times that energy flagged before I could get back to the book.
KM: Do you still play the piano?
NDR: Not often. I find that I have to be in a very strong emotional state to either play music or listen to it. A part of the playing comes from not being able to manage the perfection, so to speak, of the piece as I once could. To do this would require a return to the long practice hours – and also, my hands have changed with age. Listening to music – well there are works of certain composers — Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Mahler — that on hearing can liquefy me. I’m unable to go through that most of the time. I think of George Steiner when he wrote, “I don’t know what music does to me. I know it does everything to me.” And yes, music can do everything to me. So, I protect myself and don’t often risk playing or listening to classical music. As for the rest of music, somehow I prefer silence.
The Last Protégée is disturbing and beautiful read. Anyone haunted by a life-changing decision to stop pursuing a passion will be intrigued by Nancy Deeds Resler’s reflections.