By Darryl Gangloff
“What is the best advice you can give to young writers?” a Hotchkiss student asked Dr. Priscilla Gilman, the guest speaker of the Nalen Writing Program, during her lecture on Jan. 29.
“I published my first book when I was 40, so it’s all about playing the long game,” Gilman said with a laugh. “Watch movies. Go to the theater. Consume as much great art as you possibly can. Don’t shut yourself out.”
Gilman, author of The Anti-Romantic Child and The Critic's Daughter, spoke to a full crowd of lower mids in the Student Center during her evening lecture. She also attended English classes and offered guidance to students, who are writing short essays for their Daily Themes unit.
The Nalen Writing Program was established by Skip Nalen ’48, P’79, GP'13,’15 as a gift to the School in appreciation of the writing instruction generations of graduates have received at Hotchkiss. Visiting Nalen writers like Gilman inspire students and instructors in the art and practice of writing.
Gilman formerly taught English at Yale University, where she was an instructor in the original Daily Themes course, and at Vassar College.
The Anti-Romantic Child, Gilman’s first book, was excerpted in Newsweek and featured on the cover of its international edition. Her memoir about “family, parenthood, and love” was an NPR Morning Edition Must-Read, Slate’s Book of the Week, selected as one the Best Books of 2011 by the Leonard Lopate Show, and chosen as a Best Book of 2011 by The Chicago Tribune. It was one of five nominees for a Books for a Better Life Award for Best First Book.
Gilman’s second book, The Critic’s Daughter, was published in February 2023 is a memoir about her relationship with father—the late writer, theater critic, and Yale School of Drama professor Richard Gilman. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere.
“I met Dr. Gilman last spring at The White Hart when she was on a book tour,” said Katie Fleishman, head of the English Department and instructor in English. "What struck me immediately was how beautifully she wrote about family. Those messy, complicated, intense, and glowing relationships that really define who we are and which are so often the topic of Daily Themes, as you will soon discover.”
Fleishman then introduced Gilman, who spoke about both of her books. “I think it will help ease this transition for you all from analytical writing to creative writing. I know it can be very intimidating,” she said. Gilman explained that Daily Themes originated at Yale. She was a tutor for Daily Themes as a graduate student, and she “was intimidated too.”
Gilman said she understood that it can be frustrating to be constrained by a writing prompt for Daily Themes. “Part of what I’m doing when I’m working with you in class and what I hope to do tonight is show you how to take a make a prompt—whether it’s a line of literature or a question to consider—your friend.”
She read excerpts from her books, shared stories about her writing process, and discussed her own journey from analytical writing to creative writing. Her friend, who is a literary agent, told her to “bring your academic training together with what’s going on with your life. That’s where the idea for my first book came from.”
She then answered many questions from students. Regarding being vulnerable in her writing, Gilman said to just get the words down on paper. “Be mindful listeners to each other. Honor each other’s vulnerability and create that safe space.”
To help remember moments from her childhood, she focused on “music, smells, and photographs.” When writing a memoir, she emphasized to “remember that it’s your truth.” For The Critic’s Daughter, “I read all of my father’s work. I looked at reviews of plays and books that he wrote.”
A student asked how to keep the quality of their one-page Daily Themes essays consistent. “Don’t stretch it. Don’t pad it. Once you start writing, you’ll find it hard to stop. Set a time limit if it helps you,” she said.
“All good writing is rewriting. It’s all about revision.”