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Let’s Dance the Night Away: A Conversation with Janet McMahan

In Reading Dances with Words, Your Spirit Will Soar

Paul Engle wrote in an article for The New York Times, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, and all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.” I found this quote particularly fitting for Janet’s work for many reasons. First, Janet has a profound love of math and numbers. This might explain why she’s currently enrolled in a College Algebra class at the age of 67 (and I feel I can publish her age since she wrote it in one of her haiku). Second, Janet’s ideas and emotions flow freely and deeply here. 

This book is raw and rich, rewarding the reader with tiny morsels of truth, pain, love, hope, desire, and loss. Finally, if there’s anyone that knows how to string together a gorgeous strand of words, it’s Janet. Her haiku effortlessly invokes just the right emotions and just the right times. I found myself having to put the book down and start all over again multiple times because the feelings were so real, and I was so present in my thoughts. Who needs drugs when we’ve got Janet’s words?

I was fortunate to sit down and talk to Janet about her upcoming book, Dances with Words. Take a look at our chat.

1) Where did you find the inspiration for your book?

That is such a great question. The answer is multi-faceted. I’ve been writing since the fourth grade. Well, writing on paper since the fourth grade, but long before that in my head. My dad was a storyteller, and writing, escaping to my laughing place, is how I’ve managed to make it thus far. (Well, that, God, and playing the piano! Not necessarily in that order.) 

I don’t know how not to write. 

But as far as inspiration, specifically for this book; it comes from everywhere… from overheard conversations, from sub-texts I create in my head when I see, but can’t hear people talking, from music, from flowers and trees, from highs and low, from poems, from novels, from hugs, from church, from my best friend, Robby!

Right now, I’m observing a hummingbird feast at a feeder outside my kitchen window. I’ve already given the winged beauty a name and a backstory. 

Remarkably and yet ironically enough, I would have to say I get as much inspiration from the shadows as I do the light. At least, I tell myself that. Somehow believing that, provides a balm for the painful places when my heart is hurting.  

If one considers redemption to be inevitable – If you believe that hurts will somehow, someday be healed – If you know that empathy will be the gift, your reward for enduring your pain, you will survive and even thrive.

One must embrace the shadows to walk into the light. It’s all part of the dance. 

Rainy days speak to me the loudest and in the most profound ways. Raindrops to me are like nectar pouring down from Heaven, guiding my fingers across the page and on the piano keys. Thunder resonates with hallelujahs.

Inspiration can be found in a towel thrown carelessly in the sink. Upon close inspection, you might find the face of Moses. What does Moses have to say to you today? A praying mantis on my kitchen floor might remind me I need to go to God on my knees at that very moment.

God is speaking. We must listen to and with what lies within us. We only have to open our eyes (the windows of the soul that reside within us), and we’ll find inspiration in the good, the bad, and the ugly.

2) How does this project compare to your previous works?

I feel this work is a new and exciting rabbit hole for me. I’ve written almost exclusively based on a set of parameters and a deadline – children’s musicals, activity books, games, riddles, puzzles, children’s stories, theatrical works, musical Shakespeare adaptations. I have loved every minute of working within these frameworks, racing to a publisher’s deadline. 

But Dances opened up another door of my soul, a more free-flowing vision of my inner life. Moving in a pointillistic fashion at times, from the shallow end of the pool to some of the most painful places within me, I have wept, laughed, deleted, and second-guessed, but in the end, I decided transparency was the course to take. 

It was quite the cathartic journey in many ways. There were countless roads to travel on the path to healing. Writing love letters to my mother, reliving moments, and ranting in 5 -7- 5; they all helped me through my grief.

I am always completely obsessed with whatever project I am working on at a particular time, and I always feel that once it’s complete, I’ll never feel that way about another endeavor. That is, until the next adventure, when the patterned behavior starts all over. 

While “dancing with words,” I experienced my usual obsession, messy house, and delinquent email responses, as always a part of the process, but it was worth it for the process helped to palliate my pain in some new ways. Dances helped shine a light on my shadows, clear out my cobwebs, and urged me to keep dancing.

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3) What’s your favorite part or piece in this work?

There are two things in my life that I think about more than just about anything are 1, gratitude for my mom, and 2, learning what forgiveness means. Regarding forgiveness, I don’t merely mean a definition. I want to know how one knows when one has genuinely forgiven. 

Here are two extended haiku that were born from these journeys of the mind.

First is a waking vision I had of seeing Mom. 

Just one more haiku

Before I hug my pillow 

And my teddy bear

The stars are dancing. 

The moon’s kissed the sun goodbye. 

Morpheus awaits.

A magic carpet 

Winds its way through the skies and 

Lands in my bedroom.

An angel whispers, 

“Time to go. Just hold on tight.” 

Through the night, we fly.

We sail right past the 

Moons of Mars. The Milky Way 

Stretches before us.

Up ahead, I see 

Wonderlands welcoming me. 

Mom is at the door.

She’s all that I need 

No Milky Way, no moons of 

Mars – just my sweet mom.

Here is the one about forgiveness. 

I hear of this place 

Called the lake of forgiveness. 

I grab my swimsuit.

I stand on the shore, 

Dip my toes in the water 

The water’s too cold.

Well, at least I tried.

I can come back tomorrow. 

And try again then.

4) What do you hope your readers get out of this book?

I hope that readers will feel the freedom to tell their own stories – to speak their truths. If I can admit that red nail polish relieves my depression and that I live much of my life on the ledge, perhaps they can be honest with themselves about their own struggles. 

I want my life to reflect the words of Anne Frank.

“I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank

If Anne Frank can feel this way amidst her circumstances, I feel we can all embrace the shadows in our lives and look to the light. 

5) How has the response been so far?

It’s still early in the game, but I’m delighted with the response so far. I’m a super-sensitive person, and I’m not sure how well I would take negativity coming my way. Perhaps, I’ll have to don my emotional hazmat suit somewhere down the road, but fortunately, I haven’t had to yet. 

Truth is, I have not written this book to fit a standard in hopes of pleasing any kind of literary jury. I wrote this book as a letter to myself or anyone who chooses to read it to express my passions, pathos, pain, as well as my many joys along my journey. Retelling my tale shines a light on my path to the future. I pray it will perhaps do the same for others.

6) What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

My next project is quite a departure. It is a children’s fantasy about a time-traveling, shape-shifting camel named Humphrey, who unexpectedly lands in an unsuspecting little girl’s life.

We’ve fallen in love with Janet McMahan’s new work, and we hope you will, too! It’s available now here!

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