Author Martha Anne Toll whose essays and book reviews have graced prestigious publications such as NPR, the Washington Post, The Millions, and who's recent book was shortlisted for The Gotham Award, shares her decades long roller coaster journey of persistence and creativity.
Despite fairly constant rejection, Martha pursued her love of writing for over 20 years. She emphatically shares with us the importance of tuning into our inner voice the one that urges us to keep going when things get tough.
We explore the significance of loneliness and yearning in creativity and the creative process as well and touch on where she is with her second novel, her passion for mentoring other writers, and the value in "the rests" of creativity.
Her writing reflects her deep insights, empathy, and her ability to connect with readers on a profound level and her wisdom and the learnings from her journey so far, provide valuable insights and uplifting inspiration for aspiring writers and creative individuals who are living their own ups and downs along the way as they preserve to find their own paths to success.
What We Talk About:
- -Martha's journey of persistence and creativity.
- -The inner voice that motivates us to keep going.
- -Incorporating your creative passion into daily life.
- -Keeping creativity fresh during periods of rejection.
- -Martha's Three Muses and her writing process.
- -Techniques for effective writing.
- -The importance of loneliness and yearning in creativity.
- -The value of pauses in creativity.
- -The best place to start creative projects.
Martha's wisdom and journey provide valuable insights for aspiring writers and creative individuals seeking to persevere and find their own paths to success.
Embracing the Journey: Martha Anne Toll's Inspiring Story of Perseverance & The Creative Spirit
In the world of creativity, few stories are as inspiring as that of Martha Anne Toll. Her journey is a testament to the power of persistence, the magic of embracing one's inner voice, and the art of finding creative fulfillment even in the face of constant rejection. Join us as we delve into Martha's remarkable story and glean valuable lessons on how to keep your creative flame alive.
About Martha Anne Toll: Martha Anne Toll is not an overnight success story. Her path to becoming a renowned writer was paved with two decades of rejection, but during that time, she never lost sight of her passion. After receiving her law degree from Boston University School of Law, she embarked on a journey that would ultimately lead her to the world of writing. Her essays and book reviews have graced prestigious publications such as NPR, the Washington Post, The Millions, and many more. Her writing reflects her deep insights, empathy, and her ability to connect with readers on a profound level.
The Miracle of the Inner Voice: One of the most striking aspects of Martha's journey is the "miracle" that accompanies her every step of the way. She describes it as the little voice inside that whispers, "keep going." This inner voice is a constant companion that helps her navigate through adversity and rejection. Martha's story reminds us that inspiration is often found within ourselves, and we must listen carefully to that inner guidance.
Incorporating Writing into Life: Martha's commitment to her craft is awe-inspiring. Even when her writing career faced countless rejections, she found ways to incorporate writing into all aspects of her life. This dedication allowed her to continue doing what she loved, purely for the love of it. Martha's story teaches us that creativity can flourish when it's woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
Keeping Creativity Alive and Fresh: Creativity can wane during times of rejection and failure, but Martha found ways to keep it alive and flowing. She shares practical insights and ideas to help aspiring writers and artists keep their creative practices fresh, no matter how long it takes to achieve their big break.
Martha's Three Muses: Music, Discipline, and Memory: In her novel "The Three Muses," Martha introduces us to her creative muses: Music, Discipline, and Memory. These muses inspire her and help her maintain her creative spirit. Learning about these muses can offer valuable guidance on nurturing your own creative loves.
Starting in the Middle: One of Martha's unconventional yet liberating pieces of advice is to start in the middle of creative projects. Instead of obsessing over a perfect beginning, she encourages us to dive right into the heart of our creative endeavors. This approach allows for freedom and exploration, leading to unexpected and beautiful outcomes.
Paying It Forward: Martha's journey has also inspired her to give back. She mentors other writers, sharing her experiences and insights with those following in her footsteps. Her willingness to support and encourage others underscores the importance of paying it forward in our creative communities.
Embracing "The Rests": Martha's wisdom extends to recognizing the beauty in "the rests" of creativity. Just as music finds its magic in the pauses, our creative journeys can benefit from moments of reflection and rejuvenation. Her perspective encourages us to embrace these pauses as essential parts of our creative process.
Martha Anne Toll's remarkable journey is a source of inspiration and valuable lessons for anyone pursuing their creative dreams. Her story reminds us that persistence, listening to our inner voices, and finding creative fulfillment in everyday life can lead to profound success. As Martha continues to celebrate the anniversary of her debut novel and works on her second, her story serves as a beacon of hope for all creatives on their own unique journeys.
You know they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. --And this is certainly true for our guests today. Martha and toll didn't start truly pursuing her life, long love of writing until her forties. And even then she lived through nearly 20 years of rejections before her big break as a novelist. Currently she is celebrating the anniversary of her debut novel. Finishing her second and partway through her third. She shares with us a peek at the many things she learned and gained over 20 years of anguished failed attempts and rejections from publishers. This episode is one you'll want to listen too closely. And maybe even twice the second time with a pen in your hand, because some of the things she says have the potential to be transformative moments. It really felt like.
A, masterclass in writing
We talk about how she found ways to incorporate writing and to all aspects of her life. So that even when her writing her wasn't taking off, she could still spend lots of time doing this thing that she loved just for the love of it. She tells us what she does to keep writing alive and fresh and flowing. She shares about the three muses from her book, the three muses and what they mean to her. She shares so many practical insights and ideas things that anybody who's aspiring to be a writer of any kind in any genre can do. Two. Really keep your practice fresh and alive and going. Even if there's a long spell before you get your own big break.
So the theme for season three of creative genius is learning to see. I have this really rich, creative, intuitive, inner life. And how do I pay that forward? Part of that for me, means helping to mentor and help others learn to see and feel with this super power we have inside of us that we call intuition or creativity. And so I started doing these workshops. In person at first in my studio, north Vancouver. But a lot of you, when you found out I was doing this. He asked me to take them online and offer them virtually, which I did. And the first one was scheduled for September. We had some minor technical issues and we rescheduled for early October. And it just took place and it was absolutely magical. My marker for whether or not a workshop is successful is if I make anybody cry.
And several of the participants emailed me directly afterwards to say, they had tears welling up, at certain points in the workshop. And that's my goal. We're looking to reach that part of ourselves. That is just so relieved that you've noticed it again. That the tears flow. So I really feel like this workshop is a must. They're included in my Patrion. I have a tier called colorful community. And inside that too, you get access to this monthly workshop. It's part of a package. You also get the bonus episodes and early access to episodes. The guided meditations, the worksheets, the journal prompts, all the things that I create.
For you to support you on your own journey to activate your intuition and your creativity. I want to share with you. If you'll indulge me and review one of the participants left the other day after taking the workshop, her name is Beth Suter and she wrote life-changing. Kate's creativity. Workshop is a must on caps, even as someone who is a working artist and does their best to make creating a priority. I can still get hung up in the ego thinking mind. Kate is an intentional and thoughtful teacher. Using simple art supplies and an easy to follow along exercise. She guides you to tapping into your own inner wisdom. It's amazing. What setting aside some time to get connected and listen to your higher self can do. I had so many aha moments of clarity during the workshop. What I love the most is this class is for everyone. If you have the desire to cut through the noise and get right to the callings of your heart. This workshop is for you. Kate is inspiring, loving, encouraging. You will walk away from the class, feeling lighter, joyful, and more tuned in with your intuition. I can't speak highly enough of Kate and her offerings. Thank you so much, Beth. And to everybody else who came to the very first workshop that we offered in October, I will be holding them in the lead up to the full moon. The next one is scheduled for October 27th. So if you haven't signed up for the Patrion yet now is a great time to do that. Or you can sign up for this workshop as a one-off, which you can do on my website, Kate shepherd, creative.com.
During this conversation with Martha, the margins of my notebook filled up very quickly. There are so many things that she said. That are profound. And illuminating. And really, really useful for anybody who's serving this creative muse inside of themselves, but who doesn't always know how to let it out.
Martha graduated from Yale college and received her law degree from Boston university school of law, her essays and book reviews appear regularly in NPR, the Washington post, the millions Los Angeles review of book. Point magazine as well as Lilly, the rumpus bloom, scoundrel time, music and literature. Words without borders Heck magazine washington independent review of books . She's been a nominator and critic for NPR annual book concierge since 2017. She has a humongous heart and a lot of really valuable insights For the aspiring writer Memoir novelist And aspiring artist i hope you love this conversation with martha as much as i enjoyed having it With her
Kate Shepherd: Martha thank you so much for making time to sit down and chat with me today. I'm really happy to meet you.
Martha Anne Toll: Thank you. Kate. It's such an honor and I'm really excited about what you're doing and I get that it, it's a lot of time in a really busy schedule, so I appreciate it.
Kate Shepherd: you. Yeah, I was saying in the pre-chat before we got started, how it creating this body of work as it's turning into, 'cause it's kind of growing beyond just the podcast feels kind of like a compulsion, it feels like a choice that I don't really get to make. Like it's kind of happening through me on its own.
And I think a lot of creatives have that experience with, with creating and
yeah, I'm excited to talk to you about
that, how that shows up for you.
Before we do that, I wondered if you would, well I was thinking what's a beautiful, 'cause you've, you've, you're a writer and your writing is just so beautiful.
And I was thinking, okay, what's a poetic way to ask you this question? So I came up with this. If you were riding an elevator up to a small little gathering of people on a roof with little fairy lights and a little roof garden, and you were in the elevator with somebody and you were describing what you do and your work and who you are, but you only had the ride up to the top to sort of let them know who you are, what would you, what would you tell them?
Martha Anne Toll: That's a tough one. well, I, am really interested in love and death and I'm really interested in memory and time. So I think all of my writing takes those ideas into account. I think they are wellsprings for all of us creative people. I think we're all creative, so I'll just say everybody, and I'm super interested in the, in the arts.
if you had to say, Well, and maybe you can't, I can't do this, but if you had to say you had to pick one kind of part of the arts, is there one that pulls you more than other? . Tell us about that.
Well, I had a deep background, a training in music. I studied the viola professionally. The viola is the alto voice of the string section of the orchestra, string quartet. also studied ballet as a very young child, and my book, the Three Muses, which I think we'll be talking about is deeply about ballet.
But I really, really feel that.
my voice is in writing. Writing is, it took me a long time to be able to say this out loud and to actually, get a book published, although I've been writing my whole life. So I would have to say it's writing for
Kate Shepherd: you say you were writing your whole life, like what? What does that mean? Because I hear people say that, does that mean like you journaled or you would write po? Like what Or all of it? Like what does that mean for you?
Martha Anne Toll: Well, I was, so two things that really feel now why I became a writer. One is this insane memory, not only of my own life, but of everybody around me. So holding the memories of people in my family and, Friends and I just have like an incredible memory. , I do remember learning how to read. I remember that I struggled with the word half on a first grade vocabulary test 'cause it had that silent E but words were a huge part of the household that I grew up in.
My parents were really interested in words. My mother was a professional book editor and my dad was a lawyer who used words in his trade, but also was a really fine writer. There were dictionaries and encyclopedias. , I did journal throughout, probably into my early thirties. I'm one of four sisters we used to put on plays. I was the person who wrote the plays. I mean, I just paid a lot of attention words. I kept lists of vocabulary words that I was learning. Um, I remember where I was when I learned specific words. and then as in my career, I became a lawyer.
But that wasn't really an accident. Lawyers are very word oriented. My, my professional jobs in social and racial justice were all around the written word. A lot of, um, policy oriented work that required writing. So I'm, that's what I'm gonna really been writing my whole life. And I feel like it's surprising to me, but I, I kind of understand it now that I have always read like a writer.
I, I read a lot, but I've always, always want to know what is that author doing? And I, again, have this incredible memory for when I read which books, when, and that kind of thing.
Kate Shepherd: What's that like? I have a, as somebody with an, I could say a terrible memory, like I have a great memory for actually that's so not true. I have a great memory. Like I just know things, but like I can't recall the way that you can. So what's that like to hold all of that? Where do you put it? Where does it live in your
Martha Anne Toll: Well,
Kate Shepherd: do you
Martha Anne Toll: I feel like I'm gonna be writing the rest of my life trying to understand this and in many ways, um, my book three uses, which is about, a Holocaust survivor whose his name in the old country was Yanko. And he's standing in line with his family for the gas chamber. And his mother saves his life by telling the SSS officer that he can sing.
And so he sings and the SSS officer takes him out of line and he spends the rest of the war, singing for the Commandant. Of this concentration camp, which is the place where his mother and brother were murdered. So he's essentially singing for the murderer. He loses his entire extended family in the Holocaust and eventually makes it to America.
Music is completely fraught for him. , it's the means to his saved, but also the means to the killing of his family. And yet he has this role that he understands, which is, it didn't make this up. This is how real Holocaust survivors feel and felt, the role of holding the memory for the rest of his family.
He's the only survivor he has. He has some role. He doesn't really understand what that means for him, but he becomes a psychiatrist. And he falls in love with a ballerina who is American. , she's dancing in New York. He becomes John in the New country America. He doesn't realize that the ballerina Katja Semanova is actually deeply enmeshed with her co-creator and choreographer
and that is a very fraught relationship. It's abusive in many ways, but also she is, in many ways her choreographer's memory because he doesn't record any of his work. He's a generation older and ballerina's and ballet dancer's hold memory in their bodies. So I can't answer it for myself, but I can say that Katja held the memory of his work and her body.
She is a memory keeper. And John is also a memory keeper, and I'm still trying to understand this in myself, but I understood it enough to. Create these characters. and you know, writing is, can be very unconscious. I'm not sure I totally understood that as I was writing, but now I see it a little more clearly.
Kate Shepherd: , I think about you as the, as the vehicle for this. 'cause I think creativity has a, I see it as like an intelligent being, right? The thing that wants to make the choreographer create a dance. And the dance, the thing that makes the dancer wanna dance and the musician want, and the writer wanna write, and the painter
It's almost like something comes through you and you don't really, you could fight it, right, but that would hurt, right? Like that would cause you all the, so you, it it's almost like it's got a life of its own. And so as you were saying that, I was thinking
What is it trying to do through you as it brings this story and these characters to life? And, and you've touched on it a little bit when you were saying like, I don't, I didn't really know how that unconscious piece as I got started, but what does it feel like to give yourself to that phenomenon and where do you find yourself in it?
And how much do you control and how much do you let go? And what's that journey been like for you?
Martha Anne Toll: Well, first of all, I love the idea that your podcast is about creativity. And I deeply believe that of the 7 billion people on this planet, everyone is creative. I, I just believe that's part of the human spirit. And people express creativity in different ways. and the arts is obviously not the only way to express creativity.
All kinds of people bring all kinds of creative work to their jobs, to raising a family, to their relationships, to their friendships. These are all creative endeavors. I'm gonna say this in a, like a, a negative way, but I, it's the way I think about it. I didn't do great in ballet. I don't have the body for it.
And music turned out to be too. I felt that my ear advanced faster than my fingers and body. And I got to a point where I felt like I was at impasse and I always, and I knew, I played with a lot of people who are now professional musicians and they had something I didn't have, which was this call. And somehow I feel called in writing, which again, I didn't really understand, but I learned about it.
This is, here's the negative part. I mean, it was negative feeling at impasse. I basically had 20 years of rejections in fiction land I got this book , my debut book published. I was really in grief, I'm sorry, that's a big word. But that's how I felt. It was really despairing the interesting thing to me, when I would stand outside of myself was , well, I'm not giving up.
Like I would cry for three days and then I would keep writing. I'm like, what is wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this? And then I realized, I must really wanna do this 'cause the rest of the world is not acknowledging this but that's where I guess I understood this creative drive. I is something that I pretty much have to
Kate Shepherd: do feel
Martha Anne Toll: years
Kate Shepherd: is a long time to be getting rejection after rejection and I mean, you look at anybody's success story and it's, you know, we all have years and years and years.
There's very few people actually write the book and are like, oh no, what that, I just wrote it and there it is. But like, it's not the norm. But when you're living it on the ground and it's your day-to-day life and you're, you have to have a job and you have to pay the bills and you're . Try, your life is ticking by, and you're like, wait a minute.
My life is, is going by Time is passing me here. And like, you know, I've even had the thought not that long ago where I was like, well, if I don't hit it, you know, hit my dream soon. Like, there's not gonna be left much time to enjoy it. Like, all those weird things that go through your head about like, what, why is this ha, why is this taking so long?
Martha Anne Toll: had a full-time day job that was very engaging and very meaningful to me. And and I was raising two children. And so I felt like, I kept saying, I wish I had more time to write. I wish I had more time to write, but then I would say to myself, let's recognize that work is a place of affirmation.
And I absolutely understood in real time that it . We are affirmed at work. We are among the lucky few. So many people are oppressed in their jobs and or have, are not, don't have the opportunity for meaningful work. So I was incredibly grateful to have a place of affirmation, so that was very sustaining for me.
The other thing is, it doesn't make any sense because there's all this despair and self-loathing that comes with rejection, but there was also this little voice saying, you know, you're just gonna have to keep going. You know, this, this has meaning to me. I'm just gonna have to keep going. I don't, I still don't understand it, but I was like, you know, like a cartoon figure, like you get flattened and then like bounce back up and, and I was almost 65 when my first novel was published and I, I kept saying, I'm gonna die before I get a book published.
And I still feel this incredible sense of urgency about my work. I have a lot more I wanna write and, I mean, there was, you know, just so much despair and I'm like, what am I whining for? I have such a nice life and I love my job, and the best advice that I got was to get 100 rejections a year.
And I love that advice because it really switches the script and it normalizes rejection, which I think is very normal. It's very, very normal in writing land. I think it's normal in all of the arts, but it's also plenty normal in other things. I'm watching my adult children, you know, launch their careers.
It's hard. They're, they're qualified to do what they wanna do, but I see that it's really hard. We, you know, are obstacles all over the place for all kinds of people, so that's part of, I. It's some kind of acceptance. I think that things are gonna be hard, , and I feel like, you know, I've had a charmed life by comparison to most of humanity.
I do need to
Track 1: that
Kate Shepherd: formula of, of connecting with gratitude and realizing what you do have in this moment, whether it's charmed or not. Actually, there's always, I feel like I, when I look even in the dark times, there's always something good. There's always a gift. There's always,
and it is
Martha Anne Toll: Yeah.
Kate Shepherd: reframe, but you said something a minute ago about that little voice, that little voice that was like, get up.
That I feel like there's magic in that voice and we skip over that so often. It's like this miracle hiding right there in plain sight. Can you tell us more about your relationship with that voice? Because it's not just about getting, making you stand up with re when with rejections like that is always whispering to us in my experience and I, I'm curious, like what else has that voice said to you and how have you cultivated your connection with that
Martha Anne Toll: a couple of thoughts on that. I think that writing is, , like some people, say I write for therapy. Don't write because I need to use my writing for therapeutic reasons, but it is very meaningful part of what I learned was I could appreciate writing in whatever format. You know, I got really engaged in book reviewing and that allowed me to use my writing to put something out in the world and give people, you know, stuff about books that I love and it felt more outward focused.
So that, that was one very, very helpful thing. And the other thing was appreciating, um, The books that I was reading and trying to get more engaged with some of the, the authors. And I'm still still trying to do this of books that I absolutely love and, um, the little voice is hard to connect with. And so I guess what I'll say is the three muses in my book, three muses are song, discipline and memory.
And those three muses are incredibly important to me. I am kind of fanatic about discipline and so I talk a lot and I think a lot about work. For me, creativity is very bound up with work and I do feel that I have an understanding of creativity that is don't wait for inspiration to strike.
Honestly, inspiration is quite rare and very, very accidental in my experience, but it's also belief of mine. You know, people, great scientists who have made great discoveries, many, many of those have come by accident. You know, the discovery penicillin is, 'cause he was, had his Petri dish in the window and he noticed it was growing mold, or I just remember 10th grade chemistry the guy invented at the benzene ring, which is the.
Chemical formula for benzene, you know, it came to him in a dream. So I just do feel like a lot of these things are quite accidental. We often don't end up in fields that we expected that we thought we were gonna end up in. so I'm a a lot about work, about getting in the chair and writing , and I don't think it matters what writing I'm doing.
Like if it's a book review, or a personal essay, I think that informs my fiction and vice versa. So one way that that little voice speaks to me is get your tuition in the chair and work. So, not very romantic, it's how I
Kate Shepherd: romanticize it a lot. Like, and I, I feel like that's ego kind of like getting us actually away from it, right? Like that it is a very practical, like
it's just an energy that needs to flow and the best way to let it flow
is to just sit your
butt down and like you said, and do it.
Martha Anne Toll: and then I guess the other thing is this fiction that writers use, which I didn't realize I was doing, but it's actually very, very helpful about what's on the page is separate from, from you, like once a, a recently a writer describe this to me really clearly. I asked him how he wrote memoir, and he said, oh, once it's on the page, that's a character.
Then I'm distanced from it, I had this insight that kind of makes a lot of sense to me. When my older daughter was four, I looked at her and I noticed we, oh, she's wearing a red turtleneck. You know, it's funny, I, I have a red turtleneck and she's wearing jeans and I'm wearing jeans.
It's, she's really weird. She dresses like I do, and then I'm like, oh, I'm person buys our clothing. And it was like, it was my recognition. Here's this little person who's totally separate from me, but obviously we have a connection because she dresses like I do. And I feel there's some, I still can't quite connect the dots to creativity, but writing a book is a little bit like that for me.
I wanna be at arm's length from my fiction, but of course I'm writing it, so of course it reflects me and, but it's still like a really kind of almost voodoo, weird, mysterious thing that I don't quite
Kate Shepherd: How do. you, when you've got your butt in your, your tushes in the chair and you're sitting down to write every day, and is that what you do? Like I was, 'cause I was gonna ask you about your sort of daily,
Martha Anne Toll: I mean, when I had a full-time job, it was sort of, Really around the edges when I could do it. You know, weekends when my kids had left home for college. A lot of weekend stuff and a lot of just squeezing it in where I could. I do try to write in the mornings, but I've been lucky enough with three muses to kind of be on the road a lot and be doing a lot of publicity and that I will, I will say that has not been conducive to a regular schedule, but I try to write every day. But I'm also, I just, I also feel like, you know, you can also kill something that way.
Like, oh my God, I didn't write today. I am, I'm doomed for failure. You know, you just do what you can.
Kate Shepherd: Would you say that it's about listening to that little voice again to find out like, oh, today's a day. I actually want you to get up at four o'clock in the morning and write
because I have something to say at four o'clock in the morning today. But if you start getting up at four o'clock in the morning every day, just because once I told you it was a good idea, like you said you kill, like that becomes this formula that's like not rooted in the thing itself
Martha Anne Toll: Yeah. I really want my mornings to write, but sometimes that can't happen. Or you're tired or you sleep in and then I'm like, okay, it's three o'clock. You could still get something done. You know? 'cause I'm, I am retired from my, I, I'm not literally retired 'cause I'm working full-time as a writer, but for my previous job and, and so my structuring my time is still, is still a challenge for me.
But I do think we need a structure. I do better in structure, so I do try to do that, but when I can't do it, I either try a different time of the day or I'm like, okay, today's not gonna work. But in general, I think the discipline of some kind of regular writing practice is really
Kate Shepherd: I'm really interested in writing too, and strengthening that muscle. I've always said I can't, I'm not a writer. My mother's a writer. My father's a writer, but I don't have it in me. And then the other day I was oh no, you're a writer.
You just are too scared to do it. and I, I, for me, it's not fiction. Like I hear loud and clear from you how fiction is, I think you said it's the air that you breathe. Fiction is the air that you breathe. Like it's your love. And for me, I feel like it's gonna be more like memoir storytelling. I don't, I don't know.
But I'm very curious about when a writer sits down to write, what do you, where do you start? What do you say to yourself? What's the, how do you get that
Martha Anne Toll: Well, I have several sort of practical, suggestions. First is I feel that writing begets writing. So for me, I write in front of a screen. Some people prefer to write longhand, but when I'm in front of the screen, one sentence will tend to suggest the next sentence. And so my role for myself is I hope to be one sentence ahead of myself.
So I'm a novel writer and a novel is overwhelming. So I try not to think about the scope of the novel and like, will I have another sentence for this chapter? I'm, I'm revising my second book and I am very close to the end of this revision, and I am a little bit on an impasse. So one thing I do when I'm at an impasse is Skip to another part of the manuscript. I'm, I'm really big on don't, don't start in the beginning. Don't try to finish it. The middle is a better place to start because you're less pressuring to yourself about . You know, Oh. my God, is this a beautiful beginning and is somebody gonna be taken in by this?
Second of all, um, or third of all, I don't know where I am, so I, I, there are people I know who turn off their, who stop writing for the day with half a sentence because then they're sure.
when they sit down again, they'll able finish that sentence and that's enough to get them going. Which I think that's a really interesting idea.
I haven't had needed to do it but but I do feel like you only need to be one sentence ahead, what whatever the scale of the project is. And the other thing is there's this great French expression called, um, , which is the spirit of the staircase. And I do believe that when you're really at impasse, get up and leave.
Because sometimes on the stairwell down from your writing place or the stairwell down from your house, whatever, or you're in the shower, a solution will present itself. So I don't like that idea of like, oh, I'll just sit here until I fix it. Because sometimes you can't fix it and you have to wait.
You need some period of time, you need a different approach. You need to write a different, do a different project. I like having different writing projects going so I can work on something else, you know, when I'm stuck on this one. So I think there are like little tricks we can do, but I think thinking of the largest hugest thing, like, wow, I'll write a memoir is sometimes overwhelming, but wow, I might be able to write about what happened yesterday or when I was 10.
That's certain thing I wanna write about.
Kate Shepherd: Yeah. For You where is it. coming from? Like I, this is about for fiction, I've always been fascinated and very curious about where does it come from? where do you feel like it's coming from?
Like does it feel like it's coming from and your body when you're doing it?
Martha Anne Toll: Yeah, this is, the part that I'm probably least articulate about to the extent I'm articulate about anything. I always want to write fiction. I wanted to write fiction from the time I was five years old. through my twenties and thirties, I always had this, I have all these words in my disposal and I have no idea how to put them into a story.
and then this is the part that I don't really understand. My mother died very suddenly in 1999 and after her death, the floodgates opened. I'm still trying to understand this, but had ideas for novels. So I wrote a novel, absolutely terrible, but it just poured out of me. You know, it's never gonna see the light of day, but it was sort of I don't know where it was coming from. I really. I really can't say, that means I was in my early forties before I felt like I had anything of fiction that could get on the page. And I have tremendous concern about plot. Like there's some fiction writers who map up the whole thing.
I'm not that person. I'm working in chaos, very iteratively, with no plot for a long time. So, and I think either way is fine. cause again, I think plot sometimes rises outta the manuscript. You can explore the characters in writing exercises. Like if you're writing a memoir, I'd love that advice that the person writing a memoir is still a character and you can explore what that person wants to say.
But I have so little concrete advice about fiction 'cause I can't understand it. with three muses. I had written a bunch of novels before that that had not been published. I wanted a vehicle to tell a story and I, I found these three muses by accident, song, discipline and memory, and I was like, oh my God, that's, they were meant for me
you know, they're part of a Greek tradition that I didn't know about, but they spoke to me so loudly and they, that became an organizing principle for the, for the novel. So that was extremely helpful duet for one, which is coming out in 2025. I know what sparked that novel. I had a, , training in classical music.
I opened the newspaper one day and I saw an obituary of a woman pianist who had just died and she was part of a husband and wife two team, and they had performed as two pianists around the world. And I just thought to myself, what. Happens to that husband. He is bereaved of his spouse, but he also lost his professional career.
That was the starting point of that novel. It was, is literally a newspaper. Arbitrary, but, and so some of that means you have to be open to stuff. You have to be figure out what sings to you. But I'm, I'm kind of wandering around here
Kate Shepherd: Well,
Martha Anne Toll: have good
Kate Shepherd: an unfair question
because it's like asking what is creativity or what, you know. I mean, we wanna know, and if you, you know, if you ever study any of the sort of like ancient traditions and we're talking about reality or truth or love or any of these things, and all the great teachers say like, you can't.
Say it. Like if that's part of the definition of it is that it is, it is ineffable and but where there's a
yearning because it is us and we are it, and there is this beautiful union that's possible when between us and it,
you know, it's a formless meeting
the form, right. And it, it's the union itself, but it's an invisible thing.
So it's kind of an unfair question to to ask you how does it work ,
Track 1: I just wanted to quote this 'cause I thought it was so perfect for your podcast. a Portuguese novelist that I am still need to read his work. I haven't read it. His name is Fernando Pa poa.
I'm not sure how he pronounces it, but he's one of Portugal's greatest writers. there was an article that. quote, it said like, this PO's belief, like all feelings loneliness for him is nothing more than one of the sources of creation.
Kate Shepherd: I love that.
Track 1: And it's really interesting, you know, like, we like loneliness and yearning and longing.
Just what you were saying. Is a huge part
Kate Shepherd: I feel like we have evolved to be a people that have this aversion to discomfort of any kind, and we're constantly wanting to fill it with, well take a drug for that, or, you know, drink a bunch of alcohol for this, or, you know, whatever. All of the, all, look at all the ways that we numb ourselves to discomfort.
But actually, you know, when my, when my kids are bored, I get excited. 'cause I'm like, and I tell them like, you should be getting, like, something cool is about to happen. Boredom is always a precursor to creativity. it's creativity. Getting restless and saying,
The reason I started this podcast is looking around, I saw that and I said this a thousand times, I feel like humanity is glitching because we've become disconnected from creativity. And part of that is we, our unwillingness to feel the difficult, uncomfortable feelings.
think so much of that can be on the other side of a practice.
And so it is really uncomfortable to sit down and write when you, when you don't know what's coming or you, you don't, you know, this is your 19th year of writing and still no one has said yes to you. And . Yeah, but there's magic,
right? In the, in the, okay, but what if I just keep going? What if I just keep giving myself to it?
Track 1: I agree with everything you just said. I might say that as I definitely believe in embracing pain and running, going toward it. And I, I think you, you basically said the same thing just now that there's an aversion to it.
I think it's, um, it's one of my kind of really why I write so much about death. I feel like it's, it's inevitable. we're gonna lose our loved ones. Many of us have lost loved ones and if we haven't, we will soon. I mean, it's just part of life and somehow I rather embrace it and go toward it.
'cause I just feel like pain and everyone has so much pain in their life. To be human is to experience pain And to acknowledge it, I think is so much part of . The path to our own humanity because if we can acknowledge it in ourselves, then I think it helps us understand the people around us. Every, everybody's suffering from something.
I mean, it's a sad truth, but it's true. it's the
Kate Shepherd: And it's by design. I think there's even, you know, I'm, I'm not being . Being Pollyanna about like, well, there's a gift in everything, but there really is, you know, I remember when I had my, both of my children and I was like, at the precipice of like, planning their births right? And, you know, do you wanna schedule a c-section?
Do you wanna have drugs or not? Do you wanna, and I wasn't trying to be like a warrior or anything, but I had this very deep knowing that the pain in childbirth was a, I mean, a very important part of that path for me. That I didn't want to numb it if I at all, possibly. And I was lucky enough to manage to deliver them both without having any interventions at all.
I didn't do any drugs or anything like that. And many people can't. And there's, I, there's no judgment. Like if my births had gone on for one more hour, there would've been medical interventions, , like, I just wanna say that. But the idea that we go into things with an, with open arms to feeling pain. I mean, even if, right.
However, that ends up. I think makes the thing less painful and also opens you to a deeper understanding of what's happening and deeper connection. And you can really have a moment with reality. You can really have a moment with life, and it is all fleeting. Like you say, like it's not just our loved ones that are, we're gonna go to , like, and we don't know how to, we don't, we
don't know how to face that.
But I think once we start to, and we can do that through the, I mean, creativity offers us a daily way of, you know,
breaking us, you know, the rejections and the, the dry spells and the bad novels and the terrible paintings and the, I mean, there's a part of, there's an invitation to die and suffer in all of it.
And it's also beautiful.
Track 1: I love what you just said, and I find that a lot of my fictional characters start up being rather repressed. They don't know what they really think
people who need to figure out what they're feeling. And I think that is our journey as humans
Kate Shepherd: So you're in the, I want, I want people to have this sort of image of you where you are right now. You're in this like wood paneled, quaint New Hampshire cabin by the beach, revising your, your novel
Track 1: Yes, we're just on a short vacation in New Hampshire, which is a beautiful state. It has lots of rolling hills. I live in Washington, DC or just, just right outside it. And, uh, we're on a lake and I love swimming, so I'm totally enjoying that part of it. But, um, in, in the basement of this rental cabinet, trying to revise my second novel
So it's actually really lovely.
Kate Shepherd: what's it like now after, after those 20 years of being choiceless or choiceless, making the choice to keep writing and, um,
and, and, persevering, whether, you know, it was happening in quotes happening or not.
To have the success, to have the book published and now to have another one coming and to be, you know, on this vacation and revising it and what's, where are you with all that? What does that feel like for you?
Track 1: I mean, it feels like a miracle. I, you know, , I just felt struck by lightning. Um, three Muses won a publisher's prize, it's been well reviewed and welcomed really beautifully into the world.
And I think the thing that has made me most kind of overwhelmed is going to book groups. I love going to book groups. I will tell your audience that anybody can get in touch with me. going to book groups has been amazing where you can have these one-on-one conversations with readers and it's just a miracle, wait.
They're talking about my characters or I went to one book or where somebody, they got into a huge argument about, you know, something in the novel and I was like, oh my God, they're arguing about my characters. It's amazing. . So I love it. I've had a great time. Um, I think that . Authors in general. I, I, I include myself in this.
The, the promotion side of it can be, daunting and challenging I just cannot believe that I was lucky enough to get a second novel except it for publication.
It's just unbelievable. I'm still pinching myself. There's really no other way to say it. It feels like a miracle. .
I, I do wanna say that that part of what I'm also thinking a lot about this year, is a lot of, you know, how do we pay it forward? So I'm doing a lot of speaking with younger authors. I've always done a lot of mentoring in my life, but, you know, people whose books are, are getting published behind mine or who are seeking publication, you know, I do, I've done a lot, a lot of, um, support to the extent that I can have time and then I can be helpful.
I do a lot of that 'cause I think that's part of appreciating
the fact that I finally got
a book out.
Kate Shepherd: I know from my own teaching I teach art a lot and I learned so much from . People who, you know, say that they've never painted
anything or never done. I mean, I, they teach me, sometimes I'm on my knees, I'm just like, oh my God, I can't believe that. Like, you know, we, we do learn from that
exchange too, right?
Track 1: I think we are lifelong learners and I just
feel that that's so true.
Kate Shepherd: I
wanted to go back to something that we touched on a little bit before, which is your past with music. I had read a little bit about your mentor Max, who, taught you three lessons that I really, really loved. , and I wondered if you would tell us a little bit about those.
Track 1: Max Aronoff was my, beloved, beloved music viola teacher in Philadelphia where I grew up on the east coast of the United States. he taught me pretty much everything that you need to know in the world. The first is that the music is in the rests . This is a profound concept and duet for one, is hugely about the music is in the rests.
If you think about it, any piece of music, you are, the pauses in the music is an absolute necessity. If you didn't, it's like it's where you breathe. If you didn't have those spaces, you wouldn't be able to hear the music, you wouldn't be able to control the time in the music. It's just a really, really important concept, and it's so powerful that I'm still trying to figure out what it means.
But I think we've actually been talking about it, you know, where we must pause from our work. We have to, pace ourselves. There's a lot of different ways to interpret the music as in the rest. And rhythm is everything to a musician. if the rhythm is off, it's sort of like a, it's sort of like dusting, you know, it, you dust, nobody notices, but if you don't dust.
but, it's that way if the rhythm is off, the piece doesn't work. , his second piece of advice was, break things apart into component parts and work on each part incrementally. And that is like one of the most important things I think, for writing.
So what that meant in his studio was rather than playing a piece at your lesson, every lesson was about how to practice.
I went to law school after that and I just felt like, okay.
This isn't gonna be a problem for me. I mean, law school's a lot of work, but it was all about, you know, taking one step at a time and not, not waiting till the end to do everything 'cause you can't. And, it's still how I do anything. You know, we talked about how do to write a novel and I said start in the middle, which I agree with.
You know, you only do it piece by piece basically. That's the only, that's the way we have to do things. nothing comes out whole, And then the third is practice, practice, practice. Which is definitely what I feel. I feel that you use the word muscle, I also use that word.
Writing is a muscle and it needs to be strengthened. repetition is hugely a part of how humans learn. practice, practice, practice is really a discipline element. So all of those
Kate Shepherd: Mm-hmm.
Track 1: to me.
Kate Shepherd: ,I think, a lot of people, myself included, have experienced, for the practice, practice, practice part, real kind of, um, disappointment and even maybe some paralyzed stuff going on when what you're practicing sucks.
Like the first things that, you know, that novel that you wrote that sucked, or the painting I just did the other day where I was like, oh, that's, it looked so different in my, in my heart, , you know, or whatever. The, my, I remember my son
who's 11 now, and he was learning trumpet and it was, he was terrible.
He was so frustrated and he wanted to, he actually would cry himself to sleep. He's like, I'm quitting, I'm quitting, I'm quitting. And he got through it, and now he's amazing. , we, there's an aversion to going through the hard part of the practice, like, and when you're writing, it's right there looking at you, right?
Like, it's like a, somehow it's like permanent or it's like you meant it, or look, we can't just let ourselves
do it and
throw it away, or, because I think there was great value in the novel
that you wrote that you say, I don't know if it was good or bad, I didn't read it, but you're saying it wasn't good, so we'll take you at your word.
But I think there was great value in that because just energetically, I could almost see . If you were like a pipe and creativity was trying to come through or a channel and creativity was trying to come through and it was blocked, you know, let's get it out, and that was the sludge. And then now it has, it has
room to let like
the brighter stuff come through.
Like there is value even in the crappy stuff. What would you say to somebody who's listening to this going, yeah, but I just can't get, get over myself, or I can't get, I can't let myself make crappy stuff. It's just too uncomfortable.
Track 1: I usually quote the Malcolm Gladwell theory of 10,000 hours. We don't ask our brain surgeons to, or our doctors, they're not born being a doctor. They have to go to school and they have to go to med school.
Then they have to do clinical practice. They have to be trained. So why should it be that anything else isn't that way? You, you can't, it, you just have to go from A to B to C to D. It's just, so, it's pretty obvious now that I'm kind of on this end of it, and I think I still have, you know, I'm maybe a B at most, you know, I still feel like a beginning writer.
I think, you know, it's just anything that is. It ha any sort of expertise that you wanna develop is gonna take a long time. I mean, think about great chefs. I mean, they all talk about some of the greatest chefs talk about, well, I spent my time in my grandmother's kitchen and she'd let me, you know, or I think my kids are both great bakers.
My younger daughter like to like, stand over the stove and like put egg yolks in our hands and like goo them around and drop 'em on the floor. I'm like, oh my God. But you know what? She's a great
baker .And because I think she went that phase, you know, so I I just feel like it's, uh, the arts are no different.
That's why I'm so maniacal about discipline. There's no reason you should be born knowing how to do this. You have to learn it.
Kate Shepherd: a hundred percent. I totally think so. I wanted to ask you for the person who's listening to this, who, and maybe I'm asking for me, I don't know, but has a writer living them, in them, uh, who wants to write a book, but they really don't know where to start. And I You did say start in the middle, but maybe just in terms of like,
like actually just getting it going, what would you say?
Like, should they like, come up with an idea? What's a, what's just a good, should they be practicing something? What are some practical things that somebody could do to just get that going?
Track 1: are co a few practical things. I have a wonderful mentor in Washington. I take prompt classes with her. In a prompt is basically a word that makes you wanna do something. So you can always invite your own prompts. You can get up every morning or afternoon whenever you do this and write about something that's in your house of work or a lamp or a, just write a thing about it.
Don't edit yourself. Just let it go. So those are, those are exercises that writers use. Prompts are readily available online. you can also, there are really a gazillion what are called generative writing workshops. Generative means you're in there to . Figure out how to get started and do something rather than get something edited.
And every community and every, there's a million online communities, you know, allow for some simple, low stress, low barrier, no barrier classes. Like I, we have the writer center in Washington, dc I, I'm sure there's several of these in Vancouver. I mean, they're, they're all over. But also with internet, you can do this remotely where you're just in a classroom and a teacher will say, write about a table, or Here's a poem.
How does that inspire you? No, no editing. Just get it on the paper. Just do it. Don't, don't think, just do it. other prompts, you know, particularly for you, 'cause you, you're a painter, is, you know, go to the website of some museum and look at a painting and just write about it. describe. You know, a character that you just wanna make up or then I, you know, I've seen people pick random words, like, and just put them in one place and say, you have to do something with these words.
So it's a lot about getting the juices going?
and it, it's, it's really the athlete warming up. It's the same idea, doing your stretches or whatever you would do if you're gonna go for a run,
Kate Shepherd: I love it. I'm gonna try some of those things. I've really enjoyed this conversation with you like so, so much. Really.
Track 1: Me.
Kate Shepherd: Where can people go to find your work? Where's the best place to go? And if they're, if we're listening to this today and we're like, okay, I wanna read her book and then I wanna invite her to my book club, where can they go to do that? What's the best place
Track 1: my website is the same as my name, Martha an toll.com, and there's a link by the book. My book, three Muses is available. any online book seller, meaning Amazon, I like bookshop.org because it's a competitor to Amazon, any bookstore can order it. And i, think that's true in Canada as well. so if your bookstore doesn't have it or your library doesn't have it, they, they shouldn't have any problem ordering and that information is all on my website.
, the second thing is there's a book club. discussion guide on my website under the book tab. And third of all, I think that my, my website has my email on it, how to contact me to come to your book group. And, I really, really mean this. I cannot mean it more sincerely, like I would really appreciate this, in the United States.
I don't know the Canadian system, but you can go to any public library and ask your public library and to buy the book for the library. A fair number of libraries have my book. that's another suggestion. I always like to make a little plug for independent bookstores because we want our local bookstores to stay in
Kate Shepherd: Absolutely. That was great. And I'm gonna put a summary of that all in the show notes so people can, don't worry about writing that down. As you're listening, you can just go and I'll, I'll summarize all that for you. 'cause I'm gonna go to my librarian and see and then I'll, if not, I'll ask them to do that
Thank= you. I wanted to ask you what the next, do you have, like as you're writing, you've got first book is out and then second book is percolating and almost done, and is there a third thing that's kind of waiting in the wings that you're feeding as well?
I have a third project that I've been working on for a couple of years that's taking up a lot of Headspace and not quite ready to talk about it, but I have a first draft that I'm sharing with some readers. And for me the challenge is, um, making the brain space to think about two novels at once.
I'm not great at that, so I have to do that sequentially.
Yeah, I can imagine that would be part of the. Uh, breaking it down into the component parts. And because it is compartmentalizing like you belong here. And, and another idea comes Okay, we'll park you over here for now. It's like, almost like kittens . Yeah.
I have one final question for you today, which is the billboard question. So, at the end of every episode, I ask my guest to think about if they had a billboard that they could put anything on that they knew had some sort of magical power to really reach all of the people out there in the world who long to have this connection with creativity, with creative intelligence, with flow states and inspiration and, you know, letting things that, what, what's trying to come out of them, come out of them.
But for whatever reason, I know there's a lot of them. We have all these limiting beliefs around who, what creativity is, who it's for, how it has to look, how it has to sound, how it has to feel, you know, and we, we get, we make ourselves really small with it. But if your billboard message was gonna inspire people to feel safe to, to just begin to dip their toe into that water, what would you, what would you put on that billboard?
Well, I guess I have two messages. One is to be human, is to be creative. I deeply believe that. And so we all possess that. And the second thing is I
it's all about love and put some love out in the world. And I think creativity will return to you.
You are an absolutely delightful human being. I'm so, I have no idea. I, I feel like somebody out to me from your team to have you on the show and Yeah,
and I just, like, I and I'm a gut feeling like I don't use this anymore. Like my brain, I'm pointing to my brain. I don't use that like hardly at all for these things.
It's all gut. And my gut was just like, yes. And I had no idea what to expect. But you're delightful and I would love to stay in touch with you. Yeah. I loved
I don't know about you, but I feel like Martha. Shared so many things that can only be known. After going through what she went through in those 20 years of rejection after rejection.
One of my big takeaways from this episode was of course, how music is in the rests. That is something that is so easy to forget. You know, we need to breathe. We need to pause. We need to, there need to be seasons in our creative output. The rests are just as beautiful. As the productive times. We just have to look at them that way.
I love that she'll. Come to your book club. If you read her book and you invite her to your book club, I want to hear about it. So please make sure you drop me a line. And let me know if you do that.
I love her focus on gratitude and paying forward. What she's learned. Mentoring. Uh, others who are behind her on the path. That really is a a critically important part of our success in anything, not just in creative endeavors.
As I mentioned at the top of the show, I'm doing these activating intuition and creativity workshops. The feedback I've been getting on them. Isn't just like what a great workshop, thumbs up. It's like paragraphs from participants about what their experience being in the workshop was like, they really are transformative. Powerful. And it's my honor to pay forward what I know in that way. So again, I invite you to sign up either as a one-off on Kate shepherd, creative.com or sign up for the colorful community tier on the creative genius patron. And join us.
Finally from me today.
Martha shared. I don't hear a lot of people talking about. I
. Was how sometimes the best place to start is in the middle. When we sit down to begin a painting or a chapter or a song or anything that we're creating or doing. The possibilities of where we can go or endless and wanting to create the perfect start. We can get kind of caught up in our heads, believing that if we don't create the perfect start. It won't go where we want it to go. Or it won't go in a good direction or it won't be good. . You know that everything rests on this, on the start. And I love the freedom of. Starting in the middle and just going from there and seeing where it takes you and moving all over the place. I want to leave you with this thought today.
What if you were to allow yourself To do the thing that you love to do the most that you yearn to do the most that's been calling you. . To start that thing right in the middle. Wherever you are right now. And just keep. Going.