Creator Spotlight: CJ Miller
"Emotions are beyond tricky to describe with any satisfaction. I rarely feel that I've done them justice but am compelled to keep unraveling that knot. That is my ultimate writing goal—just to help someone through a rough patch by providing either entertainment or a relatable journey." -CJ Miller
CJ Miller is an immensely talented (yet equally, tragically modest) fiction writer based out of the lovely Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard. There, just off the eastern coast of the US, CJ prefers to stay off the digital grid, as well as the geographical one. We consider ourselves lucky we found her; and we suppose we only have the powerful characters she contrives to thank for that.
Without social media, CJ's online presence begins and ends in her stories on Vocal. Her work is very personal; and between the custom, distinctly cozy imagery her family creates for each Vocal story, to the real life experiences she weaves through her emotionally-intelligent prose, every aspect of CJ's work feels close to home.
We're honored that CJ was willing to sacrifice a bit of the online anonymity she's maintained to this point. With this #VocalSpotlight, we'd like to invite the Vocal community in on the secret that is CJ Miller—the writer whose words couldn't whisper.
On Herself, Her Background, and Lifestyle:
I've never been good at self-summary but I'll give it a go. I grew up in New England and currently live year-round on Martha's Vineyard. That's why I chose to set a couple of my stories here. The Island has a rich history that I hope to explore further. My everyday life is simple and quiet, and so am I. Music, books, and cocker spaniels take up much of my time. I love etymology, too. The irony behind my fondness for words is that I often struggle to say what I mean. It's a work in process, and I'm drawn to the challenge.
On Finding Her Place As a Writer:
I never thought of myself as a writer or even as the creative type. I was more focused on reading and viewed literature as a passive interest. In search of a new hobby, I decided to try my hand at the familiar and began by writing a children's book in rhyme.
I also deal with chronic pain and brain fog and figured this would provide a positive distraction. Sometimes my ability to recall words isn't what it used to be, but we beat on. 🙂
On Writing Fiction:
The majority of my work has been pure fiction, but I definitely pull in details from my past that mean a lot and deserve to see the light of day. A few of my minor characters have been based on real people. Names were changed to protect the guilty. 😉
Fiction appeals to me for two reasons that may contradict each another. I love that we can escape at will or reshape the world as we see fit. Real life isn't as malleable or kind. At the same time, it's only through the veil of fiction that I feel comfortable exposing real pain. That said, I would love to try other genres! You never know until you experiment.
On Her Preferred Tense/Perspective Combos:
I absolutely prefer to write in 1st person, simply because the flow feels most organic. It allows me to see inside the protagonist's mind. Illumination is a prime example of this method. I'm still working on mastering 3rd person, which can feel a little unnatural and distant. I like to be immersed in my stories. That said, some plots are better served by a 3rd person narrative.
In general, I find writing in past tense to be the easiest. It's no different than recollecting.
On How She Creates Story Ideas:
It's different every time. Most of my stories stem from paying close attention to my surroundings. The smallest object or comment can spark an idea. Then I mull it over from there, letting it grow as it sees fit.
I generally start at the end and know exactly where I want my people to end up. It's the beginnings that I find incredibly difficult. First lines will be the death of me, and I'm never sure where a story should jump off from.
On Balancing Dialogue with Inner Monologue:
If I were writing a novel, I would invest more in dialogue. With 2,000 words available in most Vocal challenges, I prefer to examine things through the protagonist's lens so that the reader can get a sense of their journey without too much excess noise. A lot of it comes down to inner monologue.
With Homecoming, I intended to write something more fleshed out but was really short on time. I didn't go back and edit it later because the way it unfolded, which was more sparse than most of my stuff, felt realistic. A teen girl in that situation would jump from one thought to the next, experiencing a variety of emotions in a single day.
I also rely more on physical action than I do explicit dialogue. You can say a lot in a few words if you focus on the ways in which people reach for each other.
Homecoming is an example of how real memories can be mined for inspiration. When I saw the Summer Fiction Series prompt was a green light, I pictured the blinker on my parents' station wagon from the '80s. That was my introduction to ASMR, avant la lettre.
From there, I envisioned a scenario in which a teenager would be relieved to encounter this seemingly minor thing again, how it would come to represent safety. My original idea for her was far more bleak, but I was in need of something semi-uplifting.
On Considering Rhythm in Her Syntax:
I use rhythm to keep up momentum. I'm always driving at a conclusion and try not to meander. Keeping the language tight and on course helps me to do the same with the plot. I try really hard to vary my word choice within a story so that things don't get stale, and this awareness forces me to keep the beat in mind as I swap out terms.
I'm constantly reading my work aloud at a fast pace to see if it flows. If something trips me up, I change it. My goal is to make the reader's experience as painless as possible so that the message can be the star of the show.
Some stories need to be more lyrical than others to feel authentic. I tailor it to the MC's personality. In Illumination, Eugene was a writer himself, and so I felt I needed to step up my game! I intentionally filled the scenes from his youth with lyrical and vivid description because when you're young, everything hits harder and seems more important. As he matured, I tried to mellow him out a bit. That story was incredibly special to me. 🙂
On Her Summer Fiction Series Winning Piece, “Luis”:
Originally, I only knew that I wanted to write a bullfighting piece set in the past and that I needed the matador to be female to hold my interest. I was really fascinated by what that would look like, how it could possibly happen in a culture with well-defined and proud traditions. I wanted to add enough references to capture the setting's flavor, but ultimately there are universal struggles at play. I also love Hemingway's work and tried to envision these events happening in the world he illustrated so well. That made it easier.
I was busy writing other weekly stories for a long while but turned this one over in my mind at every opportunity. It became clear that Luisa—the name came immediately—would feel such frustration at not being permitted to do what felt natural, especially if she had to watch her brother proceed with no societal barriers.
I like when characters balance each other out and wanted to explore how the same tradition can appeal to one person and completely drain another. I am more like Miguel in this respect, so stepping into Luisa's fight-ready mindset was new.
My mother read me the story of Ferdinand many times as a little kid. In a sense, Miguel became his kindred spirit in human form. I didn't set out with that intention but noticed it afterward and had to laugh. The subconscious usually wins and fills in the gaps I can't.
I quickly realized that gender was a central theme and that it went deeper than male-female sexism. That arc was entirely organic, and I try to let my stories go where they please. Luis/a became real to me and I wanted to tell the story of what transition would possibly entail at that point in history. Obviously it would be quite different in some ways from a modern experience in America. I thought the mother should be both kind and yet unable to relate. That felt most realistic.
The bigotry element added the most realism for me. It would've felt inauthentic to leave it out. I wondered if some would view this story controversial, but I never approached it as such. To me, it's a human experience that deserves to be explored and respected, like any other. I really came to care for this character so much and was determined not to let hatred have the final word. I wrote it very quickly because I'd watched it play out as a movie so many times.
The use of color and fire also spoke to me here and acted as a glue of sorts. I felt both needed to play a part in each phase of the journey.
On Becoming Her Protagonists While Maintaining Her Authorial Voice:
Honestly, I just pretend I'm inside their skin and go from there. It's mostly intuitive. Sometimes I'm surprised by what shows up. I tend to see characters as real people. It's important to me that their voices shine through without too much input from my own personality, which could dilute the experience.
I find that I close my eyes a lot to shut out the external environment and get into character, especially if things aren't going too smoothly. Theatre was my first love, but I never had the proper opportunity to dig into acting. In a way, writing is filling that gap.
On Her Stories' Distinct Illustrations:
A family member has done all of the illustrations for me. We decided it would be a fun summer project to tackle as a team. I usually come up with the ideas and then he executes them while adding his own touches. My hope is that they help to humanize my work and add an old-fashioned, cozy feel.
On Her Goals As A Writer:
Short term, I hope to get better at writing brief pieces that pack a punch. Someday, I would love to complete a mystery novel or produce a series of books for kids. I have several half-baked ideas and find it hard to commit.
On What/Who Inspires Her to Create:
I'm most inspired by the struggles and small happinesses of people I know, and sometimes those I don't know. I'm constantly looking to put a name to pain, joy, and everything in between. Emotions are beyond tricky to describe with any satisfaction. I rarely feel that I've done them justice but am compelled to keep unraveling that knot. That is my ultimate writing goal—just to help someone through a rough patch by providing either entertainment or a relatable journey. So many authors have saved me over the years by making me feel understood.
I'm also inspired by the need to capture authentic emotion and atmosphere. Nostalgia is a big part of my life. So is color. Every movie, song, or book that I've ever adored has stayed with me for the long haul. I can still remember how those works made me feel upon discovery, and I try to recreate that feeling in my stories. For example, if something brought me a sense of great hope in a time of sadness, I will try to get into that frame of mind and then formulate my own tale to match its energy. When I read a piece of beautiful prose, whether it's by someone famous or someone completely unknown, it stirs something in me.
On How Becoming a Vocal Creator Helped to Develop Her Writing Practice:
I'm only just starting to dip my toe into things and this has helped me to become more comfortable with putting myself out there. When I began, I just wanted to go the distance and make it through all of the summer challenges. I had no expectation beyond that, but it has shed some light on my personal process. I'm more aware of my weaknesses and, with any luck, my strengths.
On One of Her Favorite Stories She's Published on Vocal:
I had a lot of fun writing A Bitter Pill.
I love British novels from that golden era and just wanted to play around with its entertaining tropes.
In terms of something more serious, Illumination is probably my favorite. I wanted to know more about Eugene and his family. He really came alive in my mind, and I can only pray a little of that translated to the reader.
Don’t think about it—first thing that comes to mind:
What is one thing you couldn’t live without?
My puppies. The sound of rain is a close second. It's the only thing that calms my nerves. If we're talking something I can hold in my hand, headphones.
Favorite Musical Artist at the moment?
Joni Mitchell. My ears are still stuck in the pre-2000s.
Anything from the '60s or '90s.
followed by Dead Poets Society.
In terms of prose, Pablo Neruda.
When it comes to expressing a powerful message, Maya Angelou.
I have a soft spot for Gatsby.
If I had to select a book that I find infinitely quotable, I'd choose Stranger In A Strange Land.
Favorite/Most Impactful Poem?
The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Cats or dogs?
Dogs! Cats are also adorable, though. 🙂
Favorite travel destination?
Scotland has been calling my name for years. Eventually, I hope to answer.
Day or Night?
Night! A dedicated night owl since birth, that's when I feel most alive.
Favorite local restaurant?
Espresso Love in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
What’s your go-to late night snack?
Hummus 'n' crackers.
What are you currently binge watching?
What are you currently reading?
If you could speak a new language, what would it be and why?
I love the melodic rise and fall of Italian and plan to devote more time to it soon. I have some Italian ancestry and am taken with the country's customs.
I'd also like to expand my knowledge of Latin.
Favorite story you read on Vocal by another Creator?
The Murder Case that Inspired Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express" by Katie Alafdal
This grabbed my interest right away and held it to the end. The writing is wonderful and suits the topic perfectly.
Thanks for chatting with us, CJ! It's interesting how you prefer to keep a healthy distance between yourself and the World Wide Web, yet your work is inviting in every aspect. We're happy to showcase your work properly, and we can't wait to see what else you create.
If you're as big a fan of CJ's work as we are, be sure to frequent her author page—exclusively here on Vocal.
Thanks again, CJ!