By Doug Owen
Cameron Miller is a gentle giant whose outlook on life has taken him on a wonderful journey. I can say my life is enriched by the simple communications I’ve had with this man. Instead of telling you, let’s look through the steam to catch a small glimpse of what powers this highly-caring and giving individual.
IM: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
CM: I grew up at the edge of a college campus in a rustbelt city in Indiana, the American heartland, squeezed between progressive and conservative ideas and values, in a family that cherished education, reading, and history. All of that propelled me forward as I left home, majoring in philosophy at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. After graduation, I spent time doing odd jobs in Boston, and then working as a therapy aid in a mental health unit back in Saratoga. On suicide watch with an adolescent patient one evening, I realized if I were a minister instead of a therapist—which was the direction I had been thinking about—that instead of knowing that kid in my office one hour a week, I would likely know his whole family and see them in a variety of social contexts. It motivated me to explore seminary— although I entered The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts with great hesitation and the expectation it wouldn’t turn out well. But more than three decades later, after serving congregations in Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Vermont, it has turned out very well.
In 2013, I left fulltime parish ministry to spend time writing about what I have learned and finding creative ways to share it. While writing novels and poetry, I also published a website devoted to what I call “religion-less Christianity,” and it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people around the world.
IM: Why did you start writing?
CM: Some people hear music in their head and they compose songs. I have stories in my head and they want to get out. I am a preacher by training (although my colleagues prefer the more refined title of “reverend”) and I would catch myself writing sermons in such a way that I could tell a story. I decided it would be good to find another outlet.
IM: When did you start writing?
CM: I had a sabbatical about twenty years ago and decided to write a book. I found a little office not too far from my house that I could bike to, and planned to write each morning until about noon. It was as if I fell into a magic spell and never wanted to come out. Mid-day would arrive and the next thing I knew, it was four or five in the afternoon. It turned out to be a pretty awful book, but the experience planted a niggling little whisper in my brain: “Are you a preacher that writes or a writer that preaches?”
IM: What was your original book called? What was it about?
CM: The Hunger that Nourishes. I still like that title a lot and in some ways, The Steam Room Diaries ventures into the same subject area as that first effort, only with fiction and through stories. It was about learning from our dark angels and the wisdom resident in our woundedness.
IM: What do you usually write?
CM: I’ve probably written three thousand sermons. I write them out because, if I didn’t use a text, there is no telling what would come out of my mouth—honest, that would be a high-risk proposition. In addition to drawing on stories, I use poetry and am a lover of contemporary poetry. In the last couple of years, I have been writing poetry for publication as well, with six poems published this year.
IM: The Steam Room Diaries: how did you come to write this novel?
CM: You would not believe the intimate stories I have heard from perfect strangers. I don’t know what it is about my demeanor, but people just start talking to me, and often unsolicited. I decided to write about some of those stories when suddenly, unintentionally, what I was writing wanted to be fiction. Literally, I found myself writing a novel in spite of myself and grudgingly ‘let go’ to see what would happen. I had never written fiction before and hadn’t planned to, but Steam Room insisted on a life of its own.
IM: What was your inspiration?
CM: Imagine if you had a friend who had wrestled with all the personal struggles you keep secret, and was willing to tell you what he or she learned from them? Steam Room Diaries is full of stories that give the reader a new lens to suddenly see the corners of their life in a whole new light—and that was my hope all along.
IM: Is there any truth to the stories?
CM: Who said, “I don’t know if it really happened or not, but I do know it is true”? What I would say is every story in Steam Room Diaries is true, even if it didn’t actually happen and even though the characters are purely fictional.
IM: Will you be writing another book soon?
CM: I’m deep into it right now, and again, the doggone thing has taken off and is leading me by the nose. I’m curious to see where it is taking me.
IM: What advice would you give to a younger you who was thinking about writing?
CM: Do it earlier, write every day, and keep writing. Even if it is only for half an hour, find a way to carve out time and make it happen. I wish I had taken a more traditional route to writing, like getting an MFA and participating in summer workshops, etc.
IM: Any regrets about your first publication?
CM: Not yet! Oh, well, maybe that I hadn’t done this fifteen years ago and already written several more.
IM: Tell us how you felt when the work was accepted for publication.
CM: Absolutely giddy. You know what the process is like, sending out your baby to strangers and never hearing back from some and stacking up the rejections from others. Although I received a number of positive responses from publishers who took the time to give me feedback and affirm the MSS even though not for their collection, it was still an arduous and gruelling process. Everything writers say about it is true.
IM: What has been the best and worst part of the publishing experience?
CM: So far, the worst is the search for a publisher, It is such a lonely and uncertain process after the utter privilege and joy of having time to write a novel. Even the editing—which is not my idea of a good time—was at least interesting and a valuable learning for my current writing projects. I think the best part has been the real excitement of people who have known me professionally and personally, and their desire to read it.
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