my first post in March, “A Novel Idea,” (I hope you’ll read it!) I’ll skip the resume and move on with something a little more intimate—a peek into the soul of a memoirist-turned-fiction-writer.
Yes, my published work at this point consists of eight personal essays—some more intimate than others—but all fitting neatly into the growing genre known as Creative Nonfiction. [Shameless plug: I’m co-director, with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes, of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference this November in Oxford, Mississippi. Terrific author-faculty members, manuscript critique workshops, and pitch fest with agents and publishers!]
My second post for A Good Blog, “A Call For Names,” announced my new project—a novel. It was exciting to receive 22 reader comments on that one… which leads me to my focus for this post: combining the public and private persona as a writer. (Yes, that's me, getting into character to write about Mare, the young graffiti artist in "Cherry Bomb: A novel.")
Since I abandoned my memoir for fiction six months ago, I’ve learned more about the balancing act many writers must perform as they present their public/private sides. As I struggle to get up and above my private past and write it for the public as “art,” I find myself returning again and again to my first love—the personal essay. I just can’t help myself. It’s encouraging that one of my heroes—Anne Lamott—has the same “problem.” She sees the novel as a demanding mistress and escapes to the essay from time to time for a quick fix.
That’s where I am today. Working (slowly) on my novel-in-progress, and returning from time to time to the world of creative nonfiction to pen another personal essay. I recently submitted one to a CNF contest for an upcoming issue with “food”as its theme. My essay wasn’t about cooking. It was about eating. And drinking. And addiction. And then I penned one for a Poets & Writers’s column, “Why We Write.”
So, how’s the novel coming? My friend, River Jordan, has (strongly) encouraged me not to talk about it until I get the first draft done. And I get that. But I don’t have very good boundaries. It’s a carry-over from my history of abuse and addiction. I need the feedback. I thrive on it. When 22 people commented on my “Call For Names” (and even more on Facebook and by email) I was in heaven. I don’t write in a vacuum. I’m pretty transparent. Good or bad, that’s how I am.
My first grade teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, put masking tape over my mouth in an effort to make me quit talking. So I picked up my crayons and drew pictures, and I grabbed my chubby little first grade pencil and began to write. I didn’t know why I was writing, when I was six.
Twentieth century American writer and literary critic, Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) said: “One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time and in others' minds.” This speaks to a commonality I think many writers share—a longing for a place to fit in, to feel at home. Like artists and musicians, writers often step to a different beat, and that has certainly been true for me.
Sure, there are some purists who claim to write only for the love of writing itself. One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Berg, says, “One must be in love with writing…. not with ideas about what to write; not with daydreams about what you're going to do when you're successful. You have to be in love with writing itself, with the solitary and satisfying act of sitting down and watching something you hold in your head and your heart quietly transform itself into words on a page."
But in reality, it’s not always like that for me. Sometimes I’m in the zone, and it’s a high. It’s like Lee Smith says, “I do feel, when I’m writing at a fever pitch, that intensity that you feel when you get saved. There’s nothing else that makes you feel like that. There’s getting saved, sex, and writing.”
(You can get Volume 1 here.) It’s disconcerting that the same man (Kazin) who said we write to make a home for ourselves in other people’s minds also said, “… the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax." Anticlimax to what? Maybe he never knew what it was like to have masking tape put over his mouth by his teacher. Or to be abused by people he trusted.
Postscript: Writers are often asked which books/authors inspire them. Read about my muses in my July Post: “Shadow Books: The River of Shared Life”
The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, skirt! Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Later this year, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s blog, Pen and Palette, was voted one of 50 Top Creative Writing Blogs by Awarding the Web.