Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting Saved, Sex, and Writing by Susan Cushman

This is my fourth post at A Good Blog. When Kathy took over from Karin, she asked all of us to “re-introduce ourselves,” which is a great idea for those who have been posting for a long time. But, since I gave my introduction with 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.”

I’m still waiting to hear back from those, and hoping they won’t both join the growing stack of rejections beside my computer. (Like the ones in the photo, at right, from the Oxford American, The Sun, and others.)

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.”

I don’t always enjoy writing. (That's my tiny corner desk area, at right. It used to be a closet.) But when I write well, I enjoy finding a home for my words, as Kazin said, “in others’ minds.” Yes, I love having my work published, even on my blog, “Pen and Palette.” I have celebrated each time one of my essays has found a home in a literary journal or magazine, either in print or online. And I love it when I receive feedback from readers who understand the life I’m trying to share with them. I can hardly wait to see the chapter I contributed to an upcoming anthology on Southern women and spirituality in print. (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.

When and if my novel-in-progress ever finds a publishing home and makes it way onto the shelves of bookstores and into the minds of readers, I hope that they will celebrate with me.  I hope they will say my words are well written. But more importantly, I hope they will embrace my characters and join me in the river of shared life. In the meanwhile, I’ll be here at my keyboard, doing what I do, and hopefully, doing it well. (That's my storyboard, on the wall by my computer.)

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”

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist), First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Lifeskirt! 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.


Karin Gillespie said...

Wonderful post, Susan. I have no doubt yout rejections will soon be turning into acceptances. Thanks for sharing this and your great pics. I love the one of you with the spray can.

Emma Connolly said...

I love your words, Susan. Writing is solitary, as u say, and that is one reason why I love it so. I am an introvert, but that is only 1 reason why I am drawn to it. I think every writer has some childhood experience that as bad as it seemed at the time, was actually one of the agents that propel us forward. That abusive teacher is 1 of your driving forces - I had one that pushed my desk back so hard it hit the wall, in 4th grade, so I shut my mouth until I graduated high school! Who are those folks who lit the fires to keep putting those words out there?

Carol Marks said...

So inspiring! Thanks for posting this. Oh and we like some of the same authors... LOVE Elizabeth Berg too. :-) You make me want to get back to my novel too.

Peggy Webb said...

Susan, I see from the photo of your office that we share a love of Story People - "There are days I drop comfort on myself like falling rain & remember it is enough to be taken care of by my self." (Brian Andreas) And Elizabeth Berg is just as fantastic in person as she is on paper.

Debra Marrs said...

Sweet, sweet, sweet experience of you, Susan. I feel like we've just sat down to a friendly chat on all things writing. I'm a sucker for motivational writing quotes, and your sprinkling of them through your post kept me reading and enjoying getting to know you better too. Excited for you and your ongoing writing successes!

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks to Karin, Emma, Carol, Peggy and Debra for your sweet comments.

Peggy: I met Elizabeth Berg in January and yes, she is a class act. The real thing. Love ALL her books, too.

Karin: Fortunately 8 of my essays have been published, so those rejection slips don't upset me any more. I just keep on writing and sending 'em out there!

julie said...

I love the title of this blog - it really caught my attention, except I substitute making art for writing.All three of these activities involve connections. We all desire in our hearts and our souls to be connected, and I can feel this in your words. May the powers that be bring you to the publishers who understand this.

Julie Stanek

Herman King said...

Great post SuSu, I was just thinking about how far we have come since our little group met at Ole Miss. We have a ways to go (miles to go before we sleep) but the words come easier. You know that Larry Brown is one of my writing heros and Larry said writing is like learning to lay brick. You have to do the work and each course will make you better. If you don't love to lay brick you are not going to keep doing it. I just had two glasses of red wine and I don't know it this makes any sense...if it doesn't drink two glasses of red wine and call me in the morning.

Anonymous said...

When I read the above, I want only to repeat to you your own immortal words, "Go for it Susan!". And also to say to you, from this angle, in midst of being continually entertained by all you do(when did you put on the hoodie and write graffiti and WHY was I not included?)and loving your writing, "Susan, you yourself are the best work of art." Daphne Davenport

Augusta Scattergood said...

Excellent, inspirational post. And the same for the comments. I'm particularly enjoying pondering the Bricklayer reference. I believe writing fiction needs a lot more foundation work than anything else I've attempted. Hard, hard work, but great joy in the finish.

Anonymous said...

Joy in the finish--Amen! With a few under my belt, I keep hoping to have the readers to justify the hours, and, yes, the expense of the indulgence for my own sake in a search for those connections mentioned above. If it hadn't been for a serendipitous intro to a great website that prints my essays, I think I would have given up. Essays are relaxation compared to fiction and poetry.
Onward, and all my (useless) best wishes!

Laura said...

your story board is so tempting. I can't wait to read your novel!

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River Jordan said...

Now everyone has seen your cool space for creative content. Now everyone will be expecting great things! Good look on the essays - and I finding the inner cave for the novel to thrive.