Thursday, December 30, 2010

Never Quit Your Day Job

by Susan Cushman

The optional topic for this round of posts is: “What job(s) do you covet besides being a writer?” I’ve had fun just mulling this over in my head for the past few weeks, and also reading the other authors’ posts here. I thought about what jobs I’d like to do if I wasn’t writing, and (don’t laugh) the two that came to mind are: literary agent and bartender. But since I have no experience in either of those fields, I thought I should write about something that was actually a part of my life when I was younger. (Wait for it.... it's coming soon....)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Sonny Brewer read from and talk about the new anthology he edited, Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit, which includes essays by some of my favorite writers, like Pat Conroy, Tom Franklin, Cassandra King, and A Good Blog’s very own Joshilyn Jackson! (Sonny joined me and two of my writing group buddies for lunch at Ajax on the square afterwords, which was a real treat!) 

What didn’t surprise me about the book was the way each author’s voice seemed to flow so naturally from their life’s work onto their “assigned” chapter, their contribution to the collection. There was no gap in the quality of their literary prose, or humor, or noir, or whatever gifts they brought to the table. What did surprise me was the significance of the work that each author did (some before and some during their careers as writers) and its contribution to the lake that we all feed, as Madeleine L’Engle said. (Read some excerpts from the book on Lemuria Book Store's blog.)

Delivering pizzas, frying chicken, singing in honky-tonks, teaching school, selling underwear (and writing legal briefs), cutting wood, farming the land, driving garbage trucks, and delivering the mail aren’t just fodder for the writers’ “real work”—they are real work. Some writers don’t ever get to quit their day jobs, but even those that do have been shaped and formed by everything they did before. And so it is with this emerging writer’s path.

We got our first television set when I was five years old. I grew up watching TV and movies much more than reading books. By the third grade I knew I wanted to be a movie star—or a Broadway actress. Mrs. Tennyson, my third grade teacher, trampled on that dream when she gave the part of the princess to Jan McMillan. I remember it like it was yesterday:

“Please let me be the Princess. You know I can say the lines—I was the best narrator in the Christmas play! You said so yourself.”

“Yes, and in this play, the Witch has the most lines of all the characters.”

“But, what about the Princess? I thought she was the star!”

“Oh, no—all she really does is smile and wave her wand.”

Jan McMillan was perfect for that role, with her long, wavy blond hair and pre-pubescent Barbie doll smile. Her only flaw was that her teeth were slightly too large for her mouth. An eight-year-old Farrah Fawcett dressed in a beautiful taffeta gown with sparkly sequins. But she’s not the star. The witch is the star, right? (Joan Didion wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a writer. She said it’s the same impulse—make believe, performing.)

I went on to become student director of our fifth grade class’s saga about the Civil War (in which I also danced in a ballroom scene) but I couldn’t help but be jealous of Jen Maddox’s role as the slave girl who got a solo part in the  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” number. In high school I played Rebecca Gibbs to my brother’s lead role as George Gibbs (Rebecca’s older brother in the play) in “Our Town.” Although the part was small, there was this one scene, this magical moment in the spotlight, when I got to say some of the most important philosophical lines in the play. We were standing on a ladder that represented George’s upstairs bedroom window in the Gibbs family’s house in Grover’s Corners. We were pretending to look out the window at the moon and the stars when I told George about a letter my friend, Jane, once received. I (in the role of Rebecca) recounted the entire mailing address on the envelope, increasing the volume and intensity of my voice as I spoke:

Just think! The letter was addressed to “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”

And then it was over—my acting career, that is. I married young (barely nineteen—we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary this past June) and went to work to put my husband through medical school. Over the next four decades I kept trying to find my voice, writing and editing newsletters, publishing a trade magazine for architects and builders, and eventually studying Byzantine iconography. For about eight years I painted icons using egg tempera and gold leaf, doing commissioned pieces and teaching workshops in this ancient style of liturgical art. Icons are actually written—because they tell the life of the saint whose image is portrayed, but in color, rather than with words. I was on my way to becoming a writer, even before I knew it.

 In 2006 I met Cassandra King Conroy, Lee Smith, Beth Ann Fennelly, Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed all in one life-changing weekend at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Memphis. Over the next three months I wrote my first novel. (It’s on a shelf, for possible resurrection later.) Then I began to attend writers’ workshops and conferences. I submitted my work to critique groups, and finally began to send out essays to various literary journals and magazines. Within two years I had eight published essays and was on my third try at writing a book, a memoir that time. (It’s permanently on a shelf. Its healing work is done.)

And so I find that I bring all those “day jobs” with me to my work as a writer. My novel-in-progress features an orphan who escapes an abusive cult and becomes a graffiti writer (yes, that’s also called writing), an Abstract Expressionist artist from the 1950s New York School, and a fifth century Egyptian prostitute who becomes a canonized saint. (Her icon will also play a significant role in the story. That's a detail of an icon I painted of St. Mary of Egpyt, at right.) Oh, and two minor characters include a photographer and a newspaper reporter. Each character has a bit of the actress, the dancer, the artist, in her. Nothing is lost from all those “day jobs”—I take them all with me into my stories. And I suppose that most writers do this.  Now that my kids are grown (and I have two grands!) and my husband’s career is peaking, writing is my day job. But if I had never played all those other parts along the way, my characters would be much less colorful. So, in a sense, I guess I never quit my day job—drawing characters from real life. Whether or not you are a writer, what would your "dream day job" be? I'd love to hear your hopes and aspirations. Happy New Year, everyone!

Sonny Brewer and Susan in Oxford.

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 Life,  and several other journals and magazines. In 2011, 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 of 2010 by Awarding the Web. She was co-director (with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes) of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference this past November in Oxford, Mississippi. Her first (monthly) guest post will appear on Jane Friedman’s Writers’ Digest blog, “There Are No Rules,” on January 7, 2011. She is currently writing a novel and a nonfiction book.


K. Harrington said...

You make such a great point about how the experiences we've had help breathe live into our characters. Excellent post! And BTW, your novel-in-progress sounds very intriguing! Can't wait to hear more about it.

ficwriter said...

I loved Day Job and have had the pleasure of meeting Sonny a couple of times, once in New Orleans and then again in Baton Rouge.

I'm thrilled you stumbled on your calling with the best of writers, but I could definitely see you as an actress, too.

Hope you have a wonderful new year. I look forward to reading more of your stories.

Karin Gillespie said...

Wonderful post Susan,

Peggy Webb said...

Did we have the same childhood? I was in all the stage plays, too... fodder for future novels.

Anna Michaels said...

Loved this post, Susan.

c.a. Marks said...

Lovely. I remember when I was quite young and watching my first ever OSCAR show and seeing all those beautiful people accepting their awards, I remember thinking, "I wanna do that!!!" I've always harbored a secret desire to act (or sing the blues even though I can't carry a tune to save my life). LOL. I even took an acting class last year.

River Jordan said...

Lovely Post. Just loved it. Thanks for sharing with such thought and detail.