Sunday, November 13, 2011

I Will Not Climb on the Roof

by Susan Cushman

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. The first money-making opportunity I remember was in fourth grade. My sixth-grade brother talked me into climbing on the roof of the school with him to collect baseballs to sell. It would have been a great idea, except that when we were climbing down I jumped onto the catwalk that connected the main building to the temporary classrooms and broke a hole clear through the tin roof. I landed on the sidewalk, but fortunately only sprained my ankle. I don’t remember selling the baseballs, but I do remember staying after school every day for a week writing “I will not climb on the roof” over and over for an hour. And my parents made us use our “fair money” to pay for the roof repair. I think that’s the year I started thinking that boyfriends were a good idea for things like the fair.

Another job my brother and I did together (still in elementary school) was selling used Christmas trees after they were tossed out of the classrooms when the holidays started. Mike and I would pull the old tinsel off of them and set up our own Christmas tree stand with great prices for used trees a week before Christmas. It’s amazing how many people wait ‘til the last minute.

In fifth and sixth grades I canvassed the neighborhood selling personalized Christmas cards for the Friendly Card Company. Easiest money I ever made—just took the orders, made the deliveries a few weeks later and collected up to $500 a season. That’s when I realized that the money was in sales.

By junior high school I had moved on up to selling lottery tickets. Well, I don’t know exactly what you call what I was doing, but there was this company (how on earth did I find this pre-internet days?) that would offer all sorts of items—transistor radios, watches—to people who would sell chances to win them. I was selling these tickets at school when the principal found out and called me into his office and threatened to call the police. (Worse than that, he threatened to kick me off the cheerleading squad.) I never did find out if it was illegal or just against school rules. But I got some cool junk before they made me quit.

My sales career ended with a Christmas season of working in the children’s clothing section of a department store while I was in high school. Minimum wage (I was 16) and boring boring boring. That’s when I knew I needed to be doing something more creative.

At Ole Miss I typed (and edited and ghost wrote a few) papers for other students, for which I charged different rates, depending upon the amount of editing/writing they wanted. This was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Or an editor. It almost didn’t matter what the subject was. The joy of putting those words together on the page (I even like to type) and making the piece look good got under my skin.

During the early years of our marriage I worked as a medical secretary to put my husband through medical school. This was the least rewarding work I ever did. Science just doesn’t interest me, and transcribing medical reports and dealing with insurance companies was definitely not my cup of tea.

That's me, middle left, in the black and blue checks.
I took a detour in the early '80s to run an aerobic dance studio (yes I was that girl--see photo at right) where I "had the time of my life" but didn't do any writing. But choreographing aerobic dance routines and inspiring women to live healthier lifestyles while struggling with my own warped body image and eating disorders definitely informed my future writing projects.

Newsletters caught my interest next, and I produced several for corporate businesses, and even served a year as newsletter editor for the Memphis branch of the Society for Technical Communication. On the non-profit side, I produced our church’s first newsletter, for about 15 years, for which I also did most of the photography and the layout.

By the early to mid 1990s, I was back on the entrepreneurial track—this time publishing a trade magazine for builders and architects. (see left) This was probably one of the most valuable experiences I had in the publishing world, since I did almost all of the work of putting together each (monthly) issue—writing most of the articles, selling all the ads, going on photo shoots and helping set up the shots—but I still wanted something more. I wanted to be telling stories, not selling houses and products.

In the early 2000s I followed a spiritual path, studying the ancient liturgical Byzantine art of iconography, mostly at Orthodox monasteries around the country. I learned to write (which is what painting icons is called, because you are writing the life of the saint with color) icons and then did commissioned pieces and taught workshops for a few years. I officially “retired” from iconography a couple of years ago to focus exclusively on my writing.

Looking back, I can see the benefit that each of those “day jobs” has brought to my present work as a writer. My novel is peopled with characters who are as colorful as the real people in the many worlds I have inhabited in sixty years of living. And with the publishing industry the way it is today, it will certainly help to have some background in sales! I’m thankful that my husband “keeps me” (as we say in the South) these days so that I can write full time.

Having done some freelancing (magazine articles) somewhere in this story, writing essays and sending them out for publication came naturally to me, so that’s where I began.  I also wrote a “beginner novel” and two memoirs (which are all on a shelf) while working on those essays. Nine published essays later, I’m finally close to finishing a novel that I would be proud to have published.

Until then, I'll try to learn not to climb on the roof.

Susan Cushman has nine published essays. Cherry Bomb, her novel-in-progress, made the short list in the novel excerpt category for the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition this year. In spring of 2012, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” will appear in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan was Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop in September. She was a guest speaker at the Boulder (Colorado) Writers Workshop in August. Susan blogs at "Pen and Palette." 


Bob Norton said...

Susan, you certainly have had a varied and interesting life, which certainly gives you many experiences to draw on as a writer. Nothing is ever wasted, everything in our lives has brought us to where we are today. Your early sales experiences reminded me of when I was a kid, I liked to collect interesting rocks. Every so often I would try to have a "rock sale" in our front yard. I don't think I ever sold one! My earliest writing experience? Making a nieghborhood "newspaper" and making up flyers that looked pretty real that I would leave in mailboxes, informing nieghbors of events and incidents, and making up stories too. And by the way, I also climbed on my school roof when I was about 9 or 10. I was afraid to come down, and my sister had to run home and carry a ladder back to the school and rescue me! Thanks for sharing Susan, I always enjoy your writing.

Patrick Ross said...

That's a fascinating career path, Susan. Did you ever have to scamper on roofs to track down icons? You had experience with that skill set, if not good experience.

I love reading about how writers found their way to words.

Allegra2006 said...

Susan, your experiences are so varied, and all were necessary for your current writing. We can all think about how OUR experiences are helping us do what we do today.
I remember many years ago I published at home with a mimeograph kit, a little 'newspaper' The Shiver Hill Blast with news of our family of six children to send to our two sets of grandparents and some relatives. That was such a joyful project for me! Such fun...

ficwriter said...

I'm not sure your mantra worked. Seems to me you have continued to "climb on the roof." Adorable post, Susan. Keep climbing.

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Bob, Patrick, Anna Mae and Darrelyn. I especially like Bob's story about trying to sell rocks. What were we thinking? I forgot to write about the beauty parlor I ran (in our carport) in 6th grade... even gave a couple of permanents. I think there were some angry moms when their 12-year-old daughters returned home from my "shop" having spent their allowance:-)

Renea said...

Susan, You remain one of the most fascinating people I've ever met.

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Good Gifts said...

you have a great experience.this is a awesome article.thank you for this article.

Edgardo Berones said...

Hi Susan. Your story is so inspiring that I asked my nieces to read it. Keep up the great job of inspiring us all!

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