Interview with, well, Me

Me.

Me.

Earlier this spring, a young woman named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.

Thank you, Terra!

Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I’m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).

Susie: I do have a writing routine—of sorts. My mantra is, “write first, before everything else.” If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can’t write every day, since I’m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I’m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I’ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date—this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.

T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?

S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar’s lyrics here and there, the truth is I’m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn’t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn’t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks—things that have been hard for me, historically. I’m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.

T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?

S: I love teaching, but it doesn’t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems—not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I’ve been writing for ten years, so that’s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in….

T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?

S: My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that’s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or….I’m not sure what else. I’d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!

T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, “Postcard from a Sailor.” You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: “as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.” You compare this also with “all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.” Then you close the poem with “all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –” The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?

S: I see “Postcard from a Sailor” as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a “mess of thoughts” (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that “pensive” didn’t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don’t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn’t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you’ll notice that this phrase “as if” is totally overused. It’s like all of us poets can’t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one “as if” but the next five lines all have an implied “as if.” I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I’m just another poet overusing the phrase “as if.”

T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?

S: This is a tough one. With the stuff I’ve been writing lately—personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff—I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my “target audience” and my “brand.” (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she’s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don’t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.

T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?

S: Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I’m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That’s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.

T: I’ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir “Quiver.” How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?

S: That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I’m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I’ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else…whatever I am now.

T: When you contemplate taking “next steps” in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from “Quiver” on your webpage read:

He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.

Except go with him.”

The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, “Why not?” Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?

S: I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I’m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from “Quiver” ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I’m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.

T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories. 

S: That’s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you’re very welcome.

POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)

Arriving in California

just before Thanksgiving,

I’d say I felt pensive

if pensive were the sensation

of one billion thoughts colliding

in the cerebral cortex,

not pinprick stars,

more like dark matter chaos,

more like an unweaving,

a de-constellating,

the loss of any sense of order,

of any sense of navigation,

as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere—

and the email had begun to explode—

and the cars all crashed into one another—

and all the marriages torn asunder—

the children unborn—

all the tools tossed into the sea—

if there were a sea—

if there were any stars by which to navigate—

(© Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)

On Teaching Writing; or, Shazam!

This post first appeared on Popcorn the Blog on July 9, 2012. Read it there. Or like us on Facebook!

Never am I more reminded that writing is instinctive than when I teach it. I don’t mean that writing well is innate, a hardwired talent, though often that’s true too. But I mean that good writing relies on feeling your way to the right choice. Since I am one of those people who believes that writing can be taught, I think this is what, ultimately, I’m teaching my students: to make the right choices at the right times. To call on what they know, what they feel, what they sense.

I call this mythical superpower “instinct,” and I reference it all the time when I teach. I often find myself telling a student she has “good instincts” about storytelling or writing a good argument or even grammar or sentence structure; and I urge students to call on their “instincts” when they’re critiquing someone else’s work. Just the other day, a student emailed me. How, she asked, can I give a good critique of a fellow student’s short story when I have no idea what I’m doing?

You do have an idea, I said. You know when something doesn’t ring true. You know when a story feels incomplete. You know when a description isn’t right. Follow your instincts, I said!

Doesn’t it sound empowering? Shazam!

Image courtesy of Vegas Bleeds Neon

But here’s the thing. When those same stories are staring at me from the online portal that, this summer anyway, is my classroom, I find that instinct helps to this degree: I know what works. I know what doesn’t. Done.

This has always been my challenge with teaching. Teaching is a little bit like standing in front of a room of two-year-olds in the sense that they always want to know why. Why does the comma go there and not there? Um, because, uh, well…because, I want to blurt out, I am terrible at math but I have excellent instincts for grammar and it just does go there, so learn it!

(Instead, I have learned to look up that comma in the grammar book ahead of time and explain why it lives where it does using technical terms they will all soon forget, but which at least give me ethos in the moment. As a teacher, you have to explain your instincts, and I’m pretty sure this has something to do with “norming” and “rubrics.” But I digress.)

This summer, my instinct is being continually tested. I’m teaching fiction writing online, and I’ve just finished reading first story drafts. Sometimes, reading a student story that fits into what I think of as Category A., I feel a great sense of relief. Category A is the story that has a clear and easily identifiable flaw. Clearly the butler, not the boyfriend, has to commit the murder!

The challenge with a Category A is getting the student to come up with this revelation—or a better one! Maybe it isn’t a murder, it’s a car theft!—on her own, using her instincts. So I ask a question like, “what would happen if the boyfriend didn’t actually commit the murder? What would happen then?” (Come on, I’m nudging. Make the best choice.)

The greater challenge is Category B: the student story that just really, really isn’t working. Your instinct tells you so. But you have no idea why. So you read it again. Maybe it’s that the vampire emerges too late in the story? Maybe that the main character is not “round” or “dynamic” but “static” and “flat?” Yes, you think. All of the above. And more. Usually the student writing this story is enthusiastic, vivid, and has a terrible penchant for gore, plus they’ve told you they’re really eager for your feedback. Try as you might to summon your instincts, they’ve gone out for tea. You stare at the page.

That’s when you haul out your toolbox. Because when instinct fails, you have to have a toolbox. In mine: phrases like “Have you asked yourself what your protagonist wants?” and “Try starting in a different place” and “I can’t identify the central tension. What do YOU think your story is about?”

I whip out a couple of those phrases and, by golly, I’ve given something resembling feedback. I’m actually, maybe, understanding what’s wrong after all. The central tension is unclear; I don’t know what the character wants. Shazam, I think. And what do you know if the next story isn’t a Category C? Category C: a story that shows talent. Good instincts, I write. Very good.

I’m sure there’s a lesson here for me, too, not the teacher me but the writer me: when instinct fails, I need to haul out my tools. The more I write, the more I realize that writing is not just about strokes of brilliance or good instincts but hard work and the willingness to try different things. This, I guess, is why I believe writing can be taught: because talent, and even good instincts, only get you so far.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have papers to grade.

Not So Great

I wanted to post a link to this blog, Little Brown Mushroom, which was just sent to me by my friend B. The latest post, “On Being an Artist and a Mother–A Conversation,” really hit the spot for me today. I was frantic to turn in progress grades (the bane of my existence, progress grades), dealing with a student situation, lamenting the fact that two of my childcare days are done for the week and I haven’t even looked at my book, and wondering how I was going to wrap up all of this angst in a little ball and bury it before it was time to go get dear sweet L. Then I read this:

I just… [listened] to my two and a half year old yell from his bedroom in both in joy and despair for two hours in an attempt to not go to sleep while I sat in the living room trying to prepare tomorrow’s photo history lecture.  I can definitely relate to finding it difficult to focus.  When Oliver is talking-whether in the same room or not-I find it extremely hard to concentrate on anything else. Having a child and an art career, and teaching is a lot to juggle.  I always wonder and ask other women how they do it. The most helpful response was from a photographer that I greatly admire who said “sometimes you are a not-so-great artist, sometimes a not-so-great mother, and sometimes a not-so-great teacher.”  Hearing that made me feel not so bad about being not so great all the time at everything I was trying to do. Since grad school I made the decision to define success as continuously moving forward in some way, even if very slowly. And while I continue to ask artists with children how they do it, always hoping for some bit of wisdom that will make doing it easier, I realize that I am doing it too.  For me, finding some balance (though that word makes life seem a little more stress-free than it is) happened when my son started going to day care two days a week and I had those days as studio days.  I could focus on my work those days, teach a few mornings and be genuinely present when I was with him.

How I long to be fully present with L when I’m with him. It’s been a struggle of late, my desire for a job I don’t have to take home–but is still as fulfilling as working with students–so that on the days it’s Mama and L we’re really with one another, and I’m not worrying over whether I said the right thing to my student or what we’re doing in class next time or whether I’ll have time to finish up progress grades and lesson plan while L naps (or doesn’t). I am practicing detachment, but most days it doesn’t work that well. I found it really comforting to hear from someone else about trying to lesson plan while your kid refuses to nap (you all know I have blogged about this very phenomenon before). Childcare is such a blessing. L has been napping at Lorena’s very faithfully, and when I pick him up, he is happy and healthy. Repeat: this is such a blessing. Balancing it all is still a challenge, though, and I’ve been very busy and pretty stressed out the last 48 hours. Sometimes it occurs to me that life will always, always be like this, and that even an office job would leave me with angst to ball up and take home. Teaching, writing, and child-rearing seem both perfectly suited to one another and extremely conducive to burn-out.

I didn’t intend to write today so I will leave this here and now. More soon, comrades.