Today on the blog I have Susan Cushman with an interview, I really enjoyed hearing what she had to say so I hope all of you do, too!
1. ) When did you decide to become a writer? In other words, what made you actually sit down and write something?
I have a shoebox full of letters I wrote to my grandmother in the 1950s and ‘60s, starting when I was six years old. I also wrote poetry during those years, and was a feature writer for my high school newspaper. At that time I thought I might want to be a journalist. In the decades that followed I edited and published newsletters for several companies (and a church) and a magazine for architects and builders. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I began thinking of becoming a “real writer.” Freelance magazine articles weren’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, so I eventually attended several writing workshops and started writing essays, memoirs and novels, starting around 2006. Today, ten years later, I consider myself a full time writer.
2.) Every writer is eventually asked this question, but where do your ideas come from? Why do you write what you do?
Most of my ideas come from my own life—essays and memoirs that reflect personal experiences. I write to make sense of all of this, the good and the bad things that have happened to me in my life. Even my one piece of fiction, my novel, Cherry Bomb, is full of stories that reflect my own experiences, although the protagonist—a graffiti artist—is much more than a conglomerate of my several selves.
3.) Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you? How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I definitely prefer to outline first, although I think part of my creative evolution has included learning to be flexible with that outline. If something isn’t working, I cut it out. If I have to, I start over.
4.) What is the hardest thing about the creative process of writing? If you’re a Christian, what are the challenges you believe Christian writers face now and in the future? If you would, please tell us what was hardest thing about writing your last book? How long does it typically take you to finish your book?
The hardest thing about the creative process for me is letting go of agendas, especially when I’m writing fiction. My characters aren’t free to follow interesting paths if they are they to serve an agenda. I am a Christian but I am not a “Christian writer.” The hardest thing about writing my last book (which isn’t published yet) was the three major re-writes under the direction of editors. Eventually I parted ways with the agent who was asking for these rewrites, because I felt that she didn’t share my vision for the book. Holding onto yourself while receiving help from editors is a challenge. There is no “typical” but this book took five years to complete and revise. The collection of essays I’m shopping out right now only took a couple of months to compile, but they were drawn from eight years of blog posts.
5.) Name your three biggest frustrations about the writing business.
My three biggest frustrations about the writing business are the difficulty of getting through the gatekeepers (agents) in order to be published traditionally; the complicated querying process, whether for agents or for independent presses; and the long waiting period while going through these pre-publication processes. You definitely learn patience, or have the opportunity to!
6.) On the flip side, what excites you the most about the creative process?
Elizabeth Berg said, “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.” I wish I felt that way, but I align more with Dorothy Parker, who said, “I hate writing. I love to have written.” I don’t really hate writing, but it is such hard work, and only rarely do I love the actual process. I like to think about writing, and to organize a writing project—an essay, a collection, or even a memoir or novel. But putting those words down on paper is sometimes sheer agony. And yet I must do it. I must.
7.) What are you reading at the moment, and who are a few of your favorite authors and why?
I’m currently reading five books (I always have at least two going at once, so that I can pick up the one that fits my mood at any moment): West With the Night by Beryl Markham (I was inspired to read this after finishing Circling the Sun by Paula McLain); Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance by Tish Jett (in preparation for my trip to Paris in May); A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (winner of the Pulitzer Prize); Lines Were Drawn: Remembering Court-Ordered Integration at a Mississippi High School (edited by my first cousin, Johnny Jones, with a preface by my high school friend Claiborne Barksdale, this wonderful book chronicles the events that took place at my high school starting the year after I graduated); and Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. Next up in my reading queue are Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker; The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir by Randy Fertel (about the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse empire) which my son gave me for Christmas; The Headmaster’s Darlings by Katherine Clark; and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks. (I have pretty varied tastes in literature.)
My favorite (contemporary) authors are Pat Conroy, Mary Karr and Anne Lamott.
8.) If you would like and have the time, write a paragraph or two about anything you wish.
Ah, a chance to “free write,” and yet here I am staring at the blank page, wondering what to explore with these two paragraphs. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, hoping that exhaling will bring clarity. What is foremost on my mind today? Aging. I turned 65 on March 8. My 88-year-old mother has been in a nursing home in Mississippi for eight years. She has Alzheimer’s and has no idea who she is or where she is. Her mother died in the same nursing home in 1985, at age 86. Will this also be my fate? How many more years do I have before the tangles and plaques start to take over my brain? I feel an urgency to make those years count, and so I write.
I have recently organized fifty something blog posts about long-distance caregiving for my mother into a collection of essays, which I’m shopping out to presses right now. I would love for Tangles and Plaques to find a publishing home soon. As well as my novel, Cherry Bomb, for which I am in the processing of querying agents. And I’m revisiting my early drafts of my spiritual memoir, Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns, considering whether or not to give it another shot. Then there’s that first chapter I wrote two years ago for another novel—this one about the last painting done by Jackson Pollack, which I’ve titled Red, Black, Silver (the name of his painting). I know many writers whose main focus is on the work—the writing itself—as it should be. But I’m always thinking of my audience, distracted by the business of publishing as I write. I’ve been told not to do this. I’ve also been told not to think of a red-faced monkey.
I was Co-Director of the 2013 and 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conferences (Oxford, Mississippi). These were both 4-day conferences involving 100 participants and about 25 faculty members.
I was also the Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop (Memphis, TN). This was a 3-day workshop with 20 participants and 6 faculty members.
I served as speaker and/or panelist at the following:
2013 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
2013 Pensters Writing Group (keynote speaker), Fairhope, Alabama
2012 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee
2012 Creative Nonfiction at the Crossroads workshop in Clarksdale, Mississippi
2009 Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College, Rome, Georgia
I have ten published essays in various journals and magazines and three in the following anthologies: Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press, 2012); The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul (Rivers Edge Media, Little Rock, AR, 2013) and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women (She Writes Press, February, 2015). Visit my Amazon page for more info on all of these.
I am editor of a collection of essays by 20 women authors, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant To Be, due out in March 2017, from Mercer University Press.
I’m currently seeking agent representation for Cherry Bomb, my novel, which made the short list for the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.
Social Media/Web Presence
Since 2007 I have posted three times a week in my blog, “Pen and Palette,” which averages 3,000 hits/day. For the past year I’ve been following the themes, “Mental Health Monday,” “Writing on Wednesday,” and “Faith on Friday.” The blog is within my web site: http://www.susancushman.com. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter.