Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys. This month, Photo and Blog Editor Stephanie Buesinger corresponded with Suzanne Farrell Smith over email to learn more about her current work and her connection to Literary Mama.
Suzanne Farrell Smith is the author of The Memory Sessions, a memoir about her search for lost childhood memory; and The Writing Shop, a guidebook for writing teachers. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for her essay “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity. Suzanne has an MA from The New School for Social Research and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop, mentors emerging authors, reads for Longridge Review, and is founding editor of Waterwheel Review. Suzanne lives by a creek in the Connecticut woods with her husband, three sons, and two cats.
Stephanie Buesinger: How did you get started writing for Literary Mama?
Suzanne Farrell Smith: Literary Mama was on my radar early on. I’d been an elementary school teacher and came to realize I wanted to be a writer who teaches, rather than a teacher who writes. I attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in summer 2007, where I was introduced to Literary Mama and other journals. I knew I wanted to submit at some point. Turns out, my husband and I had a lot of trouble getting pregnant and eventually went through IVF, which resulted in a twin pregnancy. Then I miscarried one twin and gave birth to the other, my eldest son. Two years later, pregnant again with twins (this time without fertility treatment), I had an emergency C-section at 30 weeks. The boys stayed in the NICU for almost seven weeks. A few months later, my mother died. Suffice to say, Literary Mama was a resource and comfort during those stressful years. It’s no surprise that’s when I submitted my three pieces. “a state incompatible with life” is about my miscarriage.
SB: How has your life as a writer changed since being published in LM? How has your writing process and practice changed over the years as your children have grown up?
SFS: My writing life changed significantly in 2019. The Writing Shop was published in March, I learned in May that “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” would be included in Pushcart XLIV, and The Memory Sessions was published in August. A launch party and book tour events filled much of the fall and winter. On top of all that, that fall I started teaching creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshop. The year really was a watershed. As for my process and practice, not much has changed. I don’t write every day. My boys are older (8 and twins at 6) and their needs have changed, but between teaching, mentoring, parenting, and everything else, I just don’t have the energy to write every day. When an idea hits me, it hits me hard, and I carve out time to write furiously. Then I let the draft sit, tinkering with it here and there, until it’s ready for a reader, my husband or a close writing friend, and on to submission. Once I submit a piece, it might be a month before I write a new one.
SB: The Memory Sessions and The Writing Shop are both nonfiction, and you teach creative nonfiction as well. What drew you to the genre?
SFS: As an elementary school teacher, I wrote plays, children’s books, poems, and more. But my first master’s program was a cross-discipline program grounded in the history of ideas and the practice of nonfiction writing. We wrote a lot of essays. One professor noticed that I always framed my essays with stories from my life. He pegged me as a personal essayist and, in fact, is the one who encouraged me to attend Kenyon. I still write in all genres, but personal essays and memoir come most naturally to me.
SB: What is a favorite memoir by another author or creative nonfiction piece you particularly admire or that inspires your work?
SFS: When I need inspiration, I re-read Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels.” Something about the opening line “A weasel is wild” gets my mind going. I often go to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. And Mary Ruefle’s book of short prose, The Most of It, opens my brain up in new ways each time. I have a very long list of writers I admire. But these particular works do some kind of martial art move that releases my writing brain.
SB: You teach creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshop (which is how we met). What tools do you find especially useful to encourage writers to tap into past experiences for their writing?
SFS: I was delighted to have you in workshop, especially as we offered it over Zoom! One tool is reading. I find that relevant reading is essential to writing. For some of my workshops, I use our weekly readings to develop layered prompts. We discuss the reading of the week, take a quick break, then write, one layer at a time, with that reading in mind. In other workshops, I follow each session with a reading list that I develop based on my students’ work and our discussion. I’ve noticed that more and more of my students say, “I was inspired to write this after reading the essay you suggested, or I got the idea for this piece when listening to so-and-so read hers last week.” Oh, and I’m excited to share this other tool I often use with my students. First, design a graphic that shows the pillars of your life: family, friends, health, community, work, religion, politics, etc. Mine is a wheel, each spoke a pillar. Next, list the details of each pillar (for family, say, spouse, children, mother, cousins, sister-in-law). Then, highlight in green all the details that give you peace of mind. With orange, highlight the details that keep you up at night or caused deep stress in the past. Finally, choose one of those orange-highlighted details and begin writing, “What keeps/kept me up at night is…”
SB: Can you tell me about how your work as a teacher informs and influences your work as a writer?
SFS: I love my job! I love that I learn alongside my students. All the tools I develop for them are tools I use as well. And I’m always inspired by the writing they bring to workshop. It’s so varied, yet it all contributes to my understanding of what it means to be human. To me, that’s what creative nonfiction does best; as a whole, the genre reveals every teeny tiny nook and cranny of human life.
SB: Anything else you’d like to share?
SFS: One more wonderful new part of my writing life is Waterwheel Review. Co-editors Claire Guyton, Cheryl Wilder, and I publish three pieces of writing on the first of each month, September through May, and we fill each issue with other art forms, from music to film to sculpture. And we don’t label by genre. We just wrapped up our first season and I could not be happier with it.
Thank you so much for reaching out!