When and how did you first take yourself seriously as a writer? What enabled you to make this shift, and what marked the change?
I started taking writing seriously in fourth grade, when I read Harriet the Spy and began keeping my own secret spy journal. Since then, writing has always been how I try to understand the world and the human experience around me. I wrote a book-length thesis of narrative poetry at Middlebury College and then did an MFA in poetry and mixed genre at San Diego. That was when I got the itch to write non-fiction, but I kept writing and publishing poetry, as well as book reviews, until my first son was born in 2000. Then I didn’t have any more ill-fated attempts at compressed moments of lyrical genius in me! Instead I had all that fatigue and confusion about how to build my life now that I had this baby to take care of, and that was when I turned to prose for good. I remember the exact day, actually: my first son had just turned two, and I was given this rare hour by myself to read! I’d bought an actual novel with actual money, and I realized with certainty, half-way through the book, that I was going to have to write my own darn novel, because the novel that I’d wanted to read—the novel I’d bought and was holding in my hand—was not the novel I hoped it would be. For me, it was a case of “go write the book that you want to read,” though I don’t think any of us ever actually writes that book. We just aspire to write it, and it keeps us going.
You've published poetry, memoir, nonfiction, and fiction. Elsey Come Home, out in January 2019, is your second novel. What was the hardest part about writing this book? Why?
This book was hard to nail the voice of until I got really honest about how many women I know and love who struggle with being mothers and having ambition. Once I got clear about that dilemma and that I was going to write a book exploring up close what it means to “not be a good enough mother,” I was off and running. But the honesty part is always the hardest part. Once I saw how brutally honest Elsey was going to be, and how ruthless, I had a lot of fun.
I’ve heard that one of your mantras for your students is “go deeper.” Is that something that drives your own process?
Absolutely. It sounds clichéd or sort of kumbaya, and it is. But it’s also the truth: go deeper and say something new. New for your readers and for yourself. Then good stuff starts happening on the page, and your reader begins to learn with you and your characters, as opposed to just watching these static situations you’ve created.
How do you respond to the debate about whether creative writing can be taught? What do you feel you can offer students as their mentor?
It’s not about teaching "creative writing” in my mind, here at our uniquely wonderful MFA program. It’s kind of like sky-diving, maybe: I’ll be right there with you while you take the plunge off the airplane and “go deep," and as my mentee or workshop student, you’ll know that I have that back-up parachute at the ready for you, should it get dicey, or should you censor yourself too much.
In my twenty-five years of teaching writing, it’s almost always about offering students the art of being stubborn and doing the actual writing work much more than about whether they have talent. Talent is subjective and depends on the time and day. Stubbornness, however, can be taught. Writing muscles need to be exercised just like other muscles. I see it over and over: if you do the work and hone the muscle and take the risks, the writing takes care of itself, in the most satisfying way.
What do you enjoy most about mentoring MFA students and why?
Every semester I delight in going on new skydiving expeditions with my students, who are all, at the beginning, to more or lesser degrees, strangers to me, and I to them. We end up working very closely, and once they know I have that back-up parachute, I’m amazed and dazzled and pleased to see all the risks they’re willing to take, both stylistically and content-wise. In the end, writing is a hard and solo enterprise, and the mentor’s role is singular and unique in a world that favors groups and group collaboration and lots of talk, talk, talk. This thing we do at Stonecoast is a wonderfully focused and personalized approach: it allows for great understanding and trust. Each semester at Stonecoast I get to watch my students take off.
As a co-founder of The Telling Room in Portland, you’ve done a lot of work to foster literary community and culture in Maine. What motivates you to be a literary citizen?
It’s always about the story for me. When I was in grad school, and later when I was editing at Ploughshares, I always tried to get into classrooms as much as I could to teach story writing because I remembered having a group of performance artists come to my tiny elementary school in rural Maine in the 1970s, and it changed my life. It changed what I thought was possible to do in the world. I saw that I could be this creative human and channel all the excitement and churning emotion that I had inside me toward some other use: art!
I have long believed that telling our stories changes our lives and the places we live. For some kids, telling their story is like finding another way to breathe. It gives them hope, and it makes their life easier to understand. I am from Maine. I understand the state. It’s in my DNA, and helping to forge and nurture a literary community here, especially for kids, is second nature to me.
What are you working on now?
I am in deep with a novel that I sold to Knopf this past fall, which is tentatively titled How to Talk to a Wolf. This book explores teenage boyland and features a mother who ends up alone on an island in Maine, raising her teenagers/wolves. It should be published in 2021.
Susan Conley was interviewed by Linda Mahal and Justin Tussing