Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview with MFA faculty member Karol Jackowski

 On today’s blog, Karol Jackowski, who teaches our MFA courses “Women’s Spiritual Writing through the Ages” and “Nature Writing,” talks with interviewer Sandy Chmiel about writing, spirituality, and the development of a writing voice informed by the deepest part of the self. These words are soul nourishment themselves; give yourself time to savor them.

Do you prefer to be called Sister Karol or Karol?

Karol. “Sister” designates my marital status, like Mrs., Mr., and Ms. Call me Karol and see me as your sister.

How have your spiritual beliefs informed your writing?

I found the spiritual exercises that formed me as a sister—meditation, contemplation, ritual, leisure, “lectio divina” (spiritual reading)—are the same soulful exercises that form us as writers. In meditation we learn to listen to the “angel in our soul,” our writing voice. In contemplation we listen to the voice in nature and the voice in experience, learning to see more clearly. Ritual becomes a powerful way to maintain a connection with the unseen and unspoken, to open the door for the writing voice to speak. Leisure as a spiritual exercise points to the importance of play in the development of a spiritual life and a writing life.  According to Gertrude Stein, “It takes a heap of doing nothing to write a good book." And especially for writers, all reading is “lectio divina,” spiritual reading—soul food, exercising the mind and feeding the soul simultaneously. Reading and writing become soulmates.  The more we read, the clearer our writing voice becomes. While I was not aware of it at the time, I can see clearly now how the more of a nun I became, the more of a writer I became. 

You have taught “Women’s Spiritual Writing through the Ages” and are now teaching “Nature Writing and Narrative Poetry.” What similarities do you find in these two topics? 

In the first course, “Women’s Spiritual Writing through the Ages,” the focus is on the spiritual exercises of meditation, spiritual reading—reading reflectively and meditatively—and ritual. Listening to the writing voices of women through the ages serves the purpose of clarifying our voice, hearing more clearly, writing more artfully. The course in “Nature Writing” focuses on the spiritual exercises of contemplation and leisure, on listening to the voice of nature and seeing in nature the story of our life. The first course focuses on how to listen as a writer. The second course focuses on how to see as a writer. Both focus on exercising the writing voice in soulful ways. 

How does your spiritual practice carry over into your interactions with your students?

In addition to being their teacher, I am their sister. Because readings and assignments in these courses engage students in profoundly personal ways, responses to one another become ‘spiritual direction” for all of us. A strong sense of community develops as students’ comments serve to support, strengthen, and enjoy thoroughly each other’s work. In that way, students also teach the class. The soulful subject matter lends itself to creating a working environment online where I find enormous respect for one another, and the kind of “community” feeling I experience in the sisterhood. Concerns are shared, insights revealed, support offered always…sisterhood at its best. Not only am I their teacher, I am also their sister.

What do you most love about the writing process?

For me, the writing process is nothing short of divine intervention. The inner voice is a holy spirit and words become our “magic wand,” the medium for our soul’s message. The writing life keeps my spiritual life alive and well—that’s what I love most about it. I write at the beginning and end of every day, oftentimes more. I live a solitary life in which my writing voice thrives. The spiritual life and the writing life are my soul sisters, giving me a life I love most. There is nothing I love more than days and nights of writing, days and nights of divine intervention.

What else would you like to share with us?


How grateful I am for the opportunity to work with gifted writers whom I watch grow by leaps and bounds. Seeing the writing voice become clearer and stronger week after week is pure joy for a teacher. Thank you for the pleasure of their company.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Interview with Adam Braver

Today on the Director’s Blog we feature a remarkable interview with prolific writer and MFA faculty member Adam Braver, who teaches Thesis I and II in the program.  Here, Adam talks about his literary activism, the links between literature and intellectual and moral freedom, and his own writing and editing practice.

How do you define “literary citizenship,” and why do you think it is important? How has it informed your writing and teaching?
This is a term that is being used in many contexts. For me, it means remembering that you are a part of a community of artist-writers, and as members of that group we have a responsibility to support one another—especially those around the world who battle censorship, threat to life, and worse in order to be able to make their art and/or express themselves. Because of the process of writing and making art, there is a tendency for writers to become self-involved, and a temptation to see writing solely as a business venture or as a path to recognition. Of course, that is part of the business of being in the arts, although it should not be the reason to be in the arts—that should be about the drive to make art. So imagine you live in a society where the State tells you can’t make art, or at least that kind of art? Imagine you are sent to jail because a censor believes the metaphor in your poem insults the country’s leadership. Or imagine that your family is constantly harassed because you offer a historical narrative that runs counter to the narrative the current government is promoting. Where I am going with this is that for our art I believe we have to find a method to support ways to get that art out all over the world. 

There are numerous things one can do to help support that: read works of people in translation, follow NGOs such as Scholars at Risk, PEN, Amnesty, etc., and sign their petitions regarding writers and intellectuals who are being persecuted, and encourage others to do so. That’s a good start, to my thinking. I don’t know how it informs my writing, per se, other than it reminds me how lucky I am at all times to have the freedom to make art, and that with that luxury I never should take it lightly; it reminds me to work hard, to parse every word, every sentence, every everything—all because I am free to do that, and to take it lightly is to disregard my fellow writers around the world who are being persecuted for doing as much. On a more practical level, I also have been editing a series for the University of New Orleans Press that tells firsthand accounts of some writers/thinkers who have been persecuted for their writings. And in the classroom, I try to encourage and suggest works in translation (even if they are not necessarily from threatened countries, just to remind student-writers that the art form they are aspiring to become part of is part of a worldwide community, and that they should be involved in that conversation, if nothing else than to learn and see how others with different worldviews are approaching their art.) And with students, it is something I can talk about, as I am doing here, encouraging them to find their own ways to create literary citizenship, and as artist-writers to think of themselves as being part of a community beyond one that solely is about monetizing and self-aggrandizement. It’s a big responsibility. One that should never, never be forgotten.

Can you tell us about your path to becoming a writer?

I grew up an only child, and spent a lot of time with my imagination, which, because I loved language, began to manifest itself through the written word. I also was a voracious reader (I don’t know a single writer who wasn’t/isn’t), and eventually that both inspired and intimidated me about writing. I mean, who could even imagine doing what I was reading in these moving and meaningful and artful books? I got a little more serious about the study of it in my mid-twenties, eventually going into an MFA program. A couple of stories were published in literary journals, which then were seen by an agent, eventually leading to my first book. It sounds brief, as I write this, but it was many, many years of day in and day out writing and rewriting and revising. It was years of thinking that nothing would ever come of it—only driven by some small successes and, most importantly and foremost, my love of making art with language. I still feel as though I am always learning and studying my form. I still get excited and inspired to try techniques I see in a book. I’m still willing to fail. And I’m still willing to spend years on something, if it means getting it right.

Nature, art, music, history are just some of the things that inspire and influence writers.  What inspires you?
What most inspires me is trying to understand and engage in the nature of human consciousness. What are those things that make us human? What does it mean to be alive in a certain moment of time, or a certain moment of one’s life? What are the chasms between public personas and private thoughts? What are the moral conflicts between self-interest and the greater good? What are the conflicts between being driven both by hubris and fear? Those kinds of questions that only can be got at through exploring human consciousness. It’s what I like to read, and it’s what I like to explore in my art. 

I think too many young writers (and I don’t mean age here) are driven purely by the plot or events of their narrative. They think that the story or the narrative of the life experience is the only or most important part of their pieces. I see that all as a vehicle to exploring what it means to be human. So, to that end, I have drawn from history, from my own experiences, from stories I’ve heard, etc. But never once has my objective been to use my narrative as a way to retell history or a personal experience—it always has been an in that allows me to explore some level of humanity that I hope extends beyond me or the people/characters in the narrative.

What do you most enjoy about teaching Thesis I and II?
Last year, I most enjoyed watching the narratives become shaped and fully realized. Most of the students came into the year with their stories fairly set, and an idea or notion of how they would tell them. Quite often, once the work began, that planning only got them so far, despite all their focus and dedication. It was quite moving to watch the narratives become more artful, in terms of structure, but also in terms of allowing in more of the moral and emotional complexities that allowed for a reader to become a participant in the narrative, as opposed to having someone tell you her story (see above question). Also, I very much enjoyed the one-to-one engagement, seeing students willing to take risks, fail and succeed, work ridiculously hard, and ultimately allow me a front row seat to watch their theses blossom.

What are you currently at work on?
I am finishing editing a book for the University of New Orleans series. It tells the stories of three Syrian scholars who were persecuted and exiled for their intellectual ideas, writings, and/or art. I am also at work on a new book—but not quite ready to talk about that yet.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Interview with MFA instructor and thesis advisor Lisa Romeo

We hope you enjoy this wide-ranging interview with MFA faculty and thesis advisor Lisa Romeo. Here, Sandy Chmiel speaks with Lisa about her perspective on teaching; her experience entering graduate school as a mature student, and how it helps her work with adult students in the MFA; and her ideas about the ever-elusive concept of “balance.”

How does your work as a creative nonfiction writer inform your daily life? Do you consciously think in terms of paying attention to details, that you might one day write about this experience or event?
I do feel aware, on a daily basis, of a driving need (desire? habit?) to notice details. I’m not sure if that's all about being a CNF writer, or a vestige of early journalism training and experiences. I do often find myself composing sentences in my head that could conceivably work to tell the story of what's unfolding in the moment. Sometimes I even write them down. Funny thing is, only a handful make it into anything I write soon after. Often, events or feelings seem "write-worthy" in the moment, but then later, don't reveal enough of a deeper or larger story. Other times, something I've ignored comes back to me later and insists I write about it. It's hard to predict. I am also aware of not observing so much that it keeps me from having the experience! Still, I keep that tiny notebook in my purse (and in the car, laundry room, etc.). I've found years-old notes that have inspired entire pieces. So you never know.

Not too long ago, you were a student in an MFA program. Does your perspective as a returning student create a common bond with your students? With your MFA fresh in your mind, what lessons that you learned do you try to bring to your students?
I completed my own MFA in 2008; sometimes that feels like a lifetime ago, but more often it still feels fresh enough that I can draw upon my own experiences to counsel students. I was 46 when I started my MFA, so I can also understand the concerns of our students who are tackling this program a bit later in life.

Always, I want to advise every student to savor every moment, to dive in deep to every opportunity the program puts in their path, because any MFA in any form is always over too soon. I also try to impart that the degree is not the (entire) point; the opportunity to have total immersion in writing craft, to eat/sleep/talk writing for a few years, the chance to build a literary community—those are the real treasures of the program. Maybe the most important thing I want to say—which grew directly out of my own MFA experience—is to try new things as a writer, in a way to "forget" what you planned to do and write, and experiment with something outside of your craft comfort zone, something a little intimidating, different. And to not resist that. That's where the real growth is. If you come into an MFA program thinking, "I'm going to write and finish X," and do only that, you've squandered an opportunity.

Is there one experience that stands out from your MFA days?
Developing the ability, as a writer, to figure out how to keep going in the face of life events. During my first semester, my father died and my first assigned faculty mentor sort of disappeared. Over the next two years, my husband's small business lost its anchor client, my mother had several heart attacks, and I had a health scare. It felt like everything in my life was saying NO, you can't finish this program. But I got great advice and support from faculty and classmates, and worked out not only how to meet the deadlines, but how to continue to grow as an artist. I decided the only way forward was to say YES to every MFA challenge, opportunity, and optional activity; I taped a big YES sign over my desk. I still have that ratty old piece of paper.

As a writing teacher, what do you most enjoy about working with MFA students?
Their commitment. Many have waited a long time to pursue their writing goals, and all have had to make mental and temporal room in already full lives to dedicate the time to this program. When I get email or text questions from students over the weekend, or at 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight, or on a holiday, not only do I NOT mind, I appreciate and understand that they are carving out and protecting their writing time and life.

What is your favorite piece of advice for writers who are now seeking publication, whether for an essay or a book?
First: cultivate persistence and resiliency far beyond what you imagine is needed. They are your best assets (assuming the work is sparkling, too). Next: know what publication means to you as a writer. Why do you want to be published? Why now? Why this particular piece of work? What do you hope will come out of it? Do you want/need lines for a CV?  Is it about personal satisfaction? A paycheck? To prove something? Often we expect publication—of any sort, whether in a journal, major magazine, in an anthology, or a single-authored book—to transform us in some way, to radically alter our daily writing lives, to confirm and legitimize us as writers. But we all still need to get up the next morning and face the page. So understand that getting published is great for a lot of reasons, but it isn't everything.

You are a writer, teacher, wife, mother, editor, and writing coach. Are you able to find balance in your life, and if so, how?
I don't think I have ever sought "balance," whatever that means! I just do what is in front of me to do, what I've decided I want to do and need to do. Sometimes that means 150 percent in one area of life, and far less in other areas. That's okay, it all evens out over time. And you know, it's not a terrible thing for children or a spouse to learn they are not the throbbing center of your universe every day! On a practical level, time is more malleable when you don't bother with things you just don't personally care about—for me that's a sparkling clean house and binge-watching the hottest shows. Oh, and yoga.

What are you currently at work on?
On the advice of publishers, agents, and beta readers I respect, I spent the last year revising a memoir-in-essays manuscript, transforming it into a linear narrative, so that's being submitted around. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, I'm always working on some longish essays and memoir/narrative nonfiction, as well as a bunch of flash pieces, and I always have several short personal essays going, meant for commercial publications and websites (that pay).

Is there anything else you would like to share?
For MFA students (or any writers): from the beginning, double everything. Double the time you think it will take to go from crappy first draft to somewhat decent second draft. The time you'll need to do research, fact-checking, and other non-writing essentials. The amount of reading you must do to be a better writer. The time it will take to go from decent second draft to third to fourth…to polished final draft. And – this might be the most important of all: double the time you spend thinking and not moving your fingers on the keyboard, especially during revision. Thinking is underrated.


To learn more about Lisa, please visit her blog at http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/.  


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Interview with Irish writer and MFA instructor Aine Greaney

Today on the MFA Director’s Blog we are delighted to feature an interview with Irish memoirist, novelist, and MFA instructor Áine Greaney.  Here, Áine talks with Sandy Chmiel about balancing multiple identities, teaching a summer course in health and wellness writing, and the origins of her passionate love for storytelling.  She also shares her four top tips for writers – one of which just may surprise you.

You’ve mentioned that you keep a personal journal.  How is putting pen to paper in a journal beneficial to you?
I never know what I’m going to write until I write it, so journaling opens up the creative possibilities for me. Journaling also has a great therapeutic benefit in that it lets me put some order on my thoughts and feelings. In times of crisis, when I cannot write anything else, it’s been my solace and way of coping. As a writer, journaling also helps me to stay honest with myself. There really is no pretension, no fooling the blank page.

Can you tell us about your Health and Wellness Writing course?  Why is this topic so important to you?
I’m very drawn to this topic for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always liked biology and have been fascinated by the interplay between our bodies and our minds and, indeed, our individual and collective histories.  Second, I see illness and recovery (or not) as its own perfect narrative. Sometimes there’s a happy ending to the illness tale; sometimes there isn’t.  Finally, I think I came to study and love this field (narrative medicine) because I hate how we in the 21st century have come to devalue the beauty and benefit of narrative. We like bullet points. We love sound bites. We ask people to “bottom-line it for me,” when these approaches can tell us little or nothing about another person’s life or feelings or condition. In some cultures, this approach is also downright insulting.  Happily, healthcare is beginning to re-learn the value of story and to cross-train practitioners in the sciences and humanities.  

Ireland is steeped in great storytelling traditions. How did growing up there inform your writing sensibilities?
I grew up with two live-in grandparents, both of whom were powerful storytellers—as was my father. All three of them loved to tell tales from their own young days, so the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s were constantly playing out as a sort of background music to our own young lives. I think this is why I love to write about the past and why I love to question and examine and argue with memory. It’s also why I struggle with creating a snappy, forward-moving narrative or plot.  I find it hard to ignore what happened off-stage, in the “before.”  Maybe this is an immigrant thing.     


In addition to your writing and teaching, you have a day job in communications. (In fact, you wrote an advice book on the topic, Writer with a Day Job.) How do you find balance between these three identities, as well as in your personal life?
Excuse me while I chuckle here. Oh, you’re asking about balancing identities, not actual time. O.K., I can deal with that one!   Almost everything about our day jobs requires us to keep the “circus animals all on show” (to paraphrase Yeats here).  By contrast, the writing life is all about the personal and the introspective.  So I meditate a few times per week. I also walk a lot—a key way to feel happier and better and reclaim the real self. I also write first thing in the morning—before all that other daytime “stuff” crowds my brain. All these said, I feel lucky to have a day job that I like and enjoy.  There is a great pleasure in having a set of projects to manage and getting those projects advanced or accomplished by the end of the week. There's a business aspect to creative writing, so I’m grateful for the project management and marketing skills I have developed at work. Plus, nobody at work sends me editorial rejection letters!

What advice would you offer to emerging writers?
I have four main pieces of advice:
1.     It takes courage to write. So you better have some or go get some. Push yourself to do one daring thing each week, to write beyond your comfort zone and your fears.
2.     If you’re serious about being a writer, let it take priority in your life. Or at least place it among the top three things that matter. You will never advance your career if you keep letting other things or people eclipse it. 
3.     Write what you can. If you can only manage 400 words before work, then that’s what you do.  The 12-hour writing marathon is great if you can manage it. But most of us can’t. So write what you can—even if it’s just to doodle some ideas. 
4.     Run away from your life.   I go on writers’ retreats a few times per year, and it never fails to jumpstart my love affair with the written word and gives me that courage I need. Away from distractions, I also get a lot done.

What are you currently at work on?
I just became a naturalized U.S. citizen (last week), so I was busy studying presidents and the number of constitutional amendments.  On a related note, I have an immigrant memoir doing the publishing rounds. I tag it as an “immigration memoir” but more important to me, it’s a feminist narrative (it has a health and recovery component, too). So I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one. Also, I have a number of personal essays in the works—each of them at a different stage of drafting or completion.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think it’s important for us writers to practice good literary citizenship. The irascible, bad-boy or -girl writer is a cliché at best. At worst, it’s directly antithetical to what art and the act of creating are supposed to be all about. Conduct your writing career with kindness, decency, and professionalism and never compromise these standards for the sake of a byline or a paycheck.


For more about Áine, please enjoy this intimate video interview with her, in which she talks about her philosophy of teaching and her belief in supportive mentors. You can also check out her website for updates about upcoming publications and activities. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Interview with Yankee Magazine editor Mel Allen

On today’s blog, we are delighted to feature an interview with MFA faculty member and YankeeMagazine editor Mel Allen.  Here, Mel talks with Sandy Chmiel about his teaching philosophy; his 35-plus years editing, writing, and assigning stories; and his habit of cultivating promising new writers.

Can you tell us about the perspective you bring to teaching creative nonfiction? 
I may bring a somewhat different perspective to my classes because while I have written many narrative features, my primary job here at Yankee is working with writers on their own stories, so I try to bring that perspective to the Bay Path experience. I love talking about their work and also sending them the work of wonderful writers, and I’d say I lean more to the practical application than the theoretical. I want to give them the best possible chance of publishing their work if and when they are ready to. When I give feedback on their work I will usually say something like, “Well, if this had come to me at Yankee this is what I’d say…” and so I am evaluating on a curve of professional writing. I think that is helpful.

Is there a particular work of creative nonfiction you recommend to your students, and, if so, what makes it particularly effective?
The foundation of all my courses has been that a student’s lifetime mentors will be reading the best writers, whether it be creative nonfiction, fiction, poets, dramatists. That’s where all writers from students to professionals go to be repeatedly nourished and inspired. I am a judge in the National Magazine Awards and for many years an anthology titled The Best Magazine Stories of the Year comes from the winners in essays, profiles, feature writing, reporting etc.  I always look to the book to find contemporary works to show students. At the same time I know my debt to the writers who made creative narratives part of the literary world long before we even had a word for the genre: Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, James Baldwin, John Hersey, W.C. Heinz, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, Jane Kramer, John McPhee, Maya Angelou, etc. I try to send links to their works throughout the course just to keep the fires burning and to show how we are all part of the continuum. Most importantly I find that students have been great sources for embedding links to writers who inspire them. Just this past week, several students showed me works of writers whose names I did not know, but whose work I will certainly include in classes yet to be taught.

Many online classes have students log in on their own time and post written responses to assignments. You and a few other MFA instructors use a weekly Google Hangout, which allows you to see and hear all of your students at the same time.   How has this worked for you? For your students?
I look forward to Hangouts. It connects me to the people behind the words I see in discussions. Most importantly I believe it creates a writing community, not that much different from a weekly writing group held in rotating houses. We have a set time, we have an agenda, and we see each other and become real to each other.  I did not know how this would work before starting here, I had always taught in a classroom setting or a work shop setting, but now I cannot imagine not doing it.  I think the students have enjoyed the Hangouts. I keep them to an hour and fifteen minutes—an hour and a half tops. The connection makes all the difference to me.

In interviews and in your personal essays, you have spoken of the power of your own curiosity and how it informs you as a writer. Tell us more about that. Why do you consider curiosity one of the most important attributes for a writer?
It all begins with curiosity. Think of the small child crawling around in the backyard picking up grass, poking in the dirt, looking at the sky, trying to figure out the world through taste and sound and touch. The writer keeps that sensibility and makes sense of his/her life, or the lives of others by wondering why did this happen and not that. Why am I this person with this set of experiences and beliefs and not someone else? If you don’t have curiosity I cannot imagine the next step—crafting an essay or short story, or memoir, or whatever it is that will urge you to the desk to figure things out. I am sure that curiosity will be at the top or near the top of every writer’s list of why they chose this work. There are a lot of mysteries about our lives.  The writer tries to figure them out.

You are known for cultivating writing talent and providing opportunities for publication when you can.  Tell us more about how you have opened doors for new writers.
I am probably more proud of the writers I have brought to Yankee than I am of my own work. I have a shelf of books where writers have acknowledged my help and that means the world to me. I know how hard the work is, I know how important it is to see your work in print and finding readers. I can often tell from the first few paragraphs of a query or a letter that accompanies a submission if the writer has the voice and gift of storytelling and if she is serious about the work.  Especially when I see new writers go from a Yankee feature to books. Like most things in life, success breeds confidence and the ripples keep going.

You have been with Yankee Magazine for over three decades.  What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced as an editor?
My first story for Yankee was published in 1977 so I’m looking at four decades now. The biggest challenge is simple: time. I came to Yankee basically as a staff writer and ideas person. I could go pretty much anywhere to follow a story and create new sections for the magazine.  My title was senior editor, but my daily life was to come up with stories. What could be more fun? Now as the editor, my time is divided into many slots: reading manuscripts, meetings about digital initiatives, meetings about staffing, meetings about budget, working with an art director on covers and layouts, working with interns…..and yes, preparing Bay Path classes.  The days I once spent on narratives are now precious few. As I write this I am working on one right now, but the only time I have for it is weekends.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
Teaching creative nonfiction keeps me grounded in what matters most. I am working with students who love writing and are about to discover how far they can go with their work. I am working with students who are pursuing this MFA even as they juggle work and life responsibilities. They inspire me to keep reading the best writers, to follow writers they know and I do not. And to remember why I started in this work long ago. It was always about telling the stories. Always the stories. And the emotions they can stir.

Mel Allen has been a finalist twice in the City and Regional Magazine Awards for Best Column, judged by the University of Missouri as well as several dozen magazine editors.  Here are links to three of his columns as well as a long form profile




Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A morning with Suzanne Strempek Shea


Today we are delighted to share an in-depth profile of Suzanne Strempek Shea, Bay Path Writer-in-Residence and workshop leader of our MFA summer creative writing seminar in Ireland. This beautifully written portrait was created by graduating MFA student Susan Abello as an assignment in her "Special Topics in Creative Nonfiction" course, following an inspiring course in "Writing the Personal Profile" with Mieke Bomann.  We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.  


Suzanne
by Susan Abello (MFA ’16)

If I wrote a novel, Suzanne Strempek Shea would make an ideal heroine. She’s got that enviable hair, thick long waves of silver with a streak of white that falls along her slender face. I can see her in the cover illustration, maybe standing on one of the craggy green cliffs of the Blasket Islands, staring out over the raging sea, with that hair whipping around her shoulders. She might be wearing a flowing red skirt that the wind has drawn tight against her long thin frame. It would be a challenge to feature a complex character like her, a writer of novels and nonfiction, a woman who beats breast cancer and then writes a memoir about that experience. A woman who also travels to a small village in Africa, to write about a clinic there. A character whose passions drive her to fight for causes that she learns about because she lives her life intensely attuned and connected to the humanity around her, with an ear to the ground and her heart in her hand. A character who tirelessly gives of herself in the way she knows best, by informing the world about what’s important. A character who has reporting in her bones and storytelling in her soul.

Suzanne isn’t a fictional character, though. She’s flesh and blood and waiting for me this morning at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse sanctuary that is another one of her passions. It’s just down the street from her home in the town where she was born and raised, Palmer, Mass. I find her behind the stables with a pitchfork in one hand and an axe in the other. She wears a red knit Peruvian cap. It has white fur trim and ear-flaps from which pompoms dangle and bounce on the collar of her black bomber jacket, the jacket she likes because it was her father’s, and because it’s warm. Gloveless, she uses the axe to break the ice on the surface of the water in one of the large tin tubs where the draft horses come to drink. “I’ve chipped it away once and it’s already frozen again,” she says with a smile.

Suzanne is a volunteer at the farm. You can find her here in any kind of weather. She’s always wanted a horse of her own; her husband Tommy (another award winning writer) even gave her one, once upon a time, but she lost it. Yes, that’s right, Suzanne’s horse ran away, never to be seen again. “My friends won’t even let me watch their purses after that,” she says. But here at the farm she can still get her horse-fix, and also fulfill that unstoppable urge she has to bring attention to a good cause.

She introduces me to a few of her friends, Mario and Ponch and Foxy. They are big-boned, much larger than the average riding horse. Their chests and hindquarters are thickly muscled. Many of them have beautiful cuffs of feathering fur that cascades over their giant hooves, hooves that are as big or bigger than dinner plates. When these horses move, the earth moves. I feel it up through my gut and I can’t help but feel a sort of awe for them, and for Suzanne too, because she handles them with such ease.

After she feeds the giants, she and the farm’s only two employees bring them out to the big ring where they will have space to run and play. Suzanne walks comfortably among them like a mother with her own children. She pats them, coaxes them, pushes them along, laughing when they stubbornly disobey. It’s frosty this morning, somewhere near zero degrees in what we call an arctic blast here in New England. The sky is gray and the air crisp and dry, the smell of hay and manure a bit less pungent because my nose is frozen. The horses don’t seem to mind the cold. I wonder if they know they have been saved by this place, by people like Suzanne. They file into the big ring and once the gate is closed behind the last straggler, Suzanne puts away her tools and we head off to her house.

She lives with Tommy of course, in a white Cape nestled atop a snowy hill. We drive up a winding drive that I can only imagine might be lined with day-lilies and foxglove when the season is right, but now is banked by walls of white. Ice crunches under our tires. Inside, I am greeted by wagging tails and nudging noses. Bisquick, a nine-year-old English setter and Tiny, affectionately known as Ten-buck Tiny from the Palmer Pound, who is a sixteen-year-old beagle mixed with dachshund, sniff my horsey smelling pant legs and have ruled me friend, not foe. Suzanne guides me through rooms with walls painted in colors that should be given names like Harvest Moon, Morning Glow and Spring Meadow, the colors of our New England life that one must focus on in times like these, in times when the mercury dips below comfortable and into intense. But it is warm inside Suzanne’s house.

In the dining room we sit at a wooden table covered with an orange wool tablecloth that Suzanne tells me was her mother’s. “She used this when I was a kid,” Suzanne tells me, as she pours hot tea into fat ceramic mugs and brings a basket of soft snowflake rolls in from the kitchen. There is hummus, Irish cheese, plump red grapes and my favorite, thick-sliced sweet-potato chips, to snack on as we warm ourselves by clasping our hands around our mugs, the sweet smelling tea thawing our frozen noses. Bisquick puts his soft face on my leg. He is meringue like wisps of white fur with specs of brown, he is soft and gentle and he looks at me with the sweet eyes of a well-loved boy.

We move to the living room where the honey-colored wood floors and the gray marble fireplace contrast nicely with the graphic print of blue and gold and red and green of the fabric on the sofa. The art is mostly originals collected over the years, some things purchased and some given to them by artist friends. Among the treasured pieces that fit into the “painted by a friend” category is a portrait of Tommy on his mother’s front porch, he’s just a boy and he’s wearing his Our Lady of Hope baseball uniform. A small oil painting made by Suzanne’s mother, depicting a sitting woman reading a book, is set upon the windowsill and leans on the cold glass pane. I suspect that Suzanne, the beautiful writer and reader of books, must have been her mother’s muse for that piece, if not as a model then certainly for the reverence of reading that the painting emotes.

We sit at the desk that Suzanne and Tommy share. Two great writers and there I am. I am overwhelmed. The desk itself is as unpretentious as its owners, a card table actually, adorned with a lively tablecloth of red paisley swirls over a green background. I can imagine them there, gray heads bowed over laptops in the sun filled room, the music of Bob Dylan or The Saw Doctors playing in the background as they type. Suzanne speaks with a soft voice, asking many questions even though I have come to do the asking. She wonders about my kids, my writing, how I met my husband. Her curiosity is boundless. I see now her reporter skills at work, her natural instinct to do the asking, honed from years at the desk of the Springfield Republican and made sharper as she delved into the writing of books. She is full of stories, and humor and pain and love, and I am listening.

“I loved working at the paper,” she said. “It’s like Tommy said, it’s a public service for which you can get paid. You’re really going out into the world and telling people what’s going on.” Suzanne’s hands dance as she speaks, a band of gold circles her slender ring finger, and although her hands are hard working they are graceful, elegant.  “Someone might want to know about this thing…or that could be helpful to someone…like the farm. I thought, no one knows about this. I’ll write about this. It’s fascinating!”

Much more than fascinating, Suzanne’s topics, the things that get her attention, are also things that she comes to care deeply about. From an article about Blue Star Equiculture that can be seen in this fall’s issue of Yankee Magazine, to another soon to be published essay for Down East Magazine about her once-upon-a-time college-town of Portland (where she attended Portland School of Art to study photography), Suzanne informs her readers about what they might not know, and perhaps what they should know, about what’s in their own backyard.

Sometimes though, she goes way beyond the backyard and in those cases her essays have grown into longer works, into books, like her latest, in which Suzanne takes her readers to the lakeside village of Cape Maclear, in Malawi, Africa. With a title like This is Paradise: An Irish mother’s grief, an African village’s plight and the medical clinic that brought fresh hope to them both, you know you’re in for a moving story and Suzanne doesn’t let us down. Somehow along the way, her words draw us into her circle of concern, into the sad and yet powerfully inspirational tale of a woman who starts a medical clinic in Cape Maclear, to honor the memory of her son who died there. It’s a book about healing on many levels, a mother’s healing, a village’s healing (quite literally) and a greater societal healing of sorts.

Speaking of societal healing, Suzanne recently published another book, Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of the Christian Faith, in which she takes her reader on a tour of Christian places of worship throughout the country. Raised Catholic, Suzanne tells me that she was disillusioned with the church when the scandal of the pedophile priests and the cover up of their guilt came to light in the late 1980s. She found herself distanced from the church that she had believed in as a child. Her husband, Tommy, wrote extensively and compassionately for the Springfield Republican about one of the victims of abuse (and murder in this case) and through it all, Suzanne’s once strong connection with the church had been shaken.

Another factor in Suzanne’s shift away from the church was her need for privacy when facing her battle with breast cancer. Perhaps it’s that New England stoicism, that private, uncomplaining and rugged spirit that living in this environment breeds, but Suzanne began to seek the solace of God only when the church itself was empty and she could be alone with her prayers.

It wasn’t until 2005, Suzanne writes in Sundays in America, when she found herself fascinated by what she saw as she watched the televised funeral procession of Pope John Paul II in April of that year. What caught her eye, and her heart, was the devotion on the faces of the people as they mourned for the Pope that they had loved so dearly. She found herself longing to understand that kind of devotion, that sense of belonging and so she wrote, “ I got the idea that I might want to go on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community. Rather than sit quietly by myself in an empty church, I would, for a day, be part of a congregation once again.”

All it took to set the book in motion was for Tommy to say, “Write about it!” and off she went, across America. No doubt he said the same as she traveled to Ireland and Africa in pursuit of a story. Tommy and Suzanne, not only share the same desk, they share many of the same passions and they give each other the space they need to be the best they can be as far as writing goes, as far as pouring themselves into their causes, as far as giving one hundred and ten percent.

A few years ago, when I first met Suzanne, I heard that her husband who had worked as a reporter for Springfield newspapers for the past 42 years had decided to take a job with The National, an English language newspaper in Abu Dhabi. With her support and encouragement, Tommy went off to work as Editor of the Foreign Desk in that foreign country on the other side of the world. Perhaps that was a dream of his, and Suzanne most likely said, “Go for it,” just as he had said to her so many times before.

From what I can witness of the two of them together, not just here in their living room, but everywhere they go, they are a couple who have been blessed with careers that they enjoy and they weave their lives with threads of work, and friendships, and music, and travel and of course, the worthy causes that they pursue with all of their hearts, because they can, because they do it together and appear to sacrifice nothing of their relationship in the process. Yes, they are workaholics, but they seem to be very happy with the condition.

Suzanne might have thought she was destined to be a photographer back when she was a sophomore in high school. She might have never envisioned her life as a successful writer of books and essays that would appear in major magazines. She could not have known when she sat at her typewriter to compose a letter to the Springfield Republican, (complaining that they were not sending a reporter to cover the Palmer Panthers hockey games) that she was setting the wheels in motion as far as her writing career, and that the letter would lead her to Tom Shea, her Tommy, sports reporter for the Republican, and three years Suzanne’s senior.

They became friends of course, and long before they would each come to excel in their writing lives, that one letter that started out as a complaint tied them together for life. “If that was the only thing I ever wrote then I’d be O.K.” says Suzanne. “You know, I’d say, ‘I’m a success’!” and who could argue with that?




Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Interview with Suzanne Strempek Shea and Tom Shea

On today's blog we are very pleased to feature an interview conducted by Sandy Chmiel with Suzanne Strempek Shea, Bay Path's Writer-in-Residence and the lead facilitator of the MFA Ireland Seminar, and her husband and fellow writer Tom Shea.  

You will both be taking part in Bay Path University’s Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle, Ireland again this year.  Can you tell us why you chose Dingle?

SSS  We’d been there many times due to Tommy’s parents growing up there and one of his sisters living there, plus many other relatives to visit – on top of that, it’s simply a truly gorgeous part of the world and I felt immediately at home on my first visit, back in 1988. Every one of my nearly annual trips has included writing, on my own, in conferences, for a freelance piece or book project. I find such an air of inspiration, and also acceptance of creative lives, souls, and endeavors. Plus, the literary culture is strong, revered, a fact of the country’s history. When we were thinking of the perfect place to meet with our writers, Dingle came immediately to mind.

TS My parents are from the Dingle area. It is just a beautiful piece of earth with a great writer’s vibe. Writing and storytelling are alive and well in the west of Ireland.  (It might help that rain is no stranger in Ireland!)  Dingle also has two world-class bookstores.

What are some memorable “snapshots” from last year’s seminar?

SSS The buzz in the room when we all met for lectures, the wide eyes taking in the view of the harbor, the mountains, Slea Head. The pride as participants did the final-night reading at a bookstore in town. 
         
TS My favorite snapshot from last year was coming down for breakfast. Not the food, though the food was great – do try the black sausages – but the buzz in the breakfast room. It was the contagious hum of people excited about what they were doing and about to do. It was the sound of people making new friends.

What did you most enjoy about the 
seminar in Ireland? 

SSS Getting to expose others to this very magical place, and to see how it truly transforms them and their work. Because we are familiar with the town and area, we don’t worry much about not having the answers to participants’ questions about what’s where and what to do in their spare time, how to find this or that. We feel centered, we can be helpful, and we can focus on the students and work rather than Googling the locations of the nearest copy shop.

TS The workshops. I was simply blown away by the talent. All the right words in all the right places. And the subject matter. Powerful stuff. I was honored to be in the same room.

What, if anything, will be different at this year’s seminar?

SSS We will have Leanna James Blackwell, the MFA program director, along to lead workshops in playwriting. In keeping with that theme, we’ll also have a performance by Curlew Theater of Connemara. It’s exciting to add a new option to the mix of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and it’s going to be wonderful to have Leanna along.

TS Leanna is doing a workshop on playwriting. And there will be at least two plays.  And the stories will be different. They always are!

What are each of you currently at work on?

SSS I’m working on a collaborative project with Susan Tilton Pecora – she and I volunteer at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse rescue in Bondsville, right down the street from our houses. We spent last year writing (my part) and painting (her part) moments from a year at the farm. We hope to have the resulting book out as a fundraiser for the farm. Next March I will celebrate the launch of a collection of soap opera essays by writers obsessed by such shows. I’m co-editing that with my literary soul sister Elizabeth Searle, a novelist, essayist, and librettist who lives in Arlington. Some Writers’ Day regulars would have met Elizabeth at a talk she gave at the event a few years ago.

TS I’m working on a biography of a priest, kind of lost to history, who was an important person in the 12-step movement. (I’ll also be promoting Dingers, a book about baseball that will be out in April, which I co-wrote with Joshua Shifren.)

Will you each tell us something about the other that inspires you?

SSS Tommy simply is the kindest, most goodhearted and real soul I’ve ever met. He also lives for the written word; reading and writing are enormous parts of his life and day. He was like that when I met him in 1974, and he’s like that just this morning. He makes me want to be a better person, writer, better everything. It’s no cliché when I say I feel like the luckiest person to be his person.

TS Suzanne’s discipline in getting her work done. Her power to put herself in front of the screen and work. No ifs, or...she does her work, be it two pages a day or working on something for three hours. Then it is back again tomorrow. And the day after…and the day after that…

Is there anything else you would like to share?

SSS We did enjoy seeing the connections made between MFA students who otherwise only knew one another long distance. That and bonds made with non-MFA students, too, just so nice to witness. We had a lovely group and are anticipating the same this year.

TS What was really holy about Dingle last year was the camaraderie.  Writing can be often isolating and lonely. Dingle can help shake off those feelings along with providing nothing but inspiration when you come home.