Patricia Hampl once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “You give me your story, I get mine.”
This month’s guest, Suzanne Strempek Shea, a very fine fiction writer, journalist, and memoirist, picks up on Hampl's notion by using an anecdote from a grade school writing assignment as the catalyst for an essay about finding narratives we're passionate about as well as the importance of connecting readers to those narratives.
In the body of her piece, “Why Would She Write About That?” “Suzanne says, “As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride.”
#72 "Why Would She Wrtie About That?" by Suzanne Strempek Shea
“Get out your tablets.”
Upon that direction, kids nowadays reach for the ever-present iPad. But in 1970, during seventh-grade English class at my Western Massachusetts parochial school, tablet was nunspeak for those ruled pads of paper with that black-and-white faux-marble cover. The word also meant it was time to write. We’d lift the hinged lids of wooden school desks so old they included a well for ink, and at which many of our parents sat when they’d been our ages. We’d retrieve our tablets, and sharpened pencils, and would begin to write. Once done, we’d be invited stand at what Sister Lucentia called the lectern, and would share our work.
Lectern was in our vocabulary thanks to Sister, but of course we wouldn’t have used the term “work” for our creations, that being where our fathers went off to each morning, dressed in Dickies and carrying lunch in a brown paper bag. We’d also not have used “share,” unless being guilted into relinquishing an extra section of Almond Joy to a classmate, but never as in “Oh, when you shared your work, I was incredibly moved.” So let’s just say that anybody in class brave enough walked to the lectern to read the resulting essay, getting it out of the way before Sister forced every one of us up there in her usual gruff by-the-surname manner.
Seventh grade marked both the first essay I remember writing, and, at that lectern, giving my first public reading. Sure, for an entire year already, I’d been publisher (and reporter and illustrator and designer and distributor) of The Nutty News, a newspaper I created for my parents every Saturday night while they went out polka dancing. So I was published -“Circulation 1”, as noted on the masthead of the copy I left for my parents at the back door, as if the paperboy had been by. But nobody ever had heard me read until the September day I was propelled to the lectern by a freak storm of unusual confidence in both my ability to stand in front of 30 kids, and in what I had written in my tablet.
The assignment had been the usual “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” I wrote of a family camping trip in Vermont during which I spent a sunny afternoon floating on my back down a stretch of the tree-lined West River. Despite all the stuff my family has held onto over the years (Anyone for the foot-long braid chopped off my head when I craved a mod style during the Nutty News era?), the tablet somehow isn’t in the archives, so I can’t quote. But I do recall describing the rocks in the water, and the effort of dodging them, the joy of lingering in the deep pool at the end of the faster stretch, and hiking back up the shady access road to do it all again. I don’t recall the prose as extremely descriptive, or there being any action beyond the floating and noticing, then the trek up to start another round of it. There certainly was no arc to the story, no realization or resolution, no reaching out to anyone beyond me. Yet the piece felt like something real, a sensation as fresh as the river. Standing up there, I was proud, something we weren’t supposed to be about anything at all, other than, say, being a member of the One True Church.
My vocations had never wavered from horse trainer and artist, so I can’t say this was the moment I knew of my eventual career destiny. But there indeed was something happening as I lifted my eyes from the lines of Bic-blue to the rows of scarlet woolen blazers before me, and to the raised hand of Tad Nowacki, who never, ever raised his hand except to request what usually would be a lengthy visit to the lavatory (another of Sister’s words).
“You want to be next, Nowacki?” Sister sneered, surprised as the rest of us at the possibility.
“Nah. I just want to say it’s no big deal.”
“It’s no big deal what she wrote. I float down the Swift every weekend. On an old door. It’s no big deal. Why would she write about that?”
All the kids laughed.
Maybe you were expecting that in a childhood memory of creativity offered to the maws of the masses, and while it did spark an embarrassed blush that by the time I got back to my seat matched my blazer, it’s not what, 48 years later, makes this experience stick in my mind. Neither does the image of gangly Nowacki and his door swirling down our village’s not-so-swift Swift River. It’s that while Sister Lucentia might have made us write essays, via his questions, the kid who usually was staring out the window ended up teaching me something vital about writing: it’s essential for a writer to see a subject as a big deal, and to write it so it might become vital to others. Let me add that though he taught me that then, I caught on fully only through decades of trial and error.
I could have an idea, but was it one that excited me? That question was key. I was a newspaper reporter for 15 years, and have freelanced for the past 23, and not every story I’ve been assigned has made me run joyously to the interview or research. But if I were assigned something up my alley, or – better - if my editor okayed a story I’d pitched because I was wildly interested in it: nirvana. As I tell students now, usually while looking down at a classroom’s gray industrial carpeting, “If I assign you 5,000 words on gray industrial carpeting, and it’s really not your thing, it’s probably going to take you forever to write something even halfway decent. But if gray industrial carpeting is what you love most in this world, you’ll have the piece delivered in about three minutes, and it’ll be great.” Maine writer Lewis Robinson often repeats sage advice he received along these lines: “Write what you can’t shut up about.” And I often repeat Lewis Robinson. If the story idea ignites something in you – excitement, joy, horror, disgust – anything on the high end of the emotion scale – I’m betting you’re going to do a fine job on it. So Tad Nowacki was right on there. The reader wants to share your perspective that the subject is a big deal. But it’s not enough that the piece thrills you alone.
Think of the poor parent proffering a pic of their new and rather run-of-the-mill infant. They’re so in love and are looking at you with hope-filled eyes, asking “Isn’t she the most gorgeous thing?” You see the parent’s besottedness, but you don’t get why. As writers, we have to go with the great fuel provided by an idea that speaks strongly to us, and we also have to remember to take others along for the ride. We need to connect with our readers, and to do so organically, skipping that whole hitting them over the head part. We should ask the question that stymied Tad Nowacki: “Why would she write about that?” If the answer is because you really love pierogi or politics, that’s not enough. If you’re putting a story out there, it’s out there for others to read. So part of the deal is that if there’s something about your idea that shockingly powers you to the metaphorical lectern that is publication of any kind, you’ve gotta leave readers with a doggie bag.
As the literary bumper sticker says, just because it happened to you (or to someone or something else), doesn’t make “it” a story. It’s writing-cliché, but it’s true: the personal must be universal. My float down the river made Tad shrug, maybe because it was my point of view, and one particular place. What if I’d thought to widen it to imagine myself as just one of many kids enjoying that summer pastime, in Vermont, back home in Massachusetts, and wherever else there were rivers to enjoy? It’s totally possible that Tad still might not have felt connected, that maybe he was just a jerk. But making the personal big-deal universal, and solidly illustrating why the story needs to exist can save it from the linty environs of the navel-gazing category. The universal needs to be employed so regularly that you should feel compelled to fund its 401K. It’s at work in my essay about growing up one floor above my maternal grandparents, which gets into plenty of the personal but also looks at the riches resulting from daily contact with another generation, especially with one that began life in another country and for whom emigration was crucial to survival. It’s there in my book about an Irish guidance counselor who began a medical clinic in Malawi in memory of a late son, a story that offers the specifics of her journey but includes those of others who ultimately gave months and years to working there, others who underlined that we all have something to give, wherever we are. In a magazine piece about a draft horse sanctuary, I detailed the backstories of the herd’s members and the effort’s founder, which I feel could mirror those of any beings involved in any circle of rescue and renewal. In my most personal piece of writing, a book on my radiation treatment for breast cancer, I certainly ventured down the various emotional rivers on which I was floating, but heard from strangers that ever-universal honesty made that intimate trip resonate, that I wasn’t alone in wanting to head back to the store to return with the “gift” of cancer, and in having no cheery life lesson I wished as a tattoo.
And I tried to do the same in this piece, which ends as I hold forth a doggie bag I hope will have you pondering what you want to bring to the lectern that is the journal page, the computer screen, the book series. Whatever the project, I urge you to head off at the pass any Tad Nowackis by choosing a subject for which you have passion, and by making room for others as you consider how to write it. Then you can stand proud, the only hands raised belonging to readers genuinely engaged and affected. And that, indeed, is a big deal.
*Tad Nowacki is a pseudonym.
*Suzanne Strempek Shea is not. Learn more about her at suzannestempekshea.com.
Suzanne Strempek Shea began writing fiction in her spare time while working as a reporter at The Springfield (Massachusetts) Newspapers in the early 1990s. She since has published twelve books, including novels, memoirs, biographies and an anthology. Her freelance journalism, creative nonfiction and fiction has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Irish Times, Yankee, Golf World, Down East, The Bark, Organic Style and ESPN the Magazine. She was a regular contributor to Obit magazine. Suzanne is a member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing and is writer-in-residence and director of the creative writing program at Bay Path University. Previously, she taught in the MFA program at Emerson College and in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. She has also taught at the Curlew Writers Conferences in Howth and Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne leads the annual summer writing seminar in Dingle offered through Bay Path University’s MFA program in nonfiction. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, the writer Tommy Shea, and their two dogs, Otis and Dot.
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