I met Susan, online, through one of my favorite writers, Judi Ryan Hendricks. Judi's website listed Susan's as one of her favorite sites: Tiny Lights A Journal of Personal Narrative. To make a long story short, I checked out Tiny Lights, submitted something, Susan and I really hit it off......and the rest is history!
I'm dividing the interview into two parts, only because Susan gave such awesome answers. Today is questions one through three. (I particularly love her first few sentences in answer number one!) Tomorrow will be four through seven.
Thank you again, Susan, for taking the time to let us get to know a little more about you.
1) When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you receive any encouragement from any teachers? Other mentors?
I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a writer! I’ve always just want to be a celebrity author, accepting major awards and appearing on TV talk shows, like Truman Capote and Gore Vidal did way back when. Writing is so much work! On the other hand, as a kid I ended up writing a lot, starting in 6th grade. A very artistic classmate of mine illustrated a story I wrote about a girl and a talking mouse. I was self-publishing in 1966! The book made a hit, even though I think it was really more about Peggy’s drawings. As the years went by, writing got me more praise in school than anything else I did. In 7th grade I even weaseled out of a mid-term math project by writing a bunch of bad poems about how much I hated working with numbers.
Looking back, I don’t know if being allowed to avoid the hard stuff by running around trying to be a creative writer was such a good idea, but it kept me writing, mostly poetry. Fortunately, in high school I had some fantastic English teachers who forced me to think and write with some degree of precision. I went on to major in creative writing at a time when there were only a handful of those programs scattered across the nation. That’s hard to believe, given the popularity of that major now! I had good teachers at San Francisco State, and I got good grades, but I knew I didn’t really have what it takes to be a serious poet or short story writer. I knew I could never write a novel, and there were no classes in creative nonfiction back then! The term didn’t exist, and I suspect that column-style essay writing wasn’t even offered in the journalism program. No one ever suggested that I might look into editing or publishing, so I began to think about using my love of literature and writing in a more “grownup” way by becoming an English teacher.
I ended up in a really amazing grammar class (Believe me, it had to be a nearly mystical experience to get me to pay attention to misplaced modifiers!), got into a challenging credential program at UC Davis, and ended up teaching high school for about 7 years, if you include the agony of substitute teaching. For some crazy reason, I thought staying home with my kids would be easier than teaching, so when my first son was born in 1985, I left the public schools and found out what real work was. I tried to write during those early years at home—but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I muddled along in a writing group for quite some time before I answered an ad in the paper for a features writer for a wonderful local paper called the Petaluma Weekly News. Writing for them taught me a lot about having a point and sticking to it. In 1994, I took a Sonoma State college course on writing personal essays from Gerald Haslam and that’s where the picture shifted. I learned a lot more about essays, thank goodness, but what I really discovered was my talent for editing other writers’ work. I began to see teaching and editing as my true calling. Since then, I’ve tackled many kinds of projects and teach various genres, but I really love memoir and personal essay.
2) When and why did you create Tiny Lights?
In Gerry Haslam’s fateful class, I got in touch with my desire to teach, but with my own kids approaching adolescence, I did NOT want to go back to high school! I wasn’t qualified to teach at the college level. What to do? Somehow I got it into my head that I could start a magazine (??!!?) and thus combine writing, teaching, and editing. And I would pay for its cost by running a contest with a $5 entry fee. This was in the days when you advertised for an event like this by making flyers and putting them up around town. I got very lucky and the Petaluma Weekly News did a story about my plan, so I got about 50 people to enter. I managed to cover prizes, printing and mailing costs, and I still think the material I got to publish was incredibly good. I got some other lucky breaks in the early years, too, like having a son who created a website for me at the dawn of the Internet Age, and a friend who has a bulk mailing house so I get a better rate for postage, which has gotten OUTRAGEOUS. I feel like a dinosaur these days, not having made the transition to electronic submissions and downloadable content, but I also realize that with the way things are now, no ordinary individual can afford to start a hard copy magazine like I did. It’s just too expensive. I would never go back to the dark times before email—I typed every single word that went into the magazine and literally pasted the illustrations where I wanted them to go. But I miss the slower, more meditative pace of editing and publishing back then. It was more like making a quilt, when now it’s kind of like an endless game of Sudoku.
3) How much time would you say is required to “put it all together”?
This question had me laughing so hard I almost fell on the floor! Tiny Lights keeps getting bigger, but I’ve never added any staff. So the work associated with the hard copy editions, the online postings and the monthly e-letter is mine, all mine! I stopped feeling like I had it all put together about 6 years ago! It’s just a rolling ball of semi-controlled chaos. I feel terrible when I fall behind deadlines (like now!), but I’m trying to see the situation as an opportunity to finally learn to prioritize. I’m one of those people who puts out fire after fire, never getting to the true source of the blaze. If I could gaze down at the whole scene, I’d probably end up laughing about that, too. Look! She’s dousing those teeny fires while the river’s rising, the sky is falling, and all the horses, cattle and sheep are running out the barn door and escaping to the next farm!
Please come back tomorrow to read Susan's other four answers. My upcoming contest will pertain to both days of Q&As!
"I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars."--Og Mandino