By Alexis Zinkerman
Author and Hartford Courant columnist Susan Campbell will be the celebrity guest writer on September 22 for Writing in Mark Twain’s Library.
Campbell is the author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl (Beacon Press, 2010) and Tempest Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Garnet Books 2014). She teaches journalism at the University of New Haven.
AZ: You’ve written a column, a memoir, a blog, and other nonfiction. How would you describe your writing?
SC: I’m interested in everything. I’ve been in conversations with people and they will say something obscure and I latch onto it like a barnacle because I didn’t know that. The older I get the more ignorant I really am.
If I have a process, which I am not sure I do, it starts with my thinking “no kidding?” or I read or hear something and I think, “Oh my, I never thought of that.” My process is to first admit I’m ignorant and then I get out and alleviate my ignorance. I tend to write about stuff that I am not sure people care about, but I do.
I just turned in a manuscript for my book about [the Hartford neighborhood known as] Frog Hollow, which was so much fun to do. The problem was in knowing when to stop. I kept finding out all this cool stuff, just kept digging, had to get a six-month extension, which is a no-no. I kept finding stuff and thought it was cool.
AZ: What do you like to impart to students?
SC: It starts with curiosity and an acknowledgement that there is a lot you don’t know. They also should acknowledge how much fun writing is. I don’t sweat over my every word. It’s one more way to get my point across. I can’t dance. I can’t sing. And if I stood on a corner and shouted what I wanted to say, I probably would be hauled off. But writing allows the writer to go deeper, say more than they can say verbally.
AZ: What do you find challenging about writing creative nonfiction?
SC: It’s hard to tell a story as it should be told. But that’s the fun. You can equate it to woodcarving. You have to carve until the piece comes out. Or equate it to a puzzle where you keep moving the pieces until you see the real picture. So what’s hard is also what’s fun… I could write until deadline and drive my editors crazy, but I don’t lose sleep over writing because I’m thinking about how to phrase a sentence. When you do it long enough, you just know when you used the right sentence. Everything I write comes out like crap and has to be re-written. I should rewrite my Facebook posts because my first instinct is to take out a hammer to kill a fly. That’s not effective writing. It is interesting to me to figure out how to say things more effectively. I respect writers for whom the process is difficult, but I don’t think that makes them a better writer. Everybody’s process is different. For me, creative fiction is what you agonize over. Creative nonfiction is already there. You just have to figure out how to tell a story. I admire people who can make stuff up.
AZ: What was hard about writing memoir?
SC: Figuring out the right time to write my memoir Dating Jesus, when I wasn’t so angry anymore, was hard. I had to tell the story with the humor it needed and a little more compassion than if I had written it 10 years earlier. I think people read memoirs to see if they are okay, if their situation is universal. I don’t read a lot of memoirs, and I never meant to write one. How vain is it to write about yourself and then give book talks about the book you wrote about yourself? It’s kind of like a “Me” party.
AZ: Susan wrote the first few pages of her memoir in a writing group with Wally Lamb. Lamb encouraged her to write more of it. Once she started, she couldn’t stop writing.
SC: Being part of that group allowed me to meet people who had grown up in similar or more-dire circumstances than mine, and we could talk. I realized there’s a whole community of people out there for whom the brand of religion [I grew up with] was hurtful. We could laugh about it and talk in code where someone who didn’t grow up that way wouldn’t get it. That’s been cool. If you write a memoir, get over the notion that everybody’s going to like you. When you tell your story, people will bring their own baggage to it. They may react angrily to the book. This is all part of the process. Writing a column for a newspaper [as Campbell did for The Hartford Courant for 26 years] prepares you for not being liked. I look for patterns in my notes when I sit down to write. My Frog Hollow manuscript started out as the history of this incredible neighborhood in which so many social programs and issues have been launched, and it turned into how we turned neighborhoods into failing enterprises through our policies. Through the rewrite process, I found the gems and the “real” story.
AZ: Where are today’s true stories?
SC: If you want to tell true stories, start with family, go to a protest, sit at a bus station. I think fiction can tell the truth. You can get at rough truths in fiction. If that’s your bent, hang out with real people and steal stories as fiction. The same characteristics that make me bad to be in a relationship with absolutely make me a good journalist. I don’t take no for an answer; I’m absolutely going to dog you and find out what your story is; I don’t respect authority of any kind. I respect people, but if someone has a title, it doesn’t matter to me. And, my favorite word is “why?” – or, as they say in Missouri, where I’m from, “how come?”
AZ: To you, what makes good writing?
SC: I like writing that makes me stop. I have read sentences in which I thought, “How did they do that — and how can I steal that?” Good writing unfolds you, makes you think about something in a different way, no matter the genre.
AZ: What value does Mark Twain’s legacy have for writers today, for society as a whole?
SC: I think Mark Twain was a fabulous journalist who let his writing do his talking for him. Here is an example of someone who made a living out of his observations, which is a powerful lesson for writers doing something so isolating and lonely, sending their words out into the world with no idea what’s going to come of them. That’s risky and awesome. And in the area of writing, Mark Twain House has become a leader in getting people to think this way. My aunt who teaches history in Missouri thinks I am a better writer than I am affiliated with the Mark Twain House.
Read Campbell’s website and blog at datingjesus.net.