Fiction, Tunes, Teaching, & Parenting:

Fiction, Tunes, Teaching, & Parenting:

March 28, 2012

Notes from Somewhere Inside a Poetry Sabbatical by Susanna Childress

Ten days (I kid you not) after my first child was born, I received a phone call from a press to whom, several months prior, I’d submitted my second poetry manuscript.

We’d like to publish your book!

I remember exactly where I sat, outside on the back porch, eating dinner provided by a family from church. It felt pleasant, even dreamy, garnered no less by the small boy I held, his head in my elbow and his lips puckering even in sleep, the salad someone else’s hands had tossed, kindness beside the cucumbers and cherry tomatoes in a bowl, and, of course, early summer’s dusk in Michigan.

I’d sent this manuscript out for three years, been a finalist 22 times, been rejected a good hundred, spent at least a thousand dollars in contest fees and postage; as it goes in poetry, a prize-winning first book had not helped procure a publisher for the second. How grateful I was, then, for this press to give me a chance, to put their good name behind my book, to print the pages and pages of my poetry. Someone, somewhere believed in my work: what a hardy shot in the arm.

Yet the joy I felt most deeply had little to do with getting my foot in the great, dark door of the literary market. I was a mama. I had a baby. By far, he was my best “publication” to date. [Gratuitous side note: I find the baby-book-birthing comparison frustrating in its inaccuracy. Truly, not much makes them analogous, given that the real work of writing a book happens before it is published and the real work of having a baby happens after she is born; too, their labor and delivery processes are separate planets altogether. Ask a woman, any woman, who has done both.] Perhaps part of what brought me such quiet satisfaction was sensing I had entered a new season. I did not know then how thoroughgoing, that my writing regime might not ever look the same again, that my priorities would, like a commercial airliner, never lift off without this new passenger aboard to alter and shimmy the destination(s). I did not dread this, but my spirit understood without fully understanding: it was, indeed, a different season.

Add this to the mix: months earlier I’d made a pact that if I could get this second book of poetry published, I’d allow myself some good and unhurried time to write short fiction, which I’d abandoned during graduate school and the few years after, as, respectively, my progress through the program and “establishing” myself was reliant on (rather feverishly) writing and publishing poetry. In the small ways my situation as a first-time mother (and adjunct professor—we’ll get to that in a bit) allowed me time, I was giddy to pursue another genre.

I perused O. Henry Prize anthologies and collections of linked stories; in literary journals, I turned first to the featured shorts; I began to see plot lines where I’d seen end-rhymes, character development instead of lyric moments. Refreshing, confounding, surreal—it took me forever to get into the groove of writing fiction. In fact, it wasn’t until this spring (two years post-“pact”), when I’ve had the chance again to teach a fiction workshop that maybe I have, as they say, hit my stride.

The relationship between writing and teaching can be wonderfully symbiotic; it can also be paralyzing and parasitic (especially if one is loaded up with, say, freshman composition). It’s often true when I have a few “free” hours I lament that I must spend it prepping for class or grading instead of writing. It’s hard to stop myself from complaining, “I could be working on ______ right now!”

When I’m honest, though, I can see that teaching creative writing has powerfully affected my own work: I read the pieces I assign ever so much more hungrily than when I leisure read, looking to suck from each a secret of strong writing I can pass on to my students; I’m compelled to create or find both interesting and worthwhile writing exercises because I, too, need to complete them, see what they’ll yield for me, push myself past or through what I could (or could not) do by my lonesome.

I’ve taught several fiction workshops, but this swoop through the pass has brought me breakthroughs in my own writing: finally, I’ve been able to see the structural flaws in a short story I’ve been working on, albeit sporadically, since 2003. Nine flogging years.

One last element here: a little tuneage. During the long months that my husband and I dated and were engaged, separated by a distance of half the United States, we would find ourselves so stymied with communicating by phone that sometimes he would take a scarf, tie the receiver to his ear and, instead of conversing, play his guitar (remember the pre-earbud-era?). We wound up writing songs together. Intermittently, he would surprise me by putting my poems or stories to music. [Second gratuitous side note: PEOPLE, should you ever want to woo someone, just take a thing she’s made and add, exponentially, to its potential, its beauty, its power, by making something of it yourself. If all other factors are aligned, for the remainder of your earthly days you will find her heart at the end of your kite’s string.]

Now that we live in the same place, nay house, our evenings full of filing taxes, gardening, and dust bunnies, we write songs together less often, but we’ve amassed enough music to play out a bit and to slowly record a full-length album. We were honored to be included in the Festival of Faith and Music’s 2011 Bandspotting. These days, my husband is working desperately to finish the Ordinary Neighbors CD before our second child arrives, which has meant some late nights recording and re-recording my vocals (did I mention that, between the two of us, he’s the only musician?)

Okay, Susanna, okay. This is swell, you say. But what’s it add up to? Why share the motley details of your journey, of this particular path?

Here’s why: there are days when the panic to “succeed” in the poetry world washes over me like some scalding waterfall. It snatches my breath out from inside me. It rakes and burns. I’m terrified I’ll never write poetry again. But that admission ought to be followed with another, what disciplined Sabbath-keepers espouse, what the farmers of a different generation could tub-thump all the year round: fields must lie fallow, and for good reason; the soil needs to replenish and be replenished. Sure, perhaps it’s one of those writerly excuses to be lazy, be scared off, be fooling myself by distraction. But, as we know, seasons give way to seasons, and what I’m striving to sow, little by little, unfaithful but also undaunted, may not be the same crop, or—dare we go here—even a crop at all. If we understand the significance of such entities, how crude or pejorative could it really be to see fiction, tunes, teaching, and parenting as the castings of worms in this field, the dung of cows or the droppings of chickens, rabbits, pigs? The mineral-richness, the revitalizing nutrients. Part and parcel of what a farmer like Joel Salatin calls “perennial prairie polycultures.”

And each of these, in their own right, of course, so much more.

Have you had a fallow field yield goodness in time? What feeds your art, your craft, your creative spirit, while you’re pressing into a seasonal Sabbath? How do you know when those seasons, fulfilling and fruitful as they may or may not be, draw to a close?


Susanna Childress' second volume of poetry, Entering the House of Awe, was published in October 2011 by New Issues Press as part of their Green Rose Series. Her debut volume of poems, Jagged with Love, was selected by former US poet laureate Billy Collins for the 2005 Brittingham Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press. David James Duncan chose her fiction as the runner-up in the 2010 Ruminate William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. Her poetry & fiction were featured in Ruminate's Issue 02: Humor's Grace. She lives and teaches in Holland, Michigan, with her husband, a son, two dogs, and a worm farm.


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