“Journaling is my way of clearing my throat as a writer, basically getting anything that might be in my way out and onto paper so I can focus.” ~~Susan J. Tweet
A Creative Time
An interview with Susan J. Tweit by B. Lynn Goodwin
Susan Tweit’s Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying is one of the most moving and well-rounded memoirs I’ve ever read — and I have read a lot of them. Though the story could happen to anyone, it’s the characters and their reverence for life and their relationship that makes this story stand above so many.
The balance of joy and anguish is as impressive as author Susan Tweit’s skilled use of language and her enduring appreciation of nature.
The structure of the story is strong as she travels between a long-delayed honeymoon and the years after her husband is diagnosed with brain cancer. Her life-affirming practices are woven throughout the story, balancing his loss of life with her resilience.
In the Q & A below she shares her unique take on writing and living.
BLG: Tell us about your writing practice. How much did you write about Richard in your journals and haikus before you decided to write a memoir?
SJT: I’m a full-time freelance writer, and I always begin my day with half an hour of journaling, no matter what else is on my desk. Journaling is my way of clearing my throat as a writer, basically getting anything that might be in my way out and onto paper so I can focus. This private writing serves as “data” for my memoir work, the raw material I refer to and draw on in writing about my life. I also have a blog, where I write more polished essays about my life. I used both my journal and my blog to chronicle our journey with Richard’s brain cancer. Before I posted anything on the blog, I read it to Richard so I could make sure he was okay with how I portrayed our joint experience. My haiku are a daily “offering” to my readers on social media, and those reflected our time with his brain cancer too, because they are moments from my life.
BLG: Bless the Birds is unflinchingly honest and digs deeply into the issues you and your family faced. What’s helped you to write so courageously?
SJT: I told myself at the beginning that I would write as things were, not as I wished they were. When I found myself straying from that and “sanitizing” my experience, I revised. And revised, and revised. I found one of the best ways to hold myself to the truth of the story—as I understood it—was to read the manuscript out loud and listen to it. When the story didn’t ring true, I “heard” that and made a note to revise.
BLG: What troubles did you have writing about a subject so close to you and how did you overcome them?
SJT: I think the temptation in memoir is always to portray ourselves as more together than we are. Smarter, more compassionate, more prepared, or whatever. To minimize our frailties and maximize our strengths. As a Quaker, “telling truth to power” is a core values. So I held myself to that standard, and went fearlessly into the story. Whenever I found myself shutting down because the emotions were too much, I put the manuscript aside and worked on something else. It was not an easy story to tell; in fact, I often say that working on this memoir was like peeling my skin off with a dull paring knife.
BLG: How did you come up with your structure?
SJT: It was a gift from a friend, the playwright DS Magid. I had written the story in a more chronological way and wasn’t happy with it. Then, on a residency at Women’s International Study Center, DS, who was my casita-mate for the residency, asked about The Big Trip, the 4,000-mile-long road-trip Richard and I took when he was dying. “That’s a movie!” she said after I told the story, and went on to talk about how it would translate as a script. In that moment, I realized that the road-trip was the perfect framework for the longer journey of Richard’s and my life together, and his brain cancer. Those days on the road showed who we were and what we meant to each other, and included some actual humor, which is essential in a story like Bless the Birds.
BLG: The haikus are quite effective. I notice you don’t use the classic 5-7-5 syllables. What content do you put in each line and do the number of syllables matter?
SJT: The 5-7-5 “rule” for haiku actually applies only to haiku written in Japanese kanji, pictoforms, which don’t translate to English syllables. Haiku masters in English suggest sticking to a short/long/short line-length form of around 17 syllables, and using the line breaks as punctuation. As I understand the form, haiku should eschew abstractions, be grounded in the moment and the seasons, and include a “turn” or a surprise. It’s a very tricky form, and I really enjoy the challenge. I write a haiku every day as practice, and post each one on social media with a short comment.
BLG: Your use of language is outstanding. What tips do you have for writing so evocatively?
SJT: Practice! Writing haiku has taught me the importance of choosing each word carefully and make it work hard. (Don’t use a form of “to be” when you can use a more evocative verb, for instance.) Also, I edit myself by reading everything out loud—more than once. I read Bless the Birds out loud dozens of times, listening for the ring and rhyme of the words, for accuracy and truthfulness, and stopping the reading when my attention strayed, resting, and coming back to it the next day. Reading your work out loud is one of the best ways to “hear” and improve your writing.
BLG: How do you budget your time so you can write and do all the other projects you are involved in?
SJT: I used to keep a strict schedule of writing every morning, because that’s my best creative time, and then working on other writing-related things—social media, emails, accounts, preparing for teaching, research for the writing and things like that—in the afternoon. But these days, perhaps because of the pandemic, I am more relaxed about going with the flow. I still try to preserve my morning hours for writing, but if the horses need exercise and it’s a nice day, for example, I may just go out for a ride in the morning and figure I’ll write later.
BLG: How did you choose SheWrites Press for your publisher and how have they helped you?
SJT: I chose She Writes Press because Brooke Warner, the publisher is a fearless advocate of women’s voices and women’s stories. Still, I imagined going with a traditional publisher for Bless the Birds, as I had for my 12 previous books. Only when my agent submitted BtB, we got dozens of admiring rejection letters and no bites. So I turned to She Writes, and honestly, I am glad (despite shouldering a significant chunk of the cost of publishing and publicity and marketing myself). The supportive community of women writers is phenomenal, and She Writes has a reputation of producing beautiful books that win awards. Plus, She Writes’ books are distributed traditionally, so the indie bookstores who have always carried my work can get behind BtB too.
BLG: What advice would you give to those who want to write a memoir? How can people learn more about your and find your book?
SJT: For those who want to write a memoir, read all sorts of memoirs and use them as teaching tools. Ask yourself questions about how each memoir works: How is the story structured? How are the characters developed? What carries the narrative? How does the tension build and resolve? Study them for clues to how you’ll tell your story, and for how to find and convey what it means to others.
You can learn more about me on my website: http://susanjtweit.com. And you can buy Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, through any indie bookstore, or through Bookshop.org or Amazon online. It’s available both as a physical book, or as an eBook. There will be an audio version when I have time to narrate it!
My book launch is May 6th, through Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe (https://www.collectedworksbookstore.com), where you can also order signed copies. The book launch is a virtual conversation with Kati Standefer, whose memoir Lightning Flowers was both an Oprah pick and an NYT pick, on living on the edge of death. That conversation will also launch my new podcast, Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense. It’s a creative time for me!
“These poems are of a seer – unwrapping time, being, the Change we are igniting.”
–description of Prime Meridian
Truth Must Be Told in Intricate Ways
An interview with Connie Post by B. Lynn Goodwin
I am not a poet, so I turned to Connie Post, a skilled poet, organizer, and presenter, for some insight into the world of poetry.
Connie Post is a San Francisco Bay Area Poet who has been writing and publishing for over twenty five years. Her work has received praise from Al Young, Ursula LeGuin, Ellen Bass, Maxine Chernoff and former US Poet Laureate Juan Herrera.
Her first full length collection “Floodwater” was the winner of the 2014 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press.
Her second full length collection “Prime Meridian” was just released in January of 2020. (Glass Lyre Press) Prime Meridian was a finalist in the 2020 Best Book Awards and the American Fiction Awards. (American Book Fest)
She has two chapbooks from Finishing Line Press “And When The Sun Drops” and “Trip Wires”. Her other books include “Waking State” (Small Poetry Press) and 2 other self-published books about parenting a son with autism. Check out the amazing list of journals that have published her.
Below she shares her wise advice about writing and sharing poetry as well as growing a writing career.
BLG: Tell us about your writing background. How did you know you were a poet and when were you first published?
CP: I knew I was a poet in high school. I had an English teacher who supported me and encouraged me to keep writing. I started putting pen to paper sooner than that, though. I started with short stories in fourth grade, then hen moved to phrases and verse in junior high, that I now realize were the beginnings of my poetry. I was first published in 1985 in the Bay Area Poets Coalition. I was busy raising children in the 1980s and 1990s. I was published in mostly state, local and regional journals. Then in 2005 something in my poetry changed and I started getting published in national journals and anthologies.
BLG: What themes do you explore in Prime Meridian?
CP: I explore the themes of trauma to the body and how there is a parallel to the trauma of the earth. Humans have done so much to harm the earth as evidenced by all the effects of global warming. In my poems, I examine the long-term influence of trauma in my own life and how I connect with the earth and walk the pathway to healing. For example, in the final stanza of the poem in my book “Walking Beside October” where I write about a salamander I notice on a walk near my neighborhood
“I look back
and thank this traveler
of this small country
for teaching me
how move across a rugged terrain
without a passport
or even a name”
BLG: What do you hope readers will take away from the collection?
CP:I hope that readers understand how the truth must be told in intricate ways. I hope that this book conveys that living inside your secrets is damaging. I hoped to take the poems in this book beyond the word “abuse” and tell the real story, through images, stanzas and metaphor that will stay with the reader. I have received some beautiful emails from people who have been assaulted, and it means a great deal to me that the book helped them tell the truth in their own lives or find some way of healing. I hope that the readers will find that healing is possible. I hope that it opens a pathway to help us find ways to heal our wounded earth, and that way, we heal all our environment and ourselves.
BLG: I know you released this book right before the pandemic shut everything down. How have you found your readers and what do you recommend for writers seeking readers during the pandemic?
CP: At first I felt what one would expect … “what now !”
But after a few days I started to realize there is SO much one can do electronically. We do live in a very electronic-oriented world and I started to ponder the many ways I could capitalize in this forum. I have a twenty-year background in business, and those goal-oriented skills also helped me feel motivated to make something happen with my book. I got busy and sent out as many review copies as I could to journals and review websites. My thought was “the worst that can happen is they say “no.” “No” does not often intimidate me. I sent announcements to all the journals who had published the poems within the book. They are often interested in “contributor news,” and some of the journals announced Prime Meridian on social media.
Since I’ve been in the poetry community here in the Bay Area for a long time, I already knew of several venues and contacted the hosts. The new and exciting part was that I was able to join national venues due to Zoom. I wasn’t thrilled about Zoom and first for all the reasons most people have hesitation (lack of that cozy in-person feeling, reading to people on a screen). That took some time to get used to, but I did get used to it.
As the year came to a close, I felt fortunate to be able to attend and read at several series across the country, AND I didn’t have to travel and spend all the money authors often incur on book travel. I was the featured reader for about 20 readings in 2020. I am still doing readings this year, too. I also tried to attend readings to get to know people and build relationships.
Be an authentic presence in poetry, that’s my advice. Be a real presence that cares and make meaningful connections. I feel very grateful for some of the friendships I made this year, and it would not have happened if not for virtual world. In summary, my advice is make something amazing whatever environment you are in! It can really make a difference !
BLG: What tips do you have for writing poetry that reaches readers?
CP: I believe a poet’s work should be relevant and have some level of universality to it. I think a poet should be able to strike the balance of complex metaphorical construct and also accessibility. That blend must be perfected. I believe a poet must make her readers long to return to her poems again and again. Poets should strive to attract readers to their individual poems and their body of work.
BLG: How has your experience as the Poet Laureate of Livermore enhanced your writing? What are some of the things you do?
CP: I was the first Poet Laureate of Livermore from 2005 to 2009. I had a blank canvas to develop new programs. It was a pleasure for me to do that. There was a lot of work involved but it was well worth it. I developed two new reading series that endured for about thirteen years. I had many nationally renowned poets read at these venues. I ran a youth poetry critique group, which I enjoyed very much. I developed relationships there that have lasted for many years.
During my four-year tenure I wrote over twenty-five poems of occasion for various civic events. At the time that I was Poet Laureate , the city was undergoing many improvements with new buildings and fountains and theatres, so I was happy to be involved in those events and add poetry to the mix. It was challenging because poems of occasion must be both relevant, accessible and enjoyable (and not too heavy). I felt like I made a contribution to the city in a positive way and promoted literature and poetry as much as possible
BLG: What is the best piece of advice you were ever given by a fellow poet?
CP: “Take your favorite line out and see how the poem changes.”
BLG: Wow! I like that for poetry or prose. What are some good venues for those who want to share their work?
They both have a variety of submission calls and useful resources for writers.
In addition, a blog managed by Allison Joseph
For a summary of all the various poetry events for Northern and Southern California and a comprehensive calendar or most San Francisco Bay Area Events go to PoetryFlash.org.
BLG: What else would you like us to know and how can readers learn more about you?
CP: I am a believer in literary communities and I believe they are vital for us as writers. I hosted the Poet Laureate series I founded for 4 years, then another venue in Crockett, California, for 8 years (the Valona Deli Second Sunday Poetry Series). It was very popular. Those years were vital for me to sustain amazing poetry communities and learn to interact with people in a supportive way.
My first two poetry books were self-published and that is what started me on my poetry publication journey. The books were about the journey of my son being diagnosed with severe autism. Since that time I have been an advocate and speaker on autism. My son is 35 now and I will always be a voice for him since he cannot speak.
To know more about me you can go to my web site www.poetrypost.com
or go to my profile on Poets and Writers here.
BLG: Connie, reading your answers was really inspiring. I love the way you see the world, and I am delighted you shared your words and resources with Writer Advice readers. I look forward to reading Prime Meridian, and encourage everyone reading this to do the same.