How did you become a writer?
From an early age, I was interested in words and how they sounded together, especially rhymes and rhythm. I think this is true for most kids but we abandon childish things as we grow, and a simple love of the way language sounds is often one of them. I started writing poetry in the 6th grade, and when I had a few poems published at age 20 or so, I thought maybe this is something I can do. I worked for decades to understand how to write well, and am still learning. I think of myself as a perpetual apprentice.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I guess I’d have to include my 6th grade teacher on this list, since she was the first to praise something I wrote and it surprised me. It encouraged me in a way that is memorable.
I am less drawn to individual writers than to specific parts of their body of work. For example, Edward Abbey has a wonderful essay on Glen Canyon (since drowned by Lake Powell) in Desert Solitaire. Ivan Doig is a perennial favorite of mine, and I especially love This House of Sky. Mary Oliver is a poet but I love her books of prose most of all. Blue Pastures is a favorite, and her books about prosody have taught me much about writing both poetry and prose. Also along those lines, Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town is an excellent resource for poets and prose writers alike.
When and where do you write?
I have a small office area in my home where the computer is, and I like to write there in early morning. Ideally, and when I am working hard on a particular project, I will works from around 7 am to 10 or 11. Getting a bit done before I start the rest of my day lets me feel a sense of accomplishment, so I attend to what is most important to me first. I also carry notebooks everywhere. Coffee shops, the library, and a log in the woods are all good places to write for me. Sometimes I jot ideas and observations, other times I spend an hour writing a scene of dialogue.
What are you working on now?
I am co-author of a forthcoming non-fiction book, Too Special to Drill, which is a case study about how a group of citizens achieved an environmental victory in Wyoming’s Hoback River basin. We are working on the final revision, having gotten feedback from our publisher and readers, so that will be my emphasis for the coming months. I have two novels in the works, one nearly done and the other just beginning. I recently gave myself the assignment to write a poem a day for a month, which I did in February. This gave me a lot of material to work on later, and some of these poems have evolved into what I might call finished.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t call it that. When I have periods of not writing it’s because I need to take in, not keep putting out material. I think this phase, while frustrating at times, is necessary. That’s one reason I carry a notebook, I never know when an idea will come up on that novel I set aside weeks ago. Or an unforeseen solution to a niggling problem. I do think it helps me to have multiple projects going. Novels and other long stories seem to require periods of rest, so I can go back and look at them anew. I think as long as I am writing something, whether in a journal or notebook, an article for a non-profit’s newsletter, or editing someone else’s draft work, I am not experiencing writer’s block.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I can only say from my own experience that it helps to keep a beginner’s mind about it, and practice a form of rigorous relaxation. By that I mean, don’t take your novice writing too seriously. I used to take myself and my work so seriously that I couldn’t handle criticism and thought that any flaw in a truly bad poem was a reflection on me. It was hard to get over the sting of some poorly delivered critiques in order to see the truth in them.
Don’t be hard on yourself, but keep working, learning and having fun with it. Commit to a certain time each day, your date with yourself to play with language. It can be a half hour – you can get a lot done in that amount of time, if you can focus. Surprise yourself, discover a meaning in your work that you didn’t expect. Those little moments of insight when things suddenly come together are what make writing a joy. And don’t apologize for making time for this work. It is not an idle hobby. Be serious about your craft and commitment to it, but not so serious about your ego.
Susan Marsh is an award-winning writer living in Jackson, Wyoming. She worked for the U.S. Forest Service for over thirty years. With degrees in geology and landscape architecture and a lifelong interest in creative writing, she has combined her interests into a body of work that explores the relationship of humans to wild country. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Orion, North American Review, and Fourth Genre, and anthologies such as Solo (Seal Press, 2005), and A Mile in Her Boots (Solas House, 2006). Her books include Stories of the Wild (The Murie Center, 2001), The Wild Wyoming Range (Laguna Wilderness Press, 2013), War Creek (MP Publishing, 2014) and A Hunger for High Country (Oregon State University Press, 2014). www.slmarsh.com