The Sunday Spotlight: Writer Suzanne Farrell Smith
Today’s featured writer: Suzanne Farrell Smith
The featured writing: “Listing to Love” published at Pank.
Okay, prepare yourselves. This is going to be a gush-fest. And I’m not sorry about it in the least. In honor of Valentine’s Day and this week’s featured essay “Listing to Love,” I’ve compiled a short list on what I believe about Love:
- Love makes the world go round. (Yes, that’s a cliché. And maybe love doesn’t actually make the world go round—that has something to do with science—but without love there’d be no reason for the world to exist, and likewise none of us, so you get where I’m going with this, right?)
- It’s important and necessary to tell the ones you love that you love them. Often. Shout it, whisper it, show it, act it.
- Love manifests in big and small ways.
- Love is free.
- Love leads to more love.
In this spirit, I intend to spread the love…
I met Suzanne Farrell Smith my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. We were in an all cnf workshop together facilitated by Sue William Silverman and Robert Vivian that was, surprisingly for a writing workshop, quite the lovefest in itself. This workshop was where I met some of my closest friends, brilliant writers all. Suzanne and I bonded, and even though I never see her, because she lives on the east coast and I in the west, I remain steadfastly in awe of this woman. She’s smart. She’s authentic. She’s kind and compassionate. She’s gorgeous. (Just look at the picture below!) And she’s a thoroughly gifted writer. (I told you this was going to be a gush-fest. But, hey, it’s all true.)
As the title suggests, “Listing to Love” is a list essay that chronicles the love of “little things.” Suzanne writes,
“I don’t mean little things like a rainbow or a baby’s smile. Who doesn’t love a rainbow or a baby’s smile? You’d have to be such a jerk. I mean really, really little things.”
There is so much I love about this essay:
- The form, written as an outline.
- The unique details and how they are perfectly wrought from keen observation.
- The way the essay keeps unfolding, going deeper and deeper with each list within the list.
- The way personality and character are revealed through what’s included in the list.
- The connections between details and the circular nature of the essay from the beginning, “I love little things,” to the end.
A Connecticut native, Suzanne Farrell Smith writes from her home on the Byram River border between Connecticut and New York. She spent a decade teaching elementary and middle school students, fascinated by how children both respond to stories and craft their own. With two master’s degrees, one in literature and criticism and the other in creative nonfiction writing, she now teaches undergraduate academic writing and methods of literacy instruction to graduate students. Suzanne is raising three sons, but she is missing a large portion of her own childhood memory; she writes a great deal about memory, trauma, health, parenting, and education. Recent work appears in Ascent, Crab Creek Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Literary Mama, Community Health Narratives, and the anthology Oh, Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. A new piece, written over seven days while her twins were in neonatal intensive care, is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree. Suzanne uses her blog to promote literary markets and publications she admires, explore facets of the writing life, and reflect on personal experiences, most recently in “8 Things I’ve Learned (So Far) as a Parent of a Child with Special Needs.” She lives online at suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com.
A few questions for Suzanne:
How did you come up with the concept for “Listing to Love“? Did you have a particular inspiration, goal, or intention when writing this piece?
I constantly list concepts, but very few of them grow into complete pieces, and most of my writing becomes conceptual only through drafting. This piece started as one list, and I didn’t predict it would bourgeon into an outline of embedded lists. But I liked the single list I created, so I wrote more. The act of listing, especially in outline form, is like writing an essay. You search underneath for the next bit of truth, and the next, and the next, until you’re at the basic elements, the level IA1a)(1)(a)(i). When you pull back again, you’ve found a big idea that you didn’t realize you were looking for. In this piece, once I’d listed from macro to micro, literally hitting the right margin of the page, I pulled out to see what I’d uncovered. Only then did I revise with intention.
You’ve got lists within this list essay, among them one sub-list is “Awkward moments with my in-laws.” You then list three of those awkward moments, which for me, as a reader, incites incredible curiosity. I’m left wondering what happened “That time in the garage” and “That time at the spa,” along with other tidbits listed in the essay such as the misunderstanding between you and your friend about the United Kingdom that “settled over the table.” Have you ever or would you consider writing a companion essay to “Listing to Love” where you would elaborate on some of these things?
A companion essay … hadn’t thought of that! As it happens, my father-in-law died less than a year after I published this essay. I almost told the story of one of those awkward moments (the garage), at his Memorial Service. Almost. My husband knows the stories all too well (and prefers not to relive them!). I suspect a little more time must pass before I share the details.
In the essay, you say “I stuck the paint swatch card that I use as a bookmark into the back of my book and noticed, in the few seconds before the train stopped, that the book’s inside cover was exactly the same color as one of the choices on the card.” What was the title of that book whose inside cover was the color of “First Snowfall”?
My brain is doing gymnastics over this one. I can’t remember! We moved six months ago, and much of our library is packed up and stored, so I can’t check the books (though I’m tempted to brave the labyrinth in our storage unit). I wrote that particular list right after graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts. My husband had coordinated an amazing graduation gift for me—friends and family members sent books for my bookshelf, with notes explaining why they chose those titles. So I likely was reading one of those gifted books. I can see it in my mind—hard cover, in the common 6×9 size, end papers a serene (rather than drab) gray. Benjamin Moore, on its website, says of “First Snowfall”: “Reminiscent of the first sleigh ride through freshly fallen snow, this soft, light blue-gray is as delicate as a snowflake.” Doesn’t that make you wonder about the writer behind descriptions of paint colors? That bookmark was recycled long ago. My current bookmark begins with Benjamin Moore’s “Breath of Fresh Air” and ends on a saturated “Blueberry Hill.”
Who are some of your favorite authors who have influenced your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
I’ve got lists for this one. I have no memory of childhood, so while teaching elementary school, I fell in love with children’s literature as if reading it for the first time. I even thought I might write for children. I still have a list of math-related titles I wanted to make into a series. But in graduate school, I studied dozens of authors who inspired me to become a writer of prose for adults: Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Zora Neale Hurston, Frank McCourt, Flannery O’Connor, Andrew Lam, David Sedaris, Jessica Mitford, Barbara Ehrenreich, and on and on. I’d copy their sentences and study the structure, listen to the music, wonder at the craft. Other authors taught me directly, so I learned from their work while learning from their feedback on mine—Sue William Silverman, Margo Jefferson, Laurie Alberts, Sascha Feinstein, Randy Fertel, Robert Vivian, Diane Lefer, and Rebecca McClanahan. I open their books when I feel stuck or need a boost, as if they’re still teaching me. I learn a lot about the writing process from writer friends in groups and workshops. And I follow emerging authors who are regularly published in my favorite journals. I still love children’s literature and am inspired by the picture books I read to my kids. Plus, they bring me to places and into situations—let’s crawl up this muddy hill just because!—that influence my writing in some way.
Would you share a bit about your current writing life? What topics or themes are you presently focused on? What forms do you find yourself working in?
I have three sons: a preschooler and twin toddlers. And I’ve just restarted teaching, editing, and publishing, after an extended leave during which I had the twins and my mother died. So time is a bit limited right now. When I have a few minutes to spend inside my writing life, I focus on my favorite form, the personal essay, though it’s always on my mind to develop my poetry and short stories. My first manuscript digs into memory, and I’m working on my second, which explores parenting in the world of genetic differences.