Discover more from Write More, Be Less Careful
"any act of making, no matter how small, is valuable and meaningful"
an interview with writer Susannah Nevison about working in small bursts of time and cultivating kindness in a writing process
Hello there! This is the very first interview of a new section, good creatures, that will explore the intersection of caregiving and creative practice. I’m so excited to showcase people doing lots of kinds of caregiving—people caring for kids or pets or other family members and/or caring for space through gardening or community work or activism—and lots of kinds of creative work.
If you know (or are!) a good creature whose work we should feature, send me an email—you can just reply to this newsletter.
Today’s interview is with poet and nonfiction writer Susannah Nevison, who I first met when we were both at Sewanee years ago. We’d both recently published our first books, and I was feeling wildly uncertain about starting a new book. Susannah was a bit ahead of me (her second book, Lethal Theater, came out in 2019), and her wisdom and sense of humor made Sewanee really joyous. We reconnected two years ago, when I was on a writing residency at The Porches in Virginia and realized her house, on the campus of Sweet Briar College, where she teaches, was only 20 minutes or so away. We spent a lovely afternoon on her screened-in porch, chatting and watching her gorgeous daughter toddle around.
Susannah recently published an essay, Our Lady of the Stairs, in the Kenyon Review about becoming a parent during the earliest months of the pandemic. You’ll have to create a free account to read the whole thing, but trust me when I say it’s worth the slight hassle. Or just read this gorgeous excerpt and let Susannah’s work persuade you:
When we decided to have a child, my husband and I talked about things I imagine most couples talk about. How we would afford childcare; how we would balance parenting and working in a way that felt satisfying for both of us; how to make room for the new versions of ourselves we would no doubt become. But there were other conversations, too, the ones we had late at night in bed, the kinds of conversations you have only in the dark, so you don’t have to look at each other. The ones in which I said, What if the baby inherits my disabilities and hates me for it, and, What if the baby inherits my disabilities and I hate myself for it, and, What if being pregnant wrecks me and you have to, like, carry me around when I’m really big, and, What if I can’t take care of the baby and you’re overwhelmed? The ones where my husband always replied, We can’t know any of those things. We can only help our child live within whatever body they have. And we can do that.
Below, Susannah and I talk about how her writing life has evolved since having her daughter.
What kind of creative work do you do?
I write poetry and nonfiction. (I initially misread this questions and wrote that "I mother an active toddler," which is, I suppose, a differently demanding kind of creative work.)
What kind of caregiving do you do?
I care for my almost 3-yr-old daughter, several sad plants, and a very patient dog.
What’s changed in your creative life since becoming a caregiver?
I now work in shorter bursts, and have learned that writing anything at all--even three sentences--will amount to something if I keep showing up. I used to only work in 3 hour blocks of time, but it's much harder to find those chunks of time now. I think my work is also different-- how I see the world, and what I pay attention to, has shifted since becoming a parent.
What are some ways care-giving fosters creativity and vice versa?
Care-giving constantly asks me to see the world differently, to attend to things slowly. As my daughter masters new skills--words, gestures, dressing herself--I'm newly reminded of how incredibly complex even the smallest process is. Such reminders often open new ways of thinking about projects; I'm learning to see things from a different perspective. When I feel frustrated with myself or writing, I try to cultivate the gentleness and kindness that I'm trying to teach my daughter, that I ask her to show herself.
What do you do to help activate the switch (if it is a switch) between creative-brain and care-giving brain? (Is it possible to switch?)
I haven't found a productive way to switch between those two modes-- I think it's just something I have to do, so I do it. Parenting demands so much presence that it basically forces me to abandon everything else. The trick is to remember that even when I'm not in "creative brain" mode, my creative brain is still hanging out, waiting. And because that part of my brain is weird, it will find delight and excitement in weird and unexpected places, even when I'm not actively writing.
Is there something specific you do to jumpstart creativity?
When I can, I move my body before I write. Normally, I take a long walk with the dog, and try to turn off the "daily task" part of my brain. Moving helps me think through writing problems--it's often during a walk that I figure out what's been bothering me about a piece I'm working on.
What’s changed about your process? About your medium or genre?
The length of time I spend writing in one sitting is much, much shorter, and it's not always private anymore. As I write this, my daughter is next to me playing with my computer cord, so I'm both "working" but also making sure she's not going to injure herself. Sometimes that's just how it goes, and I try not to get too precious about my process.
What does a day in your life look like as a creative and care-giver?
It's different every day. Some days I spend the mornings with my daughter and then teach my classes (I teach writing), go home and spend time with my family, and write once my daughter is asleep. Other days are purely structured around family and teaching; some are purely structured around family and writing. In the summer, I have a lot more time to think and write, but it's rare that I'm not moving between care-giving and writing. Thank goodness for residencies and mini writing vacations!
What advice would you give someone who has a creative practice and is embarking on becoming a caregiver?
Be flexible about what your process looks like! Any act of making, no matter how small, is valuable and meaningful.
Susannah Nevison is the author of Teratology (Persea Books, 2015) and Lethal Theater (Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press, 2019). With Molly McCully Brown, she is coauthor of In the Field Between Us (Persea Books, 2020). She has received the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize from Persea Books and The Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize from OSU/The Journal, among other awards and fellowships. Her essays and poems have appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Currently she teaches at Sweet Briar College, where she is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing.
Write More, Be Less Careful is a newsletter about why writing is hard & how to do it anyway. You can find my books here and read other recent writing here. If you’d like occasional dog photos, glimpses of my walks around town, and writing process snapshots, find me on instagram.
If Write More has helped you in your creative life, I’d love it if you would share it with a friend.