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On Creativity with Suzanne McConnell

Author, along with Kurt Vonnegut, of Pity the Reader: On Writing With Style

As a writer-in-progress myself, I feel so lucky to have been invited to record this title for Highbridge Audio. The book is filled with thoughtful, generous (and on Vonnegut’s part, often humorously grumpy) advice about writing well, the writer’s life, and really about any creative person’s place in the world. For a taste, just read Suzanne’s answers to my questions about her writing life.

KW: What contributes to flow in your work?

SM: Keeping in daily contact with whatever I’m working on, by working on it, primarily—and/or by making lists of my intentions or questions, if they are ‘listable,’ by scribbling notes or thoughts, or merely by thinking about it. This abiding with it seems to set my subconscious in motion.  The result is that some of my most productive ‘ah-ha’s’ occur in the middle of the night when I awake with a brilliant solution, or just the right phrase or word, or—even in the mundane outreach process, another person I forgot to email or who could make a terrific connection.

I’ve long been interested in dreams. I once took a life-changing class in a method to change our dream, and one result was an eye-opening awareness of the subconscious at work. Over years. I’ve learned to trust it and my intuition. So if I am deeply engaged in my work in the daytime, night time often yields the answer. 

KW: Do you have a mentor? What gift did s/he pass to you that you use regularly?

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SM: Kurt Vonnegut bestowed many things but the biggest gift he gave me is simply by being a model in terms of his commitment and persistence to writing, fueled by passion to convey serious truths as he saw them.

KW: Do you have multiple creative outlets in your life?

SM: I think other outlets are very nourishing and teach you a lot about the creative process in general, but also what’s specific to each art. I play the piano, but was taught classically; I took jazz piano lessons from a wonderful teacher over the last two years while writing Pity the Reader, which was joyously freeing. It was a relief from the computer and writing, immediate and playful, and it reinforced my sense of my intuitive creativity. I went through a period of doing watercolors for several years, in my 30’s I took dance classes, I once took an improvisation acting class that was marvelous and fed my teaching and sense of spontaneity in general. Writing is sedentary and all these other creative endeavors are more physical and immediate. I also love to bake, take care of my plants, I was on a knitting jag for a few years…

KW:  Is writing more of an escape from the world or a way to dig into what’s happening out there?

SM: Writing for me is a way of digging into what’s happening in there. That is, writing helps me discover what’s on my mind and heart, how I truly feel and see. This is not always separate from what’s “out there.” But it’s not about what’s out there per se as much as making sense of how I feel in there about what’s out there, or how what’s out there impinges on me and the world as a whole, that I’m striving for. This is more true of fiction writing, in which I often make discoveries I didn’t know about myself and how I’m feeling, than of non-fiction writing.

KW: Do you work on more than one project at a time?

SM: I can’t seem to work well on more than one writing project at a time. I tried, while writing Pity the Reader, because I craved writing something more of my own while writing about Vonnegut’s advice on writing—but it fell short. I couldn’t dive deeply enough. It was a shallow effort, restricted by time. It was like being married and having a couple of flings. Cheating on my own commitment. 

KW: How do you keep yourself open to feedback while protecting the fragile new life of a creative impulse?

Author Suzanne McConnell

SM: When I was a young writer—a long period of time, I don’t mean this in terms only of age—I could be truly flummoxed by criticism. Once when first in New York, I’d written a rough draft of a story in the voice of a homeless guy at a time when I felt pretty lost myself, and a friend kept insisting that I show it to her, as we were out writing together at a café. When I did, she said “That’s good, but make it more…” whatever.I don’t remember what she wanted, only that she felt it lacking.  That stopped me for weeks. Now I am utterly confident that if somethings reads badly at first, I can, with persistent revision, turn it from fool’s gold into the real thing.  

That story, by the way, is the same one mentioned in Pity the Reader that I sent Kurt Vonnegut at a time I was discouraged. I sent it after it was finished, of course. He replied that he’d read it and the novel excerpt I sent “with a great deal of admiration and satisfaction,” called the story “serious and madly idiosyncratic” and said “On top of everything else, it’s a poem!”

It’s extremely important to be protective when you and your work are vulnerable, and to find people who are smart, kindly honest and perceptive in giving feedback. All feedback is not equal. Having a steady writing group allows you, at the very least, to be acquainted with the members individual prejudices, likes and dislikes in writing, and their personalities, so you can more easily assess the feedback.  See Chapter 18, Pitfalls, in Pity the Reader for other answers to this question.

Most writers, me included, are too impatient to show their work and to assume it’s perfect and finished, and too defensive. Writing is a craft that must be learned. 

KW: Do you have words of wisdom for someone who has a desire to create but is held back by inner or outer judgment?

SM: Pay attention to the deep voice of your desire to say what you have to say. Listen to it, let it sound much louder than the judgmental voices chipping away at your confidence that say you or your work must be perfect. Become friends with failure. Become friends with work, patience, and revision. 

About Suzanne McConnell

Suzanne McConnell has taught writing at Hunter College for thirty years, and serves as the Fiction Editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. She lives in New York City and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, with her husband, the artist Gary Kuehn. Kurt Vonnegut’s black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America’s attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959 and established him as “a true artist” (The New York Times) with Cat’s Cradle in 1963. Vonnegut passed away in April 2007.

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