By Suzanne Strempek Shea
My home in the Western Massachusetts valley is rich with writers living and dead. I regularly park my car at the meter below Emily Dickinson’s bedroom window. Errands and events take me past the Eric Carle museum, and also the house that belonged to one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only positive aspect of going to an oral surgeon during childhood was that his office was on the same street where Dr. Seuss grew up. Opening the door to a local bookstore, I once nearly smashed into the poet James Tate and a group of his students. Recently waiting to pay for a futon cover at a furniture store, I found Jonathan Harr in line front of me in line.
Around here it’s hard to swing a laptop without whacking into any local ink-stained wretches – or successes including enough whose mantels heft Pulitzers or Caldecotts or National Book Awards. So it would be natural to think we scribes of all sorts socialize, that we attend a writers’ club much like the Elks or the Moose or the AMVETS clubs that dot the landscape. But there isn’t one. Or maybe they’re just not telling me about it.
For the most part, I formally see my fellow local writers and poets at events that feature writing. Readings, signings, lectures, conferences. But day to day, nope. Day to day, I’m writing. And I assume they are doing the same. My house in that valley conveniently includes a very supportive and inspiring husband who’s written for a living since age 17, but outside these walls, the creative types I see daily are one, and her thing isn’t words.
My friend Susan Tilton Pecora, with whom I walk and talk and spend time with many days a week, is a painter. A very good one who’s in collections both in this country and abroad, and a celebrity in these parts for a local TV series on painting. Art is her living, both selling her creations and teaching others how to make or improve their own. Her media are watercolor, oil, and the tempera she whips up using the eggs of chickens she purchased for a farmer up the road just for that purpose.
Susan and I have roughly the same schedule, which means that at about 4 p.m., one of us phones the other to see if the other has brushed her hair or teeth yet (the options just some of the freedoms of working for yourself) and does the other want to go to the post office before it closes at 4:30, and then for a dog walk or horse ride?
On those walks, the dogs stretch legs, lift legs, perk ears, snuffle noses. And Susan and I talk about everything as we move along. But I recently was struck again that so much of what we talk about, while not always having something directly to do with writing, has everything to do with writing. Because the same challenges and successes she might have in her work in visual art, I have in my progress on the page. And those highs and lows that are mine, she knows well, too.
In the world of creativity, the main elements of the best days and the not so great ones are the same.
Susan might spend a month proposing then perfecting a piece for a buyer only to have him stand in front of it and decide he wants a totally different image. She might apply to be in a show but doesn’t get selected. She might hear about an overseas tour available for artists, she might apply, and she might end up spending a few months in Europe on someone else’s dime. She might be so jazzed about starting a new piece that she stays up all night working. She might be happy to have a full workshop coming up but in preparing for it might have little time to do her own work. Or she might have lots of time for her own work but less money coming in because students are on vacation.
A few months ago, Susan and I took another walk, this one with our mutual friend the prominent author/illustrator Ruth Sanderson. Walking and listening, I noticed yet again: Yep, here’s a creative type working in a totally different form from mine, but she has some of the same joys and woes as I do. Ruth talked about how a new project has brought her outside her element, and to a whole new load of work and deadlines each month, but also to working in a genre she’d never considered. And it’s delivered the spark for a larger work she might never have come to if she hadn’t considered stretching.
Ruth is extremely humble despite a resume of major accomplishments as long as the trail we were on (at the time, she’d just mounted a major exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum), so it’s all the more impressive to see she doesn’t feel beyond trying something new. Hearing all that was energizing, and I applied it to possibilities that might be open to me if I poked my head out from beneath the comfort of the style or topics or schedule I usually employ.
On another walk a few weeks later, I got the same message from a pair of friends in yet another medium. Leo Moran and Anthony Thistlethwaite have had decades of international success in the also notoriously fickle business of music, Leo nearly 30 years ago co-founding the Irish supergroup the Saw Doctors and Anto 32 years ago joining Mike Scott’s UK-based The Waterboys before becoming a Saw Doctor two decades ago.
But when the Saw Doctors announced a hiatus last year, Leo and Anto didn’t rest on their stacks of hit albums. They formed “Leo & Anto” and took their Galway-based duo act on the road throughout Ireland and the UK before touring America twice in the past 10 months. It wasn’t beyond them to trade the band bus for rental car, the roadies for lugging their gear and sell their merchadise. Nor was it beyond them to continue to work on their craft. To practice a song written ages ago and refreshed with a new line or tempo. And too write anew, Leo turning out blog posts from along the tour, Anto never without a notebook in which to collect lines of inspiration, the two of them releasing two albums in those 10 months. Working always in some way, if only just by being open to new experiences, the main thing being they’ve found a way to keep doing what they want to do and what they love to do.
And while back in Portland, Maine, for a reading last week, I spent time with jeweler Stephani Briggs, whom I met when we were beginning our four years at what is now the Maine College of Art. I was studying photography, and she was enrolled in silversmithing. While I went on to craft images with words, she became a sought-after jeweler using precious metals and gems to create luxury and bespoke pieces that hold meaning. She travels the world for inspiration and stones, but the deal for her is the same as with any of these friends living in creativity. The 22-karat filigreed bead sitting on Stephani’s bench and awaiting a studding of ruby stones started with a faint idea, lines of pencil on paper, and hours of working and reworking. Not unlike how Susan’s paintings don’t spring fully formed from her brushes – she must first sketch, create studies, and it all takes time. Not unlike the first idea for a story, that first sentence, and all those that follow, and all the revising and perfecting, all the attempts to get a story, an essay, a book into the world, all the rejections, all the acceptances, all those reasons to snarl, all those reasons to celebrate. All the highs and lows and highs of these lives we’re lucky to lead.
I’ll phone Susan again this afternoon, and we’ll head with the dogs to trek over a field down the road. I know that, without meaning to, something we talk about will touch on her chosen field, or mine. That a connection will surface, another reminder that somewhere on this earth, every day, whether they’re at a desk, a bench, an easel, or on a stage, there are others in this creative life facing versions of the same things we all confront daily. That even when it looks like you’re going it solo, there are untold others the world over walking that very same path.
For a virtual “walk” of inspiration with those mentioned above:
Suzanne Strempek Shea is former newspaper reporter, an active freelancer, and the author of five novels and six books of nonfiction. This is Paradise, a book about Mags Riordan, founder of the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic in the African nation of Malawi, was published in April by PFP Publishing. Suzanne’s sixth novel, Make a Wish But Not for Money, about a palm reader in a dead mall, will be published by PFP Publishing on Oct. 5, 2014.