Authors Susan Mihalic and Eileen Wiard, both of Taos, New Mexico, have contributions in the These Summer Months anthology, released last month.
Susan has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, as well as freelanced for publishers and private clients. She has taught writing and produced writing workshops, is currently revising her debut novel, and is the founder of No Coast Writers, a read-and-critique group that has been active since 2000.
Eileen left behind a teaching career that she loved for a life of writing plays, essays, and songs. Inside Outsiders, her first work of fiction, won the New Mexico Book Association’s 2013 Southwest Book Design and Production Award.
Susan and Eileen talk about their contributions to These Summer Months, their inspirations for becoming writers, and more in this double-Author Q&A.
What inspired you to become a writer?
Susan: I was an early reader. My mother disliked reading aloud and encouraged me to read on my own as soon as I could. I’ve loved language for as long as I can remember. When I was five, I wrote my first story about a baby squirrel my older sister had rescued, so specifically, I suppose I was inspired by a squirrel, which sounds about right.
Eileen: I’ve been writing every since I was a young girl; I asked for a diary for Christmas when I was nine. Throughout my life, I have made sense of the events in my world by writing it all down, depositing all the feelings and all the confusion in one place. When I first read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, I never let the book leave my side, and became a chronicler and a more careful observer from that time on. She, Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, and others have given me the permission I needed to call myself a writer. In my forties, I applied for and was granted a writing residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos for two months, which then became six, and for the first time in my life, when people asked, “What do you do?” I was able to say honestly, “I’m a writer.” That experience changed my life.
Tell me about your contributions to These Summer Months.
Susan: My essay, “Relative Sorrow,” had been building for some time, although I didn’t realize it. My mother and I loved each other, but we had a difficult relationship. Until now, only a handful of people knew how dysfunctional it was. She was dealt a tough hand, widowed at 44 when I was only five. Even at the age of five, I was aware of that. I don’t know whether it’s because I was naturally empathetic or because she made damn sure I was aware of it—or a combination of both. When one parent dies, I think it’s natural for a child to be worried that something will happen to the surviving parent, but in my case, the worry became pathological. I don’t mean pathological only in the sense of compulsion or obsession; I mean it in the clinical sense. I was changed by it. Caretaking is a heavy burden for a child.
Eileen: My friend, Susan Mihalic, mentioned a call for personal essays and stories for the second volume Anne Born was putting together for her Late Orphan Project at our No Coasters writing group one Saturday. When I looked at the guidelines, I realized that a piece I’d written recently seemed just right. It’s the first essay I ever wrote in the second person, and it felt like a risk to send that one in, but it also felt like a very good fit. She was looking for stories about what life was like after a parent died–the way life changed for adult children after losing one’s mother or father.
What was your favorite part of writing it? The greatest challenge?
Susan: A friend asked me if writing this essay was cathartic. The answer is no. I wish it had been. But we own what happens to us. We have a right, if not an obligation, to tell our stories. The greatest challenge in writing it was to tell the story without sounding like I was making a case against my mother or pleading for sympathy. The greatest challenge in having it published is probably going to be blowback from family. But a parent-child relationship is like any other relationship; only the people who are in it know what really happens when no one else is around.
Eileen: I’ve been experimenting with ways to make my reader closer to the page, to tell my story in a way that makes people feel safe to be right there with me. That was my favorite part of writing it, and also the greatest challenge.
What led you to submit? What was the process?
Susan: Anne Born, the publisher of Backpack Press, put out a call for submissions on Facebook. I’d seen the call for submissions for Volume I of the Late Orphan Project, These Winter Months, and at the time I’d thought, “Well, my father died when I was five.” When I saw the call for submissions for Volume II, These Summer Months, I remembered that I was 32 when my mother died. I did have something to contribute.
Eileen: I downloaded the instructions and followed them. It didn’t seem difficult at all, and I’ve learned to pay attention to guidelines.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to submit to anthologies?
Susan: This is the first anthology I’ve ever submitted to, but as with any other submission, whether to an agent or a magazine or a book publisher, make sure you’re a good fit. Submit the cleanest, most polished version of the work you can produce. Be open to editing. Be willing to revise.
Eileen: This process was delightful, stress-free, and fun. Of course, it’s always good to have work accepted, but this larger work feels especially hospitable to my writing. I give the credit to Anne Born and her warmth that came across with every email, at every stage along the way. I’d had another essay included in an anthology many years ago, picked up from something I published in Sojourner’s Magazine. In that case, I didn’t have to submit anything; the editor stumbled upon it and asked for my permission.
Additional tips for writers?
Susan: Make time for your creative work. Understand that you do this work in an imperfect world. Do it, anyway. You’ll have twenty other demands on your time; say no to the demands you can say no to. No one else can do any of this for you. No one else can say no. No one else can write the thing you’re writing. This is your unique vision, your passion, your story. It’s up to you to write it.
Eileen: Writing matters. Don’t forget what reading means to you. Every writer had to summon the courage to send their work out and risk rejection at some point before it ended up on a page that you can read. It might help to remember that when you’re lacking the courage to send your work out.
What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started writing?
Susan: How much dedication and hard work writing requires. I had long periods during which I was unproductive. I wish I’d applied myself then as diligently as I do now.
Eileen: Whenever I finish a piece, my first thought is that it’s ordinary and mediocre. Always. Now, I know that it’s because I’m writing in my own voice, and while that’s an achievement, it also means everything I write feels like something I’ve thought about or said in some form before. Just because it’s familiar to me does not mean it’s not worthwhile. That’s why trusted writing friends are essential in my life. Their feedback and listening to my work is a critical piece in what can feel like the great unveiling.Tags: Anthologies Author Author Q&A Eileen Wiard Essay Late Orphan Project Susan Mihalic These Summer Months Write On! Online Writing