Thursday, September 9, 2010

Guest in Progress: Suzanne Strempek Shea on Organizing Your Writing Life

Novelist/memoirist Suzanne Strempek Shea is one of the most generous writers I have ever encountered. Her first novel, Selling the Lite of Heaven, was set in the Polish-American community of western Massachusetts and caught readers’ attention for its charm and humor, and its great story [Publisher’s Weekly called it a “read-in-one-sitting novel”]. The Polish-American community was especially supportive—and happy to see their stories come to the page. The book was a best-seller (due in part to Suzanne’s excellent promotional skills, traveling to Polish festivals and community groups). I read the book at the time it came out and adored it.

Fast-forward five years to unknown, nobody Leslie Pietrzyk with her debut novel, Pears on a Willow Tree, also set in the Polish-American community. One of my friends took it upon himself to secretly email Suzanne on my behalf (thank you forever for that, Russell!), and she immediately contacted me with a comprehensive, organized, annotated list of Polish-American contacts: publications, universities, groups, reviewers, clubs…and so my whirlwind of a speaking tour began. It was an immense act of kindness that I have been trying to pay forward ever since.

She’s my role model in how a writer should handle herself in the writing community: with generosity of spirit in all endeavors.

You can see in Suzanne’s bio below that she’s published eight books, which will give you an idea of her range and wide interests; I admire the way she is always sending her work into new ground. I love her writing, and so has every single person to whom I’ve handed a copy of one of her books saying, “You must read this.” And so, now: You must read this, Suzanne’s suggestions for organizing your writing life:

At a recent residency for the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, I was asked to be on a panel of writers discussing the habits that made them highly organized. Here’s what I had to contribute to that panel, and I’m shaking my head as I send these to Leslie as it’s been at least several years since she asked me to contribute to her fascinating blog. Well, we can’t always be perfect. But we can try to do our best. And in doing so, here’s perhaps the first rule of being highly organized: deal with what’s at hand. I received that request to be on the panel, so I sat down and wrote the following:

I write five days a week at the least. It’s almost like a job. Except it’s a whole lot of fun and I don’t have an idiot boss to deal with. It’s an 8 to 4 thing with me, with a break for lunch with The Young and the Restless - because no matter how miserable you are, the people in Genoa City always have it worse. I split the pre- and post-Y&R hours into distinct sections, which I’d advise for anyone involved in various types of work. Ages ago I heard one of my literary heroes, Roddy Doyle, describe his workday like that and it’s worked for me. Roddy said he wrote his fiction in the morning and drama in the afternoons. I started my career writing fiction, so I’d write fiction in the morning and then spend the afternoon drumming up things to do with that fiction – finding places to read, signing books, thanking the people who’d already had me read and sign. In the morning I have my best energy, so I used that on my more important work at the time – my fiction. In the afternoon, I tended to the commercial side of my job. Along the way I added freelance and then non-fiction books to the mix. My day now begins with whatever is the most pressing project, or whatever’s posing a difficulty. If you put that off, it either doesn’t get tended to or will be done in a rushed manner. So I split my day, still save the tail end for correspondence and other businessy stuff, maybe down to an hour of that a day now. That’s about seven hours, with several trips downstairs to start the kettle for tea.

I know I’m done because I’m only good for so long. There have been times I couldn’t stop a particular section of writing from happening, or I might return to the computer after dinner in order to meet a deadline, but I’m not so awake in the evening and night, so I do my best work in the energized parts of my day. Others might work by feeling. I just go by the clock.

As for maintaining discipline, 15 years ago I left my newspaper job to write books and articles fulltime at home. I quickly realized that no little elves were going to come along and do the work for me. That if I got up to eat bon bons for two hours, that was two hours lost. The big thing is I love what I do. If I had to sit at my desk and add numbers, which I’m horrible at and hate, I would not have any discipline. But the excitement of getting to tell a story – real or made up – and try to get it into the world, and now that some of my work is out there and to have folks waiting for other work, that’s a great motivator, too. The other is this is my part of the household income now. I got a freelance assignment right before I was leaving for a recent trip. I had no time to prepare, to interview, to write, but I got it all done. Because I needed to pay the mortgage that month. My husband is now between jobs so that’s all the more motivation, and another factor in my really pushing to get book proposals out there, to get queries to magazines and newspapers, to accept assignments even when I’m nearly out the door to do something else.

As for dealing with writer’s block, I would advise being a reporter. When I was in that line of work, I could never tell my editor that I had no muse that day, that I didn’t feel like writing, had no ideas. I had a job to do, stories to find or assignments to go out on. And I did. That just got me into the mode of getting up, sitting down and writing. If I am stuck in a story, I go to a different part of it or work on different character, or set a goal of a certain amount of words before I can go downstairs and have a chocolate left over from Halloween. I’m knocking wood as I write this, but I haven’t had dry periods or gotten stuck, and I really think that’s from having a job in which each and every day I had to sit down and write – even if I were sick, bummed out, distracted, wasn’t crazy about the subject.

Negotiating time with my significant other isn’t difficult because my husband was a reporter for 37 years and he knows it takes time and effort to write. But, aside from that, I’m blessed with being married to someone who thinks what I do is the coolest thing, and has given me every bit of support every day of this adventure. Most of my books actually came from my talking about something and Tommy saying, “You should write about that.” He never gives me a hard time about being busy, or gone, or both. I can’t imagine doing any of this without him.

Generating ideas and momentum also takes me back to what I learned in my reporting days. Sometimes I had assignments. Most time I had to come up with my own story ideas. I always had folders full. I’m usually working way ahead of myself in my mind – maybe I seem to be focused on one project, but have a runway full of others just waiting to take off. Because I work in fiction, non-fiction and journalism, I have files for book ideas, magazine pieces, news stories, and because I work regularly for a few publications, I always have the gears turning in my head and antennae up as to what might be a good story for this publication or that one.

Keep your gears greased, share your home with a loving and understanding being, fill those file folders and sit down and do your work every day, every day, and you can’t miss! ~~Suzanne Strempek Shea

About: Suzanne Strempek Shea is the author of five novels: Selling the Lite of Heaven, Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, Around Again, and Becoming Finola, published by Washington Square Press. She has also written three memoirs, Songs From a Lead-lined Room: Notes - High and Low - From My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation; Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama and Other Page-Turning Adventures From a Year in a Bookstore; and Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith, all published by Beacon Press.

Winner of the 2000 New England Book Award, which recognizes a literary body of work's contribution to the region, Suzanne began writing fiction in her spare time while working as reporter for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Newspapers and the Providence Journal (Rhode Island). Her freelance work has appeared in Yankee magazine, The Bark magazine, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Organic Style, Golf World and ESPN the Magazine.

A member of the faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast
MFA program in creative writing and writer-in-residence at Bay Path College
in Longmeadow, Mass., Suzanne lives in Bondsville, Mass., with her husband,
Tommy, a columnist for The Republican newspaper in Springfield, Mass., and
their two dogs, Tiny and Bisquick.

Suzanne's website is and her blog is Her essays regularly are
published on Tommy's columns are found at


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.