Interview with MFA in Creative Writing Graduate Susan Merson
The following interview was conducted by MFA in Creative Writing faculty member Neil Landau (NL) in May, 2005. "I sat down with Goddard College low-residency MFA in Creative Writing alumna, and my former student, Susan Merson, for an informal chat over coffee.
NL: What made you choose the Goddard College low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program?
SM: My father died while I was a sophomore at Boston University and it forced me to abandon all thoughts of a college education. I happened to visit Plainfield with a boyfriend at the time (early 1970's) and someone he knew worked at Goddard. While wandering around the campus I ran into Ellen Voigt who was then running the Adult Degree Program (ADP), one of the first distance learning undergrad degrees. She encouraged me to try that program and it enabled me to get back on track both personally and academically, going on to eventually finish my undergrad degree between day jobs. When it came time to embark on this new stage of my personal and academic career, I immediately thought of Goddard and also discovered it was the only distance learning grad program that offered degrees with playwriting and screenwriting as major components.
NL: Do you feel your significant experience as an actress has helped your dramatic writing? How so?
SM: Yep. It is one and the same thing--acting and writing. I consider both processes to be channeling experiences. In acting you allow it to go into your body and translate into behavior and physical/ emotional "tone," and in writing, you let it go through your body and up to your brain to come out in organic language, connected rhythm, crystallized images. Writing is kind of like improv-ing with the muse for me.
NL: Was it difficult for you to embrace the critical writing component and the annotations? How did you evolve as a critical thinker and "close reader" through your Goddard MFA career?
SM: Oy! I was petrified of the critical work coming into the program. I never thought I could master it. I never thought I had anything to observe or say and I was downright hostile to the idea of literary criticism in general. I must say that the kind guidance of my advisor helped me to see that it wasn’t such a big deal. Always the first step to change! I began to think of the critical work as simply noticing patterns in and forming an opinion about what I was reading—I am a fairly opinionated person, let’s face it-- and seeing if those patterns and that opinion had anything to do with the creative work I was developing. Then, that got refined a bit more as I began to understand theme and structure as natural outgrowth of the works I encountered. I calmed down and realized that the critical response we have to literature is the “bonus ” that pops from the work. It’s not necessarily the author’s intent, but we get to know about it anyway. It was okay for me to observe and learn from this aspect of the work. I didn’t have to start with analysis but it was fine to finish the enjoyment of the work with analysis. I have been trained as an actress to get intellect out of my work, so I had to allow it back in to sit comfortably next to my instinct and non verbal responses.
NL: What did you like best about your Goddard experience?
SM: Oh my, let me count the ways. I love Vermont in the summer, spring, fall and winter. The beauty of the place. The anonymity. The silence. And the sleigh ride through the snow I took--laughing all the way. I loved the smart and silly people I met. I loved the hope it offered me in modeling an artistic life that fit into my reality. I loved the time it gave me to devote to my own growth once again. I loved the way it bridged my past and my future. I loved the products it gave me—tangible things like my screenplay and my book—that I have used in a real way to move ahead. I loved the fact that I was allowed to become part of a diverse, adult community where I recognized people deeply and they did the same for me. Goddard gave me an opportunity to regroup, refocus and set my sails for the second half of my life and career. That’s what I liked best.
NL: Were there any unique challenges for you coming back to school after being out of school for many years and having a successful acting career in New York and Hollywood?
SM: I was fairly defensive coming into the program. I had worked hard and long for many years and wasn’t sure I wanted to have “academics” challenge my rigidity! To my great surprise and delight, I was treated with respect, as a peer rather than as a peon. This allowed me to open to new possibilities. I was very impressed with the caliber of the faculty—working professionals with not too many axes to grind or ego trips to run. And I chose my advisors carefully to make sure that we had the same goals in mind for my degree program.
NL: How did being a "full-time" student affect your husband and daughter? Was it tough to juggle everything or was it invigorating?
SM: I was lucky that my family supported me in this choice –literally. Out of desperation! They were sick of me complaining and figured all the work would shut me up for a while. Seriously, I am very grateful to my husband for footing the bill and only throwing this fact back at me a few times when he wanted to be rotten. Time for the work? I was going through menopause and couldn’t sleep at night anyway—that’s when I did most of my writing!?
NL: Any helpful hints for potential students returning for their terminal degree after a long absence from schooling?
SM: Hmmm. I guess the main thing here is to remember that making the choice to attend a program like Goddard is essentially a self interested choice—in a good way. That is, you will come out with something real--a degree--that may make it possible to get a better or different job, but also a real product. A book. A screenplay. A play. Something real that says you are indeed a writer and you have something to show that proves it! One must keep in mind that the choice to do a program like Goddard’s is a business decision. It will cost you some time and money and in return will allow you to come out with something real with which you can move forward. This was extremely important to me. I needed to expand my options and everyday I did the work I remembered that this work was going to get me somewhere else—somewhere better. And it made it easier to find the time to do what I needed to do.
NL: Tell me about your experience of writing your screenplay. I think it turned out extremely well and you had some interest in it by a director and some actors. What's the latest status of Swimming Upstream?
SM: Oh wow. I came to Goddard with the express desire to connect with the east coast again and forget about the movie business and write for the theatre, but of course, as fate would have it, I was assigned to Neil, a screenwriter from LA who just happened to live five minutes from my house. After much balking, I settled into work with this curiously strong and supportive young man. He really knew about writing for movies, among other things, and I realized I should take this chance to confront my own limitations and learn from someone who has made LA and the film business work for him. I don’t know how he managed to give me the confidence to do the work that I did--a generosity of spirit to be sure. The story I wrote was one I had been wanting to tell for many years. It was a thank you card to many beautiful and weird and crazy gay men who got me through my youth as a theatre-crazed fat girl in the Midwest. The kindness of these men, the way in which they encouraged my dreams and saw me as beautiful when I needed it, as smart when I needed that, as a child in need of a fatherly direction when my dad died—all those things inspired me to tell of my first crush which just happened to be on a gay Venezuelan hairdresser who worked in my uncles beauty salon on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Just saying that made me laugh so I revisited this formative time in my life and enjoyed fleshing out old friends and making up people I wished I had known as well. I struggled with structure and had to really figure out how to tell a story in screenplay form—that is, with images rather than words. The form still does not come organically to me, although dialogue has always come easily to me. I had to train myself to think of what happens next rather than what does someone feel next—it is a shift of thinking that I am marginally successful at. Thankfully, the screenplay has hit a nice little chord and an independent producer liked it enough to shop it around. The responses have been kind. People do appreciate the story and characters but have trouble with it being “small,” and a “period” piece. The first means not a lot of money to be made and the second means more money to be spent. That being said, it seems to be right for an independent filmmaker and if I can find one, it may still have a life.
NL: You also were ambitious enough to complete a manuscript that you had the good fortune to get published! Tell me about your new book Your Name Here. What was its genesis? How was the process of writing such a personal, motivational book while at Goddard?
SM: Once I had completed the screenplay, I had one semester left and, as I said earlier, as very aware that I wanted some real product when I finished the MFA study. I was working with (faculty advisor) Richard Panek, who has written nonfiction brilliantly, and I wondered if I knew about anything real enough to fill a book. Richard is a scientist and a clear thinker. I thought he might be an interesting leavening agent for my tendency to overwrite and prettify my writing language. I had had experience with character and dialogue, but never with nonfiction. In thinking over the work I had done up to that point in my career, I realized that I was kind of a pioneer in the solo performance field. I did my first solo show in the late 70’s when no one was doing these shows as routinely as they are done now. I have done about 8-9 solo projects over the years and they have sustained me as actress/ writer/ producer. I also looked through the theatre book stores and saw that there was only one other book, written in the 80’s, about solo performance. There was an opportunity. I am not a scholar. I am an artist—so I came at the book from my strength which is my own experience. I realized I knew a few things just from having been around as long as I have been around. I wanted to get the book done. I didn’t want to take the time to do an overview of the field. Besides, it changes daily. I wrote what I knew. I structured it chronologically because I believe that the creative work one undertakes at a particular time reflects the place they are in their lives. I hoped that the discussion of the plays I wrote, at the time I wrote them, would be helpful to others thinking about developing their own solo pieces. It is not a “how to” book as much as a “here’s how I did it- how about you?” book. I call it an instructive personal history.
NL: I know you've been touring the country promoting your book. How has this experience been "performing" now as author in bookstores and book fairs, etc?
SM: I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about performing in books stores. The people at Drama Book Shop in New York suggested that I offer a free introductory workshop about solo performance instead of a signing event. This strategy has worked like a charm. I much prefer coming in as a teacher rather than as a performer. It brings the readers into the process and sometimes they buy the book, too.
NL: What inspires you as an artist (both actor and author)?
SM: Life and survival inspire me. We all have our own themes as writers. I tend to write about love and how it redeems us one way or the other. And there’s a real spiritual connection that I can’t seem to get away from—but that’s the process of channeling in action.
NL: How did Goddard's low residency program feed your creative process?
SM: I got to have this secret time that then stayed with me when I went back to real life. I don’t think I could have adapted to a regular MFA program, attending classes, constant interaction etc. My life is too full. The low-residency program was a gift of privacy and then, sustenance when I had to go back to everyday reality.
NL: Your graduation speech was very memorable in your frank discussion about ageism in Hollywood. Do you feel more empowered now that you've become a published author making the rules on your own terms?
SM: Always better to be your own boss. Throughout my career I have been the generative force. As much as I have wanted to be Sally Field and proclaim, “You like me, you really like me!”-- I have always been rotten at popularity contests. And fickle is just one way to describe the theatre/film world I work in. I learned early on that I had to be my own best friend. Sometimes this can isolate you and make people think you don’t want to be part of the party or don’t need to come--so it is a balancing act to create your own work and still be invited to the party.
NL: You also just secured a teaching position at a California college. Can you tell me more about that? When do you start?
SM: The semester starts in August and I teach playwriting one day a week. And I am told that I can accept material online so I can still audition and do film/ tv work as it comes up. It’s just right for this stage of the game.
NL: Any helpful hints for other grads who are now trying to find teaching gigs?
SM: Get on any Listservs in your field that you can find and contribute regularly, keep your ears open, offer free workshops or seminars to schools who might eventually hire you. Do your (Goddard) teaching practicum at or near a place that you would like to teach full time. Write a book and build the legend! Target places that might hire you and keep them up to date on all your activities that relate to how fabulous you would be on their faculty. Create your own classes and market them constantly.
NL: Can you share with me (and us) the most valuable advice you garnered at Goddard?
SM: Calm down and get the work done.