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About Susan Messer

Young Susan Messer My career as a worrier began at an early age. Even on the dock, on a summer day, with my sailboat swimsuit and my beautiful mother so close (in the sunglasses), I had my worries. Perhaps the key lies in the mysterious object in my hand: the line to a boat for which I have sole responsibility? I can’t identify the other woman or the boy in the picture, but neither seems to see the trouble. On second thought, perhaps whatever it is that lies before us is troubling only to children, and the boy had to turn away.

I could argue that worrying and writing are deeply intertwined. For example, worrying is an exercise in imagining all the bad things that could happen. And writing requires extensive imagining of possibilities, especially possibilities that will pose problems to one’s characters. I believe it was Grace Paley who put forth the idea that whenever you’re stumped with your writing, the trick is to “send in another son of a bitch.” And the step after that is to imagine what-all trouble he or she will cause.

Although I began worrying early, I waited until relatively late to think of myself as a writer. When I was younger, I didn’t understand the connection between worrying and imagination, and I lacked the confidence that I could do anything with the worries. The moving pen writesBut at age 45, I got lucky because Etta Worthington, a friend of mine, began a writers’ organization in the town where I live, and sensing something in me, I suppose, she gently nudged me to question the limitations I placed on myself, to take writing workshops, to read my work in public, and eventually, to submit my work for publication.

I proceeded diligently with each of these activities, but the core of the enterprise was the Sunday morning writing session. Every Sunday at 8 am, I went (and still go) to my desk ready to work. I do not answer the phone, nor let anything else interfere, and I work until noon.I have a friend who says that if you have a regular time for creative work, the muse hears about it and shows up. Whether or not this is true, the regularity of the exercise has worked well for me. Around Wednesday night, I start to think about what I’ll be working on next Sunday, and by the time Sunday comes, I have a focus.

Dancer on a stack of books

It has been over fifteen years since I began this practice, and in this way, I have progressed—growing as a writer, placing numerous short stories and essays for publication, and winning several awards and prizes. Although I have not had much formal training as a writer, I have taken workshops with some of Chicago’s best writers and teachers, including Sandi Wisenberg and Janet Desaulniers, and I belonged to a writing group for eight years.

Eventually, I began to think that one of my unpublished stories had novelistic potential, so I upped my time commitment to writing. I had two residencies at Ragdale, an artists’ colony, and at home, I began working on the novel every evening. That novel, called Grand River and Joy, is about a Jewish man whose small business ends up in the path of the Detroit riots of 1967. It has been published by University of Michigan Press as part of their Sweetwater Fiction Series. Since then, I have written two more novels, both unpublished, both sitting quietly on my hard drive and trying not to disturb me too much. One is called Craving Marvels and the other is Life’s Work. Please contact me if you’d like to hear more.

To read some of my work, see Work available online and excerpts of Grand River and Joy and my Additional Writings.


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