Thursday, May 7, 2009

Suzanne Strempek Shea and Two Pages a Day

The Writer's Journey series at Finlandia University ended last month with a flourish: a wonderful presentation by New England writer Suzanne Strempek Shea. She is the author of five novels and three non-fiction books, in addition to a slew of articles for newspapers and magazines.

I've read Suzanne's novel Becoming Finola, a delightful excursion from the U.S. to Ireland and through the realms of identity. I'm looking forward to reading Shelf Life, a memoir of her real-life experiences as an author working in a bookstore. And then there's Sundays in America, her most recent book and the one she discussed at Finlandia.

To write Sundays in America, Suzanne spent a year traveling to different Christian churches each week. She sat in on services from the very small – a congregation of Shakers in Maine, where the 20 visitors outnumbered the four actual church members – to the unabashedly huge – a stadium seating 16,000, where the televangelist's sermon, she said, consisted largely of diet tips.

Suzanne spoke of all this with humor and pizazz, the same engaging and approachable style I found when I paged through the book. Listening to her, I found myself thinking: what a great way to learn more about something that is so important to American culture, and to so many of us personally. Now Sundays in America is on my must-read list.

In keeping with the Writer's Journey theme, Suzanne also talked about her life as a writer, and stressed a point that appears over and over in the literature: If you want to be a writer, the most important thing you can do is write. Establish a discipline.

"Sit down each day, even if it's for two words or two sentences," Suzanne says. She herself writes two pages a day, at least five or six days a week, and notes, "When I'm really on a roll, it's every day." She departs from that schedule for "general life crises," and adds, "When I feel ill, I curl up and watch bad TV."

It doesn't sound like much, but with two pages a day she has produced eight books and 12 to 24 articles per year in the 20 years she's been freelancing (she worked as a reporter for almost a decade before that). Learning that writer Elinor Lipman writes two pages a day inspired Suzanne to begin this (Lipman just released her tenth book, The Family Man). It's not an uncommon practice: I heard years ago that Sue Grafton writes two pages a day, and that's how she's produced her alphabet of best-selling mysteries.

This underlines Suzanne's point. Whether it's two words, two lines, two pages, or two hours a day, persistence pays off. In my own career, I have observed over and over that this persistence, this steady practice, is the number one most common denominator for success as a writer. So I agree wholeheartedly with Suzanne. The most important part of any writer's journey is to write, and keep at it.

The Writer's Journey seminars are over for the year, but they were so well received that there has been talk of holding them again. My opinion: such a great series bears repeating. Kudos to Finlandia and everyone involved in putting these on, and I hope you, too, will keep at it!

Much appreciation again to Karen Johnson for providing these images of Suzanne Strempek Shea speaking and reading at Finlandia's Chapel of St. Matthew. Thanks, Karen!