Monday, October 28, 2013

My First Time: Susan McCallum-Smith

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan McCallum-Smith.  Her debut story collection, Slipping the Moorings, was published in early 2009 by Entasis Press.  James Srodes, writing in The Washington Times, called her “a tough and funny talent of the first order,” while Bob Shacochis described Slipping the Moorings as “perfection.”  Her essays and reviews have appeared in AGNI, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, the Scottish Review of Books, the Dublin Review of Books, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.  Born and raised in Scotland, Susan spent many years in the fashion industry before moving to the United States, where she received creative fellowships from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and studied at the Bennington Writing Seminars.  She currently lives with her husband and two daughters in Ireland where she is—very slowly—writing more essays and a novel.  She regularly blogs about books at Swithering.

My First Pushcart

I found out I’d won a Pushcart for my first published essay while sitting in my car outside a grocery store.  I’d barely written a paragraph since completing it almost eighteen months before, and not a word since my children had been born.  Dressed like a cast-off from The Waltons, in clatty old dungarees and a faded plaid shirt, I paused amid the perpetual chore of buying milk to read the email, forced into communion with that other self, the one who had occasionally washed her hair and wanted to be a writer.  Her fire had tamped down to ashes, her identity dissipated over months of oscillating between euphoria and sleeplessness.  I put my head against the steering wheel and wept.  Then I called my husband.  “That’s fantastic,” he said, “but…remind me again…what exactly is a Pushcart?”

Fiction was my field, or so I thought, but during my MFA studies I’d snatched an opportunity to study with a terrific writer I admired, which necessitated a one-term switch into non-fiction.  Frankly I was out of my depth in his class, but I hoped he would goad me into new material.  And he did, beginning with the request that I draft a personal essay, with emphasis on the “personal,” knowing that I was wary of memoir (and I still am) and its tendency, when done badly, to slip into whiny self-absorption.  My fear of letting him down overruled my skepticism so I wrote about my father; or rather I avoided writing about my father by writing about my father’s primary passion—stamps.  After giving invaluable feedback he encouraged me to send it out and eventually I was fortunate to place it in The Gettysburg Review.

After the Pushcart nothing happened, or at least nothing of any worldly consequence.  I drove home with the milk.  My family is loyal yet unsentimental—birthday cards are a rarity—and, like the majority of readers, they are oblivious to the small cliquish world of literary journals, prizes, and fellowships.  My news was greeted with a shrug.  A few agents got in touch but their enthusiasm for short stories proved lukewarm, and as I didn’t have a newly-minted novel manuscript tucked in a sock drawer and had written to date only a single essay (and I sensed their shudders when I pitched a collection), they backed-off, sharpish.  An editor approached to ask if I’d consider doing a non-fiction book about philately.  We met on a snowy day in New York.  This, I thought, may be my Dorothy Parker moment.  I felt a bit giddy with the glamour of sitting in a trendy café around the corner from a famous New York publishing house.  We had a marvelous, roaming conversation, both aware this was a delightful waste of time as it was obvious I couldn’t give a flying fart about stamps.  While we dawdled over our hot chocolate I recalled my final meeting with my thesis advisor, another writer I admired (through a scrim of awe tinged with fear), who had put her hand on my arm and whispered, “Do you have it, Susan?  Do you have the fire in your guts?  You won’t keep going without it.”  I did have it, I realized that now, smiling sheepishly at the very nice editor whom I so wanted to please but knew that I couldn’t.  I felt it rekindle in my guts, sparking a fleeting naïve over-confidence that if I rolled up my sleeves and buckled down, as my mentors had often scolded me to, maybe I could write about anything—but that didn’t necessarily mean that I should.

Outwardly the Pushcart changed nothing; inwardly…well, inwardly something shifted, something too subtle to be defined as change, more like a whispered affirmation, as though a question had been answered with a yes.  It made me appreciate in retrospect the invaluable benefit of that one-term switch.  By stretching my craft muscles and embracing my fears—by being encouraged to attempt essay rather than fiction, memoir rather than reviews—I felt (though likely others registered nothing and neither did my rate of rejections) that my prose had become more malleable, complex, leaner, and I became passionately interested in form, and in the challenge of melding form, organically, with content.

The award also confirmed first hand what everyone and their dog knows, that getting published—never mind getting nominated—is not only bloody hard, it’s often a complete crap shoot; my essay had been rejected multiple times, boomeranging for ages before finding a home.  Fickle chance had called my number in what Julian Barnes has labeled (in reference to the Man Booker Prize) posh bingo; and posh bingo can distract from the nourishment of doing the work, making an artist fret over where his painting may hang before he’s even dipped a brush.  Although I’d been a little miffed by my family’s indifference, they’d been right.  I was thrilled to bits by the honor and touched by the kindness of those who had nominated me—and yes, I wish I’d taken the time to celebrate by getting tiddly and falling over—but a pat on the head is confetti not bread, and I couldn’t shake the suspicion it was unearned.

In the barren years between finishing my MFA and buying the milk, I realized I had been hungry, very hungry for the act of writing, and more specifically for re-writing—which is fortuitous given I’m nauseatingly slow and I spend around eighty percent of my time editing.  I hungered, and still hunger, to be awake before dawn when the house is quiet and the breath of the approaching day feels bated.  I hunger to be hammering and chiseling inside a big, messy draft, trying to build something which expresses exactly what it is that I don’t know, planing away excess words or shifting emphasis—like a stonemason removing walls or adding windows, daring a cantilever or a flying buttress—attempting to achieve the effect of a sublime weightlessness, so that the narrative curve will seem to float, cohesive yet without visible support, like the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

During that term switch back in college a teacher gave me the gift of faith.  He had handed it to me like a bat, then nudged me onto the plate, and after a corrie-fisted, gawky, uncoordinated swing the bat had somehow connected cleanly with the ball and thwacked it away, away over the outfield, up and into a blinding sun.  A long, long time later, the milk in the fridge, I finally returned to my desk and sat, stymied, not knowing how to put one sentence after another, enduring the agonizing, gaping reality between craft and luck.  I went back to the beginning, back to books, trying to fill in the enormous holes in my knowledge about the art of non-fiction by reading the best writers in the field, an apprenticeship still underway, because there are no shortcuts for hard graft, and trying to fathom the unique alchemy behind my rookie success was not only pointless and self-defeating but arrogant.  Writing the second essay was hard, writing the third essay harder still, taking almost eighteen months from conception to publication.  So it is possible that this Pushcart will be the pinnacle of my career, awarded before I knew what the heck I was doing.  I am no longer a rookie, yet I may never hit another home run, and experience again that delicious sun-blindness; but that’s okay, because you don’t become a writer because you want to win—you become a writer because you love playing the game, love spending your dawns chasing down thought, attempting to suspend the mind on a wire.

Author photo by Jason Okutake


  1. What a poignant essay that screams the truth! Many thanks for sharing a glimpse of what every working writer knows: family members often don't care in the way we want them to, but they are supportive in their own ways. And getting published and winning anything is damn hard!

  2. This is a powerful essay, Susan, and I admire you for writing it, as well as for your obvious talent for non-fiction. I teach and write memoir and personal essay for many years and may share some of your thoughts with my (adult) student writers. Much success to you down the road!

    1. Thank you so much, Eileen. I'm growing to love the personal essay more and more, I find the form infinitely interesting. While fumbling through this 'first time' I stumbled on my own particular approach (every one has to find their own, don't they?) which seems works with my (prickly) temperament and purpose. The essay itself, if you wish to read it, can be found online at The Gettysburg Review, entitled The Watermark. Best wishes, Susan.