Profile: Susan Feldman

Susan Feldman faces a chronic, life-threatening illness every day of her life. And that, for better or for worse, is what inspired her to become a writer.

About the Author
Susan Feldman  Author of “Power”

Susan Feldman faces a chronic, life-threatening illness every day of her life. And that, for better or for worse, is what inspired her to become a writer. “I kind of fell into it [writing] by accident. I was in the hospital, I was really very ill, and I had a good friend who was having a birthday, and he was a poet and I wanted to do something special, and I made up a story and dictated it on tape and I sent it to him.” After that, and a lot of thinking, she taught herself how to write. “I apprenticed myself to myself.”

Feldman is a teacher of English literature, though with the loss of her sight and other symptoms of Lupus that she has had to learn how to live with, she was forced to find a new career. “The way in which I write, the way in which I approach my work, and how I think of myself as a writer, is probably quite different than it is for people who write full-time and are perfectly healthy and think they have a tomorrow.” Because she couldn’t read and couldn’t expect consistency in her health, she couldn’t teach. “I became a writer because there wasn’t anything else I could do.  I could either accept the fact that I was 30 years old, seriously ill, and not going to have a life that was connected to a literary world, or I could figure out a way to stay connected to what mattered most to me which was a world of letters.”

In her self-education, Feldman used a book called “Points of View,” on writing short stories from different points of view. She had the book taped. She then practiced writing short stories from different points of view. She approached her apprenticeship with determination and discipline and with the experience of being a teacher: “I just assumed that I had this incredibly inexperienced, not very bright student that I was going to work with.” She read close to 50 literary magazines, writing notes on every story. She also noted what types of stories certain publications printed. In doing that, she taught herself both the craft and the professional/business sides of writing.

When she wrote “Power,” she began with the end, in more ways than one. The conversation she had with her husband about Beethoven sparked in her a conclusion. She then wrote the rest of the essay. When she got to the end of “Power,” however, she realized that the scene between she and the golfer on the airplane did not reveal enough personal information to justify the conversation at the end. She was reluctant to go where she needed to go the countless doctor visits and the years of fear that her eyes would get worse. “There are places in my life that if it were up to me I would never revisit, but need to.” In “Power,” the description of the trips between coasts and doctors and diagnoses, give credibility to the poignant scene at the end when Feldman describes to her husband how she is able to write, and that she came to understand how she wrote by understanding how Beethoven wrote music when he lost his hearing.

Feldman likes to play with time in her essays. “For me, the most interesting way to tell any story is to start somewhere near the present, and go back and then come forward somewhere near the present, then come to the present.” Along with flashbacks, she employs dialogue and scenes in her work. “I think of my essays in terms of scenes and set up each scene and divide an essay into scenes.” As a fiction writer she was always challenged by point of view. She swears that she might write a story five times in different points of view to make sure the one she chose is the right one. She is intent on figuring out exactly which character should carry the story.

Feldman avidly uses dialogue, though she agrees with Lee Gutkind that writers of creative nonfiction do not necessarily capture exact dialogue but have to do their best to extract dialogue that is as close as possible in flavor and intent. “Where creative nonfiction gets dicey is trying to remember what gets said. If you’re going to use dialogue, how do you remember something you said 20 years ago?” She says she grills people on whether or not she remembered correctly what they said. The scene from “Power” in the airplane with the golfer is indelibly printed in her memory. She knows that it happened that way, but realizes that she won’t remember every scene in her life with such detail.

What she feels is missing in the young genre of creative nonfiction is discussion about what happens if a writer’s recollection doesn’t coincide with, or is hurtful to, another person: “The issue of libel and what it means to capture or crystallize a memory that belongs to someone else & details are selected and selected out. Whose story is creative nonfiction when it depends on the writer’s memory only?” She enjoys pondering the questions but doesn’t necessarily have all the answers, and would like to read more about the issue.

Feldman does major revisions of her own work and attempts to live and write by a friend’s tenet: “When you change the word ‘the’ to ‘a,’ and the next day change it back from ‘a’ to ‘the,’ it’s done. Before that, its not finished.”

Her advice to new writers: only write if you have to. She laughs as she tells me that she has a niece and three nephews that she is very close to and if any one of them called her up and told her they wanted to be a writer, she would tell them to be a computer programmer.

“I don’t think you choose to be a writer,” Feldman says thoughtfully in a very soothing voice. “There is an irony in all of this. When I was in high school and college, my teachers told me I was supposed to be a writer. I wrote stories and poems and was the only one of my friends in college who didn’t want to grow up and write the great American novel. I didn’t want the life of being a writer.” She says that at that point in her life rejection would have crushed her.

She advises writers to make sure they really want the life of being a writer and to make sure they do it for the right reason. She also recommends switching genres. “In a moment of extreme masochism, I wrote a screenplay,” she chuckles, but admits that the process taught her much about dialogue and the literary world.

Corinne Platt