Today, I have the honor of interviewing Susan Wittig Albert about her new book, An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, recently released by the University of Texas Press. A prolific writer, her previous nonfiction books include Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place, What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest
(winner of the 2009 Willa Award for Creative Nonfiction); With Courage and Common Sense: Memoirs from the Older Women’s Legacy Circles; Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story (Inner Workbook.); and Work of Her Own
Her fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, includes mysteries in the China Bayles series, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries she has written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige.
She is also founder and past president of the Story Circle Network and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
AS: Susan, thank you so much for joining us. I’m curious — did the University of Texas Press first approach you about publishing a year of journaling or did you propose it to them?
SWA: I proposed the book to the Press. They were publishing Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place and had published several of my other books, going back to the early 1970s. For many years, I had wanted to write a “journal book”— that is, a journal for publication, something like the books that May Sarton wrote in the 1970s to early 1990s. My sixty-ninth year seemed like the right time to do this: the end of one personal era, the beginning of another. In fact, when I proposed the book to the Press, I thought that it would be mostly about the process of growing older. Of course, I had no idea how the world around us was going to change in that year, or that instead of growing older, I would find so many new things to think about and consider that I would actually end the year feeling younger.
AS: You mentioned in a recent article on womensmemoirs.com that even though you knew that it would be published, your 2008 journal was not much different than what you usually write. Since I use my personal journal to process emotion, as well as record daily events, I wondered if you held back in any way as you wrote — or if you simply edited out the “non-public” parts later.
SWA: I did a little of both, I suppose — some holding back, perhaps a little editing. I’ve had a lot of practice writing life-story material for readers. I was one of the earliest bloggers (I began posting journal entries on my website in the late 1990s), and by this time, I’m pretty skilled at the fine arts of revealing and concealing. In my blog, I always want to tell people enough so that they get a strong sense of who I am and how I feel, without compromising the privacy that my husband and I need for our own emotional well-being. That skill was useful as I wrote this journal-for-readers, and later, as I revised.
Another thing, though, and this is probably important enough to mention: As I’ve grown older, the tumultuous emotions of my younger and middle years have become less volcanic. I am more balanced, more content with what I have, less anguished, certainly, and less anxious and fearful. Maybe that’s a consequence of being on the cusp (as I was in 2008) of my eighth decade. Maybe it’s a result of years of meditation practice, or the happiness of a comforting and rewarding quarter-century relationship with my husband, or perhaps even of good health. Whatever it is, I’ll take it in trade for the hot and trembling anxieties and desires of earlier decades. Bottom line — and I write this with a smile — there isn’t as much to “hold back or edit out” as there would have been when I was 30, or 40, or even 50.
AS: What was the editing process like? How was it different than editing a book such as your memoir, Together Alone?
SWA: Editing was difficult simply because there was so much material. My editor and I decided early to include quotations in wide margins, which imposed one kind of limit — I had to keep the whole thing under 100,000 words. (It came to just under 98,000 words.) I included more news clips than usual in my journals, because there was so much going on in the world and because the process of writing for publication made me pay more attention than I might otherwise have done. And then there were the daily entries, most of which were too long and had to be seriously cut. (It’s very hard for me to write short stuff, as people know who read my blog. I keep thinking of more that needs to be said.)
The layout also created some editing problems for the book’s designer, the layout person, and the managing editor who was involved in getting the book ready for print. The quotations I included when I was writing seemed important to me. I’m intrigued with the idea of inter-textuality, and other writers’ words always spark my thinking and writing. There’s a kind of duplex synergy that seems to occur in my writing when I couple another writer’s words with mine. But the quotations didn’t always fit into the margin where I wanted them, and the layout person, the editor, and I had to do quite a lot of last-minute jiggling. It was a challenge and more work than any of us anticipated, but as I look at the book and think back on the efforts of the “village” that worked on it, I’m delighted with the way it turned out.
AS: Your book has an index. That’s unusual in a memoir, even more so in a journal. Why did you decide to include that? How did you get the job done?
SWA: You’re right, Amber, that is unusual. About halfway through the year, I began feeling slightly astonished by the many topics that were coming up — almost like plots developing in a novel that had no predetermined main plot or subplots. But these “threads” (the writing tasks, the emerging economic crisis, resource depletions, the presidential campaign, food issues, the garden) were definitely plot-like, to the point where I began keeping track of them myself. When the year was finished and the project was edited, I asked a friend (an experienced indexer) to index it. She did a wonderful job. She even indexed all those quotations! I love it, really, truly! Even if no reader finds it useful, I do. It’s a wonderful key to my experiences of that extraordinary year.
AS: As I read your book, I was quite taken with your beautiful descriptions of place and the natural world. Is this something you have practiced consciously as you journal? In other words, do you use your journal as a place to practice the writing craft?
SWA: I believe passionately that we must witness and give voice to what is happening to our fragile planet. We can’t do that unless we can describe the places we live and give voice to our relationships to those places. As time goes on and climate change becomes more pronounced, we are all going to be impacted, and we simply must learn to pay attention to it. I sometimes fear that our journals, in the last three or four decades, have become exclusively places to process emotions. Of course, that’s necessary — we need a place to explore our inner worlds, to understand how we feel and why. But we also need to explore our place in the outer world, to understand how we are impacted by its changes, and how we humans are creating that change.
And yes, I do use my journal as a place to practice the craft of writing. I always feel more free to experiment in my journals than I do in my genre fiction or even my online writing. But perhaps I should also add that every time we put words together on paper (or its electronic equivalent), we are (or ought to be) consciously practicing our craft: revising, enlarging, reducing, practicing precision. I think of a dancer practicing her art alone in a studio: every move becomes an opportunity for her to explore the shape and posture of her body, her movements, her balance. Every piece of writing (and especially the journal) becomes the writer’s studio: a place for her to explore the dimensions of her craft.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview, on Friday, the 18th …
READ THE REVIEW of Susan Wittig Albert’s book, An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days.