Striving for foolishness
Chico’s Susan Wooldridge on being open, taking risks and making words her life’s work
What’s the good of a messy journal with taped-in tree leaves and flower petals, colored-pencil drawings and cutout letters and scrawled quotations? For Chico’s Susan Wooldridge, it’s the foundation of her books about writing and living.
Originally from Chicago, Wooldridge started keeping a journal when her high-school English teacher assigned one. She still keeps a journal—and her journals have led to her success as a poetry workshop presenter and author of books.
Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, Wooldridge’s first book, came out in 1996 in hardcover and then in 1997 in paperback (Three Rivers, Random House, 21st printing, more than 60,000 copies sold). It followed years of teaching writing workshops through California’s Poets in the Schools program. She asked for lots of help, and received it—from a writing partner, a topnotch writing consultant, and a great young agent.
Foolsgold: Making Something from Nothing and Freeing Your Creative Process took seven years to write, Wooldridge said, and it went through several evolutions before, in a period of grief following her father’s death, it became a book about how the creative process can “help us through things.” Both books, the author said, continue to “bring miracles into my life,” and both are “Chico books” with much focus on her frequent ambles through Bidwell Park.
Speaking by phone from her native Chicago, where she had gone to visit family and present workshops, Wooldridge offered commentary about her life’s work with words:
CN&R: Where do your ideas come from?
Wooldridge: A kind of hum comes into my head, pressure builds up, and I find myself writing things down. I keep an ongoing journal and take notes on life. I’ve learned to risk being a fool and put things “out there.” Most of my ideas come when I’m walking around in the world or when I’m driving. An early draft of Poemcrazy was roughed out on a drive home from L.A. One chapter, called “Opening Shots,” emerged on the moving walkway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Foolsgold came about when I was ambling in Bidwell Park making a collage box a day to help me with sadness.
What is the role of journaling in your creative work?
I think I’m a “journal-ist,” and most of what I do is “report” what the world says, what my heart says, what my mind says, what the leaf says (that I may have taped into my journal). I now obsessively tape something visual on every set of two pages. The sight of too many of my words bores me. Ishi called written words “bird tracks on white bark.” I’m forever pinching petals and taping them down, tearing photos out of magazines and gluing them in. I’ve finally learned to get my neuroses to work for me, and maybe that’s what Foolsgold is about.
When do you write? How do you organize your time so you can write?
Gosh, I wish I could say I organize my time so I can write. I’m not very disciplined as a writer. Luckily, I seem to be obsessive, and up to now writing has been a “need,” a way for me to process or work through things. I write largely “on the go.” I write chapters as they occur to me, and need to cut enormous amounts. I’m in a bit of a fallow period now, but I’ve almost learned to trust that.
How do you work with editors, publishers, and the business of books?
My Poemcrazy editor, Carol Southern, was a dream. She was old school, head of Clarkson Potter. She used a red pen and went over every word and taught me to ask, “Does it serve the book?” When I told her the title would be “Lost Dog Found,” she said, “I love it! But does it serve the book? It will end up in the bookstore’s pet section.” I loved going to her corner office at Random House—a wild dream come true. I also had a fantastic agent, Arielle Eckstut. We didn’t have e-mail, and I’d call New York City at 6 in the morning (9 her time) and go over chapters word by word. It was thrilling.
Who are your readers, and how do they use your books?
I’m amazed by who my readers are. Photographers and artists especially seem to like Poemcrazy. I get e-mails from people of all ages. I think my work is to free myself from fears and “shoulds,” and it seems to help loosen up some other people along the way. I hope it’s for their highest good!
How do things in your personal life (children, friends, dancing, meditation, etc.) affect your writing?
Everything rolls into my work. No one who knows me is safe. I’ve been told I’m dangerously open. Somehow that feels safe to me. Poemcrazy began as a series of exercises for teachers. My writing consultant (hire one!) insisted I write about my personal life. I didn’t think anyone would be interested.
What is the relationship of your books to your workshops?
I was doing workshops long before I wrote my books. Poemcrazy came out of my experiences leading workshops. I wanted to help people begin to love language the way I did. Now I want to work in the corporate world with language.
Who are your role models and mentors?
My high-school teacher, Jack (the infamous Mr. Mabie), was my first mentor. He believed in my writing and assigned what has become my lifelong journal. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones led me directly into the writing of Poemcrazy. My children. My parents. I’ve had many mentors, and they’re still appearing.
Do you think you will write another book? Do you have one in the works?
I always seem to have a book in the works. It helps me live. The book I’m kind of working on now seems to be recreating itself in the fallow period I continue to believe is good for me. Chapters leap out unexpectedly.