Interview with Susan Mack – 2nd Place Winner in the Q2 2022 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, May 01, 2022
Susan Mack is a professional writer, storyteller, LGBTQ+ advocate and coach. She is co-producer of Austin’s Stories on the Lawn storytelling series and is currently working on a humorous memoir entitled Three Months. She’s pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Follow her on twitter @susanmackwrite1.

--- interview by Angela Mackintosh

WOW: Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on winning 2nd Place with your powerful essay, “Ostrich Truths.” All of our judges loved the way you wove in ostrich facts with your personal story of advocating for trans children. The ostriches provided an accessible and engaging way to bring readers into your story, and it also seemed to drive the narrative. There are many animals you could’ve chosen; why did you decide on ostriches, and what did you discover about them while weaving their facts into your essay? 

Susan: A lot of my work looks at coping mechanisms including humor and denial. I’d jokingly come up with the final line of this essay (about hiding your head like an ostrich in a bad situation). Then, someone suggested I write that punchline essay with a not-so-difficult kid story lined up with a few facts about ostriches. The very first piece of my research showed that ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand. I discovered that myth at the same time I was watching the legislature work on passing laws based on myths, and the parallels kind of wrote themselves. 

I think one of my most entertaining bits about ostriches involved the wikihow on surviving a fight with an ostrich. The best advice is just not to get into one. 

WOW: The myth about an ostrich burying its head in the sand is writing gold. I was shocked by the fact that ostriches have killed lions. When reading your essay, I felt like you and your fellow advocates were the ostriches, ready to deliver that crushing kick! I live in California, where our state passed legislation to protect transgender student athletes way back in 2004, which was strengthened in 2014; but I believe we’re still the only state to pass legislation. You’ve been fighting for trans rights in Texas. Has anything changed since you wrote this essay?

Susan: Sadly, yes. The sports bill passed the legislature, despite many heroic efforts to stop it. In February, Ken Paxton issued a legislative opinion that providing children under 18 with gender-affirming medical care (meaning puberty blockers, hormones or surgery) would be considered child abuse. Based on that opinion Greg Abbott wrote a letter directing child protective services to investigate parents who had allowed their children to access that care. As a result, some families had trouble refilling prescriptions for their children. At least nine families have had investigations opened against them. It took two court orders to stop this from happening, and the legality of Abbot’s move is being questioned in the state Supreme Court. 

In the meantime, there have been articles showing that, in the past two years, children in CPS care have been dying at a disproportionately higher rate than children who aren’t and that children are being abused while in CPS care. Instead of spending resources to care for the children who really need their help, CPS has to divert resources to investigate families who are caring for their children.

So basically, it’s pretty awful. I take comfort in the wonderful people I meet in the advocacy community and who work for CPS that want to change these circumstances.

WOW: That’s heartbreaking news. I’m glad you can take comfort in the advocacy community, and I feel like there’s hope when people come together. Likewise, some of the statistics you included in the essay really hit me, especially the Trevor Project that shows more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have considered suicide. Ending on this statistic and the accompanying Harvard study really drove the point home that we need more gender affirming practices in schools. I’m wondering how you started this essay and how it evolved from that initial spark? Did you always know where you wanted it to end? 

Susan: I always knew that the ending line (about burying the head in the sand) would be the ending line. It’s hard for me to write anything about trans kids or being the parent of trans kids without including that statistic. People need to understand that the parents, teachers, and medical professionals that support trans kids are providing life-saving care. I also want people to understand that the flip side is beautiful. When kids are acknowledged, there’s a joy that comes from openly being themselves. We can all learn from that joy. 

I rarely write essays in a completely linear fashion. I write something on the page, and then start having a conversation about what it really wants to be. Sometimes that involves expanding out details or looking for outside research that talks about what I’m saying. Other times it might involve cutting something back to stay as flash. I often move things around in a different order than what they started with. As a longtime corporate marketing writer, it did feel like I needed to build towards the final point of the statistics so my reader could get a sense of the importance of the issues trans kids face today.

WOW: It was definitely a powerhouse ending. Earlier you mentioned using humor as a coping mechanism, and your bio says you’re working on a humorous memoir titled, Three Months. Is it set during a particular time period of three months? And could you tell us a bit about your story and/or themes, and how long you’ve been working on it?

Susan: I’ve been working on this book for at least two years now, most seriously for about a year and a half.

Five years ago, I had to have a meningioma removed from the lining of my brain. I was really lucky that we found it when it was still causing only mild symptoms. But there was a three-month delay between learning about this tumor and when it worked inside my family’s schedule to have it removed. So, I spent three months anticipating having someone open up my skull and operate on my brain. That period was both anxiety-ridden, poignant, and full of experiences so odd that they can only be described through humor.

WOW: What a terrifying experience, and it's a gift to be able to find the humor in it. I’m a caregiver to my father who has a brain tumor, and I know just how odd and unexpected some of the symptoms can be. I’ll be first in line for your book! You’re also a co-producer of Austin’s Stories on the Lawn storytelling series. That sounds incredible! Can you tell us about it and how writers in your area can get involved?

Susan: Stories on the Lawn is a live event where five or six storytellers perform true personal stories developed on a common theme. My co-producer and I started having the event this year for two reasons. Our host, the Neill Cochran House history museum wanted to support an event celebrating oral history through stories. They offered us a great outdoor venue underneath live oak trees, which felt like a safe way to gather as the pandemic was slowing down. Our local storytelling shows had gone quiet during COVID, so we were excited to give our storytelling community a new location and venue.

We run the event the first Thursdays in March, May, September, and November. Anyone interested in telling a story should first attend the event and then get in touch with me directly about telling a story. 

WOW: It sounds like a wonderful venue, and I’ve really missed live storytelling events. I’m sure writers in our community will check it out. I also know that many of our writers are considering an MFA, and you’re currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction. What made you decide to choose Vermont College of Fine Arts, and what do you think is the best part about the program so far? 

Susan: I decided to do an MFA because it’s really hard to write a book-length memoir. I wanted the structure of an MFA program to help me learn how to get past my 500- to 2000-word essay length comfort zone. Before I went for my MFA, I took classes at Austin Community College which happens to have a really great creative writing department. While I was there, I learned the starting vocabulary to talk about craft and linked into a really great writing community.

But I wanted to take the next steps to get my book written and eventually teach writing seminars myself. And I knew I wanted to do a low-res MFA program because it seemed like the best way to still be present with my family while also pursuing this degree. I was drawn to VCFA by the wealth of experienced creative nonfiction teachers and innovative culture. They really encourage experimental form and writing. Since I’ve gotten there, I’m truly humbled by the talent of the other students. They really inspire me to keep bringing my best work forward.

WOW: It sounds like a rewarding program. What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Susan: Embrace your bad first draft. Good writing often happens through revision, so getting something awful on the page is often a great first step to writing something really amazing.

WOW: Cheers to bad first drafts! Thank you so much, Susan, for chatting with us today, and I wish you the best in all your writing endeavors and advocate work.

Check out WOW's current creative nonfiction essay contest here.

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