March 7, 2018

An Interview with Writer and The Porch CoFounder Susannah Felts

Terrified, party of one. Have you ever had to write about one of your teachers? If so, please join me at my terror table. Today's bitch is not only my literal teacher, she is, as Oprah would say, my teacher. I met Susannah on the day of the Women's March when I took my first writing workshop with The Porch. On that day, in that workshop, Susannah was the first person I opened myself up to for feedback on my writing about 9/11. Neither of us knew it, but that day planted the seed of not only a friendship, but a personal essay 17 years in the making.

One of my favorite things about Nashville is that we have a literary center - and Susannah is responsible for that. Susannah and The Porch have taken me from blogger and storyteller to writer. My finest piece of writing is the personal essay on 9/11 that Susannah spent 8 weeks helping me edit and revise in her Personal Essay class. She will get a lot of exclamations marks after her name in the acknowledgments section of the book I hope to one day write. Meet my friend, my teacher, a Nashville treasure, Susannah Felts!

What do you do and what is the name of your business?

Hi! I’m a writer and cofounder/codirector of The Porch, a nonprofit literary arts organization in Nashville, TN.

When did you first learn about this field of work? How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

Well, there’s the writing, and then there’s the whole literary center thing. First, the writing: I’ve been writing/wanting to write/not writing and feeling terrible about it/trying to figure out how to make any money at writing for pretty much forever if you roll all of that together. Wrote for fun as a kid and teen, got serious about writing in college, got equally more serious and more confused about writing in graduate school, entered an era of really torn-up feelings about writing after that... and figured out along the way that it was nothing I was ever going to kick, and I’m happier when I’m at least making a stab at it.

Writing has simply always been a central part of my identity. Sometimes that scares me. Like, what if I really try to dump it someday? Am I even capable of that? I’ve joked (as have others) that it’s like a chronic illness. My, that is upbeat.

The literary center thing: I taught as an adjunct college professor for many years. There were great times along the way, including some fabulous students, some of whom have become longtime friends. And I learned so much (and am still learning) from teaching. But I got to a point with adjuncting where we had to break up. In short, I dug the teaching, disliked the exploitive system. I’d always fancied the idea of teaching independently in the community, and when we moved to Nashville I began doing just that, quietly and on a very small scale, at my dining room table after my toddler went to bed and at a coffee shop on Sunday mornings. It was wonderful; it was just what I needed at the time. Plus: I met some incredible folks who I count among my friends today.

Meanwhile, I had become aware of literary centers across the United States; many bigger cities have them, and after a few years of teaching my coffee-shop and home-dining-table classes, I had an a-ha moment of sorts: Nashville needs a literary center. That’s what this could blossom into. It helped that I was seeing a real surge in creative entrepreneurism in the city, and that people from other cities were starting to move here in droves. All signs pointed to GO. And around then the stars aligned and I met Katie McDougall, who became The Porch’s cofounder/codirector. The timing couldn’t have been more right.

I didn’t know that founding a literary center was what I was working toward all those years when it felt like my path was a bit winding—when I was straddling, or hopping between, the worlds of academia and journalism. But when the time came, I realized, with a happy shiver, that everything I’d done had prepped me nicely for this adventure. Which is not to say that I didn’t have to learn a ton on the fly about managing a nonprofit, because I certainly did. And oh boy, am I still learning.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?

I’ve agonized a bit over the answer to this question, wishing I had the perfect anecdote from a mentor to share, or some sparkling tidbit of wisdom gleaned from a book or TED talk. Nope. There’s no doubt something—many somethings—I’m forgetting. But right now I keep coming back to my gut. How when I’ve listened to it, I’ve usually been happy with the results. I had a gut feeling (grounded in visible evidence) that Nashville could support a literary center, and so far that’s proven to be right. I think many women have a strong intuitive muscle, but to some degree cultural messaging has discouraged us from using it. Do your research, absolutely; then trust your well-informed vision and gut.

I also recall Lisa Lucas, ED of the National Book Foundation, posting something recently on Facebook about always approaching people with an attitude of kindness/openness, or something to that effect. That really stuck with me (um, despite the fact that I can’t remember her precise words). It’s easy to to be driven by assumptions in a rushed, unkind way. Give people an ear—a real ear—and a fair shake; give them the best attention you can muster. If you’re going to network—and we all should, despite any negative connotations of that word—be real about it. Slow down and be curious.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned or that helped improve the way you work?

A no isn’t a forever no. It’s often a not-right-now. Even when it’s you saying no to yourself. It doesn’t have to be The End, Go Away, Goodbye. No can be healthy. I still have to re-learn this all the time.

What would you do with two more hours a day?

Read more, write more, cook/bake a little more. I’d like to think that I’d attempt one of the dozens of craft projects I’ve thought longingly about over the past few years—I review lifestyle books for BookPage, which means I’m constantly elbow-deep in books about embroidery and kitchen lithography and paper flowers and granola recipes and so forth—but let’s be honest: the writing and reading would come first and take up the full two extra hours. If I can have three hours? Crafternoon, hopefully on the porch, with a beer in reach!

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

You know, there’s a flip side to every ‘sacrifice’ that makes nothing feel like much of a sacrifice to me. I sacrificed a full-time editorial job to go back to the hand-to-mouth existence of a freelance writer/adjunct teacher, but it never once felt like a loss. I’ve spent countless hours on getting The Porch up and running that could have been spent working on my own fiction, but this work feels nourishing and necessary to my writing life, too. I guess if there’s anything I’ve consistently missed out on in the interest of other goals and desires, it’s making much money. Or I’m just really lousy at that.

What is your greatest success, or something you’re most proud of related to what you do?

It’ll be this novel I’ve been working on for years, if I can publish it. I’m proud that The Porch is thriving, making a difference in people’s lives. And I really love making connections between people and sharing info, even just little things like a book recommendation or an album to listen to or another local writer with whom you should probably be pals. I love it when I feel like an arts and culture connector—and I equally love being on the receiving end of that equation! Always curious. Always looking for the next new fascination.

Do you have a morning ritual that helps you set the tone for the day?

I started to agonize over this one, too, wishing I had a really Instagrammy morning routine to share: this perfect tea in the perfect mug, that book I read a page from every morning, a beautiful journal written in with a favorite pen, some yoga pose or sniff of a personalized blend of essential oils, whatever. Again, nope.

Then I realized: I totally do have a morning ritual! And it looks like this: I wake up sloooowly--I’m not a jump-out-of-bed, bushy-tailed type. My husband, bless him, brings me coffee. And my daughter, who is 9, comes and gets in the bed with me for a little bit and we snuggle and chat while I drink about half my coffee (and then it’s usually time for all of us to get cracking). I absolutely love that this is how the days begin right now. I know it won’t be this way forever, maybe even not much longer, and that’s part of what makes it precious.

How do you decompress at night?

Not gonna lie. A glass of wine or a beer is a likely part of this picture.

Also: Book. Couch. Phone (not talking, just scrolling). Too much phone. I wish I journaled at night.

What helps when you’re stuck? Do you have a motto or quote that inspires/motivates you?

When stuck on something I’m writing, I give myself space to let my brain do background work (I think of it like apps that are running on your computer or phone while you’re doing something else). I’ll take anywhere from a half a day to a few days off, depending on deadlines, and go for a walk, listen to music, read. Reading someone else’s work has un-stuck me many, many times. That’s really the magic move.

I’m not a big motivational quote gal. Or maybe I just have a terrible memory for this sort of thing. But I can happily return again and again to the wisdom of Dani Shapiro in Still Writing and that of Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic. I came to Gilbert hesitantly, but I fell in love. There’s so much power in that book if you allow yourself to receive it. There, that’s my quota of woo-woo for the day.

Also: Right now, I’m reading Creative Quest by Questlove (to be published in April) and finding it a great companion (or alternative?) to Big Magic.

What does self care look like in your life?

Naps! Exercise (used to be running; lately it’s Alison Egerton’s butt-kicking classes at the Maddox Y), time spent in nature, sweet treats, chill time with my family. Pausing whatever I’m working on to watch the cats chase each other around (cat stampede!) or to watch the cats sleep, or to watch the cats wash themselves, or to pet the cats. Watching cats, pretty much. Can watching cats be considered self care? That’s what self care looks like in my life. Watching cats. That, and maybe a facial once or twice a year, the occasional retail therapy splurge, and every damn day: MUSIC IN MY EARS. Often quite loud.

Are there any women who helped pave the way for your success?

Oh, this is the best part. Nothing better than giving credit.

Above all, my mom, Susan Felts, whose creative energy and talents I can never match. She’s talented in so many ways and has a much better follow-through/completion rate on projects than I ever will. She has been my biggest supporter all my life, has encouraged all my creative explorations large and small. I’ve learned so much from her about how to be in the world, unafraid and kind and enthusiastic and curious and never stagnating, always young at heart.

Margaret Renkl, who has been a true, generous mentor. She makes me laugh with her talk and cry with her words, and she has spiffed up my writing countless times. I have sometimes lamented a lack of mentor figures in my life, but I have Margaret, and for her and her brilliant way with words I am very grateful.

Julie Shapiro, who is a fierce example of how to live a passionate, badass life in the arts while being a good friend to so many. I don’t think I have the time-management skills to be a Julie Shapiro, but I’ll always hold her up in my mind as a paragon of pursuing big goals and dreams in the arts. Many “What Would Julie Shapiro Do?” moments up in here.

Gretchen Kalwinski, who has cheered me on from afar and helped soften my hard edges and helped me become a better friend through being one of my best.

Katie McDougall, without whose optimistic tenacity and shared enthusiasm for the idea of literary community there would be no Porch. Working alongside Katie, I’ve grown in some very important ways.

Thalia Dills, not yet a woman, but you can bet she is already helping me be a better person, every day.

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

Nothing has really matched The Wire for me, although Breaking Bad came close.

Snacks: Trail mix, chocolate items of many kinds, Cheez-Its, those strange “natural” Cheetos you can get now, and salted almonds.

All photos courtesy of Susannah Felts (via Heidi Ross)

P.S. Meet my last bitch:  Calligrapher, Claire White!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.

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