On Writing Memoir:
A Conversation with Stonecoast's Suzanne Strempek Shea
Written By: Melanie Brooks
The first time I met Suzanne Strempek Shea, I was standing to the side of a large, dimly-lit reception room in the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine, on the opening night of my first residency in the Stonecoast MFA program. I clutched a glass of white wine like a security blanket. I had spent the day sitting through orientation workshops that did more to disorient me about what to expect over the next ten days and the upcoming semester, and I felt like the clichéd fish out of water. This reception was an opportunity for new students to meet faculty, but all I wanted to do was get out of there, go up to my room, and call home to tell my husband that I’d made a horrendous mistake. That this writer scene was not for me.
And then, like a singular ray of sunshine peeking through the ominous clouds of a gathering storm, this tall, slim woman, with her long, graying hair pulled back in a barrette, came over, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Welcome, welcome!” and just like that, I steadied.
I can’t think of a better way to describe Suzanne Strempek Shea than to say that she is a walking hug. In the year and a half since that initial meeting, I’ve gotten to know her as teacher, mentor, and friend. The richness she has added to my world, and the wisdom, encouragement, and insight she has brought to my work are immeasurable.
On this April day in 2014 that is beginning to show promises of spring, I settle back with a warm mug of tea against a cushion on Strempek Shea’s futon in a room filled with books and windows and light in her home in Bondsville, Massachusetts. Beneath the arched entryway to the room sits a long desk with a chair at each end, two open laptops, and piles of books and newspapers.
This is the writing space she shares with her husband, Tommy Shea, an award-winning writer himself, whom I’d had the delight of meeting a few minutes earlier when I’d arrived. She apologizes for what she sees as the disorder of the room, explaining that they have been hosting Irish singers Leo Moran and Anthony Thistlethwaite, and she’s still recovering from a weekend of concerts. I comment on a Facebook photo showing her playing the accordion on stage with the duo and tell her that my awe of her grew exponentially when she’d exposed that hidden talent.
“I’m available for polkas and bat mitzvahs,” she jokes, brushing off my compliment with her characteristic humility.
Strempek Shea sits beside me on the futon, her demeanor completely relaxed despite the “big doin’s,” as my father liked to say, happening in her world. A year shy of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of her first book, Selling the Lite of Heaven – a novel that captures many threads of her Polish-Catholic heritage – she’s launching her tenth and eleventh books within six months of each other. Her sixth novel, Make a Wish But Not for Money – about a palm reader in a dead mall – is due out in October, and in April she released This is Paradise, a compelling true story about an Irish woman named Mags Riordan and the medical clinic she founded in Malawi, Africa, in memory of her son Billy.
The account of how Strempek Shea happened upon Mags Riordan’s story captures her open spirit and her gift for finding stories in almost everything. She met Riordan close to thirteen years ago when they occupied adjacent craft booths at the annual Eastern States Exposition – the “Big E” – in western Massachusetts, one of the nation’s largest fairs. Throughout the day, she listened to Riordan repeat the story that her son had drowned in Africa, and she was selling her crafts to benefit the clinic she’d set up in his honor in the village where he died. Unlike most of the fairgoers who stepped away from this sad account, Strempek Shea leaned in. She’d started her writing career as a journalist, and her reporter’s instincts told her there was more to this woman’s story. The “more” she uncovered became This is Paradise.
Later today, when Strempek Shea and I head over to Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where she is writer-in-residence, she’ll make me promise not to buy her new book from the bookstore because she’s already signed a copy to give to me before I head home.
My reason for traveling to Bondsville on this particular day, though, is to talk about another of her books: her first memoir, Songs from a Lead-Lined Room: Notes – High and Low – from My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation. I pull out my copy and show her how I’ve folded the bottom corners of the pages that contain passages that resonate in some way with me. It would be easier to count the corners that aren’t folded than the ones that are.
With stark and self-revealing honesty, her book is a raw chronicle of her month and a half of daily radiation treatments after being diagnosed with breast cancer at forty-one and undergoing a lumpectomy. She shows us her isolation, her fear, her confusion, her questions, her despair. She also gives us an authentic and often humorous portrait of herself as patient and her distress at not measuring up to how she would have imagined. She writes, “My general upbeat, faith-filled manner would have had me guessing that if I ever got whacked by life, I’d not only look good in my hospital bed, I’d genuinely feel good, too. […] ‘That’s just how I am,’ I’d tell those who asked how I did it” (47). Instead, she cuts herself off from everyone except Tommy and a few close friends who “get it,” and places a mat that says “GO AWAY” outside her door. With this kind of candor, she creates a powerful narrative of coping and recovering from a life-threatening illness, and the reality of changed perception about life that comes in its wake.
When Strempek Shea began writing about the experience, she had no thought or intention of writing a book. “I was just thinking of myself,” she says. “I came home from that first [radiation] session and went upstairs, and Tommy was working and he said ‘How did it go?’ and I went like this.” She holds up her index finger. “I sat down and wrote for half an hour before I could talk.”
This became a comforting ritual for her. “Every day when I went, I would write a little bit after the appointment, maybe for half an hour, and I got into the routine […] There was always something I could write about.” She describes coming to a realization somewhere along the way that maybe she could give what she’d written to Tommy and four or five friends who’d been supporting her since her diagnosis. “I felt like I was very inarticulate about what I was feeling. It was really the scariest thing I’d been through, and I didn’t know really what to say about it or how to say it […] I wasn’t myself. And then I said, ‘Well I’m the best on paper.’ Here I can say exactly what I was feeling and give this to them.”
She thought that would be it. She’d show them and then have a big bonfire with all the pages. But when she showed what she’d written to Tommy, his writer’s instincts told him something else. He said, “You know this could help other people; you should give this to your agent.”
At a reading for This is Paradise that I’ll attend in a few weeks time, I’ll remember this slice of our conversation when Strempek Shea tells the audience that for each of the eleven books she’s written, she can picture the moment when Tommy told her that what she was writing was indeed a book.
Despite Tommy’s encouragement, the idea of showing anyone else this writing about her cancer journey was terrifying to her at first. She’d written nonfiction for the fifteen years she’d worked as a journalist, but that felt markedly different. She was telling other people’s stories. “It’s nothing I went through […] Even though I’d written plenty of personal essays along the way, there was nothing too revealing. These were diary entries. I felt like I didn’t have any skin or any clothes. I felt so exposed. I couldn’t imagine putting that out for other people.”
I get it. That kind of exposure is one of the greatest struggles I’ve faced in trying to write my memoir. I often ask, what will people think of me when they see this? The question alone makes me want to shut my laptop and run away.
I learn that Strempek Shea and I grew up with similar mindsets about the people we are “supposed” to be. We both define ourselves as “the good girl,” the one who does what’s expected of her and tries not to offend anybody by expressing too many of her own feelings. She chuckles and says one of her first thoughts about publishing this book was, “I’m going to get in trouble for something.”
“So what made you decide to do it?” I ask her.
The cancer diagnosis terrified her, as it would anyone, and when she learned she was going to have radiation treatment, she wanted to know what to expect. Knowing might give her some sort of grounding, she thought. She went to the library, but a search of the term “radiation” referred her to books on things like Hiroshima and Chernobyl, and “medical radiation” turned up only medical texts.
She stands up, walks over to one of the many bookshelves in the room and scans the titles. She picks a book and comes back to the futon. She’s selected a travel book from a trip she and Tommy took. She opens to a back page where there are handwritten notes about what they did each day. She reads, “‘Day 9 – Woke at 8. Walked a lot. Had cheese sandwiches.’” She taps her finger against the page, pointing to the notes, and says, “I wanted somebody’s ‘this.’ I wanted somebody’s Day 1. I wanted somebody’s ‘Woke at 8, stared out the window. [Thought,] Rats.’ I thought maybe I could find some kind of guidebook, some kind of travel log [through the radiation process] that could help me. But I didn’t. So I thought back to that and said, maybe I will do this […] if somebody could pick this up and say they aren’t the only one. . . .” Her voice trails off, and I’m struck by the selflessness of what she’s just said. She’d walk out there with no skin or clothes if it might help somebody else. So, so Suzanne, I muse.
And it’s the help that sharing her story has turned out to be for others going through similar experiences that makes this the book, of the eleven books she’s written, the one Strempek Shea admits being most proud of. “Writers look at different parts of their lives, and this was an important time in my life, and I’m glad that I have that here, but what I’m most happy about is the response I’ve gotten. I’d say I’m glad I did it for myself, but to hear things from other people, that’s probably the best part. Because you want to make a difference to somebody.”
That difference is giving people like me permission to be who they are when they are faced with difficult stuff. Strempek Shea doesn’t paint herself as a hero or a martyr. She simply is who she is – completely real. And it’s that real person, the one who will take our hands and guide us through, that so many of us long for in our own struggles. Writing about the experience helped her get through it, and writing about her experience has connected her to the experiences of others.
She recalls when that connection solidified for her. Not long after the book’s release, she’d given a reading at a small bookstore. “I remember exactly where I was in the store, and people coming up and saying either, ‘I lost somebody to cancer’ or ‘I know somebody’ or ‘I’m going through it.’ There were women with headscarves on who were going through chemotherapy. And I remember it hit me then that people are taking this [book] seriously.” She explains that the bookstore was far enough away from where she lived that the audience wasn’t made up of family and friends who had to show up. “These were strangers, and they read about it, and they wanted to come. They not only wanted to come, but they had the book already and they left me notes. Or they stood there, and they held my hand, and they told me what they were going through. And that line was so long because people wanted to share their stories.” It didn’t resemble the more generic exchanges she’d had with people after readings of her novels. “This was like, like there was an intensity to it.”
That intersection of people’s stories and its power is what she’s gone on to preach to her many students, me included, since then. “Books, stories, songs, art – they connect us to somebody […]It boils down to you just have to do this stuff. You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.”
Strempek Shea gets up and heads into the kitchen to stir the simmering pot of vegetarian soup we will soon have for lunch. Its delicious aroma wafts into the room and mingles with her resolute words that still hang in the air. Words I tuck into the folds of my consciousness as a reminder of what, deep down, I already know is true. If you are a writer, you have to write about it.
Melanie Brooks is a writer, teacher, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire, with her husband, two children, and yellow Lab. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. She teaches professional writing at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and also teaches creative writing at Nashua Community College in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Unpacking experiences of life and loss is at the core of her writing. When she was thirteen, her father was infected with HIV after receiving contaminated blood during open-heart surgery. He died of an AIDS-related illness ten years later. The complex nature of his disease and the grief of his death have had a lasting impact on her. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s starting to understand that impact. The stories filling the pages of her memoir, “A Complicated Grief,” are helping her to understand herself. The encouragement she received from the memoirists she interviewed for her second book, “Writing Hard Stories and Living to Tell the Tale: Fifteen Writers Who’ve Done Both,” and their candid descriptions of their journeys to write their difficult stories gave her the mooring she needed to keep writing her own. Website: melaniebrooks.com