Budding author Sue Miller won the National Scholastic Writing Award at age 15, joining the company of John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and Truman Capote. Nearly three decades later, her unflinchingly human novels have garnered critical acclaim, and have earned a loyal following of readers from every corner of the world. Now, as Davidson's Visiting McGee Professor of Creative Writing, Miller imparts the lessons of literature and life to her students.
Miller grew up on the south side of Chicago, in an ecclesiastical family. She got her earliest sense of writing from Presbyterian and Congregational sermons.
"Listening to sermons Sunday after Sunday, I came to understand in my bones that writing has a form," she said. "Writing has a form and a structure and your job is to make it invisible. Some sermons did that better than others."
Her metamorphosis into "writer" was at first invisible, too, against the busyness of life as a Harvard English major, wife, cocktail waitress, English teacher, daycare worker, single mother for 15 years... Then, her first novel, The Good Mother, in 1986 met with critical acclaim, and she was off and writing for good.
"The most important change that happened as a result of that book's success was simply that I had ample time to write. I didn't need to be hustling all the time, trying to line up the next adjunct appointment, and the next after that," Miller said. "I was 43 when my first book came out. I felt set loose, set free, to write. I was certainly ready for that. I wrote a lot over the next few years."
In this Q&A, Miller talks about her craft and creative process.
Was there a moment or moments in your life when you knew, deep down, that you were a writer?
When I was still working in daycare and my son was pretty young, I would read in the evenings—no television by choice, and no internet, period. Just long evenings, one after another, with a book. That was my education as a writer, my apprenticeship—reading closely, noticing how other writers were working. I was writing then, when I could, and eventually I began to feel that what I was writing was as good as at least some of what I was reading, and I started to send things out.
What are your writing tools, and how do those choices affect your creative process?
I still write in longhand. I have little notebooks that I work in. Not just to write the narrative, but to make notes on anything. A diagram of the rooms in a house my characters live in, or a chart of all their ages at particular moments in the story. Research notes. Sometimes the odd shopping list makes it in there. I do use a computer, and I'm grateful for it—for the ease of revision it offers, for instance. But then I type things in and print them out and write all over them again in longhand. Writing in longhand feels more provisional to me. It's not set in stone or set in typeface. It's freeing for me.
How do you balance writing and all the other aspects of living a life?
Writing makes for a very solitary life, so really, you have to discipline yourself to make sure to take care of the other parts. To see friends, to be with other people. Teaching is good for that, both the students and the colleagues. And for a long time I was very active in the New England branch of PEN American Center, which made a welcoming community for a lot of us local writers around Boston. But of course, life, in the form variously of children, grandchildren, veterinary care, cooking, illness, home repair, has a way of jumping you from time to time, demanding that you do something about it. Whether that's a balance or not, I don't know.
What are you reading in 2017?
Just Mercy by Brian Stephenson, a non-fiction work about justice and the prison system. I just finished a terrific critical book by Vivian Gornick called The End of the Novel of Love. I read a bit to my class from it, about revision. I ordered from Main Street Books and just finished Transit by Rachel Cusk and I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, which has turned me back to reading his books. I'm re-reading The News from Spain: Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham. The stories are about love, really, in many, many forms. The phrase "the news from Spain" shows up in each of the stories in some way.
And of course, I'm reading short stories along with my writing classes, and talking to them about how much can be done by language, how much meaning can be created in language in that form, trying to make them feel that short story is not just an anecdote. Through language, it achieves depth and meaning.
Where does the value of literary fiction lie in today's text- and sound-bite world?
It has the same value it's always had, though I think it may be harder now for students—really, for all of us—to care about it as much as they did in the world before the internet and its fascinations. That sense of literature as a Holy Grail of sorts, that sense of great excitement about it, is not there for as many people as it once was, and that's a loss—that sense of belonging to a community of book lovers. "Have you read Herzog yet?!" The sense that everyone would read a particular book, would want to be talking about it, is harder to come by.