Why I Write: Suzanne Roberts

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Fall 2020 Newsletter, i.e.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Nebraska 2020), Almost Somewhere: Twenty Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Nebraska, 2012), and four collections of poetry. She was named the Next Great Travel Writer by National Geographic’s Traveler, and her work has been published in Best Women’s Travel Writing and listed as Notable in Best American Essays. She teaches for the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University. Visit her website: www.suzanneroberts.net.

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Pippi Longstocking. I wanted to live as she did, in a big house on my own with a monkey and a horse. I admired Pippi’s strength (and the way she used it to put a bully in his place), her independence, her sense of adventure and wonder, but mostly the way she seemed to be boldly and unapologetically herself. My only pathway, as a child, to a life of adventure and authenticity was through my books, so I sat for hours on the couch, where I took off my glasses and ignored the world around me. Maybe there has always been a correlation between myopic children becoming writers. The fuzzy outside world makes it easier to look inward.

There’s also a correlation between bookish children like me and being bullied. As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how people fall into two categories: the bully and the bullied. I fell into the latter group, meaning my best friends would turn on me, crank call our house, write “fatty-fatty four eyes” on my school locker. In those times, I wanted more than anything to escape, so I read and wrote stories of my own. I stitched the pages together, drawing pictures, making my own “books.” My mother kept some of these.

In one such book, a little boy named Tommy is bullied by a bigger boy named Bruno the Bad. Lucky for Tommy, he finds a polkadotted monster in his closet, who agrees to “talk to Bruno” for Tommy, which is monster-speak for eating him (and of course, Bruno tasted bad). In the end of the story, everyone is happy, so they all have a party. I must have turned in my story about Tommy and his monster to a teacher because someone had written this on the back of my juvenilia: He ate him?! Good Heavens!

I suppose a little girl writing about monsters eating a child, even if he is a bully, seems a little harsh, but still, I want to reach back in time and answer that teacher: Of course he did! It’s the perfect ending: both surprising and inevitable. I was on my way to being a writer. And she was asking the wrong question. It wasn’t the what that was important but the why. Why would I write such a story?

I suppose this is my chance to answer that unasked question. My stories are love letters to my younger self, whether they have an element of make-believe (though in some ways, heroic bully-eating polka-dotted monsters are as real as anything else) or they are stories about my life, where I don’t alter the past with the help of a monster; instead, I re-see it through the lens of memory, making sense of my memories, or maybe, if I’m lucky, reimagining them. The meaning of our lives isn’t made from past events but our emotional reckoning of them. I have written my way to forgiveness—of other people in my life but also for my younger self. In real life, I could not stand up to my bullies, but in my imaginary life, I get the last word. And isn’t that why we tell stories? We rearrange the world in order to make it bearable. Or maybe, as in the case of memoir, we tell our side of the story without someone interrupting, “How you exaggerate!” Or worse, Good Heavens!

I finally set out on my own adventures, attempted to live a life that, like Pippi’s, was bold and unapologetic, unconventional, even. I hiked long-distance trails (which I wrote about in Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail) and I travelled the world, having brief love affairs, which is the material for Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel. Some people thought I was running away from my problems. Through writing I was able to find the truth of it: I wasn’t running away but rather moving toward a deeper understanding of myself and the decisions I made. I told all my secrets, so I could better understand them and diffuse the strength of their shame. Real power comes from refusing the narratives that no longer serve us—there’s always what happened but more important is the meaning we attach to it.

It took me a long time to realize that being a writer means writing, that it’s the verb to write and not the noun the writer that’s important. And every book I have written—the childhood stories, the failed manuscripts in the drawer, the books that went on to publication—started the same way. They started with a wish, as most books probably do: a wish to make sense of the world and my place in it and also a wish to connect with readers who might see themselves in my stories and find the courage to tell their own—and though I don’t have a pet monkey or a horse, I’m happy to loan out my polka-dotted monster to anyone who needs him.

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