Sass Brown attended the Workshop in fiction and poetry from 1986-1988 and joined the residential staff as a teacher and counselor from 1993-1994. She is the author of the poetry collection, USA-1000. Find her online here.
I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, as Susan Brown. After graduate school at Indiana University and a brief stint in Northampton, Massachusetts, I came back to Virginia for the Young Writer-in-Residence position at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Roanoke. After that, I moved back to Alexandria where I live now with my husband, composer Jamie Kowalski, and two dysfunctional cats.
All of my fellow writers from the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry; Denise Duhamel; Erika Meitner; Dorothy Barresi; Dorianne Laux; Lucia Perillo; Tony Hoagland; and Belle Waring. I’m also reading two debut poetry books: Blood Work by Matthew Siegel and Neighbors by Jay Nebel.
I read a lot of non-fiction on social and medical issues, memoirs, and too many fashion magazines. My main interest right now is the strange otherness of the body – especially the aging, decaying, or sick body, and the risky things we do to keep it well and beautiful – since I have been disabled by Lyme disease for the past five years. This is the subject of my next book.
Winning the 2014 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, after 17 years of sending out to publishing contests, was a life-altering experience. It made my book, USA-1000, a reality. What kept me going were the kind, encouraging notes on my manuscript and the fact that I was a finalist, at one point or another, for almost every contest I entered. About 25 different presses named USA-1000 as a finalist, many more than once. I also had two book contracts which fell through. Those were the most discouraging times for me; I stopped writing and sending out for a while. I am humbled and thrilled to finally have placed the manuscript with a press that I love, Southern Illinois University Press. The upside to such a long wait is more gratitude.
I was 15 when I attended YWW for the first time, and it was the first place where I was encouraged to take my writing seriously. I remember having an intense, communal experience all three summers with both my suite-mates and my counselors. Later, when I was a residential counselor, I had a similar experience of ecstatic camaraderie. YWW was a perfect training ground to learn the skills needed to become an excellent teacher.
My first summer as a student in fiction, I wrote a funny story (it was really more of a stereotypical character sketch) about a young, would-be stud named Vince. I think I called it “Love and Burgers.” I read the story at our first writers’ cafe and I remember people howling with laughter. Some even dressed up as Vince for our dance that year! I try to hold onto that moment of joy, confidence, and even power as a writer today.
The next summer, after my father had died, I read a memoir about the last few months of his life. So many people came up to me afterwards, lending support and praise for being brave enough to share such an intimate experience. That was the summer I met my first mentor, Joan Bennett, with whom I kept in touch for years. Looking back, I am so grateful to her for reading and providing feedback on the installments of a novel, and offering encouragement with each letter. That generosity has stayed with me as a teacher critiquing student work.
Read everything. Check out an anthology with a diverse group of writers and read around in it. Find the ones you like, and read whole books by them.
Be fearless. Don’t be too scared to say everything and anything. Just get it on the page and worry about editing it later. The next thing always belongs (that one I stole from Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town); in other words: trust your instincts.
Be gentle with yourself; not every piece you write will be great. Sometimes you have to write through the junk to get to the gem.
If you are a poet, try to write in form every once in a while. Form forces you to make unexpected choices and relaxes your self-consciousness.
Honor your own writing process. In an ideal world, we all would write every day. That schedule isn’t feasible for everyone.