Poetry, Fanfiction, and Chronic Illness with Susanne Barrett
As I considered guests for this season of the podcast, it occurred to me that I had never shared our most senior Brave Writer instructor with you! Susanne Barrett and I are homeschool friends, writing colleagues, fellow Californians, and passionate writers. Susanne has taught with Brave Writer for more than a decade, instructing our high school students in topics ranging from the MLA Research Essay to Fan Fiction to Shakespeare! She shares on the podcast about all of that and more—including her own struggle with chronic illness in the midst of her very full life.
Episode 10: Susanne Barrett
Susanne homeschooled her four children, has over 2 million fans of her fan fiction, and is one of our most beloved writing instructors. She shares her teaching and personal writing experiences on today’s episode!
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NEW FEATURE! We’ll be sharing interviews with our fabulous writing instructors. Here’s our first written interview with Susanne Barrett!
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What kind of a writer were you in high school?
In high school, I mostly wrote poetry. I discovered the joys of reading and writing poetry due to my tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Sebastian. [He] also taught an elective class in creative writing, and there I learned to write poetry—mostly free verse heavily influenced by Dickinson—no surprise there! In fact, many of the poetry forms I teach in the Playing with Poetry Workshop I first learned in Mr. Sebastian’s class.
What is one of your favorite classroom moments?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite, but my most memorable classroom moment was when I was teaching Writing 116 (the MLA Research Essay) at PLNU, and the new English Department chairperson came in to observe my teaching. I was horribly morning-sick with our second child, and this class started at 7:30 AM. I managed to teach despite severe nausea, and my class was soooo wonderful; they knew how sick I was feeling (and why), and they kept the discussions flowing beautifully. As soon as the department chair left, I rushed out and vomited spectacularly into the trash can outside the classroom door…in full sight of and to the applause of my entire class. I was red-faced for a week…and the department chair teased me about it for years.
What inspires you?
Truly beautiful writing. Truly gorgeous landscapes. The music of the wind in the treetops. Candlelight, dip pens, bottled ink, and a blank journal page. The scent of old books and notes written in the margins by previous owners of said old books.
What would your autobiography be called?
The Bookish Theoric (a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello)
Which superpower would you like to have? What is a superpower you already have?
I would love to be able to function on two hours of sleep—then I could do so many things I enjoy doing. My family claims I already have “the editing eye”—I can spot grammar errors anywhere and everywhere.
Where would you go in a time machine?
I would meet the Brontë family in Victorian England and spend an afternoon chatting with them at their parsonage in West Yorkshire. They were so brilliant—three sister writers and a brother artist/poet, plus a wise father/pastor.
If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?
Jane Eyre. Easiest question here. I love her quiet strength as she stands up stubbornly for what she believes in. Her thirst for learning when young, her desire to serve others, her curiosity and intelligence, her unobtrusive talents in art and teaching, and her strength of character—all of these qualities drew me to her the first time I read Jane Eyre.
What’s your favorite smell? What memory does it remind you of?
I love the rich smell of fresh plums which remind me of picking fruit from gnarled trees for my grandmother and watching her make her famous plum jelly. Aaaah, the pride in seeing jar after jar of palest-pink jelly on the pantry shelf. I also love the slightly spicy scent of Cécile Brünner climbing roses—roses that my great-grandmother grew in her little city garden.
What was your favorite toy growing up?
My stuffed Camel-with the Wrinkled-Knees from the Raggedy Ann and Andy books. He was blue with printed patches, and I promptly named him “Camelot.” He (with my help, of course) used to type extremely insulting letters on my mother’s college typewriter to my brother’s stuffed blue poodle, Pierre. I saved much of their correspondence and keep their badly-spelt letters upstairs in my heirloom box.
Cake or pie?
Cake, of course!! I adore every kind of cake except for pineapple-upside-down and German chocolate. My favorite is still yellow cake with chocolate frosting which was my brother’s and my birthday cake every year. (He was born on my third birthday.)
When you were little, what did you want to be?
I knew as early as fourth grade that I wanted to be a teacher. Before that, I wanted to be Aurora from Sleeping Beauty or a ballerina. (I did take ballet, jazz, and tap classes and fell in love with tap; I wasn’t nearly flexible enough for ballet!)
What’s something you’d like us to know about reading Shakespeare?
Always, always, always read Shakespeare out loud!! My high school Shakespeare teacher had spent her college summers traveling in a Shakespearean acting troupe up and down the Eastern seaboard, and she always “cast” the plays we were to read aloud in class, saving the best roles for herself. (And Mrs. Jordan made a mighty fine Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew, I can tell you!) And be sure to attend live Shakespeare performances of decent quality.
If live performances aren’t available or in one’s budget, then check out some great film performances from the library; I especially recommend the 2009 Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart and the 1993 Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (but please preview the latter—there are some adult-type glimpses here and there).
Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard, not merely read from a book. However, if a Shakespeare play needs to be read, then read it aloud in a family/group or at least read along with an audio version; Librivox has free audio versions of most of Shakespeare’s plays. In addition, most libraries have excellent audio versions on CD available (Arkangel productions are usually amazing!). And HAVE FUN!! Shakespeare is meant to be enjoyed; reading his work is not a chore merely to be survived.