Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Susan Conley

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

As soon as I caught wind of Susan Conley and her recently published memoir The Foremost Good Fortune, I was curious about her writerhead. After all, she’s a New Englander who was an expat in China with a unique story to tell.

So lean close, my friends, and lend your ear. You’re going to want to hear this…

The Scoop About The Foremost Good Fortune

Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons say good-bye to their friends, family, and house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, prepared to embrace the inevitable onslaught of new experiences that such a move entails. But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.

While her husband is consumed with his job, Susan works on finishing her novel and confronting the challenges of day-to-day life in an utterly foreign country: determining the proper way to buy apples at a Chinese megamarket; bribing her little boys to ride the school bus; fielding invitations to mysterious “sweater parties” and tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in an elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.

Despite the distractions, there are many occasions for joy. From road trips to the Great Wall and bartering for a “starter Buddha” at the raucous flea market to lighting fireworks in the streets for the Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants, they gradually turn their unfamiliar environs into a true home.

Then Susan learns she has cancer. After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner—but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger. Set against the eternally fascinating backdrop of modern China and full of insight into the trickiest questions of motherhood—How do you talk to children about death? When is it okay to lie?—this wry and poignant memoir is a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. The story is nailed down, noisily, in metal. The Foremost Good Fortune is just about as honest a book as you’ll ever read. The trip Conley went on was to a far more complex place that she envisioned. This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.” ~ The Washington Post, Carolyn See

“Conley also touched a nerve that resonated with most women: She wasn’t the perfect mother and she readily admitted to needing her own space. She used the metaphor of having a place inside her head where she retreated to when things with her boys got too manic to deal with. The theme continues to resonate through the metaphor of Mandarin and then cancer as a sea in which she is swimming alone.” ~ China Daily, Rebecca Lo

“This is a beautiful story of womanhood, motherhood, travel and loss, written by an author of rare and radiant grace.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

First Sentence

“It’s late on a cold April night in Portland, Maine, and I lie on the couch staring hard at a glossy pullout map of Beijing.”


And now, Susan’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

Writerhead begins while I’m in a deep sleep, and if things are zinging that day, I’m able to keep one foot in that dreamland the whole time I’m at my writing desk. It’s a morning operation for me—I surface from a REM cycle, catch the thread of a plot line or a character quirk that’s asking for attention, nurse that in bed (maybe even scratch the idea out on a notepad) until my little people wake up. Feed the boys breakfast—walk them to school. All the while nurturing the writer head and gently resisting intrepid outside forces: no internet, no telephone, no plumber.

If I can make it to my desk with the dreaminess intact (it has something to do with energy reserves—email sucks all the vigor out of me if I do it first thing and I have nothing left in my creative bank—and something to do with hope. I am more joyful as a writer if I haven’t spent lost minutes trolling New York Times.com before nine am) I am good to go for five hours. Once I’m there I am mostly a work horse. I like long stretches of time and I don’t break except to sprint to the kitchen for a hummus bagel sandwich and then back at it.

I once taught a workshop to room of burgeoning memoir writers that was about using fiction techniques in our non-fiction. The subtitle of the workshop could have been “ass in chair” because the biggest problem most of the students in the room were having was making the time to write. I had a mantra that whole workshop: if the ass is not in the chair than the writing will not occur. But I don’t always sit at my desk. My shoulders get tired and my neck hurts, and I move to a mattress I dragged up the attic stairs by myself last fall and wrangled into the corner of my tiny study. I dressed it up as a day bed, with bright cotton pillows and Indian blankets and I often move there when I feel the dark forces circling again: the internet, the telephone, the plumber. I lie back on the pillows and whether I’m writing long-hand in my notebooks (early drafts of everything I write) or plucking away at the keyboard, this mattress sometimes allows me to hold on another hour or so of writerhead.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

All can be lost so easily—even the best laid plans of a writing day. So I maintain a kind of fierceness to guard my time and the headspace of writerhead. It can evaporate so quickly. It all looks harmless—a husband who wants to talk through our boys’ guitar lesson schedules is standing in my attic office door. Ten minutes later he has the details he needs to go retrieve our musicians and I’ve lost the voice of my narrator for the rest of the day.

I have strategies to combat this. I don’t make eye contact with my husband when he pokes his head in, and I pretend I haven’t heard him when he coughs. I never answer the front door (whatever they need to tell me or leave me I know they will come back the next day and try again) or the phone.

My husband has told me that when I’m writing, really writing and not just moving around paragraphs in an attempt to spark something, the level of focus in my office is high. Scarily high, he reported last week, because of the kitchen faucet I left on downstairs for three hours after I grabbed a glass of water. I tell him I am unaware of the focus or the faucet because I am too busy writing. I think this new word, writerhead, might do some of the work of explaining where my brain goes. I won’t need to make frown faces at my kids when they ask me what’s for dinner while I’m still on my writer’s clock. I will just say the word writerhead to them and it will soon have its own kind of currency.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Writerhead is a small wooden dory. The work is in getting to the dock, putting on my life jacket and climbing into the boat without upsetting the things in there: the oars, the water slushing in the bilge, the bow line and stern line. Once I’m in the boat, I get right to work rowing. There can be choppy seas and the oars can get heavy and awkward. But I try to keep the boat moving—every day a little further up the coast and then back home.


Susan Conley lived in Beijing for more than two years, and returned to Portland, Maine, with her husband and two sons in December 2009. She is cofounder and executive director of the Telling Room, a writers’ workshop and literary hub for the region. She was an associate editor at Ploughshares and has led creative writing seminars at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel and settling back into life in the States.

If you’d like to learn more about Susan, hop on over to her web site (http://www.susanconley.com). You can also say hello on Twitter (@Susan_Conley) or Facebook.


Q4U Readers / Writers / Moms / Dads / Expats / Travelers / Sinophiles: What draws you in here? The small wooden dory? The image of Susan dragging that mattress up to her writing room? Susan’s comment that interruptions “all look harmless”? Talk to me.


One Response to Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Susan Conley

  1. Fantastic interview! Love not making eye contact with the hubs. I’ve got a new strategy to try ; ) Thx Susan and Kristin! Susan, hope we can bring you to Newburyport some day. We have a wonderful indie bookstore here.