Suzanne Mozes on the Narrative of Place

Writer, editor, and instructor Suzanne Mozes.
Writer, editor, and instructor Suzanne Mozes.

Writer, editor, and instructor Suzanne Mozes was recently awarded an Idea Capital grant. Mozes has made a name for herself in Atlanta with her Storybuilding creative writing classes and her innovative Saturday morning writing series called Under/Over/On. Under/Over/On has taken place at diverse locations such as the Oakland Cemetery, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the High Museum of Art, and more. Mozes and I recently discussed how she intends to use her new grant to help expand Under/Over/On, the art of introvert-friendly public spaces, the joys of swimming, and the power that location possesses over the creative spirit.

Sherri Caudell: What made you apply for the Idea Capital Grant and how are you planning to use the money?

Suzanne Mozes: I applied with the intention of trying to grow Under/Over/On. I had done a few events to test the waters, and each one seemed to bring out more people. I wanted to use the money to have different instructors and to be able to pay them. The idea was that each instructor would choose their own theme, pick their own location, and run an Over/Under/On session. Then I could also partake, and wouldn’t always be teaching. Since I’ve received the grant, I’ve had two more Over/Under/On events, one with Terra Elan McVoy and the other one with Shannon M. Turner, and I’ve been able to pay them, which has been really exciting. Terra chose her location as the North DeKalb Mall. She was really interested in the space and in how commercialism is played out there. Shannon did her session at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. They actually called me and asked if we would like to host one there. Shannon had been doing improv and storytelling and thought that the amphitheater would be a great location. We’re going to do at least three more, but I’m not sure yet when those will take place.

SC: Do you have any ideas of locations or themes for the upcoming events?

SM: I wanted to explore Atlanta by using different instructors and the places that they find thought provoking. I have a couple of folks lined up, but I don’t want to announce who they are yet. There will probably be one in an urban forest, another on the top of a building with a gorgeous view, and one that will be truly urban and industrial with little to no greenery. I’m looking for variety, the bizarreness of a place, or places you wouldn’t necessarily go to on your own. I think that place has a great affect on the way that we think and create, which is an underlying idea for Under/Over/On.

SC: How do you feel that the concept of place affects the creative process or writing?

SM: I can only speak from personal experience, and some places encourage creativity for me and others don’t. I’ve gone on an artist residency that was in the gorgeous mountains where I didn’t get anything done. I didn’t feel at ease there. There are happy places and then there are places that are beautiful but don’t do anything for your writing. Place and writing go hand in hand. The kind of writing I do involves themes that shift depending on the space I’m in. The book I’m working on was going in one direction when I was holed up in Brooklyn, and it has shifted dramatically since moving to Atlanta. I have more space here; the book has opened up and taken on new ideas. It’s impossible not to be affected by your environment.

Mozes encouraged participants to make the same gesture as the Rodin sculpture in the Under/Over/On event at the High Museum of Art. (Photo: David Ferris)
Mozes encouraged participants to make the same gesture as the Rodin sculpture in the Under/Over/On event at the High Museum of Art. (Photo: David Ferris)

SC: How do you come up with the different themes for Over/Under/On? Does it begin with the location?

SM: For the ones that I run, I start with a place that holds some importance to me or I’m interested in collaborating with the people who run the location. When I did the one at Oakland Cemetery, I started doing research about the location, including who was buried there and the style of the tombstones. I zoned in on a couple of the stones and started to ask questions like, “Why is this interesting to me?” and out of that came the themes which act as a tool to help focus the sessions. They are a way for me to touch base, a lens to look through what we’re talking about that day.

SC: How did the idea to start Under/Over/On come about, had you done anything like that before?

SM: No, and I’m still figuring it out. It had been an idea that I’d had for a while but never had the time or space to put into action. Originally, I wanted to find someone already doing this sort of thing and it didn’t exist. Under/Over/On brings together all of the things that I love and care about: writing, interdisciplinary work, art, public performance, and using setting as inspiration. I get a tremendous high from doing it.

SC: When you’re doing a session, what do you see your role as?

SM: I see myself as a facilitator. Doing the research, coming up with thought provoking questions, getting the art—it takes a lot of time. I also realize that being in a group of people working simultaneously produces another kind of thought process. I may not be writing in response to the prompts right along with the people attending, but I’m getting just as much out of it, if not more, from these sessions. The process sparks so many ideas in me. The same thing happens for me when I’m teaching at Emory Continuing Education—I get so much out of it. It’s so galvanizing for everyone involved, and knowing that makes it all the more energizing.

SC: I’ve been to two Under/Over/On sessions—the one at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and the one at Oakland Cemetery. I really loved attending both of them and felt like I came away from each experience with new knowledge about myself. The way the events are conducted have a way of making writing seem less intimidating. Was that a goal for you?

SM: That’s great! I wanted to remove the barriers that keep people from doing their creative work. I think there are so many barriers in our day-to-day lives, such as procrastination, guilt, and any number of things that hold us back from doing artistic work. One of the goals was that if you told folks that coffee would be waiting for them in a really interesting location and that they would have an hour of directed free writing, you would set into motion a level of motivation that would continue into their weekend. So I’m thrilled to hear that it makes writing seem less hard.

At an Under/Over/On  at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Mozes started the session by having everyone get comfortable and lie down on the floor.(Photo: Julie Deliquanti)
At an Under/Over/On at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Mozes started the session by having everyone get comfortable and lie down on the floor.(Photo: Julie Delliquanti)

SC: I’m really introverted, but even though I’m around other people when I’m at an Under/Over/On event, I feel really comfortable. I think it’s good for extroverts as well, because it acts like a social networking tool for writers and artists.

SM: That’s wonderful. That was a primary goal. I feel like I stole part of this idea from Creative Mornings, that Tina Roth Eisenberg facilitated and is now in like 70 cities around the world. I have gone to a few of them in Atlanta and I think that they’re fantastic. For me, as an introvert, they can also be deeply overwhelming. I’m not somebody who easily goes up to strangers and introduces myself. So I basically tweaked this idea for introverts, to create a situation that you don’t have to interact with people, but you can if you want to. It’s totally acceptable for you to sit with a cup of coffee and not talk to anyone or read a book and write and not make eye contact. There is an opportunity after the session where people seem to mingle and talk to one another, where if you want to, you can get feedback and talk about ideas that came up. I’m usually someone who shows up at an event and then leaves immediately thereafter. As much as I like talking about ideas, I like doing so one on one or in small groups. I do hope that it’s a place for collaboration to build, and that has happened. A few people have started working together or shared their work as a result of attending Under/Over/On.

SC: Where is your favorite place to write?

SM: I move around a lot. The reason I chose Oakland Cemetery as one of the locations for a session was because I found that I was going there a lot on Sundays after the farmer’s market. I really felt like I was walking into a whole different world. But, mostly I work at my desk at home, which I constantly have to uncover piles of books and papers, and I often find myself working at the dining room table.

The Under/Over/On session that took place at Oakland Cemetery (photo by Terry Kearns).
The Under/Over/On session that took place at Oakland Cemetery. (Photo:  Terry Kearns)

SC: You write mostly nonfiction. Why are you drawn to that genre?

SM: I’ve always said it’s because I have no imagination and I need to root myself in fact. I have also tried writing fiction with disastrous results.

SC: What are some of your biggest literary influences that have really affected your work?

SM: Janet Malcolm is a big one, Brenda Wineapple, Stacy Shiff, and Joan Didion. Shiff has done a number of biographies on women and is an incredibly talented nonfiction writer. She did one on Vera, who was Nabokov’s wife, and she wrote one on Cleopatra. Wineapple also does biographies, but they are less focused under the genre of biography and more grounded in literary journalism. She did a biography called White Heat on Emily Dickinson and her lover that was really powerful for me. Malcolm is a writer for the New Yorker who does this kind of investigative journalism version of biography that is incredibly compelling, smart, and leaves no stone unturned. I find fierce prose to be the most compelling.

SC: What books are you reading right now or are on your “to read” list?

SM: I just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Now I’m on to her book The Argonauts. I’m totally head over heels for Maggie Nelson right now and want to be her best friend.

Suzanne is currently getting her literary fix by devouring The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.
Mozes is currently getting her literary fix by devouring The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

SC: You’re from New Jersey, but I know you spent a lot of time in New York working at magazines. Tell me a little about that experience.

SM: Yes, I spent a lot of my adult life living in New York. I interned at the New Yorker one summer. I loved it and never wanted to leave. I thought if they would let me take out their trash for the rest of my life and I could be totally immersed in their world, I would do it. I very much admire a lot of the folks over there. David Remnick, the editor-in-chief, describes his staff as his all-star team and one can only aspire to be an all-star.

SC: What has been inspiring you lately? It could be a place, a play, an event you’ve gone too, or a really good dinner.

SM: I swim in an outdoor pool and it’s inspiring for me. My best thinking happens while I’m swimming laps. There is something about the light shining through the water; the light underwater for me has some kind of supernatural power to it. The way that the sunlight creates colors in the water that run through the waves down to the bottom of the pool is inspirational. It’s exercise, and I get all of the endorphins and I just feel really good after I swim.

SC: Tell me about the writing group called Narrative Collective that you are a part of.

SM: Stacy Mattingly and L.S. McKee started it. They were interested in starting a group for writers who were really serious about what they were working on. I had met Laura [L.S.] at an event, but I was surprised that they found me and asked me to be a part of it. I was honored and it was exactly what I had been looking for. I’d been asking working writers or journalists around town if they knew of any writing groups, because I needed one. No one was really able to say that there was a local group of professional writers that were meeting. There were a lot of hobbyists and people starting groups, but I needed a group that was working on books in a very serious way. I had started a number of writing groups in New York and it was hard to leave them because they provided so much emotional and creative support. They were just places to kind of let loose all of these ideas that were inside your head, and to have your mind bump up against these other minds. You got brilliant, thoughtful feedback that was not ego driven, and that’s what the Narrative Collective has turned out to be. It’s a group of really wonderful writers who meet once a week at the Warhorse café at the Goat Farm Arts Center. We have been working on individual projects together and then workshopping them. Stacy was in Sarajevo and started a writing workshop and found a tremendous amount of success with it. So when she moved to Atlanta, she knew what the possibility was of bringing together a group of really strong writers and the power it can have on one another’s work. She was working in part through the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, and she was doing something called Narrative Witness, which was really powerful and they did a huge publication recently. Real Pants, a new website for the literary community that is edited by Amy McDaniel, recently featured the Narrative Witness project on their site.

William Holman Hunt's painting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the subject of Suzanne’s upcoming book.
William Holman Hunt’s painting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the subject of Mozes’s upcoming book.

SC: How has it been working with the Goat Farm?

SM: The Goat Farm has been tremendously supportive of this and has been wonderful. They have an Arts Investment Package that they have given to the Narrative Collective, which underlines how supportive they are of us.

SC: Tell me about the narrative nonfiction biography that you are working on about artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti [W.W. Norton].

SM: I studied art history and English literature in undergrad with a minor in Italian. I was working on my thesis and had to find a subject that would work for both the art and English departments. A professor pushed me in the direction of Rossetti’s poetry, and I found it really titillating as a college student. Then I looked at his paintings and they are really what captured me. In doing research, I totally became enthralled with his life and I think that is what has ultimately persisted. His life is incredibly compelling and makes for great narrative.

Sherri Caudell is a writer, poet, and the curator of the Vida Voce series at MINT gallery. She is currently working on the first issue of her “Shock of the Femme” magazine, which will debut in July 2015.

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