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Susan Power: Pure Magic

Susan Power, author of The Grass Dancer and RoofwalkerWhat happens when you put ten creative writing students in one room for a semester with author extraordinaire, Susan Power? Magic. Pure, right brained, I-don’t-know-where-this-is-going-but-I-like-it magic.

Susan Power, a Dakota Native American writer, won the PEN/Hemmingway award for The Grass Dancer and the Milkweed National Fiction Prize for Roofwalker. Susan’s writing is circuitous and timeless and her process is revelatory, a deliberate approach without deliberation. She doesn’t manipulate her characters like puppets to show readers what she believes. Instead, she listens and allows the characters to show her, the writer, what they believe. Over the semester, Susan shared her magical gift with the class: the courage to surrender control and to open the heart to listen and give voice to whoever shows up.

I knew this class was going to be different when Susan handed out a brief one-page syllabus with no reading list. She wanted us to simply write and to write without restraint. After intense, highly structured craft classes on groundings in fiction, flash fiction, and point of view, this was what I needed to generate material.

Kicking off the first class, Susan challenged the advice commonly given to students: write what you know. “Why would we bother to write what we already know?” she asked us. “Marcie Hershman says to ‘Write what you need to know.’ Let your writing, your stories, be discovered and then ask the questions.”

Yes! This is why writing fulfils me like no other intellectual pursuit because it combines my desire to mull over, to meditate, and to address issues creatively. I can still research for authenticity when necessary, but then I can take the facts and soar with the story born from them. In this process I not only learn new and interesting stuff, but I discover a greater human element that can only be understood empathetically and vicariously through the experiences of my characters and the telling of their stories.

I’ve reviewed my spiral notebook from class and have come to the conclusion that the only notes I really need to carry me on are the first three lines on page 2.

Finding the Truth of Fiction

Puppeteer vs. Freewill characters

Finding the Truth vs. Forcing the “Truth”

These phrases sum up a method of writing that Susan coaxed from each of us in the class. By freeing our minds to follow an image, a sound, a face, a phrase, we discovered characters that we had no idea were possible. We spent the next 13 weeks getting to know them and their families, friends, and enemies. They told us their stories one week at a time, one chapter at a time, and we wrote, revised, and shaped them.

We began with interrogating characters—any character that came to mind whether it was someone we’d been writing about for months, a quirky name, or a face that just popped into our brains. We interviewed our new companions to discover the motivations behind their actions. We asked them why they did what they did through a set of 10 random questions. I turned my screen to white print on white and followed the voice that rose from within my mind—I called him The Dog Walker.  No editing, no censoring, no stopping, just letting the intuitive side of me flow from my fingertips.

Some of my best stories came out of innocent questions such as What is your favorite movie? and Who are your grandparents? These questions morphed into What is it with you and Mary Poppins? And How did your Swedish grandmother and your French grandfather become husband and wife?

Sometimes the questions led to personal discoveries (because I always wanted Mary Poppins to be my hero, my savior, my surrogate mother) and others led to family secrets (they met as strangers and fled Europe’s post WWII desolation with forged marriage documents in order to immigrate to America).

Each week students read from the voices of their newly discovered characters, eager to tell their stories: a Minnesota woman recovering from anorexia; a Russian wolf-girl-woman who after a series of petty thefts in the village, steals an infant; a non-repentant modern-day dream-stealer and his quest for love; a drowned Icelandic boy whose ghost returns thirty years later to resolve his pain, and more.

Through the freewill of our characters, we discovered the truth in their stories. No premeditated agendas. No planned themes to follow. No points to prove. Just the delightfully surprising stories that caused us to sit on the edges of our chairs in anticipation of the answer to what lay on our lips, What happens next? More often than not, a student’s reply was, I don’t know where this is going, but I like it.

Magic. Pure magic. We like it too. Thank you, Susan Power.


Most notable works by Susan Power:

A brief biography of Susan Power and a review of The Grass Dancer can be found at