by Grant Moser
Looking back at her 20 years in writing, Susan Gregory Thomas, 43, has learned one lesson: writing “is not a glamour career. If you’re going to be durable in this kind of business, it behooves you to have a strategy going into every medium and situation.”
This lesson of having a plan is at the heart of her course, “Finishing Your Novel: A Complete Manuscript in Six Weeks,” at Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts, 7924 Germantown Ave. The course “is about setting deadlines; it’s about writing outlines; it’s about being mercenary in terms of reaching your fundamental goal, which is to finish it — not for it to be beautiful, not for it to have pristine transition, not for it to have the elegant denouement — just to finish it,” explained Thomas.
Thomas hadn’t planned on teaching a course. She had simply visited Musehouse after she moved to Chestnut Hill from Brooklyn to see if they could recommend anywhere in the area to rent a quiet desk. The Center’s director, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, asked her to teach a course before she left.
“I feel like if all of this ridiculously complex and arduous experience I’ve had can be of use to others in some small way, that will make me very happy,” she said. “And I like people who are trying to do things that seem impossible, like writing a novel. I like that spirit, and to that end I would like to help them actually do it. If my students at Musehouse complete the ‘homework’ on time, they can expect to have completed their novels. Pretty cool.”
Grabbing opportunities as they come along — and, more often than not, making her own — is nothing new to Thomas. “What happened growing up was a sink-or-swim sort of thing. No wasted genius cliches. I’m willing to do whatever. The one thing my dad relentlessly marketed to me was this idea that grit is more important than talent. I really believe that very firmly.”
That grit can be seen in how Thomas helped shape her career. After she graduated from Columbia University in 1991, she went to work for PC Magazine. That lasted a year because all she did “was write reviews of laser printers and felt like I was going to become like Bartleby the Scrivener,” she said.
The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and the new energy she saw in Washington, D.C., took her there. She was relentless in her pursuit of a job at The Washington Post. She kept knocking at the door until they let her in as a news aide, and then she pitched and pitched and pitched until she finally got “a running gig.”
She moved back to New York in 1994, just in time for the arrival of the Internet. Many publications were just beginning to create an online presence, so Thomas taught herself HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language, the computer language used to create websites). She landed a job as a features producer at Time Inc., helping to launch new magazines. What she learned from that experience was that the growth of the Internet was going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
She was senior editor at U.S. News & World Report in the early 2000s when she started seeing all this news about “Baby Einstein” (a line of infant DVDs, CDs, books, toys and activity products created to engage and entertain babies and toddlers), “and it smacked to me of utter marketing, and I was like, where’s the research? Turns out, it’s the biggest snow job of all time. Nothing gets you like your first baby.”
Her resulting book, “Buy, Buy, Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds” (published by Houghton Mifflin, 2007), looks at the effect these products have on toddlers, as well as the entire culture that was built around this industry.
Her next book, a memoir entitled In “In Spite of Everything: A Memoir” (published by Random House, 2011), sprang from a hard time in her life. “I was working under extreme duress. I was broke, already had two children, had just gone through a divorce, was pregnant with my third and was having my lights and heat turned off in Brooklyn. It was just awful.”
In the book, she talks about her situation and experiences, but in terms of their relationship with the whole of Generation X. “I wanted to say I’m actually not unique; the entire generation is actually unhappy in the same way. We’re all miserable in this specific way, whether we know it or not.”
Thomas’ writing career continues here in Chestnut Hill. Her course at Musehouse has been a success; Thomas is in the middle of her second session now, and has a third planned for this summer. She’s also been invited to pitch a journalism course at Drexel, is writing a mommy blog for The Little Treehouse, and is working on a television series for Sundance based on her BrokeAssGrouch blog.
The move to the area has also been a success for her and her family. “It’s so great. It’s like I can stop clawing my skin out because of stress hives. This feels how Brooklyn should be; this is the utopian Brooklyn, but it’s better because people are cool and nice and smart and still salty, and they eat cheesesteaks and smoke cigarettes and have a salty humor. I like that.”
For more information on Thomas, visit http://susangregorythomas.com/. For more information about Musehouse: 267-331-9552 or www.musehousecenter.com