Name: Susanna Lancaster
College and Majors/Minors: College: The University of Memphis / English major with a concentration in creative writing (2011); Grad School: Lesley University / Creative Writing for Young People (2014)
Current Location: Memphis, TN
Current Form of Employment: English Instructor at Southwest Tennessee Community College, magazine writer, editor, and children’s author
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I’m an English Professor at Southwest Tennessee Community College, and I love it! I teach English Composition 1 and 2 courses, as well as Academic Success Seminars. I’m currently planning material to teach a creative writing course. In addition to teaching, I also write as much as possible. I’ve written for both The Perpetual You magazine and Memphis Health + Fitness Magazine. My first book, The Growing Rock—a YA historical fiction novel—debuts on December 12, 2017.
Tell us about how you found your first job, and how you found your current job (if different).
I started my very first job when I was 16. I didn’t have a car yet and wanted to save for one so that I could have enough money to buy one before I finished high school. My dad is the librarian at a Memphis school. Since I came by all the time to do my homework, I would often alphabetize books and do little jobs around the library. When I said I needed to buy a car, he agreed to let me work there part-time. It was the perfect job in high school and college because of the quiet atmosphere. It also helped me maintain my love for reading.
I’m truly blessed to be in the job that I’m in now. However, getting to this point wasn’t easy. For several years after earning my MFA degree, I worked a variety of jobs that didn’t necessarily “use” my degree. I realized while I was in graduate school that I wanted to teach, so in addition to a full-time office job, I taught classes as an adjunct professor at two different colleges.
All of my writing success has also come with many challenges, and persistence always seems to be more than half the battle. I have gotten magazine opportunities simply by reaching out and asking editors to see my work. If that wasn’t an option, I would just submit my writing and hope for the best. When it comes to getting work published, there are usually more rejections than there are acceptances, but I’ve learned you simply have to keep trying. The Growing Rock manuscript was sent to nearly forty different agents and publishing houses before I got my “yes.”
What was another writing-related job that was important in your career?
Editing! Over the years, I’ve done plenty of editing jobs for various people—from college level students, to Ph.D. dissertations, to people’s manuscripts, to resumes. This started in high school when my father didn’t have time to edit an essay for someone and suggested the person let me take a look at it. I was young, but I enjoyed grammar and writing, and I was fast at proofreading. Ever since, I’ve edited as a side job and been able to gain both more experience and extra cash. This job was very important to me when I was a graduate student working several part-time jobs and having a hard time living on my own. It seemed like whenever I was low on funds, an editing job would come my way. I think that this job played a significant role when I started teaching as an adjunct a couple of years later. It led me recognize how every student has different strongpoints, helped me with developing how I wanted to grade my students’ essays, and allowed me to see the benefits of pointing out positive and negative aspects in writing.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
This is a tough one to answer, but it’s something I share with my students sometimes to help them not make the same mistakes. I wish that I had done more in college to prepare myself for after I graduated. I didn’t focus enough on graduating and focused much more on getting to graduation. My senior year was pretty hectic because I had a 4.0 GPA, and I was obsessed with graduating with this level of perfection. I worried and studied all the time, and anxiety got the best of me. I actually battled an eating disorder for many years, and that became consuming. I finished college a year early and with the 4.0, but I remember being exhausted, very sick, and thinking “Now what?”
I didn’t get into graduate school immediately, and I was extremely hard on myself. I ended up taking the next year off from school and working some part-time jobs, moved out of my parents’ home, and focused on taking care of me. This gap year turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise. It helped me gain more responsibility and maturity. It also helped me understand what I wanted to do, which was to be a writer—specifically a children’s author. I hadn’t been out of college for a full year when I was accepted to several of the graduate programs that focus on writing children’s literature. Because I wasn’t in school at the moment, I had less pressure deciding which one was the best for me.
What is your advice for students and graduates with an English degree?
There’s a Winston Churchill quotation I’ve always admired. When asked to cut the funding of the arts for the war effort, he had answered, “then what are we fighting for?” This saying sums up so much in my own life. Writing and doing what I enjoy has been crucial for my health and happiness. Without this passion, I would definitely have to ask myself what I would be living for, and I don’t think I would be where I am in my eating disorder recovery. Therefore, my first piece of advice is do what you enjoy. An English major may not bring you the wealthiest lifestyle, but no major is guaranteed to do this. English degrees are also incredibly important. Most people don’t realize how necessary English majors are for many different areas outside of teaching and editing—film, television shows, and technical writing are all divisions where we need English majors.
My other piece of advice is to be patient with yourself. Sometimes the dream career doesn’t come around immediately upon graduation, but that’s okay. There’s no harm in working a job outside of the English major and doing smaller jobs, such as teaching, or editing, to help you gain the experience needed for the job you’re working toward. When it comes to writing, I encourage people not to quit. When trying to get my book published, I did face a bit of rejection, and it was easy to feel discouraged. There were times I wanted to quit, but now I can see that my book wouldn’t exist if I had. Publishing is one of those things that may take a long time to work toward, but it only takes one “yes” to make the dream happen. Having friends to critique my work was incredibly important, and putting myself out there and looking for opportunities was crucial. Ultimately, focusing on what made me happy and not losing faith in my goals helped some of my dreams turn into reality.
The Growing Rock debuts December 12th from Harvard Square Editions!
When the summer of 1937 leads to one hardship after another that changes the life she knows forever, fourteen-year-old Caroline struggles not to give into hopelessness as she keeps a promise to her Papa about looking after the women in the family.