by Rachel Pahl
Though the need to tell stories may be inherent in all of humanity, not everyone chooses to pursue that need to its eventual creative result. Ms. Shannon Spollen is one of the exceptions; coming from a family of storytellers, she has carried creativity with her throughout her life. Ms. Spollen is not only an English teacher at Clayton A. Bouton High School, where she teaches English 10 Honors, but also a published author. Her poetry has appeared in the Suffolk Reading Council Literary Journal, Folio, Newsday, Brass Tacks, and Albany Poets. When talking about writing, she is knowledgeable, passionate, and seasoned. The Blackbird Review talked with Ms. Spollen about the intuition of writing, the process of writing and editing, and the importance of human connection in art and in life.
It’s lovely to meet you. I guess we should just jump right in. How did you first get into writing?
Well, I learned how to hold a pen, and then it kind of evolved from there! I think it was always an inherent need, you know? I was five, maybe. I don’t know if you had one of these when you were a kid, it was like that big, giant easel?
Yes, I did have one of those!
Yes! So I had this big, giant easel, and I remember learning how to spell words, and just being in my grandmother’s sunroom and just writing words in a bunch of different colors, and then it was history after that.
Yeah, you kind of say that and then you’re like “Well, I guess you’ve been writing since you were young…”
Yeah! It was never an option. It was like a “no, this is what you need to be doing” kind of feeling, and so that’s what I did, and what I do.
Were there any major writing influences on you when you were younger?
It’s so cool that you ask me that, because I never get to talk about this and it’s a big part of my life. So my grandfather, who I refer to as Pop,— he’s actually right here! This is Pop, this James Dean handsome looking man right here!– he was a writer! He was a writer, a columnist, for a newspaper down on Long Island called Newsday forever, and he wrote stories. His career was made at barstools, and pubs, and restaurants, where people would tell him stories and then he would collect them in his head and write them more eloquently than they were originally told. *laughs* And that’s how he made his living, telling us stories. My grandmother was the first female editor-in-chief at the same newspaper. My aunt’s a writer, my mom is artistic; I think it runs in blood, you know? Like stubbornness. It’s one of those things. So they had major influences on me for sure.
It’s not a race, it’s a marathon. You will get there when you’re supposed to get there, after editing, and editing, and editing, and revising, and revising, and revising. And it’s totally normal. Failure is good for you. And you’ll figure it out.
Did you always see yourself going into writing or was there ever a divergence of anything?
I always saw it, but I tried to run from it. And it caught right up, and it was like, “no, no!” I remember being an undergraduate in college, and I was like, “I wanna be in marketing!” You know, like, “I wanna wear these cool outfits and I wanna work in New York City. That’s what I wanna do.” And so I changed my minor and I went into marketing, and I did that! I worked in advertising sales for a total of eight months. *laughs* And then I was like, “all right, Manhattan, it’s been real. See you later.” And I went back and I got my master’s in education, and I’ve been doing the writing thing and the encouraging of the writing thing ever since. So, you know, you can try and run, but it’s always going to catch up.
I’ve had one of those stints where I was like “yeah, I’ll go into some business thing, that will make more money, right?”
Right? It’s so appealing! They wear cool clothes and they do cool things, and there’s these fancy artifacts that come with it, and at the end of the day you just, you want your pen in your hand. Or your keyboard in front of you, whatever it is for us now.
Switching gears slightly: what made you initially want to go into teaching? And has that motivation changed at all?
No. Totally not. That was another thing that was just inherent, you know? You play games when you’re little kids. That very same easel that I drew all those words on became the easel that I bossed my little stuffed animals around with. That’s how it worked. And I tried to run from teaching just like I tried to run from writing, and, uh, nope. I think we always end up where we’re supposed to be. Pop was a teacher. My aunt is a teacher. I had, and I think we all had one, we all had a teacher that makes you want to be a teacher. I had several of those. It was just always, “I will never want to do anything else. Ever. This is it.” *laughs* This is it for me.
I guess that’s a good place to be.
I like to think so. Unfortunately, my partner, he wakes up and he doesn’t love his job. And I do, so it’s nice, it’s good.
Especially in a time where we’re all doing our jobs and nothing else.
Oh, preach! It’s good to love your job and love what you do, especially in a time like this. You’re absolutely right.
What’s the best way that you find to write? Is there an environment, or a process, that you kind of get into?
This is where transparency happens, this is where the good stuff comes out! I have found— and I’ve written about this!– I have found that I write best in melancholy. Like when I’m sad, or when I’m angry, or when it’s grey. Those are the moments when everything is kind of like, “okay, this is when we’re gonna release it.” My environment can be anywhere. I use the notes on my phone, I use little pieces of Post-Its, and when I say pieces of Post-Its, I mean not whole Post-Its, I mean pieces of post-its that I find in the bottom of my bag, napkins. And I think that’s the writer’s plague: when you have to get it out, you have to get it out. So for me, I write better when I am sad. Which is so bizarre, but so true. Or when I’m super passionate about something. So those are the environments. It’s not a location, it’s a mindset. So my favorite environments to write in— I shouldn’t say favorite— I should say when I find myself writing the most is when I’m struggling with something and I need to fight through it. And that comes from whatever battles that form with the words that are coming out. And whether I win or lose them is completely up to them! I have no say until it’s done, until it’s over.
Is there a specific genre or style that you prefer to write in, or is it just kind of how it comes out?
My personal style is stream of consciousness, so yeah, how it comes out. Hemingway was like this, where he always said, “write, write, write, write, write, and then go back and edit.” So it just flows right out. And then sometimes I’ll go back and think, “what were you… what were you doing? What were you trying to say?” *laughs* So my favorite style is stream of consciousness, and I have found— I hate saying this— but the older I get, I like prompts. I like to be prompted with a question, or a situation, but any kind of prompt really helps me. But it’s totally stream of consciousness. Habit. Can’t kick it.
Do you find it harder to edit when you use stream of consciousness? Because I know if I write something and then I look at it, I’m like, “I can’t take out a part of this,” because it just came out the way it was supposed to.
Oh, that is such an excellent point, and that is something that we all struggle with, I think, for sure. I do find it difficult to edit. I have a hard time taking out chunks, just like you said. But then what I remind myself is that it’s not for anybody else. So if I feel like I need to leave that in there, then it’s going to stay in there. And if a publisher doesn’t like it, I’ll find a publisher that does. And if no one likes it, then it’s not for them, it’s for me, and it’s part of whatever process I needed to go through at the time.
That’s a really good way to go about it. I like that.
Thank you! I try.
I think that anyone who wants to share their passions with the world struggles with that. Sometimes it’s hard to get it out there, and when it’s not immediate, we feel like we’re failing. But we’re not. We’re just learning.
I know we just kind of talked about this, but are there any difficulties you encounter in writing, either with yourself or just in general?
Oh my gosh, of course! I think we all go through writer’s blocks, where I’m like, “I have no idea what I want to write about or how to go about starting something.” Another struggle that I have in this moment, and this is another moment of transparency, is that I struggle with comparison. We just did a lesson on Amanda Gorman, who’s twenty-two years old.
I love her.
I know. Phenomenal. And I said to my students, “listen, your journey is your journey and don’t ever think that you’re going too slow or too fast because it’s yours.” But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was thinking, “well, what am I doing wrong? How did she get here?” So I struggle with comparisons, and I have to consciously reiterate to myself that it is a marathon. It’s not a race. It’s a journey. And I will get to where I am supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there. So I struggle with that. I think that anyone who wants to share their passions with the world struggles with that. Sometimes it’s hard to get it out there, and when it’s not immediate, we feel like we’re failing. But we’re not. We’re just learning.
That’s a really good point.
But I have to consciously tell myself that. It sounds so nice right now, but I have to have arguments with myself. Like, “it’s okay! Slow down.”
There’s a song I listen to by Billy Joel called “Vienna” that I like…
Oh, god! I’m a Long Island girl, so Billy Joel is like gospel to us!
My family’s from Long Island, well, my mom’s side of the family is.
I don’t know! My grandmother is from Long Island, but…
Okay, well you can tell her I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island, so Billy Joel is gospel, and “Vienna” is exactly the kind of thing that you want to listen to when you are arguing with yourself to slow down. It’s perfect.
This is something I was wanting to ask you about, because I feel like the intersection between teacher and writer is always interesting. And especially because, as I’m going through school and needing to write in classes and then also doing my own writing on the side. Do you think that writing in a school sense, in an academic sense, is inherently different from writing for a publication sort of thing? How do they compare?
I do think they’re very different. They’re very different experiences for me. I can’t speak for every writer, and I won’t try to. But they are completely separate entities. What’s written academically in a school setting, when I’m around my colleagues or I’m around my students, is a completely different realm than when I’m sitting at my double monitors with a hot chocolate and my cat in my lap, you know? They’re totally different universes. So I’ve never personally struggled with the differentiation between the two because my mindset is also different. My mind is different when I’m in school than it is when I’m at home and I need to get something out, so I do believe that they’re very separate. And I think that’s okay! I think that’s normal and I think it’s better that way. Because sometimes people forget— sometimes I forget— that teachers are people. You know, I’m a person outside of my career. And I love it, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but I’m also a person with passions of my own, so it’s about balance. But I do think they’re different.
What are some of your favorite parts of writing? Like moments in the process, things that you do, techniques, strategies…
I will say that one of my favorite things is reading something from a couple years ago and recognizing how I’ve grown from that moment. Or how I’ve grown as a writer. Based on words or how I phrased something or what format I decided I wanted to use on that Tuesday. Techniques? I have an inner monologue. That’s a technique that I really enjoy. So that stream of consciousness thing? I have an inner monologue with myself and one of my favorite things to do is write as though I am talking to myself. Like I’m talking myself through something. Or I’m explaining the situation to myself as myself. I know that sounds a little wonky.
That does make sense though.
But that’s about how would you need to hear this? And if that’s how you would need to hear it, that’s how you need to tell it. And so that’s a good technique for me; it works. Everybody’s different. I think it’s so easy for us to go back and get hung up on the editorial aspect of writing, especially when we’re doing it for a personal reason or in a personal setting. So one of my favorite things to do is leave it alone. Walk away. Just walk away for a couple days, and then go back, when you’ve percolated for a little while and now you’re all brewed and ready and you can sit and enjoy it and figure it out that way. So, those are some things that I like to do and that work for me, but we all have quirks and things that work and don’t work for us.
I do that as well. I mandate myself to walk away from it because otherwise you’re not going to be able to edit it.
See? You have to just walk away. For however long is completely up to you. But I think it’s a really healthy thing to do.
Is there any good writing advice that you’ve been given over the course of your life? Either from your family, like you were saying, or teachers, anyone like that?
The best piece of advice that I have been given, and that I consistently repeat now, is “write for yourself.” You are not writing for anybody else, you’re writing for you. And if somebody reads it, and likes it, and it resonates with them, then you have created a little light, and that’s amazing, but if they don’t, then that’s okay, too. Because it’s a healing process. I was told once that writing is a pathology. And it’s actually really funny, because Amanda Gorman says that writing is a pathology! And that clicked in my brain recently. I was like, “oh my gosh, I’ve heard that before!” And it is. It totally is; it’s a pathology. It’s not about anybody but you in that moment, when you’re doing it for yourself and recreationally. In an academic setting it’s different. But I don’t think we’re talking about the academic setting.
And if we are, then tell me, and I will shift gears. But it’s not for anybody else, it’s for yourself. It’s for you.
So do you think it’s easier then to write about more personal experiences, or to kind of detach yourself and craft other stories around that?
I think it depends on my mood. It depends on your mood. I have found that ninety-nine percent of my writing stems from some kind of personal experience at some point in my life. Whether it’s fictionalized drastically or minimally depends on how willing I am to share in that particular moment. But I think that’s what we write from, we write from experience. There’s a book that I have that was given to me by my aunt, I should bring it to school so Mr. Stumbaugh could give it to you. It’s called Bird by Bird.
Bird by Bird… I’ve been recommended this about a thousand times.
Okay, so, I’m not gonna recommend it again. Actually, I’m lying. Yes, I am going to recommend it again. Bird by Bird. It’s everything that you need to hear as a writer and that needs to be reiterated for you and that you’re like, “OK, that makes sense. Also, I’m not alone.” Because it can be lonely sometimes. But you’re not alone. None of us are alone. And I think Bird by Bird… just go get it. I’ll bring it in for you.
Wow, I thought of a really good follow-up question and it just disappeared from my brain. That’s not good.
Welcome to my world.
Well, if it comes back to me it’ll come back to me. Do you think that writing is a thing that can be taught, or is it a skill that is just kind of in people?
I think writing can be taught. I think your skill set, whatever you have inside of you that you need to get out of you, is your own. But I think that there are doorways that can be opened and pathways that can be forged to get you where you need to be to unleash whatever beast is inside of you. I believe that very strongly. And I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen little flames ignite and little lights turn on, and it’s in those moments, as educators and as writers, we’re like, “you get it! Yes!” I one hundred percent think it can be taught. It’s not the what that we’re teaching you, that we’re trying to get you to, it’s the where. I’m going to help get you to where you need to be, and then you’re going to get it out of you however you need to get it out of you. Simply, yes, I think it can.
Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective to take with it. I always think of it as sort of an instinctual thing, but then when you kind of have that guide helping you along, it can be sort of a different process.
It’s super instinctual. I think for most of us that have decided to wrestle with it, you know, for the rest of our lives, because we will always wrestle with it. But for those that it’s not instinctual, I don’t think they understand immediately that it’s not so much a punishment as it is a process. A pathology, if you will. And once you clear that fog away, and you open those screens to a more clear vision, it’s like “oh, okay. This doesn’t have to feel like work.” I think those are the moments in which people are more open to expressing themselves. And again, it might not always be for publication or for recognition, it could just be because they need to and it’s a coping mechanism. Which I have found is really effective, and priceless, and cheap!
That’s true! Therapy is expensive, paper is not.
*enter cat stage right* Oh, here’s Atticus. I told you he’d make a cameo.
It’s not the what that we’re teaching you, that we’re trying to get you to, it’s the where. I’m going to help get you to where you need to be, and then you’re going to get it out of you however you need to get it out of you.
Oh, hi! I love cats. What do you think is the purpose of your writing? For you personally or putting it out into the world for other people to see?
I love this question. This is an excellent question. I have always said and will always say – as of right now – for me, for myself, and for others it’s about human connection. Always. It’s about some kind of recognition, again, that sometimes it feels really lonely, but – excuse me sir? *enter cat again* Pardon you. *lifts cat off of table* Sometimes it feels – unless you have Atticus, in which case you’re never lonely because he never leaves you alone. It feels really lonely, but you’re not alone. It’s always about human connection. And I think that we can really connect, as human beings, about anything, given the right opportunity and given the right tools. Empathy, to feel some kind of empathy, because without it, how could we? We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it weren’t for empathy! And so, for me that’s what it is. It’s human connection, it’s empathy: if this touches one person, somewhere, at some point, it has served its purpose. And if it helps me and changes me and touches me, then it has also served its purpose. So that’s what it is for me. And if it’s recognized, then that’s like a bonus!
Do you think that’s also your purpose with teaching or is it kind of a different thing for you?
Human connection? A hundred percent. I have met brilliant humans, and they’re wonderful in their own way, but without connection, you’re never going to blossom in the way you could blossom with someone that you do connect with. And so for me teaching is— it’s a little cliché, but it’s very true— teaching is about relationships. My favorite thing to do with my kids is laugh. Because I’m a human being and I love to admit to them that I am a human being. A running joke we have is like “oh, Ms. Spollen made another mistake!” And it’s like, yes, I am a human being and I make mistakes and I’m sorry but here we are, you know, we’ll figure it out. So, totally. It’s not fun without connection. There’s no point if I can’t make fun of myself, or you, appropriately! No one’s gonna want to learn if you don’t feel safe doing it.
I’ll say, from the student side of things, I definitely feel like I learn more in classrooms where there’s sort of a rapport going on.
Totally! I think as adults, too, as teachers and young adults I don’t want to teach to a room of robots. *laughs* It might sound ideal, but it’s totally not. It’s not. You know, ask me questions, challenge me, and I’ll challenge you, and we’ll figure it out. When’s your basketball game, because I’ll totally embarrass you and be obnoxious! That’s what it is. I’m a social person, and I think students of any age, from kindergarten at even a post-secondary level, have to be able to connect to other humans or what are you learning? For what, for yourself? That’s boring.
We may want to be alone all the time, but we don’t actually want to be alone.
We don’t want to be alone! I’m a huge fan of solitude, big fan, I’m comfortable with it, but also, I’m a huge fan of being around other humans! You know, it has to be a good balance. But, totally. That was a really roundabout answer to your question and I apologize but I feel like you get the gist.
That’s great, that’s what we’re here for. *laughs* Do you think in that sense that it’s been harder teaching this year, beyond the obvious, that it’s harder teaching online, but in terms of the connection?
I do. I totally do. Because, little things, things as little as being able to lend a pencil, is a moment of connection, right, is a moment of rapport. Or seeing full faces and facial expressions, and understanding what’s going on underneath the surface. Like, I can’t tell that you’re grumpy when you have your mask on, because I can’t see you! Whereas, if you didn’t, I might slip a Jolly Rancher on your desk and make sure nobody else saw. It is super difficult. But I’ve also found— and this is a testament to your generation— that my students, and I think every student that I’ve met thus far, there’s this crazy, inspiring sense of resiliency. And we still laugh. And I still get to know them, maybe not in the way that I would’ve had it been a normal school year— which, like, oh my gosh, please bring us back!— but there’s a resiliency, and again, that’s about human connection, right? Being inspired by this human resiliency and me wanting to show up every day because you’re showing up every day. And we’re joking. And it’s funny. Sometimes. Other times we want to cry. It’s harder, and different, but we’re making it work. We’re figuring it out and we’re doing it together because that’s what human connection is and that’s what empathy does. And we will get through it.
That is all you can do, at this point.
Right? I know.
That’s where we are.
That’s where we are.
How do you define success in writing? Personally or on a greater level than that?
Oh, you got me!
Success for me is being able to read a piece that I have written and think to myself, “okay, there’s nothing left to do, there are no more edits.” We are our own biggest critics! I don’t know about you, but I am wildly harsh. I am not nice, and that’s another thing I’m working on, so when I get to that point where I’m like— *breathes*– It’s almost like a physical reaction, like you take a deep breath and you’re like “okay.” That, to me, is a success. Getting an email back or a letter back that says “we’ve accepted your entry,” I’m not gonna lie to you, that’s a great feeling of success, and it’s really cool! So, I think there are varying levels of success, and it’s awesome to feel any of them at any given time, but to see your words in print, somewhere out in the world, and to know that people can access it whenever they want, that’s a pretty cool feeling.
Terrifying. But that’s how we spread our wings, right? We’re never gonna leap if we don’t try. Terrifying, but totally worth it. A hundred percent worth it. It’s like picking a Sour Patch Kid. Is it going to ruin my whole day or is it going to be delicious in thirty seconds? I don’t know! I think writing is usually delicious. There are varying degrees of success, but I think as long as you can shut your laptop or put your pen down or whatever medium it is that you’re using and you can walk away and think, “that’s a living thing. That’s a living thing, on its own, and it’s going to walk away and breathe in whatever modality it needs to,” then you’ve also succeeded immensely. And what beats that?
The follow up question has appeared in my brain!
Do you ever find yourself writing about writing, specifically?
Yes! Totally! Excellent question, yes! “Why can’t I do this right now?” or “why is this so hard?” The journey that it is I write about writing all the time! I think it’s a way to get the frustration out, or the jitters. Are you interested in theater at all?
Yes, I am actually.
Okay! So you know those jitters you get when you’re about to go onstage? It’s like that. It’s like, “get out!” *shakes hands aggressively* And then you can move on to whatever it is you need to move on to. But yeah, I write about writing all the time. Sometimes it’s nice writing, sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes it’s angry.
Sometimes it’s super angry. And it’s necessary. You know, you have to.
Do you have any writing advice, both in a recreational, for yourself sense, or also specifically for English class?
I have a million different pieces of advice running through my brain right now, so I’m trying to find an appropriate one. It’s never going to be perfect. And you’re going to fail. And you’re supposed to fail. It’s part of the process. Whether it’s an academic piece, or it’s a personal piece, whether you’re writing for Mr. Stumbaugh or you’re writing for the New York Times, there’s going to be more than one draft, there’s supposed to be more than one draft, and that’s okay. It’s not, again— this analogy is so applicable to every aspect of life— it’s not a race, it’s a marathon. You will get there when you’re supposed to get there, after editing, and editing, and editing, and revising, and revising, and revising. And it’s totally normal. Failure is good for you. And you’ll figure it out. That’s what I got.
That’s very good advice!
Oh, thank you! I should take it myself a little bit more often than I do, but…
Well, the most trouble we have with advice is that we never remember to take it.
I think this is a nice, fun, final question. What are some of your favorite authors or books?
How long do we have? How much time do you have?
As much time as you want; I think my background will show you how much I’m willing to listen. *gestures to wall of books behind me*
Okay! This is like my favorite thing to talk about in the whole world. I’m a huge Kristin Hannah fan. She wrote The Great Alone, she wrote The Nightingale, have you read Nightingale?
It’s on my list.
You have to. Huge Kristin Hannah fan. I’m currently reading Michelle Obama’s book; I find it difficult to read nonfiction sometimes. And I’m trying to push myself past that. I’m trying to get over it. I love,— this is a thing that I struggle with— I have heard her name pronounced so many different ways, but I have always referred to her as Jodi Picoult.
I think there are varying levels of success, and it’s awesome to feel any of them at any given time, but to see your words in print, somewhere out in the world, and to know that people can access it whenever they want, that’s a pretty cool feeling.
That’s how I usually say it, yeah.
I’ve heard Jodi Picoult? (peek-oh) And I’m like, I’m Irish, I don’t know how to say this!
It’s vaguely French, but then you try to say it French and it doesn’t sound right.
It never sounds right coming from me, so love her. Nic Stone? Angie Thomas. I’m a huge YA fan; if you’re an English teacher in a high school setting, you love young adult literature, I don’t care who you are. You’re lying if you say you don’t, because you totally do.
My mom still reads it, too.
It’s so great! Love Nic Stone, Jason Reynolds. Brendan Kiely, I met him at a conference. English teacher nerds get together and they do a conference every year, or back before COVID we used to be able to do this, and I fangirled out. I met him, and he signed my book, and it was such a cool nerdy moment and I loved it. A poet that I love is Audre Lorde.
Audre Lorde. Absolutely.
Holy moly. Audre Lorde, love her. There are some spoken word poets that I really love. Anyway, I could go on for years and years and years so I’ll just type them all out for you! But literally anything that you could put in front of me as long as it’s not… I can’t even think of anything that I wouldn’t read. Unless it was, like, really bad. You know what I don’t like? Horror. I don’t read it.
I don’t read it. I’ve heard wonderful things about Stephen King and James Patterson and I’m sure, kudos to them, but I won’t read it.
I don’t read it as much as I watch it. I like horror movies, but I don’t really read horror novels.
I’m a true crime junkie, right, which is hilarious because I sleep with a nightlight, as an adult woman. I don’t know what that’s about. I won’t read horror, but I’ll listen to podcasts about crimes that have actually happened, so it’s a little bit of a weird juxtaposition!
I think I disassociate myself. I’m like, “ghosts aren’t real, but serial killers are.”
That’s a very fair assessment, and now I’m going to think about that the next time I go to listen to my podcasts, and I’m going to curse you, Rachel.
I’m so sorry. But thank you for the lengthy book recommendations. That is wonderful.
I am so sorry, but also I’m not.
No, that’s my favorite part of talking to anyone is making them tell me what they read.
I’m just like you. I have all these beautiful wonderful books in my home, and I’m consistently on my Kindle, at the library, on Overdrive, you know? And there’s the books in the other room, like “read me!”
For me, it’s the time that I don’t have. I think three-quarters of these are unread?
But they’re just waiting! We’ll get to them!
They are! And they look pretty, so we keep them around.
They look great. Exactly.
Well, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much! This was a great Tuesday evening for me, so I appreciate it!