Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

August 23, 2014
by Andi

Alone and Silent: A Writers Write Interview with Susie Petersiel Berg

Honestly, without the Internet, this world of writing would be far lonelier for me. I meet so many incredible writers on these bits of code, including the lovely poet Susie Berg. Please enjoy her interview today.

1. Tell me about your latest project? How To Get Over Yourself by Susie Berg

How to Get Over Yourself is my first full-length collection. It deals with the idea that everything in life isn’t so damn serious — it’s life. We all face horrible trauma and tragedy, and it’s those things that shape us. Parts of the book are very dark; parts are very light-hearted; and some are so frankly sexual that my teenagers were none too pleased to be in the audience the night of my book launch. Clearly I’ve done at least my parenting work well.

Currently I’m working with poet Elana Wolff on a series of poems inspired by one another’s work. In hearing one another on stage, we found a lot of resonance within our poetry and ended up having a long talk about art, writing, and truth. It led to this collaboration. We’ll do a collaborative piece of art for the cover, and the book will be published in September 2015 as a limited edition, handbound chapbook from Lyrical Myrical Press.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

You mean did I ever leave my room or was I in there every free minute reading? Every free minute. And some that I was supposed to be doing other stuff. Like homework. Or setting the dinner table. I started writing stories at about age 8, and publishing them (by hand, this was loooong before computers) and distributing them as newsletters around the neighborhood. I collaborated even back then: the series The Adventures of Kitty and Katy, written with my friend Liane, was a big hit. I had a wonderful teacher in grade 5 who encouraged daily creative writing, and I began writing poetry in earnest (and I do mean earnest) at about 12.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

My favorite way to write is to wake up and to just start writing. Some days I journal. Some days I edit and revise. I have tried to set aside an hour each morning to write, but that fluctuates depending on my work schedule and my kids. Twice a year I go away for a week to any place a friend will let me crash for free. I do nothing but write. I often don’t even go outside.

4. Who are you reading now?

For the past year I’ve just been reading anything and everything. Poetry and novels by Canadian writers whose launches and readings I attend (Infidelity: A Novel by Stacey May Fowles; Watch How We Walk by Jennifer LoveGrove; Based on a True Story by Elizabeth Renzetti). Books on my ‘list’ that I’ve been meaning to read, usually based on recommendations in The Globe and Mail or the NYT Book Review or from my friend Bonnie. Books for book group (Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon; This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz). I’m very into non-fiction these days: ideas seem to grab me more than stories that I fear will disappoint me with their endings. By the time this is published, it’s hard to say who I’ll be reading, so I’ll try not to guess. But I have begun now to put down a book I don’t love. Books that challenge me are fine, but books where I feel the writing isn’t carrying me in some way, those I’ve learned to put away.

5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx: I love her unusual sentences and the humor woven so deftly you don’t even realize it’s there until you start laughing. Reminds me of A.A. Milne.

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout: I love honesty; and realistic, rather than happy, endings. This book is layered with honesty and pain and choices and decisions. I don’t usually read books more than once. But I’ve read this twice. As I have The Shipping News.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell: Talk about layered. I love Mitchell’s unfolding style; I love being lost in the links between parts of the novel. I think this book is stylistically brilliant and amazing because its overarching themes are so important I was able to explain the entire book to my then-10-year old daughter succinctly. She’s a teenager now; probably time to hand it over to her to read.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

I had to Google to find out what this means. That might partially answer the question. But truthfully, I see the administration of my writing (researching publishers, building a platform, social media presence) as part of my writing. So some days I do the business of writing, and some days I write.

7. What is a typical day like for you?

I wake up hoping to write for an hour or two, then work (I’m a freelance editor in educational publishing), then exercise, then read. Some days that happens, and I carve a writing zone for myself. Some days it doesn’t. When I feel myself getting too far from that typical day, I try to rein things in and force the routine. A routine also helps my kids see that there are times and spaces that are for me, and they have to fend for themselves.

8. Describe your dream writing space.

A clean, quiet cottage by the ocean, any ocean, any time of year, with all the comforts of home. Walking distance to a small town and groceries. Alone and silent.

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

I am lucky not to have been harshly critiqued — which likely also means I haven’t yet been pushed as far as I can be in my writing. I have, however, been rejected for grants at a rate of nearly 20 per year for the past 8 years, which is tiring. My response is largely to get really frustrated. I even decided not to apply one year. And the deadline came close and I figured ‘what the heck’ and applied anyway. I still got rejected, but I was glad I hadn’t given up.Susie Berg

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

When I feel frustrated with writing, I remember that Stephen King says that reading is writing, too, so I read and I don’t apologize for it. It’s all part of the process.


Susie Petersiel Berg is the author of How to Get Over Yourself (Piquant Press, 2013) and the blog The Starbucks Poetry Project. She co-curates the Plasticine Poetry Reading Series, a long-running monthly reading series in Toronto, ON, and her work has appeared in such publications as The Mom Egg Review, Desperately Seeking Susans, carte blanche, Switchback, and Ars Medica. Find her online at or follow her on Twitter @SusieDBerg.

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August 22, 2014
by Andi

The Landscape Tells Stories

Yesterday, P and I drove past an old store in the town of Rochelle here in VA.  The building still held the huge front windows and that overhang that we would not think was for automobiles but was built for open wagons – a chance to load and cover before clicking the horse hooves the mile to home.

Historical Marker for Battle of Jack's Shop

The Battle of Jack’s Shop

The store sits at the corner of Jack’s Shop Road – named for the workplace of a local blacksmith – and if you are a Civil War historian, you will recognize the Battle of Jack’s Shop as a bloody encounter, where no one could really claim victory.

So when I see this old store, I imagine wounded soldiers carried to the steps and laid on pallets amongst the flour and stacks of rope.  I see local women with their long skirts tucked into boots as they tend these men – soldiers from both sides.  I imagine the stately houses nearby set up as hospitals, too, a small town’s life tossed into the turmoil of muskets without warning or request.

There are facts in these places – the Battle of Jack’s Shop was fought in September of 1863, for example – but facts do not make stories, and it is stories that turn our human hearts.

This is why I love history.  Not for the dates or names or the maneuvers on the battle field but because of the story.  This is the reason I studied both Literature and History in school.  This is the reason I write history-based stories – because the facts need to be given breath in the flesh of human story in order for them to reach us, to change us, to walk amongst us.


Near P’s parents’ home, there’s a road called Link Evans Lane.  For years, P and his parents drove past that road, reading the sign, memorizing it but having no context.  So it was a true thrill to see them learn that Link Evans was a blacksmith who had his shop and home on that road.  He was a member of a thriving community of formerly enslaved people who called the town of Earlysville home.

We stopped and saw the Evans family cemetery on that road, and we talked to a neighbor who had gathered materials from the surrounding land, pieces of metal that perhaps Link himself had held.

History made story, given life, and handed to us to carry.

Buildings, roads, town names – they all have stories behind them, stories crafted by the days of people.  For me, there’s nothing better.

What about you? What cool stories are written into the landscape and buildings of where you live?



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August 21, 2014
by Andi
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The Darkness Is Heavy

I told a dear friend the other day that I wasn’t really one of those people who look for signs of the Apocalypse, but the amount of pain and suffering in the world these days makes me think I might need to call up another friend who has the timeline down and ask her how I should prepare.

Most of this pain – shots fire, bombs dropped, family killed – is far from me, and yet, I am bowed over by it.  The darkness is heavy these days.

This morning, I was reading Ed Cyzewski’s Christian Survival Guide – a great book if you have doubts about your own faith or wonder how to make sense of those people who you know who are Christians – and I came to the chapter on pain and suffering.  Ed has some great wisdom there about how logic does not belong in the heat of pain, about what it means when God says he abides with us . . . and much more.

And all I kept thinking of was a day when I sat in the parking lot of George Mason University with time before my next class.  My mom was dying. The man I loved was an alcoholic.  I could not find my feet underneath me, and yet, I had university classes to teach and a mom to love on as hard as I could for as long as I could and the weight of entire unpredictability when I returned home each day.  Dark days.  Dark days for sure.

But I sat in the car that day and listened, over and over and over again to this song by Woody Guthrie.  I sat and listened to Ellis Paul’s sweet voice carry me to a quavering peace. Then, I picked up my bag full of papers and books and walked to class.  Strong enough for one more hour.

Today, may this song give you as much peace as you need to keep going. May you seize this promise as you are able.


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August 20, 2014
by Andi

Against Book Hierarchies

My TBR Book Pile

My TBR Pile

I can feel it in myself sometimes – the snobbery, the way I assign some book genres more value than others, the condescension I feel creeping into my mind when he says he’s reading THAT or she loved THIS.

I don’t like that about myself for quite a few reasons:

  • First, it’s hypocritical of me because I read all kinds of things from romances to mystery novels to literary fiction to memoir to young adult novels.
  • In a culture where art and artistic products are MASSIVELY undervalued, I need to be supporting any artistic endeavor.
  • All reading is good.  It helps people think more deeply, introduces us to new cultures and experiences, and keeps our brains fed.
  • The labels assigned to books are marketing, categorizing, separating tools. They say very, very little about the content of the books themselves.

Books – like all art – do different things depending on their purposes, and they serve many purposes in different settings and for different readers. Literary fiction pushes into complex ideas about identity and place and humanity through often subtle plot lines and intense characterization, while fantasy novels build complicated worlds and intricate societies to illuminate our dreams and great fears.  Memoirs remind us that individual stories have great power for the larger world, and mystery novels feed our puzzle-solving minds.  There is no “better” or “worse” in terms of genre – there is only different.

Of course, there are better books and worse books – some books are simply better written than others – just as in all art. Appreciating craftsmanship is part of what is involved in appreciating art, and of course, we each have preferences for what we like to read.  All of those things are good.  Valuable.  Wise.

But the dismissal of an entire genre of books simply because we think it “lesser,” well, maybe we need to consider that as an indicator of our inclinations toward other people – because of their ethnicity, because of their religion, because of their gender.  All people are equally valuable – and yet, we act much more like Orwell’s characters where “some [people] are more equal than others.”

So I’m pushing aside my hypocrisy and dismissal of books that I do not think are “my” thing.  I’m going back to the way I used to read – where everything was awesome if it was made of words – articles on frog species and young adult romances and complicated stories of sorrow set in 17th century France.  All of it beautiful, all of it crafted, all of it loved. . . .just like us.

Do you ever hear people dismissing books because of genre?  How about you? Have you ever been so inclined? 

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August 19, 2014
by Andi
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Peace in the Storm

During my high school summers, I wrote one friend a letter every day.  I had a list of people who I wouldn’t see because they lived just far enough away or because they attended boarding school in our town and were home for the summer.

Every night after dinner, I went to my room, got out my lap desk – you know, with the flat surface on top and a pillow on the bottom – and I handwrote a letter.  This correspondence perhaps gave those people a little lift when they got mail, and it certainly helped fill the long summer days of heat in Virginia for me.

But more than that, this practice taught me something about writing – about the value of hand-writing, about the way communication matters, and about slowness, the value of taking time to pull thoughts into words.

I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know about taking my time. 

My parents were always very good about not overscheduling my brother and I. We had lots of time to play and read every day, and there was never any expectation that we SHOULD (good golly I hate that word) do anything in particular beyond do our best in school, go to church, and be kind.  That last one trumped all others.

But those lessons haven’t always stuck.  I forget that my writing needs to get precedence over Facebook. I forget that prayer is slow and steady and requires silence. I forget that kindness is not something dashed off in a quick email.

I’m relearning, though, and for the past few weeks, I have made a conscious choice not to rush.  I’ve decided to take my time and do things well, the first time.  I’ve decided that at the end of the day if something is not done, that I will be okay with that, and I will attend to it tomorrow.  I’ve decided that lists will never trump people – be they via the phone, online, or on my front porch.

Here’s how I’m seeing that come to fruit in my writing – it’s slower, it’s more thoughtful, it’s deeper.  Because I’m not trying to dash off my 1,000 words as fast as possible, I find the words coming with the richness and color – a truffle of language from an Italian chocolatier instead of a Hersehy bar from the vending machine.  Or  honey – slow, languid, complex.

In life, that quietness has given me strength in the midst of so much horror in our world.  It has grounded me, centered me, helped me feel peace even in the horror of young men gunned down and middle-aged men desolate and hopeless. Even as bombs soar over land and oil and questions of identity that cut to the core of who we are as people.  Even there, taking my time to bear witness, to pray, to think, to cry – even there, I find rest.


When I am not rushing from task to task, I see more.  I notice how Bliss, our badger Cashmere goat, is getting braver, taking a taste of hay from my hand while her sister, Elvira, keeps herself back a little bit less each day.  I see how the way forward in my YA novel might involve more time in the place that inspired the store, a picnic maybe with a heavy dose of staring into the graveyard.  I hear the way my body is healing itself with more space for breath, the way my mind is opening up to let itself change course when necessary.

I wonder if some of the way we set ourselves in our ways is not partially because we are too busy to let ourselves be changed.

Just now, I am thinking hard about what I can do in light of the terrible situation in Ferguson, Missourri.  I’m sitting quiet with that question, reading a great deal about it – including this amazing post by Michael Twitty.  I cannot rush this thinking, this praying, this anger.  So I sit with it and find my way.

Time is a privilege that not everyone has. I realize this, and yet, I will use my privilege as best I can – for those plough shares that can be the strongest weapons we have.  Pens, too.

A few weeks back, I committed to find my way back to my core, my calling, myself, and some of you joined me with your own commitment to things you most need to be and do.  I hope that you are finding yourself more whole as I am. I hope that peace engulfs you, and if it is hard to find because of violence and hatred and so much big rage that can no longer be quieted, I pray that at that first moment when you wake, peace settles just a little on your soul, enough to carry you whole through your fight.

I no longer write letters every day. Instead, I write blog posts – daily again now – my letters to you to say, “Be strong in the fight. Be courageous. You are not alone. Take your time. Find your way. I’ll go with you.”

How are you finding your peace in the light of so much pain?  How are you responding to so much tragedy?


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