Suzanne O'Dell | Portraits of an Artist

What is your name and what do you do? 

My name is Suzanne O’Dell and I am a writer. I mostly write creative content for web, print, and visual media. 

How did you start making your art? Why do you keep going?

It’s all very unremarkable, really. I should make up a more exciting story for this one in case I’m ever asked it again! I started to think like an artist long before I ever “became” one professionally. My mother, who is an artist herself, was very influential in this process. Even though she had four children, she managed to carve out the time to read aloud to each one of us. Her love for books and learning was contagious, which is why I believe I’ve been able to keep my imagination so young. I continued to read widely and often, and a natural outpouring of my own words quickly followed. In my head, I felt like I was simply drawing from a reservoir of prose I had been collecting for years and then connecting that language to the topic at hand. I felt more like a facilitator of words than a creator. Now I realize that no artist is able to create from nothing—we can only create through community, which includes the knowledge and work that precedes us. 

The funny thing about it all is that I never set out to become a writer. In fact, because the practice seems so natural to me, (not that there aren’t plenty of times of difficulty and frustration) I often feel like I haven’t earned the right to be good at it. I still feel this way often.  Ultimately, the reason I chose to write as a career came because of many brilliant and encouraging teachers and professors. I only began to believe I could write after years and years of their collective belief reached its maturation point. I write today from an overwhelming sense of gratitude and the hope that somehow, in some way, my writing may provide a small, but true reflection of the goodness and grace of God.  Through the dimness of my imperfection may His light be seen all the clearer. 

How do faith and creativity collide for you?

I don’t see it as a collision as much as it is a cause-effect relationship. Creativity is both a reflection and extension of my faith. They are cut from the same cloth—or rather, they comprise the same seamless garment. I believe that any act of creativity is an exercise of faith, which is why it’s so easy to abandon creativity as we get older: the world tends to reward certainty over faith, as if they were mutually exclusive. So, I suppose creativity, for me, is simply an awe-filled response to faith. An “unlearning” and letting go of the temptation to eliminate all risk and to keep my life neat and tidy and locked up. It’s kind of worship and obedience that draws me out of myself and closer to God. 

 
 Suzanne: "The first time I read Mary Oliver's poem, I got the distinct impression that this is what God would have me do with my life and writing pursuits."

Suzanne: "The first time I read Mary Oliver's poem, I got the distinct impression that this is what God would have me do with my life and writing pursuits."

 

What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

Books: 
- Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee: This is Lee’s sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Being from North Carolina originally, I feel a certain kinship to Southern literature, which is why I loved this one. I also might have named my daughter after the author . . . but who knows. 
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Masterfully employs all the senses. Super interesting so far. 
Rising Strong by Brene Brown: I don’t usually read “self-help” types of books, but this is one is an exception. A powerful and well-searched study on the role of vulnerability in facing failure of all kinds. Brene has a super endearing personality, which makes the heavy content more palatable and (often) very funny. 

Audiobooks: 
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: Want to know how to write perfect internal dialogue? Develop characters with startling precision? Master the art of short story? This is your book. Also, I recommend the audiobook version because Brian Cranston (Breaking Bad) narrates it so impeccably. 
- The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller: The best contemplative study on marriage I’ve ever heard. 

Podcast: 
The Tim Ferriss Show: One of the most useful resources for learning the habits and practices of highly successful people in a variety of fields. I especially enjoyed this recent one where he interviews B.J. Novak (The Office) about comedy writing, creative process, etc. 

Periodicals: 
The New York Times: Treat yourself to the printed Sunday edition and a pastry. 
The Atlantic: Depth. 
The New Yorker: Learn what good writers do. Be intoxicated by it. 

Any advice for women who are aspiring creatives in your field?

  1. Read promiscuously. (Isn’t that the best use of the word, ever? All credit to Milton.) Seriously, though. Read all you can and learn to recognize good writing. 
  2. Write drunk, edit sober. (That’s quintessential Hemingway. I have the keychain to prove it.) And before you get all out of whack, you don’t have to consume alcohol at all to participate. The principle still applies: Learn how to write without any inhibitions. Anne Lamott calls them her sh***y first drafts. You can’t write and edit in the same state of mind, or you’ll go crazy. 
  3. Find other creative women and hang on to them for dear life. This is the most important one, so I’ll explain more. 

I think there’s this underlying tension sometimes between women who possess the same skill set. Call it competitiveness or fear, or whatever, but the root of it is in this idea of scarcity—that there’s not enough success, attention, resources, connections, etc. to go around. It doesn’t help that our culture’s definition of the ideal woman is a paradox: She is sweet and likable but must firmly speak her mind; She must be fiercely independent, but not overconfident; She mustn’t fuss over her appearance, but should always look toned, put together, and “naturally” flawless. She must vigorously pursue her career goals while being a specimen of domestication, a supremely sexy romantic partner, AND an incredible mother. No wonder we’re so anxious all the time! 

The expectations we place on ourselves—and on other women—is as astounding as it is unhealthy. Women—especially those of us in the creative field—need lock arms and reclaim the ground we’ve lost over the poison of comparison and self-isolation. Imagine what we could accomplish together instead of in opposition, judgment, or indifference towards one another. Forming a tight-knit community of other women creators has been—hands down—the best investment I’ve ever made in my career and in myself. Having these women (writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc.) in my corner who deal with the same struggles and insecurities has pushed me to love and create in ways that would otherwise be impossible. We eat together, read together, celebrate together, pray together, and create together. How do you find a community like that? Be vulnerable with another artist you trust (key=that you TRUST) and begin to reach out to more. Start a group based on a common interest—books, films, etc.—and watch how that gathering blooms organically into a dedicated core of friends. Find your people and stick with them for the long haul. You can’t do this alone.  

Describe your perfect day of recharging/relaxing. 

Waking up early, but fully rested. Reading or daydreaming while outside and sipping coffee slowly. Making a big breakfast with my husband and kiddos. Taking a family walk and then working outside in the garden. Having a picnic. Taking a nap. Inviting dear friends over for dinner and talking late into the night after the kids are in bed. Falling asleep to a funny sitcom with my husband.  

Complete this sentence: "I cannot live without..." 

Hope. A good sense of humor. People who love me as I am, but inspire me to be better. 


 Portrait by Sean Berry

Portrait by Sean Berry


Where to find Suzanne:

Instagram: @suzanneodell 
I’m basically like Ron Swanson right now on social media. Sorry about that — I’ve got two kids. But I do post photos of them occasionally on Instagram.

Websites:
Personal 
Creo Stories


Illustrations and hand lettering by Sojung Lee.

If you'd like to be featured, please contact me: sjlee@sohostory.com