“It was like waking up on your birthday and everyone remembers.”
On April 9, USF professor and English department chair Susan Steinberg woke up to a flood of congratulatory texts from friends and family after it was publicly announced that she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awards fellowships, which are grants, to about 175 scholars, writers, and artists annually. The grants are meant to support recipients’ personal projects and allow them to take time off from working or teaching so they can travel, write, and research.
Steinberg had received a letter informing her of her award on April 8 and was able to privately process her accomplishment before the recipients were publicly announced the next day. When she found out she won, she was incredibly excited. As she recalled her reaction in an interview with the Foghorn, her happiness and shock were evident in her voice.
“It was a big surprise, it wasn’t something I was expecting. Mostly I just felt so much gratitude that I would be supported to write another book,” Steinberg said. “That was the best feeling, to know at some point, after all this, that I’d get to go somewhere and just focus on this project. Any time I have the time and space to write is a gift, but knowing that I could go travel and control the environment, and be in the place I want to write, and where I started the project.”
Steinberg has been a professor at USF for 18 years and teaches creative writing, mostly focusing on fiction writing. She received her bachelor’s of fine arts in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, then her master’s of fine arts in writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Last year, Steinberg taught at the University of Iowa as a distinguished visiting professor in a graduate nonfiction writing program, where she will also be teaching next semester.
According to Senior Associate Dean and English professor Eileen Fung, USF is honored to have Steinberg as one of their faculty.
“Susan is an incredibly gifted writer, artist, teacher and mentor, someone who makes a powerful statement about the creative arts in a liberal arts education. Her work pushes all of us to rethink conventional gender roles and literary norms. I am not surprised that Susan received the Guggenheim, it is long overdue,” Fung said.
Steinberg has written four books: three collections of short stories and one novel. She frequently writes about gender and the ways in which it is performed, and incorporates many female characters and narrators who face various challenges and conflicts within their interpersonal relationships. She writes a lot of dysfunctional family narratives and has recently been writing about younger characters, whose stories only span a short time period (such as a single summer, or one night). A lot of readers have noted that she writes about class issues, too, Steinberg said, particularly in her past two books.
“Gender, what it is to be female in a family dominated by men, what it is to be a teenage girl and the sort of roles you have to play, has been really interesting for me to write. I’m not quite done with that,” Steinberg said.
For her Guggenheim, Steinberg wants to pursue a project about the various ways that women and girls can disappear in our culture — literally and metaphorically. She had planned to write in Rome and Paris, but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recognizes that might not be possible for a while. If travel restrictions allow, she will eventually be headed to those cities to complete two of the three parts of her project.
Even though nearly half of the 2020 Guggenheim fellows were women, Steinberg noted that being a woman writer can be a struggle in a field dominated by men.
“Being a woman writer is always a challenge. I know firsthand about the immense gender disparity in the literary and art world… I can’t say what it feels like any other way because this is how I identify, but for me, a huge part of it [is] to recognize women artists and women faculty and what they are doing. It sends a message to students that these accomplishments of our women are equally important, and should also be celebrated and supported and encouraged,” Steinberg explained.
Steinberg hasn’t always been a writer — she began her career as a painter. As a child she wrote frequently, but it was never something she thought she’d do for a living. She loved drawing, though, and eventually went to art school. While her paintings would dry, she said she had a lot of energy to expend, so she’d pour her thoughts into journals, write on big pieces of drawing paper, and even began writing on paintings. As she graduated college, writing became more practicable, portable, and less expensive. She began workshopping and fell in love with the process, which she compares to drawing and painting.
“I wrote a lot of stories, and I actually recently found them and I couldn’t believe how similar my forms were then to now. My fiction looks different on a page, but I was doing that as a kid. Whatever my storytelling approach was then, is what I do now,” she said.
Steinberg encourages aspiring writers to just keep writing, even though the entire world wants to get in the way. “Whatever is happening on your TV screen, computer screen, all the work we have to do… everything takes up time, and you have to make your writing as big a priority as the things that want your whole day,” Steinberg said. She recommends turning off electronics, grabbing a pen and paper, and to just start writing about the things that bother you, that affect you, that you dream about. Don’t worry about publishing or sharing your writing, she said, just see what your words can turn into until there’s nothing more you can do with it.
Almost anything can be turned into a story or a poem, she explained. One of her favorite lines that she’s written, which is in her most recent novel, was born from a simple experience: watching a friend witness fireflies and a thunderstorm for the first time. Steinberg said that memory, of looking out of a tiny window as flashes of light filled up the dark sky, was so amazing that it needed to find a place in her writing.
Steinberg’s legacy is nowhere near complete, as she continues to write and create, and her most recent honor, the Guggenheim fellowship, is another opportunity to create more hand-crafted stories.
When she’s not writing, Steinberg has been keeping busy during quarantine through her daily yoga routine, hand-washing clothes (which she described as relaxing), learning how to sew masks, and doing New York Times crossword puzzles.
“I have actually been so busy that I’ve missed a few days [of the crossword]. Usually, when things aren’t like this, I always find time. But I have four to five times the amount of meetings, teaching needs more time, and everything just takes longer,” she laughed.