Sunday, April 3, 2011

Susie Daffron, Sister Art

Susan Daffron
Susan Daffron, aside from being the President of Logical Expressions; author of twelve books and more than 1200 articles on topics ranging from self-publishing, pet care, and vegan cooking; and founder of the National Association of Pet Rescue Professionals, is also my sister --which is why I get to call her Susie.

This interview is a hybrid, the intersection of our personal and professional worlds. Many elements surprised me, which goes to show, even with more than 40 years of inside information, directly asking someone provides more detail than what comes up during (in our case, daily) email conversation. 

Me, Susie and the Banyan tree

I can't resist a brief trumpeting of, well, just how great my sister is. Sure, she mercilessly wrestled me to the ground during some high energy tickle fights when were kids, but she also inspired me to learn to pinch with my toes (an effective measure for keeping anyone off your side of the couch) and, more importantly, taught me how to be a good friend. Throughout my life, she has listened to me go on (and on and on) as I hash over my latest dilemmas and schemes, serving as a voice of reason that offers support and cheerleading and, when needed, a protective dose of reality. She sets an example of kind intelligence, honesty, humor, talent, hard work, courage and compassion that I am impressed by, and grateful for, every day -- even when she's on my side of the couch.

So now, Susan Daffron (aka my sister Susie) chatting about her many arts.   

Funds to the Rescue
cover design by Susan
Daffron (including
photo shoot with
Cami the dog)
Cynthia: I warned you that this would be by first question: why don't you describe yourself as an artist despite the fact that professionally, you've written twelve books (including layout and design) and crazy numbers of articles, created graphics for logos, web pages, and provided gorgeous photos in many cases (particularly of where you live, in Sandpoint, ID) and, on a personal level, have experimented with cartooning (the Barbie stories!), drawing, print-making, pottery, stained glass, enameling, sculpture (e.g., the bronze cat), furniture refinishing, earring design, stuffed animal creation, candle-making, costume, clothing and curtain making, extensive quilting, playing the flute and the piano, vegan cooking, canning and jam-making, gardening, and making at least one mobile?  That all sounds pretty arty to me.

Susie: I haven't ever described myself as an artist because I've never really thought of myself as an artist. Particularly when I was younger, I thought that artists were people who were gifted and talented. I saw paintings by our [great] Aunt Jeanne [Jeanne Miles] and they seemed so far beyond the realm of anything I could do; it seemed she was impossibly brilliant.

Logo designed by Susan Daffron
(based on her dogs)
It doesn't mean I wasn't interested in art. As you note, I did a lot of drawing particularly when I was younger and have taken a ton of art classes over the years. I never thought my work measured up, so I figured I couldn't really call myself an "artist."

Part of it was being uncomfortable with the word itself. I thought you had to reach a certain level of technical expertise to call yourself an artist. Only after I was an adult did I realize that pretty much if you call yourself an artist, you are an artist. Art can take many forms and there is no true objective measure of talent. I loathe many forms of art and artworks by a lot of different artists. But it's just my opinion, not fact.

Even if you can't draw a straight line, if you're being creative in almost any way, you are an artist [a point we here at Artful Mistakes revel in]. 
Selkirk Mountains, Sandpoint, Idaho
Photo credit: Susan Daffron

C: Writing is obviously your main creative outlet. I know that recently you've been focusing more on your habits when writing. Can you speak more on how your writing and writing process are evolving?

S: I'm trying to write more regularly. I went through could probably be termed burnout on writing. Having written newsletters for years and done endless freelance writing, I was just mentally tired. For about 6 months, I wrote almost nothing.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the less I write, the less I want to write. I got over myself and tried writing every day for a while, which helped get me back into the writing groove again.

During my write-every-day period, I discovered that coming up with writing topic ideas at a different time than I did the actual writing helped me write more. The night before, I'd come up with an idea, then in the morning, I'd just write it.

I think having that space in between idea-generation time and writing time actually helps me write more quickly, since I've probably been thinking about the topic in the background somewhere. The brain works in mysterious ways.

C: You're a thorough and enthusiastic researcher. What's your approach? And, how can I gain your ability to focus?

S: I'm thorough, but I also can get completely out of hand. Being a reader, I'm easily distracted by things I find interesting. (Oh lookie, a shiny object!) The Web is a researcher's dream come true, but it also can turn into a nightmare, since it's easy to spend so much time researching that you never write anything.

If I have any key to doing research, it's knowing when to stop.

In the stocks at Williamsburg, VA.  Note my fashionable
plaid pants and Susie's Morris the Cat t-shirt.
C: When you were a kid, I know (since I was there) you were a fabulous storyteller, creating great symbolic representations of essentially political issues. If you're wondering what the heck I mean, here's an example: Instead of having perfect princesses waiting for ideal Prince Charmings, the single mothers in our respective Barbie families (Barbara White for you, Frances Green for me) were considered shallow in their fruitless pursuit of the prince at balls. How do your personal convictions continue to influence your art?

S: Because of various odd aspects of our childhood, I think both of us ended up using stories to help us work out some things that weren't going terribly well in our own lives. The freedom of being able to ride away on your horse was rather appealing, for example. Plus, having lots of adventures like parachuting out a window was a lot more interesting than the stupidity of elementary school.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, I think many people work through personal issues through art. One thing that's interesting for me is to read back over articles I wrote years ago. I remember what was behind a lot of things I was saying in my writing, whether it was an argument, something I read, or an experience I had.

C: In college and beyond, you've taken a variety of art classes.  Best and/or worst experiences, or other thoughts year later?

Black-Eyed Susans by Susan Daffron
Pen & ink & watercolor, a product
of the Art in the Garden class.
S: I've taken three great classes and countless truly crappy ones. The best classes were Mr. Motovitch in high school, a sculpture class with Mr. DeLonga in college, and an "Art in the Garden" class here in Sandpoint a few years ago with a watercolor artist named Marilyn McIntyre.

The great classes were great because the instructor focused on the joy of creativity for creativity's sake. Being given the freedom to just let go and not worry about whether what you create is "good" on any objective level is liberating. And fun.

The bad classes were just the opposite. I took a painting class at the local community college here that was so awful I actually complained and asked for a refund. The instructor wanted us to create a painting that looked exactly like hers. She criticized everyone and sucked the joy out of the art process entirely. I threw the painting I did in the garage and may have eventually driven over it. (I'm not entirely sure where it ended up actually.)

The snob factor you often encounter among artists is another creativity killer. I think of this pretentiousness as the "black beret" syndrome. Again it revolves around some flawed idea that to be an "artist" you have to meet some arbitrary standard.

The Black Beret Brigade nominate themselves to be arbiters of that mythical standard, and are supremely unpleasant to be around. If you take enough art classes, it's only a matter of time before you meet members of the Black Beret Brigade. I recommend you give your creativity a break and avoid them.

Susie's garden, from whence many
tasty vegan dishes are created
C: Food! Culinary arts! How did you get into cooking, and how do you enjoy and experiment with cooking and recipe creation now?

S: I like food and started cooking when I was about 12 or 14. I started out with things like cookies and cakes, since I really like chocolate. ("If mom won't make chocolate cake, then I'll figure it out for myself!") In the process of making cakes I started reading cookbooks and later for a while, I cooked one day/week for the family.

At one point, I lived with a bunch of roommates. They were so critical I never told any of them I could cook. So when I met my husband, he thought I didn't know how. He's a great cook, and over time, I 'fessed up that I wasn't quite as incompetent in the kitchen as he initially thought. Over the years, we have shared cooking duties. We each cook three days/week and switch off Wednesdays.

When we became vegan in 1994, cooking became more important. (Back then packaged vegan food didn't really exist.) So we figured out lots of recipes of our own and eventually wrote a cookbook called Vegan Success.

C: Over the years, you've done a lot of teaching, coaching and consulting.  How has that changed your outlook on creating, and writing specifically?

S: I've learned that the creative process is different for everyone. Also things I take for granted are difficult for some people.

For example, I seem to have a natural ability to create outlines and visualize the structure of a book more easily than some people. Organizing material for a book is something a lot of people really struggle with, but for me it's kind of like a puzzle where I put the pieces in their proper places.

C: Do you have a favorite moment with a client or student, a success story that made all the aggravation of less ideal interactions worth it?

S: Becoming a book publishing consultant has been really satisfying because some of my clients have gone on to do amazing things with their books. One client wrote a health-related book, which led to TV appearances, speaking engagements, and now she's opening her own medical clinic.

Another client just got a great write up in a national women's magazine because of her book. And a client recently told me that my help and publishing inspiration "gave her back her life" after a lot of serious personal setbacks.

In another case, a client was at the point that she couldn't pay her bills. I made some suggestions about how she could reorient her business to focus on a different market and now she has more work than she can handle.

Anyway, when you get feedback like that, it's all worth it ;-)
Baby quilt made by Susan Daffron
C: What was your first sewing project that you remember attempting/completing?  And favorites over the years? I can tell you that I still have Max the blue dog, a stuffed animal you made me one Christmas when I was a teenager. 

S: When I was about 10 or 11, my friend Andrea and I decided to figure out how to use the old Singer lurking in the basement. (For those who are curious, I now know it's a 1957 Singer 99K, which is a 3/4 size sewing machine.) Anyway, at that point, my mom hadn't used it in years, so Andrea and I started playing with it and trying to figure out how to sew.

Andrea and I spent a lot of time in the basement making stuffed animals. I found some old fabric and the first thing we made was lions made out of orange corduroy. (We both still have them, although hers looks better than mine; at some point, some dog chewed most of the head off my lion.) We made up patterns based on other stuffed animals we had.

Although they were sort of deformed, we had fun and the lion project led to other stuffed animals, including a turtle and an alligator. Later on, we started buying patterns and made dresses. We had endless problems with the tension on the sewing machine and spent a lot of time ripping thread. Years later, mom pointed out we had been threading the machine wrong. (Yes, that would have been good information to have had earlier.)

When I first went to Arizona after college, I packed one suitcase. After I decided to stay and move there permanently, Dad found someone to drive my car across the country with a bunch of my stuff in the back. One of the things I got was the Singer, so I still have it. In Arizona, I had it cleaned and the tension fixed. The repair guy offered me $200 for it, which I found amusing. (No, I didn't sell it.)

Since then, I've used it to make all the curtains in our house, a bunch of quilts, clothes, and various other things. Over time the case completely fell apart. So a few years ago, I found an old sewing table at Goodwill for $20 and refinished it. James [Susie's husband of 19 years] made a new top for the table that would fit the somewhat unusual shape of a 3/4-size machine. It's sitting in the living room.

More recently, I bought a 1925 Singer Model 66 treadle machine, which also lives in the living room. As it turns out, the attachments from the treadle also work on the 1957 Singer. And oddly enough, the treadle still had its user manual, so now I know what all those bizarre pieces of metal actually are supposed to do.

At this point, I have been using the treadle machine for quilting and most of my other sewing. I need to buy a new pressure foot for the 1957 Singer because the ancient one is getting disturbingly hot. There's obviously something wrong there and I'd rather not have the thing catch on fire.

The gun cabinet now
repurposed into a
more literary use
C: What's the story with the gun cabinet bookshelf?

S: The bookshelf started life as a gun cabinet that I bought at Goodwill for $48. I always wanted a barrister bookshelf, but they cost a fortune. The glass was good in the gun cabinet and it was actually wood, so even though it was hideous, I realized I could refinish it. James made shelves for it and we bought new hardware.

The refinishing process was painful and it took endless amounts of stripper to remove the multiple layers of horrible black paint and get down to the wood. The process was also interrupted by a burst pipe and subsequent flood in the paint room. (Thank goodness we have a shop vac!)

C: When you and James relocated to Sandpoint, you caught the early wave of workers who realized their work could be independent of their location.  How has the online revolution made your life possible?  And, on the other hand, what are your complaints?

S: We started our business with the express intention of moving away from the Big City. That dream was the catalyst that made our business happen. It's also what motivates us to keep going.

The unemployment rate when we moved here was in the double digits and now is once again, so we can't count on the local economy to support us. Plus, it's well documented that I am wildly unsuited to cubicle life.

Thanks to the Internet, we've been able to live here since 1996 and have morphed our business to offer different products and services as times and our interests changed. Now we're into book publishing, which is yet another type of business that can be operated from a remote location.

Moving to the middle of nowhere is what we wanted and we don't want to leave. In fact, every time I go anywhere else, I realize how much I love the peace and quiet of our little corner of forest. But it snows a lot and we have the Pacific Northwest influence, so winters are gray. Eventually, we'd like to spend the winter somewhere else. Shoveling snow when I'm 65 or 70 doesn't sound like fun.

Susie, her husband James, and Leto
C: Tools, equipment: is there anything as a writer or artist that you came across that made everything suddenly much, much easier?

S: Well at the risk of sounding self-serving, our IdeaWeaver software helped me finish my books. The advantage of having a husband who is a programmer is that if you start talking about software solutions at lunch, sometimes you end up with software in the long run.

It was the classic case of designing on a napkin. We were at a restaurant talking about writing with a friend and James drew the IdeaWeaver user interface on a napkin.

As for tools like hardware, I am unreasonably attached to clicky keyboards. I have an IBM Model M keyboard that makes me happy. The tactile feedback from old-style keyboards is much easier on my hands and is probably one reason I don't have carpal tunnel after using computers heavily for a whole lot of years.

C: What is the biggest creative obstacle that you've leaped over?  And the one that keeps coming back to bite at you? 

S: I think self-confidence is something any artist struggles with and I'm no exception. In my case, I know I'm my own worst critic. There are times when I feel really good about what I'm doing and others, well, not so much.

My ever-shifting attitudes are definitely a work in progress.

C: Do you have any crazy rituals for your creative pursuits?  For instance, I tend to listen to really bad pop music when I paint, but I mostly write in silence. 

S: It's not very crazy, but I have to have quiet when I write. It's a good thing I live in the middle of a forest. And that my husband is NOT in the same office. That man is the loudest typist ever.

(Separate offices = key to a good marriage.)

With our mother and childhood dogs
C: What's on your bedside reading table right now?

S: A kind of sappy romance by Debbie Macomber called Mrs. Miracle. (One of the zillions of novels Mom sent me.)

[Our mother, an unabashed book hound and absurdly fast reader, periodically sends each of us some of her spoils.]

C: What new project are you most excited about? Which of your previous creations do you have a soft spot for, even if it may be a little, metaphorically, lumpy or bumpy (i.e., what's your version of an ugly mobile)?

S: I'm excited about my new book which is about how humane groups can get more publicity. I have gotten 18 case studies from groups doing a lot of extremely cool things to help animals and it's inspiring.

The book should be released this summer.

I have a soft spot for my book Happy Hound. Realistically, it hasn't sold very well, but in addition to the pet care information it also includes many stories about my own dogs, some of whom aren't with me anymore. It's a slice of my pet-owning life, captured in book form.

[Susie is also the founder the National Association of Pet Rescue Professionals, a membership association made up of people who work for animal shelters, humane societies or rescue groups]
With our father
C:. What the best bit of writing advice anyone has ever given you? 

S: The best writing advice I ever got was from Dad. He said, "writers write." His point was that sometimes you have to write when you don't feel like it or when you don't want to. (He had been a newspaper journalist, so he definitely knew about deadlines.)

He gave me the advice one late night when I was trying to finish a paper that was due the next day. I was crying about how I'd "never" finish it. He pointed out that I could, if I'd just suck it up and write something.

Turns out, he was right.

C:. Revision: love it? Hate it? Do you have a process that you follow, or do you just tweak it until it feels right? 

S: Actually, I don't revise as much as I probably should.

When it comes to articles, I tend to write quickly, set it aside, then go back over it later. I fix whatever mortifying mistakes I've made and pass it on to James for review. (He reads almost everything I write.) Then I incorporate his changes, read it again, and send it out into the world.

Most of my books include at least some of my past articles, so they've already gone through the article-editing process. But then I hire a professional editor to edit the manuscript before it's published.

C: Is there something new you've been itching to try?

S: I want to write fiction at some point. You and I have talked about writing something together eventually and I still want to do that. [One piece has a working title of Chez Stinky.]

Right now James is getting into writing fiction and I'm itching to join him, but I have at least three non-fiction books to finish first. There's only so much writing I can do and still operate my business. Oh and have a life too.

C: What other creative things are you doing now?

S: James and I have been doing the exercises in the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. We listen to classical music, draw, and zone out (aka get into "R-mode" for those who have read the book). It's extremely relaxing and different from a lot of the more analytical work we do in our business.

Susie, her dog Fiona, and many books!


  1. I totally get the whole not calling yourself an artist thing. Partially for the reasons she talked about, but also because I grew up with my dad being not just an artist, but an Artist. As pointless and completely incorrect as I know it is, I can't help but compare myself to him, and of course I'll never "measure up" because he's got about 60+ years of experience on me. I know this is false as well, but hey, what good are parents if not to leave you with lasting scars? ;-)

  2. That would be Artist with a capital A ;-)

    To be honest, I had the same problem with calling myself a Writer (with a capital W) for a long time. The entire Daffron side of our family is filled with Writers. I obviously got over myself, but yeah, I understand.