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The Power of Words

The Power of WordsWith a new book coming out this month, Ellen Sussman (J'76) discusses the twists and turns involved in becoming a successful writer.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.13.08] Ellen Sussman (J'76) considers herself a "rule-breaking bad girl." With this self-proclaimed title, it is no surprise that she has decided to dedicate her fourth book to the celebration of "Dirty Words."

"Dirty Words: An Encyclopedia of Sex," which officially hit shelves on June 10, allowed Sussman to bring together nearly 100 "very literary writers," from Phillip Lopate to Antonya Nelson, and take them to new depths with their writing, contributing to her anthology on sex. Contributions range from personal essays to poetry to outright rants.

"Essays about sex oftentimes reveal more about human relationships and human nature than almost anything else," Sussman says. "It is a topic that most literary writers don't often cover, so it pushes them in new directions, making them both think and write in a new way."

Remembering her Tufts days, Sussman says she was known for continually pushing the envelope, always looking for ways to take an ordinary writing assignment and bend the rules to make it more interesting.

"If someone tells me I can't do something, then that is exactly what I am going to do," she laughs. "I have always been a rule breaker and drawn a little bit to the darker side of things or the unexplored territory."

Prior to editing and contributing pieces to "Dirty Words," Sussman published three other works, including the New York Times Editors Choice selection "Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave" (which comes out as a paperback in July), which she edited and contributed too and the San Francisco Chronicle bestselling novel "On a Night Like This." A fiction writer at heart, Sussman says that she has beenpushed in new directions over the past few years.

"I've been solely a fiction writer for all of these years, writing stories and novels in a literary style, and then right before my novel 'On a Night Like This' was about to be published [in 2004], I wrote my first personal essay, published in Newsweek," Sussman says. "When that happened I saw the power of a personal essay."

The essay, which ran in December of 2003, detailed Sussman's experience of being brutally raped while overseas and discussed her fears of how this news would affect her daughters. The morning it was published, Sussman says that her e-mail was overloaded with responses that had an immense impact on her.

"That was a different experience for me. I get fan e-mail for my fiction, but that is mostly, 'I loved your book, I stayed up all night to read it.' This was the personal sharing of stories and people telling me why the essay affected them so deeply."

Between "Bad Girls" and "Dirty Words," Sussman's subject matter can be categorized as risqué, a description that she says doesn't surprise her in the least.

Sussman and several other "Dirty Words" contributors will be in the Boston area for a book reading on June 25 and June 26. For more information on times and locations visit

"I remember years ago trying to sell a novel and having my agent saying, 'This book is a little too bold in its presentation of sex, and the world isn't quite ready for this.' So it doesn't surprise me that I've headed in this direction."

Becoming a successful writer wasn't as easy as putting her pen to paper, Sussman says. While she has dreamed of becoming a writer since she was six years old, it wasn't until her 30s that she began publishing short stories. It was a decade more before she published her first novel.

"I spent a good 10 years sending out short stories to literary magazines and building up my huge pile of rejection letters," Sussman laughs. "Thankfully, Tufts had given me this strong belief in myself so that every rejection letter went in the drawer and I went back to work instead of getting overwhelmed and quitting, which a lot of people do."

As an English major, Sussman says that Tufts offered the perfect supportive and nurturing environment, providing her with a "remarkably strong foundation in literature and writing." Having had such a positive learning experience at the university, she was thrilled when her work on "Dirty Words" allowed her to reconnect with her advisor and mentor, English lecturer Jonathan Strong.

"It was a wonderful opportunity for me to invite [Strong] to be in this book, because it was just a little way of thanking him and giving back in a sense to someone who gave me so much."

Strong joins Tufts' English Professor Jonathan Wilson and Wilson's son Adam (A'04) as contributors to the book.

Sussman herself spent several years teaching writing and literature as an adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine University, UCLA, and Rutgers University, as well as spending time in Paris teaching fiction writing at a cultural center for adults. Sussman gained a passion for education after completing a teaching fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, where she received a master's in creative writing. Currently she hosts private writing workshops for adults at her home in Los Altos Hills, Calif.

Though some of the topics discussed in "Dirty Words" could be considered taboo, Sussman says it is really about the evolution of sexual terminology, taking a look at how words that were shocking for her generation have made it into everyday vernacular.

"There are dirty words in the anthology and then there are words like kissing and monogamy and lust, which are not dirty at all," she says. "Part of my intention is to blur those lines, because I really don't think there is such a thing as dirty words. In my mind, none of them are bad words.

"You will see that so many of the essays are really about relationships, coming of age, understanding your body and desire. So sex is really just the excuse to write about all those things."

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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