Writing Process: On Nominating Suzanne Lawrence for a Mayor’s Arts Award

17 Sep

On Friday September 17, I nominated Write Alley Writing Coach Suzanne Lawrence (my mother) for a Mayor’s Arts Award as an Arts Educator.

To do so, I had to select up to five documents and letters of support, and to write up to 1000 words to describe how her achievements and contributions to arts education have been significant and far reaching and to show how she met the following criteria:

Ø  Leadership in the arts community and service to the arts over a significant period of time

Ø  Demonstration of having set a positive example

Ø  Significance and magnitude of the nominees’s contributions to citizens of Ventura

It was a difficult 1000 words to write. There was a lot I wanted to say and for the previous two years,  I had intended to nominate her but had not. With her passing in July, this was really the last chance to do it; Eric Wallner at the City of Ventura told me they had received posthumous nominations in the past so I knew it would be accepted.

By the 5pm deadline today, I had the essay written and had picked up Letters of Support from Donna Granata, founder of Focus on the Masters; Tim Schiffer, director of the Ventura County Museum; and Cynthia Thompson, of the San Buenaventura Conservancy. Art City Sculptor Joanne Duby, Art City founder Paul Lindhard, San Buenaventura Conservancy board member Carol Lindberg and photographer Steve Schaffer all volunteered to serve as references.

In the process of writing and revising the essay, I did a lot of Natalie Goldberg style writing practice on the idea of “I remember…” to get my words and my imagination flowing and going. (Here’s a link on doing Writing Practice.) Because I didn’t have a lot of time, I focused on what I knew; the first drafts were very personal and when I read them aloud to my husband for feedback, I could barely do it because of the tears.

My down draft got as long as 1250 words at one point. For my editing process, I focused on showing how she met the criteria. I had the criteria at the beginning and the end of the essay and midway I did a freewrite specifically on how she met the criteria to keep me on track. But I didn’t want to TELL the committee she met the criteria, I wanted to SHOW them by using stories to illustrate why they should choose her.

As I reread it now, I realize that I edited out the intro where I mentioned that she had passed away July 30, 2010. Now I need to decide whether I need to revise it to include that information and ask permission to resubmit the essay.

What do you think? Do I need to mention in the beginning that she is deceased? Most people in town knew her and knew that she passed; over 200 people attended her service, it was written up in the local weekly and in the local daily, and there were several letters about her in the paper as well. I considered including her obituary in the packer, but chose instead a newspaper article from 1998. If she wasn’t so well known and respected, I wouldn’t be nominating her, but I’m hesitant to assume everyone on the committee knew her and had seen her perform.

Here’s the nomination I wrote:

Always a chronicler of history, nominee Suzanne Paquette Lawrence kept high school scrapbooks with voting ballots for the new mascot and colors from when Ventura High School transitioned and separated from Ventura College. Growing up, we’d return from school to find her big table covered in books, charts, and papers, with her typewriter in the center.

When my brother and his wife, plus myself and my former husband were all at UC Santa Cruz, an inheritance allowed my mother to take classes there in writing, feminism, women’s history, and oral history.

In 1991, she returned to Ventura to take care of her parents, former Ventura Fire Chief LeRoy “Manny” Paquette and retired school secretary Gwenn Paquette.

Suzanne became a docent at the Ventura County Museum, and taught docent training classes. She conducted and transcribed oral histories of long-time county residents including her parents and their friends to capture the spirit and the flavor of Ventura: the coming of the automobile, the volunteer fire department, daily life, and more. She wanted the Museum to include the stories of women and other working people rarely recorded and remembered.

She read every issue of the Ventura County newspaper from the late 1800s-1920s to produce extensive clipping files—20 notebooks on topics from suffrage to racism to temperance she and others could use as a resource.

All these stories were so vivid and exciting that she wanted to share them. She was also concerned that retirees moving to our county would have no connection to its history or its schools, and would be less likely to support services they didn’t use.

But how could she engage audiences to share these stories?

When I was in graduate school, she and I attended a Chautauqua where scholars dressed as historical figures told their stories. I encouraged her to transform the oral histories she had collected and to use the research she had conducted to create scripts and to do living history performances.

She started with Molly Donlon. Nervous about her first performance, she questioned whether she could keep their attention. The quiet and stillness of the audience unnerved her and she wondered if they were sleeping or daydreaming until she described a plume of smoke off in the distance and everyone in the room turned their heads to see what she was looking at!

Soon she had a closet full of wigs, hats and costumes, and a calendar full of speaking engagements all over the county and beyond. Innkeeper Josephine Pierpont, Theodosia Burr Shepherd’s daughter, librarian Elizabeth Topping, and more–all but one resided in Ventura County. The exception? Helen Hunt Jackson who set her novel Ramona at Rancho Camoulos.

Many of Suzanne’s multi-character plays, such as “A Wake for Uncle Seamus,” were produced at the Pierpont Inn as fundraisers for the Ventura County Museum.  She taught docents from the Museum, Rancho Camoulos, Heritage Square and more how to do living history, using research and scripts she’d written.

A founding member of the San Buenaventura Conservancy, Suzanne trained living historians to perform at locations all over town for several events. Her memorial service at the Museum was full of women in costume who spoke about how she had changed their lives by encouraging them to become living historians.

Although she received many awards, my mother was not one to seek out honors. But she did need money for new wigs and costumes and to pay her bills so I helped her apply for grants from the City of Ventura. One year she received a grant for $500 and in 2007 she received a $5000 Arts Fellowship. Sitting in the room listening to the committee discuss the merits of the various applicants, I remember hearing poet Wanda Coleman rave about how well written the scripts were. When someone complained that Suzanne was applying as a performing artist and yet there was nothing to show her acting, Ms Coleman said the writing was so wonderful she didn’t care what the performance was like—she could hear the voices in her head.

Her many contributions to the arts included transcribing oral histories for Focus on the Masters and the Tortilla Flats Project.  Because of her UC Santa Cruz training, Suzanne was deeply committed to bringing the stories of marginalized people and women to the attention of the dominant culture. For Tortilla Flats, she also worked with MB Hanrahan and Moses Mora to write a multi-character script and to create a slide show.  Upon news of her passing, Moses wrote:

Suzanne’s impact on our efforts is almost immeasurable.

It took Suzanne Lawrence to give us the perspective to see and understand the historical significance and value to future researchers and students of history that had been unearthed by our research. When Suzanne joined our team she elevated us to new heights as she brought her knowledge and eloquence on the lecture circuit with us to community groups, libraries and colleges. She took our rough diamond and polished it. She started transcribing the interviews; she even organized the information by subject and location. She critiqued and advised us.

She was active with us to the end. She also did so much for many other community groups; we are all richer for her life.

My mother was always willing to help. During the April 2010 ArtWalk, she performed and answered questions as her grandmother Anna Paquette, a “time traveler” from 1910 to Bell Arts Factory. She spoke on numerous occasions at Moorpark College, Oxnard College, and Ventura College. I’d call her up and she’d ask “who do you want me to be?” She was to perform at VC this October as Theodosia Burr Shepherd’s daughter, and I’m trying to decide if I can pull it off. She left a big wig to fill, but with so many of us continuing the work she started 20 years ago, we will do it.

Thank you for considering the nomination of Suzanne Paquette Lawrence for a 2010 Mayor’s Arts Award.

Letters of Support:

Donna Granata, Focus on the Masters
Tim Schiffer, Ventura County Museum
Cynthia Thompson, San Buenaventura Conservancy


Joanne Duby, Art City Sculptor
Paul Lindhard, founder, Art City
Carol Lindberg, San Buenaventura Conservancy
Steve Schaffer, photographer

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2 Responses to “Writing Process: On Nominating Suzanne Lawrence for a Mayor’s Arts Award”

  1. Lisa Lawrence September 20, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

    Since you asked,

    The one thing that jumped out at me a bit was several mentions of “I encouraged”, “I helped”, etc…

    I don’t think you need to resubmit it, but since you asked for feedback, I think that the “I”s make it a bit less about her.

    I sure hope she wins!

    • art predator September 20, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

      Thanks, Lisa! I see what you mean–I was trying to show the process of how she ended up doing this–that she was seeking attention of honors, and since she didn’t have a college degree in this (and I do), how she was “trained.”

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