Not Feckless: How a Writer Becomes a Publisher in a Moment of Rage

Huge thanks to Read Her Like an Open Book for allowing me to explain how Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology came to be. As Editor Bill Wolfe said on Twitter: “When enough is enough, it’s time to take out the bullhorn.

From Not Feckless: How a Writer Becomes a Publisher in a Moment of RageI became a publisher impulsively, in this moment of rage. My own words failed. But I knew there were writers who still had theirs, who could articulate their fury, indignation, sorrow. That’s how it works, in this resistance marathon: we take turns. We share, and our collective words carry us. … I had no idea how to publish a book. I figured I would learn.

 

 


 

 

 

C U N T

I get it. Some of you are uncomfortable with the word “cunt.” You certainly don’t want to hear it said aloud. You don’t even want to see it written, each letter just sitting there, brazen, unashamed, like a naked body sprawled across the floor you have to step over and can’t avoid:

C U N T.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sorry. I won’t apologize for Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. Never. I will not tiptoe around your discomfort. I will not even soften it by inserting asterisks where letters belong. Although, of course, I realize that some people and publications will require asterisks, I will never use them. Words are powerful, yes. If a word makes you uncomfortable, look at it harder. Your discomfort is the point. If you’re not a member of a marginalized group that has had “cunt” used to oppress you: YOU DON’T GET A SAY. If it has been used against you, I’m sorry. And, also: I think you’re going to want to read this book. These 36 fierce contributors have the guts to confront this word, and—more importantly—the sexist culture that defined and weaponized it. These contributors take back “cunt.” They take control of the narrative of our own lives.

These 55 lean, feminist pieces (poems and very short prose) don’t back away from controversy. They run headlong toward what we’ve been told not to say, think, be. They reject the patriarchal idea that we’re forbidden to speak the words used against us. I invite you to join us.

It’s okay if you’re not ready. But do not ask me to spend time and energy explaining or excusing myself. The time for that sort of endless, unpaid, emotional labor by women is over. Read Feckless Cunt to understand why I think it is not only okay but necessary to write and say

C U N T

as many times as it takes to change the world, a little. You do not have to listen. You do not have to stay in this room where C U N T is sprawled across the floor. I just ask that you let us speak and write and confront what needs confronting. I am not afraid of words or your disapproval. I am afraid of losing my freedom of speech—an understandable fear, I think, considering how the current administration makes daily noise against the free press and dissent. Speak now or forever…better yet, listen: Feckless Cunt will be available for order in the next couple of weeks. I will let her have the final say, without asterisks or apologies.

 

 

15 Minutes for My 2 Cents

In Joshua Tree, California, we have a community lecture series called “Teddy” Talks, a take on the famous TED talks. They’re held at Beatnik Lounge, an art space and JT’s unofficial community center. This month I appeared with two other authors, Rose Baldwin and Gabriel Hart. We had a blast. The crowd was kind and interested, the conversation stimulating. My talk was titled: Rejecting the Rules and Criticism that Derail Writers. The subject is dear to me. I also discussed both my novel Not On Fire, Only Dying and my brand-new, flash fiction chapbook, Swap / Meet.

So if you have fifteen minutes for my two cents, click below.

Thanks,
Susan

Listen for what I don’t say.

Sometimes I wonder if I have the face of a woman who needs help. I am frequently offered advice. I do ask lots of questions, and I can see how that might seem, to some, like I want answers. Probably I’m just being polite. Or I’m after your stories. I want to get you talking so I can watch. I want to hear what you don’t tell me. Keep talking. I’m not listening, but I am.

Now, days before my 50th birthday, I look in the mirror and see a face with deepening lines, silver hair, and eyes that have seen love and marriages and travel and motherhood and shitty jobs and rescued animals and exhilarating art and my own writing published and grief and failure and a second, solo, cross-country move that finally convinced me I might be kind of a badass. I see the face of a woman who has a word or two of advice to GIVE, in fact.

Not that you asked. So go ahead and ignore me. Or listen for what I don’t say.

Lighten Up, Francis. Humor is a survival skill, especially in dark times like these we’ve lived since November 2016. Some of us can’t stay afloat without it. Humorlessness is tiresome. It does not prove your commitment to the resistance. In fact, since humor disarms and draws others in, it can be a useful tool. Not everything is a fight to prove your position is the correct one. Life is hard and brief, so maybe just crack a smile. It’s good for you, and the rest of us, too.

I Would Prefer Not To. It’s okay to say NO, and you don’t even have to come up with an excuse. NO to going to that thing you dread. NO to small talk with that acquaintance you don’t trust. NO to gatherings where you’re expected to play an old role. NO to staying where it’s safe but not happy. You deserve joy in every shade of the spectrum: comfort, safety, friendship, support, bonding, duty, desire, lust. And everything in between. Move towards joy, always. Move away from anything less.

It’s Going To Be A Beautiful Wall. You’re the architect of your life. Get your hands on those blueprints ASAP. Construct your present, add on, renovate, tear it down to sticks and start over. Point yourself in the direction of a future you’d like, but understand it’s like a note added to a dinner reservation: “Quiet table by the window, please.” We regret to inform you that requests are not guaranteed. However old you are, you’ve been hearing it all your life—how things should be done. What you ought to do, and in what order. How you must behave. Has it occurred to you that it might be bullshit? You have one chance to experience life. Take a big bite, a wide view. Be a good enough friend to yourself to build and fortify your boundaries. Make them beautifulopaque, if not transparent. Sturdy.

People Are Strange When You’re A Stranger. It’s not wrong just because it’s unfamiliar to you. We all have a different way of being in the world. Notice your resistance—when you feel defensive, you’re bumping up against one of those “shoulds” you were taught and maybe believed. Breathe, listen. You, too, can live any damn way you please.

Some Small Good News.

The latest issue of Cholla Needles is out, and I’m thrilled to have 3 short pieces included. Buy it here for just 5 American dollars. Cholla Needles Press started earlier this year and has published books in addition to the magazine, which is now on Issue 12, so that gives you an idea of the literary energy here in Joshua Tree, CA. They hold monthly readings on an outdoor stage behind local bookstore Space Cowboy Books, drawing together a vibrant and welcoming crowd that includes many talented local writers and others who regularly come through to visit and read.

These are my first publications since moving out here. They were all written in this ecstatic creative flurry I’ve happily and gratefully surrendered to since I finally unpacked my boxes. There is something about this place: the expanse, the silence, the glorious sunshine.

My 3 pieces are: “About a Month In The Desert,” flash CNF about my experience moving to the desert from someplace very different; “HUMAN | NATURE,” micro prose inspired by the view from the mineral-encrusted “rainbow” terraces, or cliffs, of Thermopolis, WY; and a flash piece called “1 table, 2 chairs: ugly,” part of a series I’m working on called SWAP/MEET (virtual).

There is so much good work within these pages and I am honored to have mine included. And I’m thrilled to see my name against the brilliant blue sky that is making me a writer again, at last.

orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE

My novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, has been out for two years this fall. It’s increasingly rare to hear from a reader encountering it for the first time, but because I recently moved and found a vibrant and supportive literary community, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to put it into new hands. Last weekend, as I settled in to watch some performance art among the rocks of Joshua Tree National Park (have I mentioned how much I love this place?), a reader told me she’d noticed a tiny detail in NOFOD that no one else has, at least as far as I know. When she told me, I shrieked in surprise and delight. (Apologies, I know how sound carries in the desert.)

What she found is a tiny “Easter egg” I planted in honor of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who I happen to be related to but would revere for her words and example regardless. As a kid, I knew of her but didn’t spend time with her, and she was gone before I could express my appreciation. I reread her poems often, taking inspiration and reassurance from her wise, bold, precise language.

I nestled a reference to her poem “Ballad of Orange and Grape” (from Breaking Open, 1973) into Chapter Nine of NOFOD. Marko, the main character, is in New York City, stalking Daniel, a man who hurt his beloved Lola and may have answers Marko intends to demand. Marko and Lola are equally reviled in their mid-Hudson Valley hometown. They both have sketchy pasts, questionable appearance, bad habits. They are barely tolerated. How we judge and label others—how we consider them “others,” in fact—are questions that developed into themes for NOFOD, and which I find addressed in Muriel’s work.

So I sent her a tiny, belated thank you, knowing it might go unnoticed. I am so grateful to the reader who noticed my tribute and I remain grateful to every reader, especially those who have mentioned something, however small, that resonated with them. That is, of course, the best moment for a writer: making that connection.

Please take a couple of minutes to hear “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” read by the poet:

 “Not EVERYTHING is a metaphor, Mom.”

This, from my laid back, pragmatic 18-year-old. He’s very wise, but on this he is wrong. EVERYTHING, for me, is metaphor.

Maybe I can blame my decades-old English degree, earned by dissecting books as if fetal pigs, prying loose each pickled piece to be parsed and analyzed, examined microscopically. Maybe it’s just who I’ve always been, a hopeful cynic, a nature-worshiping atheist in search of…what? Not answers. I don’t trust those, generally. Insight, maybe. Instinctively, reflexively, I seek to make some sense of my fellow humans or maybe even myself. I want to understand this human condition with which we’ve all been afflicted.

A few weeks ago the sky fell. Or rather, the ceiling did. Water worked its silent destruction. A ruined roof shingle developed a pin-sized hole, and quietly, invisibly, over who knows how short or long a time, the rain did its worst. There were no hints or portents. One day we had a thunderstorm, no different than any before, but this time the pressure proved too much. The ceiling gave way. What should be held outside was suddenly in. Sodden sheet rock and insulation hung from the gaping, dripping hole like spittle from a monster’s mouth. The ceiling had just been there, firm and clean. Now it was a mess.

My life, metaphorically. How could I see it any other way?

It had been a difficult few weeks, even before the sky fell. I’d struggled to solider on as always, like the Strong Woman™ I am. That label is a triumph and a burden. Lately the burden had grown heavy. I’d taken hits that slowed my momentum. Changes were constant and discouraging. I’d begun saying things like “I’m hanging on by my fingernails,” “white-knuckling it,” “circling the drain.” This is not helpful self-talk. But even Strong Women™ have a breaking point. When it is reached, if we dare tell, we may find ourselves disappointed by the response. Our loved ones are used to our self-reliance, our resilience. We look okay: the exterior appears as firm and clean as ever. There are no hints or portents of the mounting pressure. But one day: just one drop too many. Everything collapses. Everything is exposed.

Barn’s burnt down—
now
I can see the moon.
-Mizuta Masahide

It was a relief. I could no longer pretend to hold everything together. I had to confront the fact that this was never possible—too much is out of my control. In wreckage there is truth. It hangs like eviscerated innards for all to see, like dripping wet insulation. For a moment, I wasn’t strong. I fell all the way down. From the floor I stared up at everything I could not control and thought of metaphors. The collapse was mine, just in the nick of time.

Be Brave; Live Now: a New Year’s Wish

2016 can’t show itself out soon enough. Aside from all the lost icons and heroes, the contentious, too-long U.S. election ruined any sense of unity on the Left, killed the dream of a woman president, and ripped off a bandage to reveal our festering, misogynist, racist mess. And then there’s my personal life. I won’t get into that.

In 2017 my only child will leave for college. That’s a good thing, the best. He is whip-smart and thoroughly kind and will improve the world just by living in it. He’s a straight white male who gets it. Yes, I’m writing this through tears but I’m not sad, really.

In 2017 I will move to California’s Mojave desert, where I’ve dreamed of living since I first encountered it years ago. Immediately, it felt like home. The silence, so complete, is precious comfort. I am running toward it, laden with baggage. Okay, not running. But I am moving, inexorably.

I am moving toward the only things I know for sure: I must be somewhere I can write and edit and make art and be myself and think. I believe that California will be a safer place for women than any state that went for Trump, as did the state I’ve lived in for a decade: Georgia. Georgia, I will remember you like an ex-lover: with some fondness, but completely sure that we are done. Goodbye, good luck. Surprisingly, my county, north of Atlanta and traditionally conservative, went for Hillary. A small, bright spot of blue in a sea of angry red. I take comfort in that, and some pride. For years I stuck my neck out in hostile territory, despite knowing I was surrounded by concealed, loaded guns. I won’t miss that.

I am running away to California as I did once before, in 1990. So many adventures began for me in San Francisco. So many heartbreaks. I have no illusions that California is a perfect place, not at all, or immune to the destruction that will be wrought by Trump & Co. But California is a hopeful, forward-looking place. That’s where I want to be.

In 2017 I will finish (?) my current novel-in-progress, which I love and can’t wait to share but I’ll have to write it first, won’t I? Too much of it still lives in my imagination but you can’t see that. You can’t hear what I’m trying to say unless I say it. So in 2017, I will try.

I wish everyone moments of joy in the new year, and moments of blinding outrage, too, because without that how will we stay motivated to fight? Gather your strength; we will need it. Say what you mean. Go where you want.

Move inexorably toward whatever you know for sure, even if it is only one small thing. Be brave. Live now. I am writing this through tears but I’m not sad, or not only.

Born and Dying: My First Book’s First Year

cvrIt’s not like I had no idea what to expect. As a bookseller I assisted with author events both swanky and huge (Pat Conroy at a Connecticut yacht-club brunch) and tiny and spare (local writers at my used bookstore in Kingston, New York). As a book buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, I bought everything from small press titles to kids books to some of the largest adult trade lines (all of which have since folded into Random Penguin–yes, I know they prefer the names reversed.) Book promotion is an enormous challenge at every level. Even backed by a corporate publisher’s PR machine, many books struggle to attract interest. Every year, thousands of excellent books are published and ignored. It’s an honor to reach any readers. And if you hear from a few who loved your book and got what you were trying to say–well, let that wash over you, because that connection is everything. You get used to the non-responses from places you’d hoped to appear. You get used to leaving readings with unsold books. To empty seats in the audience. To other books getting more attention and praise. You stay grateful throughout.

So, to celebrate Not On Fire, Only Dying‘s first year, a multimedia look back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: thank you for hearing me.

Pics or it didn’t happen: proof it wasn’t a strange, beautiful dream with too much public speaking:

[slideshow_deploy id=’1025′]

Original music composed by Naomi Hamby for Not On Fire, Only Dying:

“Marko’s Theme” was used for the book trailer. Here it is accompanied by the previously unreleased “Lola’s Theme.”

Speaking of the trailer:

Maybe you’d like another listen to Marko’s mixtape?

Select blog posts written through acceptance, publication, and promotion. Short and honest:

Thank you for hearing me. (12/31/14)
Cats get in the way. (1/23/15)
No big deal, but…MY BOOK HAS A COVER. *swoon* (3/26/15)
Blurbs and Preorders and THANK YOU. (5/4/15)
Presenting my book trailer! And insecurities… (7/3/15)
Brooklyn, beginning. (9/5/15)
Have I mentioned I have a new book out? (9/29/15)
But is it art? On book reviews. (10/18/15)
More than chocolate? (2/4/16)`
What do you want? (5/11/16)

Thank you to everyone who read this book (and to those who have a copy and might yet get around to reading it–no worries. Trust me, I know how that goes. Maybe once in a while something small and unrelated will remind you of Not On Fire, Only Dying.

Happens to me all the time:

Thanks, I failed better.

This July I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, my first crack at this sort of writing “sprint.” I failed spectacularly.

The original NaNoWriMo, held every November, challenges writers to bang out a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. The “Camp” allows writers to set their own word count goal. The time was right: Finally, after countless outlines, isolated scenes, and false starts, I had a few thousand words of a new novel. I didn’t hate them. That weren’t completely wrong. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew the characters well enough to trust where they led me. I set a modest goal: 15,500 words, just 500 a day. I had a lot going on, personally, but I figured I’d work around it. I was determined to try.

I did try, and I failed. fail-better-red-5251

I did not come close. Life interfered, as I feared it might. In all the ways that feed and distract a writer. I wrote a fraction of what I’d hoped. I failed but I wrote 4,349 words. 4,349 new words building on those already written, pointing me more clearly in the direction this novel will take. 4,349 words that brought my characters to life and sent me into fits of deep planning. 4,349 words is not much. Not enough. But it’s a lot more than I wrote the month before.

If I want to finish this novel I’d better return to this manuscript every single day, give myself increasingly ambitious word count goals. I know I can do it. I’ve completed and revised (and revised) two novels and rewritten one word by word. That one, Not On Fire, Only Dying, was published last year.

I will return to it (what a relief!) when I appear at the Decatur Book Festival‘s Emerging Writers Stage at 2:20 PM on Sun Sept 4. I’ll give a very brief reading, followed by a signing. Not On Fire, Only Dying will be available for purchase throughout the festival.

Now I should get back to work. I’ve got lots more failing to do.