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:

Unsettle that dust.

I move in 30 days. The house I’m moving to is quite small, less than half the size of this one. So far I’ve culled mountains of STUFF: donated most, tossed some. It is glorious, that unburdening. The more STUFF you shed, the more easily you see what might be shed next, and next! Space opens up and, as you move what hasn’t moved in years, you literally shift the air. You release swirls of dust and complacency you hadn’t noticed accumulating beneath furniture, behind books, in the crevices of knick-knacks that used to mean more. Suddenly, STUFF is hindrance: literal weight on a truck you will pay for. Ask: Does it serve me? Do I love it? It seems like a lot to ask STUFF to “spark joy,” but, sure, ask that too.

In the back of one closet I found a box of books and papers, mostly research for Not On Fire, Only Dying: the Ashokan Dam, New York State sentencing laws, missing child procedures, the Romani people, psychiatric meds and diagnoses, strains of marijuana. Bus schedules. A Hudson Valley street atlas. Poems and paintings that inspired NOFOD from its beginnings. I’m getting rid of more than you might think and holding onto more than I should.

The box also held a binder of stories and miscellaneous literary efforts I’d published in online journals, printed out as if I’d worried the internet might suddenly, permanently crash (not gonna lie—sometimes I do worry about that.) I came across a tiny list I wrote for Treehouse Magazine:I hadn’t known, but I’d needed to find and re-read this. I needed to be reminded of the Susan who wrote it. I needed to remember that I’ve found inspiration after long silence before and I will again. In the midst of this move, people sometimes ask, “Are you writing?” and I want to kill them (maybe not all the way dead) because NO—of course I’m not writing. I am cleaning and sorting and packing and getting my only child off to college and changing my whole life—but no, I’m afraid I am not writing. Some writers write through everything—storms much worse—and many more panic when they can’t. For me, occasional silence is expected and necessary. I still absorb material and dialogue and formulate ideas, but for now it’s a one-way process. Maybe I’m okay with breaking rules like “WRITE EVERY DAY” because I’m finally old enough to see how many rules are bullshit.

In any case, I’ve given myself permission to fall short.

“Five Paintings” accompanied a flash piece published by Treehouse Magazine: “Just Like Lily.” I went online and re-read it. I liked it, a few years on. That’s always a relief. It was a departure of sorts—something about the tone. It was also one of my most openly feminist pieces. I think I need to write more of those.

This got me thinking about Treehouse Magazine, which I hadn’t seen anything from in a while—years, it seemed. A quick search found a recent announcement of their relaunch this October! I am thrilled. Who doesn’t love a comeback? What’s better than a return to words? I look forward to mine. And if yours are also somewhat out of reach at present, please take a look at one or all of those five paintings. Anywhere is a good place to start. The words will come when you’re ready.

Proserpine, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

To Be Continued.

In a couple of months I’ll move from Georgia, where I’ve lived for 11 years and never belonged, to the California desert. This isn’t my first time moving across country. It’s not even my first time moving alone to California. At 22, fresh out of college in New York, I was fucking fearless. I remember my parents expressing concern about my plan—what plan? But I felt infinitely strong. I rented a studio apartment in San Francisco for about $400/month. It was small enough that I could lie diagonally and almost touch the walls. It was on a gritty block behind the opera house, before that neighborhood was transformed, for better or worse. There was often shouting from the street. I just took it all in. Inhaled sights and sounds and smells and people and experience, like I do.

I got a job working in a group home for profoundly troubled young kids, victims of the most horrific abuse, usually at the hands of their parents. Sometimes they were violent—of course they were. I was paid $7/hour. I didn’t have a car, just a bike. I rode it everywhere, including to the grocery store. I’d load up two saddlebags, then churn the pedals up and down San Francisco’s hills, my legs draining with the effort. Everything was hard. I was deliriously happy.

Now I’m 49. Lately my body hints at its inevitable deterioration with more frequency. Subtle changes with a whiff of more to come: stubbed toes that fracture, a sprained rotator cuff that never fully healed, a tricky knee, and a neck, stiff from the effort of holding still when I want to RUN. So now I’m running. While I can. I won’t get stuck here, frozen like my neck on a cold, rainy night. I’m fleeing to California, again. Older, maybe wiser. Still pretty fucking fearless. This time I’m moving to where it’s hot and dry and my bones feel good. My brain feels better out there, not bombarded by stimuli. I am strong but not as strong as I was: I will drive to the grocery store. I will take it easy on my toes, shoulder, knee, neck—but you’d better believe I’ll be out there hiking and scrambling around, inhaling that wide open blue-sky silence. I will resist deterioration, to a point, while also celebrating what aging brings, including the confidence to stand up sometimes and declare: Next Chapter, To Be Continued.

 “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.

Gutted.

It seems almost everyone has feelings to express about the U.S. election just passed. The world is clogged with words, exactly as it should be: words of outrage, despair, solidarity. It is how we will move through this. There is no way around. So speak your grief loudly, your fury and disappointment. Here is mine:

The English have a phrase: I am gutted. This week I am wrenched apart, drained of the righteous, joyous, feminist optimism that built over my lifetime and peaked when Hillary’s victory seemed likely. On election day, I scrolled through endless voting pictures on social media: women who were born before the 19th Amendment, women with their mothers and daughters, women in Suffragette-white pantsuits.

As a girl in the ’70s, I wore out my “Free To Be You and Me” record. I watched Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, the Bionic Woman. Flawed feminist icons, sure, but I assumed progress was inevitable. I think we all did. Later I read the second-wave feminists and came to worship writer-warrior women like Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and the cousin I never really knew, Muriel Rukeyser. In 2004 I attended the March for Women’s Lives, where Hillary Clinton spoke, introduced by Gloria Steinem as “our future president.” (I imagine some eyes rolling at that: “See, more proof of her long-standing entitlement, the limousine-liberal establishment’s pick, shoved ahead of the people’s Bernie Sanders.”) I like and respect Bernie and Zeus knows I’m on board with his positions. For me it was never about not liking Bernie (although I could do without his more aggressive male acolytes) but wanting a woman in charge SO MUCH. Not any woman—Carly Fiorina? Nope. HILLARY “women’s rights are human rights” RODHAM. The shrewd public servant who’d make women an actual priority. For years we’d watched abortion rights chipped away, miscarriages criminalized, women humiliated with forced ultrasounds and condescending speeches by scolding men. It was ENOUGH. And Hillary would do something about all the damn guns, too. She’d expand on Obamacare. She’d build on so much of Obama’s good work. I liked that she took our abuse and just kept going.

Then: election night. Holy shit, she’s losing. Millions of us watched in sickened disbelief: there was no way those who voted for Trump (or as I unaffectionately call him: Dump) didn’t know how awful he was. How racist and misogynist. No, that was WHY they voted for him. He was every weak kid’s idol: the nasty, no-nothing bully who got his way through threats. I find him unbearable. I know I’m not alone. I also know I’m not at risk the way some others are in Dump’s America, where white supremacists, sexual predators, and gun nuts feel emboldened. So many fellow Americans feel targeted, because they are: LGBT, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, women…who else? No one but the straight white Christian cis male feels safe right now, and if he’s smart he won’t count on that. One day they might come for him, too. img_0474-altAll I can say is I’m sorry. I tried to prevent this. I will stand with those already marginalized, who may now be persecuted. I won’t be silent. I won’t get by just because I can. We will get through this, we will help each other, because what is the alternative? We will vote that bastard out and send him scuttling back to his tacky gold apartment to oversee his bankrupt empire.

We will feel so good, that day.

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:

Talk Talk: news about interviews

I recently found myself in the completely new (to me) position of being interviewed while at the same time I interviewed someone else. Everyone involved is a writer: MaryAnne Kolton, who had wonderful things to say about Not On Fire, Only Dying, is conducting an interview with me. I hope to be able to share news of its publication soon. Her perceptive, thoughtful questions send me into deep memory and contemplation. I find it thrilling and terrifying. It’s a challenge for this introvert, stepping out from behind the veil of fiction.

Of course I am wildly grateful for the opportunity to discuss the book, which I always believed in, even when it seemed it would never find its home. I never expected it to have a huge audience, but I believed–and have since had it confirmed–that some fine people would read it and get it and love it hard.

At the same time I interviewed Grant Faulkner. He is a fascinating contradiction: co-founder of the journal 100 Word Story and author of Fissures, a collection of his own spare, exquisitely crafted 100-word stories. He’s also Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that month-long marathon in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel, however rough. This happens to be an exciting time in Grant’s emerging career. The interview was published at Necessary Fiction, where I serve as Reviews Editor.

All this Talk Talk-ing about myself reminds me of the 80s (honestly what doesn’t? I’ll use any excuse.) Gwen, you’re fierce and I love you, but you almost ruined this song for me. The antidote is listening to the original. And for a few minutes: no talk.