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.


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.

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—
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.

This does not feel kind.

“Do better!”

I see this on social media a lot these days. It is impatient and arrogant and meant to cut. It’s meant to shame someone who should know better—meaning, they should see things the same way a self-appointed authority says is the correct way. The “better” way. I’ve seen this in discussions of highly sensitive, rapidly-evolving issues that most of society is still wrestling with: rape culture, gender identity, and, of course, how to respond to the disaster unfolding in our White House. I understand the heightened emotion. I feel it too. We want everyone to “get it,” right now. We want everyone to pay attention and DO SOMETHING, FIX THIS. But America is 320 million different people, and our perspectives are influenced by our individual backgrounds and experiences. It’s influenced by whatever we’re dealing with in our real lives, far more complicated than social media.

Rather than using tactics of persuasion, active listening and dialogue, I see too many people—too many writers, capable of the best, deepest communication—shutting down questions and differing perspectives with little more than a furious “Do better!” It is not helpful to shame, scold, or shun those still turning issues over in their minds. We do not get to set the deadline for another person’s evolution. Questions and even disagreement do not (necessarily) equal hate.

I want more compassion, more understanding that we’re on individual journeys. If the goal truly is progress, there is no triumph in ganging up to ridicule, unfriend, or block—screen-grabbing to publicly shame someone because they do not immediately accept “what is” without question. Do we really want progress? Or just praise and agreement?

“Fight.” “Take action.” “Resist.” The internet is a cacophony of panicky commands these days. Trump won and he’s doing everything he said he would and more. We could have resisted the Trump agenda by voting unanimously for Hillary Rodham Clinton but we did not. (Our first woman president. We were told over and over that it wasn’t important, because she was imperfect. But it did matter. Losing that opportunity hurt us terribly. I know we are hurting. I know it is pain behind much of this rage.) The worst happened, although we saw it coming for a year or more. Now even those progressives who lazily criticized Hillary because they assumed she had it in the bag have snapped to attention. Now no one is doing enough, if they’re doing less than us.

The squeaky wheels always get their grease. As always, I’m more interested in the ones waving, trying not to drown. The pressure to DO SOMETHING, FIX THIS has made some people shy about sharing their moments of happiness: love, kids, dogs, food, books. As if happiness equals privilege equals apathy equals you’re part of the problem.


This isn’t how we change the world. It’s certainly not how we make it a happier, kinder place, as we all seem to agree it should be. This is how we alienate, stagnate, even push our allies further from where we wish they were. It is an aggressive, dictatorial approach, and I see it coming from feminists, progressives. People quick to identify themselves as “kind.” This does not feel kind.

Breathe, and remind me to breathe too. Listen. Engage, discuss. Let’s listen more than we speak. Assume the best of those who are trying. This is how we can do better.


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.