In the Spotlight: Susan Braley
I met Susan Braley a few years ago at the Metchosin International Summer School for the Arts. She attended my one-week writing intensive, and when she wrote, she would drop – deep – into the zone. I remember her reading one of her writing exercises out loud around our table, and that she transfixed all of us with her use of metaphor. She used language like an alchemist, and we were all transported.
In this piece, you can experience some of her metaphoric spell-casting, too. The tent turns into a traffic cone, the narrator turns into a larva curled up on a leaf, the mussels turn into hinged jewel cases. I love this piece because it's magical and sad: the story is like a love letter. Even in this small excerpt, you get the sense that the "you" in the story probably won't get to read it.
Susan Braley lives in Victoria, BC, where she writes fiction and poetry. Her short fiction and poems have been published in journals such as Room, the Harpweaver, Island Writer, Canadian Woman Studies, and Arc Poetry Magazine, and in anthologies such as Walk Myself Home and Madwoman in the Academy. She recently completed a novel, Falling Home, which challenges definitions of home in personal, cultural and virtual settings.
Handwriting or computer?
I handwrite in my journal to explore ideas and images that cross my mind; unexpected story lines and characters often surface, especially if I let my thoughts run freely. Then I work with this unfiltered but promising material at the computer – like narrowing floodwaters into a banked but still rushing stream.
Page count or time count?
When I want a measure of how I’m doing, I look at the number of pages more than the number of minutes or hours. The pages tell me whether I have let go of the characters enough to allow them to discover their next move or relationship. The most gratifying thing to notice about the time is that hours have gone by without my realizing. Then I know I have been fully present in the writing.
First drafts or revision?
I used to dread revision – I saw it as a measure of how drastically I had missed the mark when I wrote my story. Now, with practice, I have come to recognize that the first draft is play and experimentation (which makes it fun, if you let it); revision is about amplifying and synthesizing – not correcting – what you discovered in the first draft.
Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?
I need a great deal of time alone in my study when I am writing fiction. However, after some hours or days of being solitary, I like to seek out a writing friend who empathizes with the process of creating – its droughts, deadlines, and dramatic breakthroughs. We read each other’s writing sometimes, but more with the intention of encouraging and supporting the project than critiquing in detail. Attending literary events and chatting with other authors about the headaches and joys of writing has also been encouraging – these authors know exactly what I am talking about.
Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?
I am lucky to have a quiet space to write; if noise (the leaf blower!) does intrude, I have earplugs ready. My writing time is an extension of my meditation practice; stillness often leads me to the well of ideas.
How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?
Writing is my work right now. I know I am fortunate not to have to balance my creative work with employment. However, it is still a challenge to prioritize writing over the demands of family, the pressure (from within or from others) to volunteer for worthy causes, and the draw of pleasurable activities like reading, playing tennis, or socializing.
I make time for writing by establishing a regular writing time several days a week, and I choose the time when my mind, body and spirit are in the best mood to create – mornings. I have asked my partner to respect my need for this time alone, and he does. I often take a snack and a drink to my study, so that if the writing is flowing, I can work through lunch and into the afternoon. If the writing does not flow, I try to spend the morning in my writing space anyway, perhaps shifting from a new story that has bogged down to editing a draft of another story or reading a writer on writing. I’m beginning a new novel right now, and in the moments where doubt becomes a deluge, I have turned to Jack Hodgins’ book A Passion for Narrative. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is always settling, too.
I used to worry about not writing when I was away from my desk, but I have gradually trained myself to believe that my writing is with me wherever I go. It’s true, literally, if I take my writing journal with me and keep composing and freewriting, as I try to do on trips. It’s also true when I take a break from writing to go on a fitness walk or to buy groceries: stories and sentences keep percolating in “the back brain,” as my poet-friend says, and fresh ideas present themselves when I’m not trying to find them.
When I find writing a slog and wonder why I do it, I take a day away from words, go to an art gallery, bake something that smells really good (cinnamon-walnut cookies), or go to a movie. Recently I saw Take This Waltz, a film written and directed by Sarah Polley, and I wanted to sprint from the theatre to my desk, I was that inspired by the images on the screen.
What's the best advice you would give a new writer?
When I first starting writing, my goal was to be published and develop a public profile as a writer. I learned quickly that I had set my sights painfully high, given everything I had to learn as a writer and the current upheavals in the publishing industry. But that wasn’t all: as some wise and seasoned writers taught me, writing is about more than getting published. Now, my writing is about discovering a new consciousness, one that I want to inhabit. I want to explore my capacity to reflect, to create, to become. Anne Lamott concludes Bird by Bird by saying: “To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business . . . of being a writer, is ultimately asking yourself . . . how alive am I willing to be?”
Tell us about the excerpt you’re sharing today.
I grew up with eight siblings. Inevitably, we competed with each other for the last pork cutlet, the hot water in the shower, and time alone with our parents. We all survived the struggle, and are probably stronger because of it. Out of this formative dynamic emerged an idea for a collection of stories I am developing: what is jealousy, and what shapes does it take in relationships, inside and outside the family? The research on jealousy is intriguing; for example, I learned jealousy is unlike envy: a jealous person worries that someone will take what she believes belongs to her, whereas an envious person wants to sabotage what another person has, even if he doesn’t want it. More importantly, if you turn jealousy inside out, you find longing. Such rich, complex terrain for stories!
Excerpt from Fragile Vessel, by Susan Braley
(Chosen as runner-up in the 2012 BC Federation of Writers Literary Writes Contest and published in Wordworks, Winter, 2012-13)
Out our townhouse window, the horizon a tow rope for the sun. Jasmine and Ria not up yet. I pulled on my jeans and slipped away to find your tent, a traffic cone in the gray-green fir trees behind the subdivision. I was still shivery from last night; I missed your crescent-warmth against my back, your hand cradling my left breast. It wasn’t my friends, you’d said, when you hauled your gear up from the basement. But you wouldn’t say what it was. It made sense for them to stay over – the flight left early, and our place was closest to the airport. You wanted to come with me, keep me company in my free time. I’d said no. I’d been waiting for time without you, time when you didn’t turn off my cell phone, when you didn’t pester me to go for a paddle in the cold, when you didn’t put your arms around me and say “So?”
You were warm in your suede vest when I unzipped the sleeping bag. Your birthmark a tiny hand just above the waist of your boxers. This time it was me curling up to your back, like a larva on a leaf.
“Meme.” You had folded your arms in an X over your chest, but you squeezed my hands when they found yours.
“You’ll be glad when I’m back?”
“I’ll take you bungee jumping just like you’ve always wanted.”
You smelled like pot. You only smoked up when you were upset.
“Hug Random for me.” I’d put our husky in the basement after he’d jumped up on Jasmine’s silk shirt. You’d brought him home on impulse one day . . . .
At the conference, I pushed hard to get new clients, smiled at their humid faces through happy hour, served up clever sound bites in question periods. I thought of you when I could, alone in our bed, or were you in your tent? You hadn’t been away for a night since we’d known each other. Once you’d paddled home in the dark from a friend’s cabin so we could sleep together. When the conference ended, Ria and I went out to a club – to celebrate my three new contracts – but I didn’t wear the dress with the cutout back. You liked when I wore dresses, especially the cranberry one with the full skirt, although you didn’t want me to lead when we danced at other people’s weddings. I had to lead sometimes: you took short-term jobs so you could go hiking in between, you fixed people’s bikes for nothing. It was because of me that we could buy a townhouse close to the bay. Not that the payments kept you from taking time off when Random limped home after a fight.
When I got back, the kitchen was warm, like bread from the oven, and so were you, your skin still radiating the shower’s heat and the scent of juniper soap. You’d gathered mussels for dinner, scraped away the wiry hairs from their tight-lipped edges. You chopped herbs for the sauce, and I rinsed the shells under the tap, careful not to crack them. I let them slip through my fingers, ink-black, iridescent, like exotic eggs, the kind that, in stories, hinge open to reveal jewels inside. I felt sorry for the mussels when you scooped them out of the steam, their mouths like newborn birds'. Later, when we made love, I smelled garlic on your fingertips. We didn’t talk about the conference.
Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.
What remains with you after reading Susan's work?
Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?
How is your own writing practice like Susan's? How is it different?
Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Susan!