Susan Branch: Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention

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Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They’re not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live by their inner light.moth_edited-2

“Believing in myself was probably the hardest thing I ever had to learn to do.”

I was first introduced to Susan Branch’s art through a mutual friend. Margot had told me more than once that we had to meet. We were kindred spirits. After I began reading Susan’s memoirs and blog I was ready for Margot to make that happen. Learning about Susan’s world made me want to be a part of it.

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In her posts and memoirs, Susan shares musings, watercolors, and photographs of her life. I had become so familiar with her surroundings that pulling up to her house sparked a feeling of déjà vu in me. No need to introduce me to her partner, Joe. I felt like we had already met. My eyes soaked in every detail of her mid 19th century home. With a flash of recognition I saw her beloved Beatrix Potter figurines on her windowsill. Through that same window I could see the white picket fenced garden Joe had built for her. When I came upon her mustached cat, Jack, I knew for certain that her blog isn’t staged. It’s her living diary.

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Susan speaks to her followers (or girlfriends as she calls them) like old friends. She loves people but admits to being an introvert. “The worst thing that can happen to me is going to the grocery store and having to make small talk with people.”  Yet she has no problem bearing her soul to the 56,000 (at last count) subscribers who follow her blog.

Her books, calendars, and blog are filled with watercolors and inspiring quotations. They are a step back into a simpler time. Susan tends to look on the sunny side of life. At the same time she doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. I suspect this quality only makes her readers love her more. Her most recent memoirs The Fairytale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams have become two of my all time favorite reads. They follow Susan’s quest to find her light and shine.

The Fairytale Girl begins with Susan’s childhood and ends with the break up of her marriage in the 1980’s. Like many women of the time, she had hitched her wagon to a husband. Being a stay-at-home wife did have its perks. Susan was able to turn homemaking into an art while honing her skills as a watercolorist. But in the end, it left her empty. All that centering around a man meant Susan had no life of her own. Leaving the marriage meant she had no way to support herself. “I was so confused because I thought I had done everything right. I mean I was married and supposed to live happily ever after. And then suddenly I find myself in the situation were I had absolutely no control over my life. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

With money from her divorce, Susan decided to go for a three-month stay on Martha’s Vineyard. She loved the island and needed time to reflect. What she thought was a hiatus to nurse her wounds ended up becoming a permanent home. She was determined that the days of someone setting the tone for her life were over. 

The decision to start over was the beginning of Susan’s introduction to herself. She now had plenty of time to explore who she was and where she was going. She soon realized that watching the news and soap operas was effecting her outlook. “One day I said, ‘You know I am feeding myself a steady diet of bad news. I’m turning it all off. The only news I’m going to listen to is what comes through my own open windows.’” That resolution left Susan even more time to discover who she was.

”So many times I’ve been asked, ‘what are you going to do with your life? Who are you going to be?’ I had no idea, and these questions tortured me. I read everything trying to find the answers. I wished I could find a nice short book called, The Secrets of Life. I kept asking, ‘Where is it?  Someone must have written it down. Like first you do this, then you do that, and voila!’ I never found that book but my search included lots of biographies about successful people and I started reading quote books like novels. They were filled with distilled genius. I was putting two and two together. It was all there. For one thing, you should never give up. And for another, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, we already have the power within.” 

Susan learned to connect to that power by taking a course on meditation,“For me, that practice is what opened the door to the gift of ‘within.’”

Next Susan began putting her energies into making her little house a home. “Just the tiniest thing, like putting a couple of flowers in a jar is so cheerful to see on your windowsill. It gave me a sense of having control of my life. I may not have been able to do a thing about the outside, but I had complete control on the inside.”

Susan now had the time to hatch a long held dream. She began filling her hours with writing and illustrating a cookbook. Combining her love of cooking and watercoloring was a natural progression. Once completed, she gathered her courage and submitted the manuscript to Little, Brown and Company in Boston. She was floored when they wanted to publish it. She had an exclusive contract with them from 1986 until 2006. During that time, Susan created thirteen books.

After 20 years of working together, Susan and her publisher parted ways. Little, Brown and Company had been successful with her cookbooks and weren’t open to trying anything different. Susan longed to create a book in the style of her handwritten diaries. Leaving Little Brown gave her the opportunity to “Branch out” and self-publish. 

“Making a book is like making a Christmas present. You want it to be wonderful. Now I could write what I liked. I could use the paper I wanted to use. I could give it a ribbon bookmark. Starting my own company, Spring Street Publishing, gave me all of those options.” 

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The Fairy Tale Girl came out in 2015 and Susan went on to publish its sequel the following year. She wrote Martha’s Vineyard Isle of Dreams to help others transcend loss and believe in themselves. “It was about finding your heart, finding your passion, and finding what you are meant to do in life.” Hope lives in its pages. 

Susan Branch never had a concrete vision of where her artistry would take her. Her career was a byproduct of living from her center. When she found her heart, her life’s work found her. Her best marketing has always been through word of mouth. In fact, that’s how her books were brought to the attention of a Hollywood screenwriter. A script for her memoirs is now being shopped under an exclusive deal. If the world-weary are lucky the screenplay will soon be made into a movie or television series. Susan’s sphere is the perfect antidote for the harshness of life.

Go. Be. Love. The world needs you. – Susan Branch

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*Today Susan spends her time at her art table in her house on Martha’s Vineyard. She is painting and writing a new diary book, called Enchanted.

**My watercolor portrait of her is based on a photograph I took when we first met. After completing the art I discovered her hair was no longer brown like it had been in the photo. Susan Branch had decided to let it go gray. No point in not being who you are. 

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*Coming up next: Profile of singer/songwriter, Rodney Crowell

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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We Burn Brighter Together

Angels with one wing

Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they are always there. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I just returned from our annual week’s stay on Martha’s Vineyard. Since 1997, my family has vacationed together there. Early on, my sister discovered painter Margot Datz lived on the island. She’s illustrated most of Carly Simon’s children’s picture books. I was crazy about her work. I made up my mind to track her down and introduce myself, although it took me a couple of years to work up the courage to call her. My resistance came from having placed  her on a “one who has arrived” pedestal. After finally meeting Margot, her warmth and candor assured me she was not above me. We stood eye to eye. I now call her a friend and a more generous one you’ll never find.

Margot Datz on one of my Vineyard visits

This year when I reconnected with Margot she was frantically finishing paintings for her show in August. True to her nature, she dropped her paintbrushes to bring me to tea at her friend, author/illustrator, Susan Branch‘s home. After reading Susan’s memoir, A Fine Romance, I was dying to meet the woman behind that gorgeous book. Margot was delighted to make that happen.

When we pulled up to Susan’s house, a weird déjà vu came over me. In Susan’s blogs and books, she shares musings and observations of her daily life. They are illustrated to perfection with her watercolors and photographs. As she introduced me to her husband, Joe, I had to restrain myself from saying, “We’ve already met,” because we had, in her writings. From reading her posts, I recognized every charming inch of her house, even her cats. Susan’s life, like her heart, is an open book.

Susan's cat Jack

Susan’s cat Jack

The three of us sat around her kitchen table and sipped Susan’s own private blend of delectable tea. We talked about our lives as artists and other things. All three of us agreed to liking intimate gatherings over parties. No chitchat for us. We are of the soul-connection variety. When I confessed that I had no idea I could write before I began blogging, they tittered in unison, “No one does!” Really? So that means that I’m not alone but share a sort of universal creative process. Hmmm. Knowing that comforted me. I am not an oddball. I am an artist.

Susan Branch in her studio

Susan Branch in her studio

He who lights his candle from mine, receives light without darkening me. ~ Thomas Jefferson

In my youth, I felt quite competitive toward professional creatives who, as I saw it, were living my dream. I was beneath them always grasping for what was out of my reach. I viewed the world as having only so many openings to be filled by people in the arts. If others arrived, that meant there was less of a chance that I could. The only way to find success was to somehow maneuver around them and snatch their light.

Thank goodness for the beneficent women who’ve shown up and taught me different. They’ve encouraged me and believed in me. Unthreatened, they’ve made it their business to help figure out a way for me to market my gifts to the world. Forging a friendship with Margot left me with the awareness that no one makes it alone. Bringing your heart’s desire to fruition is never a solitary act. It hadn’t occurred to me someone would actually allow me to light my candle from there’s. Wouldn’t I be stealing their flame? No, the truth of the matter is together we burn brighter.

Margot’s book, “A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids” with it’s sage observations is the perfect gift for any of your sister-friends.

 

Susan's "A Fine Romance" is a work of art, part love story, part travel guide. Not to be missed by anyone who yearns to tour England.

Susan’s “A Fine Romance” is a work of art, part love story, part travel guide. Not to be missed by anyone who yearns to tour England.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com