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.”

A few summers back a friend brought me over to Susan Branch’s house for tea. Margot insisted that Susan and I were kindred spirits and had to meet. At the time, I was only vaguely familiar with Susan and her artistry. The moment we met I knew Margot was right. Susan was warm and welcoming. I felt like I had known her forever. Her house oozed charm right down to her mustached cat, Jack. I have since became a huge fan of hers. I can’t believe she wasn’t on my radar sooner. Her memoirs, The Fairy Tale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard – Isle of Dreams, have become two of my all time favorite reads. They reveal a woman’s search to uncover her inner light.

In her writing, Susan speaks to her readers like old friends. Her cookbooks, calendars, and memoirs are gorgeously illustrated and filled with inspiring quotations. They are a vacation for the mind. At last count, her blog has over 56,000 followers. Susan is a woman of heart and intellect. She doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. I suspect this quality only makes her followers, or girlfriends as she likes to call them, love her more. 

Susan’s 2015 memoir, The Fairytale Girl begins in her 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 it’s perks. Susan was able to turn homemaking into an art and honed her skills as a watercolorist, but in the end, it left her empty. All that centering around her husband meant that Susan had no life of her own, but 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 turned out to be an introduction to herself when, within the first week of her visit, she “accidentally” bought a tiny house in the woods. She decided that the days of someone setting the tone for her life were over. “For better or for worse,” laughs Susan. 

Susan soon realized that watching the news and soap operas were 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.”

The sudden, “follow-your-heart” decision to move herself 3000 miles away from friends and family, to an island off the coast of Massachusetts left her plenty of time to ponder where she should go from there. 

“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 the 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.” Which led Susan to her next question, where was “within?”

Taking a six week course on meditation taught Susan how to live from her own center, “I learned that, for me, the key to making my dreams come true – the one that opened the door to the gift of ‘within’ – was meditation.”

Aways one who needed to be surrounded by beauty, 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 such a cheerful thing 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 nine calendars and 13 books.

After 20 years of working together Susan and her publisher parted ways. Little, Brown and Company had been successful with her cookbooks and had the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” philosophy. Susan wished to “Branch out” and to try writing something different. She longed to tell a story in the style of her handwritten diaries. To Susan, the split felt a lot like starting over. “I feel blessed and honored to have had those years with Little Brown, a foundation on which to make a new beginning.” 

Leaving Little Brown was the impetus for Susan to 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, and publishing my own books gave me all those choices. It also provided lots of new challenges, dealing with printers, shipping, promotion, and distribution. A constant education ~ you never stop learning.” 

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After The Fairy Tale Girl came out, Susan went on to publish its sequel the next year. She wrote Martha’s Vineyard Isle of Dreams to help others transcend loss and believe in their dreams. “It was about finding your heart, finding your passion, and finding what you are meant to do in life.” Hope lives in its pages. Today Susan spends her time at her art table in her house on Martha’s Vineyard painting and writing a new diary book, called Enchanted. She adds with a laugh, “The beat goes on.”

Mapping out a plan of how to make a living using her talents was something Susan never did. Her career was a byproduct of living from her center. When Susan found her heart, her life’s work found her, “Everyone thinks it’s just them having a hard time realizing their dreams. Realizing your dreams is not about the dreamworld at all. Realizing your dream is about work. It’s like a stapler. A stapler is not going to work until you slam down on it.”

Susan’s best marketing has always been through word of mouth. In fact, that’s how her books where brought to the attention of a Hollywood screenwriter. A script for her memoirs is now being shopped under an exclusive deal. If the world is 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

*I based the above watercolor portrait of Susan on a photograph I took. The only snafu in the process was that after I had completed the art I discovered her hair was no longer brown like it 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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