Susan Gabriel: One Writer’s Heroic Journey
Susan Gabriel is an award-winning author of a seven novels and a Kirkus Best Book Award 2012. In the month of August, The Heroic Journal takes a look at her personal heroic journey and a bit about the characters which keep us riveted to the stories.
As one of my favorite authors, Gabriel’s books capture the attention of the reader from the first page. Whether the story is of someone going through powerful rites of passage to see the impact our decisions have on the lives of others, or finding our way in life when the challenges have been painful, these novels not only entertain, but also inspire and teach us about our own journeys as well.
Join The Heroic Journal in welcoming Susan Gabriel’s featuring her own story of what inspires her, how she found her way from being a psychotherapist to highly acclaimed author:
Missy Bradley-Ball: You have been a musician, a psychotherapist and an award winning writer of many books I have not wanted to end. If you were describing yourself as you would one of your characters, just who is Susan Gabriel?
Susan Gabriel: I consider myself a resilient person with a deep and rich inner life. A person who tries to follow my creative process and then give something back to others. When I was young, life had some rough elements, and music saved me. Playing music (as a flutist) gave me something to feel passionate about and to spend my time developing. Music sustained me through quite a few years. I even majored in music when I first went to college.
Then after having two daughters, I became more and more passionate about women’s issues. I created a nonprofit Women’s Center in Charleston, SC, where I was the executive director and head counselor, before transitioning into a private practice, where I continued to counsel women and lead support groups.
Twenty years ago my passion shifted to writing stories, mostly novels, about people who go through rough times, yet are resilient and courageous as they solve their conflicts.
So I guess you could say I am someone who tries to follow wherever my creative energy leads. I am always in the process of carving out time to be creative in the midst of a very busy life, even in the early years while raising my daughters as a single mom. I can’t say my life has been that easy, but without an ongoing creative discipline and the pursuit of an inner life, I’m not sure where I’d be. Being creative, at this point, seems as necessary to me as breathing.
Missy: When and how did you begin to get the call as a writer? Can you take us through your process of owning the writer self?
Susan: I was sitting in my office between therapy clients and the thought went through my mind: you know, I could die doing this, and there would be a lot of people at my funeral, I might even be beloved, but I would have never done what I most needed to do, which is to write.
That ‘calling’ turned my life totally upside down. I knew that if I continued to be a therapist that that was how that particular storyline would play out. I also knew that there was another story waiting for me that I needed to live. So I began the long and absolutely terrifying process of living into a new story. I moved from Charleston (where I had a good therapy practice) to Asheville, NC (where I was totally unknown) and began to write. There was some overlap. I still saw clients for a while, but then I started doing different odd jobs, whatever I could find that would allow me to write in the mornings. I was a cookie cutter for designer dog biscuits. I worked at Lowe’s for a while. I was a first grade reading tutor. A typist, etc. I downsized my life. I put my daughters first, but I wrote while they were in school. It was like that saying where you jump off a cliff and build wings on the way down.
Believe me, I asked myself plenty of times: what were you thinking?!? I was so naive, and I had no idea what I was doing. But for me, it was the only way to do it.
Missy: When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a librarian, teacher and spy and now I am a psychotherapist/clinical educator with a great library. What were your adult dreams as a little girl?
Susan: I was very athletic and played a lot of golf with my father, so I wanted to be a professional golfer. My family didn’t have a lot of books when I was growing up, and sitting around reading was tantamount to being lazy. My parents were both incredibly hard-working, regular folks who were raised in a small mountain community like the fictitious Katy’s Ridge in my novel, The Secret Sense of Wildflower. They left the country and moved to the big city of Knoxville to have a better life.
All that to say, I never would have dreamed that I would one day have written 7 novels (even more, if you count the ones not yet published). Or that I would make my living as a writer and have a house full of books. All that came to me later in life. I had always written letters that people loved and had impressed my college professors with my case-studies (very close to developing characters in novels), but I didn’t actually start writing novels until I was 38 years old.
When I was growing up, however, my mother had a set of oil paints, paint brushes, charcoal pencils and sketch pads in a drawer in the kitchen. Artist supplies that as far as I could tell were rarely used. I was absolutely fascinated with this drawer. I would study everything in it like it was a treasure trove. I think my mother would have been artistically creative if her life hadn’t been filled with working full-time, raising a family and keeping my father happy. But somehow this transferred to me as a spark. From her, I think I inherited this possibility or dream of having a creative life. In some ways, I am doing now what my mother never allowed herself to do because it would have been too ‘lazy’ and just too beyond the scope of her upbringing. Though we had a very difficult relationship, I am living the dream for both of us.
Missy: How do you find your own clearing when life is challenging?
Susan: I go out in nature. I take a walk by the river in Pisgah National Forest, which is in the mountains of North Carolina and ten minutes from my home. Whenever I feel lonely all I have to do is go take a walk by the river, and I don’t feel lonely anymore. It works like magic for me. It gets me out of myself and into a bigger world where we’re all connected. Nature is my cure for everything. Sometimes I sit and write while I’m by the river, and this is very clearing, too. If I can’t get out there, or if it’s too cold, then I sit at home and look out my window and watch the birds around the feeders and do some deep breathing and try to settle into my body.
If that doesn’t work, I fantasize about driving to the grocery store and getting donuts, LOTS of donuts, which is the LAST thing I need to do.
Missy: When you are writing a book, do you know the whole arc of the story before you begin?
Susan: I am what out there in the writing world is called an “intuitive writer.” When I write a novel, I don’t use an outline, and I don’t always know where the story is going. My intuition guides me. Some might call it a muse, but I think of it more as a creative part of me. This is one of the most fun parts of my creative process. I start to write and then wait to see what will be revealed.
So with a first draft, I just let myself go with whatever shows up, and I make a pact with myself not to judge or analyze it. Anne Lamott calls this writing a “shitty first draft.” In later drafts I clean it up, move some things around if a scene would be more effective somewhere else. I think of a first draft of a story as the bones, then I flesh out the story. I add sensory details, things that will help the reader really be there in the scene with me.
To expand, in my imagination, I’ll have characters show up and the scenes will start to play out in my mind. Then it’s my job to write it down. Sometimes I’ll know I want to write something funny next, so I’ll kind of have that in mind, but mostly it starts with a character or characters that I want to develop and explore. Or a conflict that I want the character to resolve. Even while I’m following my intuition, I also have a part of me that will know when I need to develop more tension in a particular scene, so I’m following that direction, too. That’s the part of me that has studied the craft of writing for years and knows what it takes to create a good story that will keep the reader turning the pages. The greatest compliment I get about my novels is that people can’t put them down and they stayed up all night to finish them. That’s when I know I did my job as a storyteller, and that’s what I always hope for when I read other people’s novels. I read a lot of novels myself.
Missy: In the heroic journey we find that there is always an antagonist energy….something that threatens to stop, delay or sabotage the journey. What are some examples of that energy in your own life process and how did/do you transcend them?
Susan: Having to make money always threatened to derail me, like it does a lot of people who want to be creative. Artists and writers aren’t really supported in our culture, so many of us have to do a lot of different things to keep everything afloat, in addition to our art. Then there’s the whole concept of time. Where to find the time. Where to find the energy. My antagonist tends to be the part of the patriarchal culture in others and in me that thinks that being creative is a secondary thing. Something we get around to when everything else is finished. But the world is upside down! Everybody I know who finds the time to be creative feels more fulfilled afterward. They feel like better people. They feel more whole. Instead, our lives are so hectic that we settle for crumbs when there is a feast just waiting to be eaten in the next room.
How I transcend these very real issues is that I put my creativity first, even if in the beginning it was for only a few minutes a day. In more recent years I’ve taught writing classes and done freelance editing, in addition to writing. But now that I’ve written several books and gotten some recognition, readers are finding and reading my books more and more. This has resulted in the luxury of focusing exclusively on my writing. A feat that only took me twenty years of writing to accomplish! I am also incredibly fortunate to have a very supportive mate. Our mates (and family members) can sometimes sabotage our journeys faster than anybody, but I’ve been lucky in this regard.
I think any creative pursuit becomes on some level a heroic journey. Once you set off to do whatever creative thing you want to do, the journey very quickly becomes a pursuit of something we hope to be noble while in the midst of great obstacles. Knowing this, and knowing yourself, can help smooth the passage to a more creative life. I often say that I am the talent and the handler all rolled into one. If I didn’t know how to manage my emotional life–my fears, my doubts, my ability to procrastinate and waste a lot of time–I would never write a thing. I’ve spent years learning how to get myself out of the way so I can write what I hope will be something entertaining, as well as meaningful.
Missy: How has writing novels helped you in your own life journey?
Susan: These are all such great questions! I think in many ways the characters I create in my novels are like family. They are people I like to hang around with (except for maybe Iris and Edward in my latest novel, Temple Secrets!). After I release a book and the story is out in the world, I miss the characters because I end up spending years writing a book.
Like I said before, as a girl it never occurred to me that I would become a novelist. Yet now, as I look back on my journey so far, it makes total sense. I’ve been working on and trying to understand my own story for years. In a way, I’ve been developing my own character. So now I create characters and stories that I think will not only entertain readers, but will also help people maybe find their way. Perhaps that’s the counselor in me that is still trying to help out.
A lot of my characters are lost in some way and then find themselves. Sometimes they find themselves transformed. In a way, my mission is to give readers not only a good story but a map for how to live a resilient and courageous life. Maybe I write novels to remind me how to do it, too. I’m always trying to follow the breadcrumbs out of the forest of our modern-day distractions, and I leave breadcrumbs for my readers, too. But then at the end of the story, I make sure that there’s some kind of feast. I want to leave a reader with hope that things will get better, that all is well (at least for now), and that we are not alone.
To find out more about Susan Gabriel, go to Susan Gabriel