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To Write or Not to Write: Is That The Question?

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If you’ve got to  if after trying to
give it up (Like smoking or Nembutal)

Photo: NY Magazine

Photo: NY Magazine

if after swearing to  shut it up   it keeps on
yakking (that voice in your head)…
o then   consider yourself doomed to.

–from Bitter Pills for the Dark Ladies  by Erica Jong (Photo)

You can probably predict the tone at least of what I’m about to say. Actually, I haven’t thought it out, and I’m writing directly onto WordPress (I usually write on my computer first before posting). It was only a few weeks ago, maybe two months, that I posted a complaint about not having the bandwidth to write–and now, a short time later, I’m trying to stop myself from blogging. With good reason: I can sometimes spend an entire morning, 3-4 hours, blogging, at which I make zero money. Nada. Zilch. I’ve tried, oh, I have, every so often I have a fit and try to figure out how to, as they say, monetize my blog (a recently invented word, one I actually like). I tried linking to products on Amazon and lingerie shops, putting up ads for baseball posters (only to have them removed by WordPress), begging my readers for handouts/donations, and anything else anyone suggested. I had a long talk once with Susie Bright, who figured it out for herself after a couple of false starts. Sometimes I think there are people destined to make money and others who aren’t; I certainly seem to be one of the latter.


Anyhow, that’s why I’m trying to squelch my blogging urges, and using the time to look for writing gigs online. Applying for them uses up about the same amount of time–especially since I’d been getting work without having to look for over a year, during which I hadn’t been keeping up with the job search variables. I’ve had to update my publications list and my resume (being sure to put the tildes into that word in cover letters, like so: résumé). I’ve had to readjust to inevitable changes in format and rules on the job sites I use, spiff up my profiles, and look up old passwords. Some days it takes all morning to apply for one gig–which is okay, since there isn’t more than one a day worth applying to.

Moneyhouse$$Being a writer and having the chutzpah to try and make a living at it was always hard, but these days we’re in transition mode, moving away from print and online instead. This has created quite a bit of chaos, at least for serious writers. Making a living at this is even harder than it was before. Articles I used to get paid $100 for from a venue like, say, the SF Bay Guardian, are what online moguls want to pay $10 for now. I kid you not. Okay, maybe they don’t want them to be as long as print articles–but so what? It always took me longer to cut than to write, since I frequently go over word count; it’s easier to be verbose than precise. I do the same amount of research, thinking, interviewing, and fact checking for a 300-word story as for one that’s a thousand words. And we used to complain about the Guardian’s rates, or any venue like it–local,

The New Yorker

The New Yorker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

alternative, progressive–as compared to the 3-5 bucks a word the New Yorker or Vogue pays. The online moguls from India and Japan–and the States too–wanna pay me ten! No thanks. I’d rather blog, so I can write whatever I feel like, with nobody telling me what I can and can’t say.

I’m going off track now. The point is, I cannot and should not spend so much time blogging, and I intend to do less of it. I won’t entirely succeed–see Jong’s poem and other writers’ testimonials; take a look at my list of Writers Quotes. But I will be blogging less.

If anyone cares–I’m sorry, readers, but these are the facts of life as we know it in America on Earth 2013.


For all Writers and Wanna-Be’s

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Susie Bright in Tiara, 2007. Cropped and enhan...

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but Susie Bright has written two make-believe letters that all writers will love and all wanna-be writers should learn from. Read them.

Big Sex Little Death: Review

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Susie with Cocktails at Bruno's in the Mish

Big Sex Little Death
A Memoir by Susie Bright
Seal Press  2011

I wasn’t certain I’d review Big Sex Little Death, Susie Bright’s long-awaited memoir, since I’m too close to some of the material to be purely objective — but as it turns out, I just can’t stop myself.


Full Disclosure: Susie Bright was one of the first people I met when I came West from New York some 25 years ago, and one of my first acts as a San Franciscan was to submit my sex stories to her Herotica collection. Shortly afterwards, I joined the On Our Backs staff as Susie’s assistant, a year later became their fiction editor, and, finally, was second successor to the editorial throne. Shadowing Susie didn’t end at OOB: I assumed editorship of Herotica with the #4 volume, when Susie moved on to more lucrative projects. I told her I  seemed to be following in her footsteps; she replied with her radiant million-dollar grin, “I’ll just keep warming up the chair for you.”


That charm and generosity are quintessential Susie, and they permeate Big Sex Little Death, her journey from childhood to teen socialist to feminist to sexual activist and public figure. I was familiar with much of this history, but seeing it all together in one place, I recognized, for the first time, how much Susie and I have in common, beginning with abusive mothers who lost their own mothers at an early age. Being a “motherless daughter,” I’ve recently learned, can affect a woman more profoundly than any other aspect of her life; it particularly influences the kind of mother she becomes. My mother was emotionally abusive; Susie’s was mentally ill (apparently undiagnosed), and  physically abusive:

She pinched the top of my arm and dragged me out the door. I remember her grip on my arm—and her disgust at my blubbering. I was pathetic, I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I could see in her eyes how loathsome I’d become.

All this because Susie missed her cat, which her mother had unceremoniously abandoned.

I know all about that look in a mother’s eyes; that Susie was on the receiving end of it makes it that much more astonishing that she grew to become such a strong powerful woman. Lest anyone foolishly credit such experiences with helping to radicalize a person, it was not her mother’s abuse but her father’s love and support that pushed Susie forward. He stood proudly behind his teenage socialist firebrand, and he welcomed her home when the fires went out. Both parents – Mommy dearest was not all bad – were “braniacs; they were language, poetry and music fiends; they took enormous pleasure in big ideas and the power of word. They were literary sensualists.” Not a bad heritage for a feminist leader.

Susie took a dollop of this and a plateful of that from her parents. She incorporated socialist ideas into feminism – and took feminism even further, insisting that female-centered sexual representation and expression were its logical extension.

I wish she’d probed a little bit deeper into her life as an active Socialist. As her one-time editor, if she had asked for my opinion I would’ve urged her in that direction. Some of her anecdotes of life among the Commies aren’t reflective enough to satisfy, and while I loved what I read, I wanted more.

One of the major differences between Susie’s journey and mine is timing: I was a young mother when I first became, as I see it, conscious — while Susie seems to have been highly conscious from birth. I don’t know of many teenagers who can be as confident as Susie seems to have been in her beliefs, especially since they ran against received opinion.

The first time she stands up for women and their bodies is, appropriately, the day she first bleeds. Late returning to school after lunch, sent to the principal’s office, Susie marches right in “like a mad bear,” protesting, “This is not right…My period just started at noon, and I had to figure out the Tampax all by myself….and you can’t discriminate against me just because I’m menstruating…” The mortified principal nearly passed out and practically begged her to leave his office, showing her the power of her sexuality in one fell swoop. She has continued to confront sexual ignorance and patriarchal privilege ever since.

Although I ate up the first two sections of the book, I was, naturally, in something of a hurry to get to the part about OOB. Reading Susie’s account of each incident, from the founding of the magazine to its change in ownership, I kept receiving little shocks of recognition with every turned page. If this was a comic book, light bulbs would be hanging over my head, popping off in every panel, so faithful is Susie to what happened, at least as I remember it. For those who weren’t  close to the scene, I direct you to the book. It’s a helluva story; maybe someday I’ll have enough distance to write more about it myself.

Big Sex ends on a positive note – the day that Susie and Jon and baby Aretha move to Santa Cruz to begin family life anew. That too I remembered….then I eagerly turned the page…and was confronted with a page headlined “NOTES.” I could not believe I’d reached the end! And more than 15 long years ago!

Now,  I have been waiting since the day Aretha popped out of Susie’s belly to see what kind of American girl/child/woman Susie Bright’s daughter would become. As a mother who feels that I fucked up the sex education along with everything else, I was dying to see how Susie did with the hardest job on the planet. Unfortunately, a veil descended and I didn’t find out.

Susie has a right to put in or leave out whatever she wants from her memoir – but as a reader, and as her friend, (and as an editor) I wanted more. I especially want to know what happened in the years since the time of this book’s ending. I want to know about her mothering: how did being raised in an atmosphere of, or at least lip service to, sexual freedom affect Aretha and her attitudes? What about their relationship? My daughter is still angry about some of my sexual openness; what’s the story with Susie’s? More than most people, I understand the delicacy of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the desire not to violate a child’s privacy – but surely some of Susie’s story can be told without inflicting damage. This is not just idle curiosity, either: I honestly believe that Susie has something important to contribute to  this other area of female experience that’s been historically shrouded in darkness.

Because of this and a few more minor gaps, it doesn’t feel like Susie’s story has been fully told. Then again, nobody’s story is ever fully told, is it? Still, Susie has a lot more livin’ to do: I’m looking forward to a sequel.


Fall. My favorite time of year, the most beautiful, refreshing season, full of wonderful smells and sights and memories. Fall signifies Beginnings – ironic, considering it’s the beginning of the end of the year, when the leaves and the grass die, some animals go into hibernation,  and people face, metaphorically if not actually, a slowing-down in life.

Hawk on friend’s balcony in NYC. Photo: Joan Max

Two major events insinuate themselves into this enchanting time of year to predominate the national consciousness: the World Series (or football for those of a different persuasion I suppose) and elections. As a child I conflated the two, somehow connecting the competition between Dodgers vs Yankees and Democrats vs. Republicans. I hate to admit it, but I think I equated the Yankees with the party of Grampa Ike, the paterfamilias of the 1950’s.

This time around I’m a lot older and hopefully a bit wiser. I’ve learned to accept the loss by my hometown Yankees and rejoice in the rise of my adopted city’s Giants. Can I learn to accept ex-witches and anti-masturbationists as the new lawmakers? Are these clowns any crazier than the others? The answers are No, and Yes. Can you imagine a Congress in which a law against masturbation is seriously debated? Actually, I’d love to turn on my tv to find Susie Bright and Carol Queen heading up a panel of experts who’d explain to the red-faced Senators why masturbation is beneficial to the masses. Can you picture it? This is one of those times I wish I were a visual artist.

Then there’s Halloween. I wish I had the energy and wherewithal to dress up, but I haven’t done it in decades. Once you have kids, the creativity of costumery goes into theirs, and  it shifts your direction so that you stop dressing up yourself, even after they’re grown. At least that’s what happened to me – and I had kids at 19. When they were 2 and 4, I dressed all three of us up as hippies, a shocking concept to our  suburban neighbors. A year later I actually was a hippie – so were the kids, by default – but that’s another story.

Today I’m going over to Piedmont Avenue to watch the little munchkins parade up and down the street in their costumes. I wondered why they’re doing it today rather than tomorrow, the real holiday; my son says it’s so the little ones can avoid the older kids with their pranks, whipped cream, and even, in our neck of the woods, guns. It’s more likely Christianity’s influence: can’t get dressed as witches and devils on a Sunday morning. In any case, I love seeing the little fairies and ghosts stumbling down the street, confused, clutching their plastic pumpkins full of candy. Candy. Obesity. Is nothing purely joyful anymore?

The Giants are, and so is San Francisco. In SF any excuse for a party will do, and on Thursday night, when I went into the City to watch the game in a bar near the ballpark, they were out  in full force, wearing Giants regalia, beards and “Fear the Beard” t-shirts, with orange orange everywhere. Too bad they had to take their orange and black uniforms to Texas for Halloween, but I’m sure the locals will carry on regardless. It was a blast watching the game with a roomful of strangers, bonding for a few hours in a common goal. It helped that the Giants kept slugging the ball, racking up nine runs to the Rangers’ zero. I cannot for the life of me figure out how these bozos beat the Yankees. (I’ll bet they – the Yanks – are watching and thinking the same. Shame on them!) I love it when the camera closes in on Nolan Ryan’s unhappy face, though I don’t like seeing Ron Washington go down. Better yet are the faces of the SF players themselves, who can hardly believe what they’re doing. I always said that once they got the weight of Barry Bonds off their backs they’d take off.

As for the elections, I cannot remember a more annoying, intrusive, pointless campaign season. I groan whenever I open my mailbox and imagine the number of trees felled to create the latest batch of junk. My phone’s going to break from my childish slamming down on robo calls. With all this relentless harassment, there’s little real information, and I still don’t understand what’s up with Oakland’s mayoral race. I’m not looking forward to Monday, when I’ll finally sit down and read the pile of election books I’ve gotten to figure out WTF I’m voting for. Or against. Our political system is rapidly devolving, and I’m afraid nothing will save it but a complete overhaul. Nonetheless, it still behooves us to…

Shorthand Makes a Comeback

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During my second semester of community college I took a class in shorthand and typing as an elective. Of all the courses I took throughout high school and college, this is probably the only one that’s earned its keep.

I hadn’t intended to become a secretary – I had no future plans, something, I’ve since learned, that can be hazardous to your health. My fate took a sharp turn when the teacher handed out our first sheet of Gregg shorthand symbols and their meanings: it was love at first sight. I was entirely intrigued by these squiggly lines and curves, and the more I learned, the deeper in love I fell. Eventually I could take dictation at a whopping 130 wpm. When I transcribed the symbols into English prose, I felt a thrill of accomplishment, as if I’d cracked some arcane code. In fact, that is precisely what shorthand is – an arcane code – and translating it requires the same skill set used by any cryptologist. Of course, shorthand was never as respected as cryptology – but what do you expect? It was “women’s work.”

Barely 18, I left academia, propelled by my passion for shorthand, and hit the Manhattan pavement. Within a few hours I landed a job in the Advertising Department of U.S.News & World Report for $77.00 a week. I still remember the names of the two men I worked for, and their initials, which I typed at the tail end of every letter, like so: CFR/ms and PEH/ms. The first thing each of them taught me was how to prepare their respective morning coffees.

And that’s pretty much the way it went: I brought them coffee, answered their phones, and typed sheets of tedious ad statistics. Except for the sex, of which there was none, the secretarial life was the way it’s portrayed on Mad Men — so accurately, I can’t bear to watch the show. Perhaps three times a week one of my guys would call me in and “dictate” a bunch of correspondence (we secretaries privately riffed on the phrase taking dictation.) But they thought and spoke so slowly I never got to fly at my previous breakneck speed, and soon dropped to 90 wpm.

I proceeded from USN&WR to the typical zig-zag employment life of a writer-mother, diving in and out of the steno pool dozens of times. I witnessed the sad decline of shorthand, replaced first by the tape recorder and later by technology, concurrent with our women’s revolution. Both all but wiped out the need for secretaries: now everyone can type.  I’m glad we’ve dispensed with the horrific power dynamic of boss/secretary – but much has been lost along the way. Back in the day, for instance, a woman with secretarial skills could move to any city in America (or any country, if she spoke the language) and within two days have a respectable, self-supporting job. Now she has to know seventeen different kinds of software.

When I graduated from secretary to journalist, I revived my shorthand skills – I’m one of the few reporters who doesn’t use a tape recorder during interviews. When I worked at On Our Backs as Susie Bright’s assistant, she asked about the scribbles in my notebook, so I gave a demonstration to impress her. Apparently it did: she never forgot I take shorthand, and last week sent me an email with the URL to a story about a woman in Colorado who transcribes shorthand for a sizeable clientele.

So now, in addition to typing, writing, editing, and proofreading – anything word-related – I am offering transcription services (see my complete list of services on BookBuster, my biz blog).  I’m still waiting for the rush of clients, so spread the word.

Shorthand Lives! Vive Le Shorthand!