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Question of the Month: Failure

by Susan Henderson on June 1, 2016

Tell me about a time in your life that looked like failure and became something positive.

JuneLitParkStevie

I just got back from a trip to Peru, where we slept on a boat at night and hiked through the Amazon by day. I’ll share more about the trip next month, once I’ve sorted through the photos. Our kids are still there, wanting to stay on a few days without parents. It was a phenomenal time, and I love how close my boys are and how much they laugh when they’re together.

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So, the book is done. “Done.” And now it’s going out to my most-trusted readers. But I wanted to talk here about some of the reasons it took me five years to write this book.

 

Reasons one and two are easy. Writing a novel is hard work. There is the effort of emptying that first draft out of your head and heart. Then comes the harder step (for me, anyway) of shaping and deepening the novel and discovering what it really wants to be about.

 

A third reason why the novel took so much time was that my kids were finishing high school, applying to college, and then making that transition. And life comes first.

 

But reason number four is that I ran into a big snag, one I didn’t realize until I was five years and 54 chapters in. It was just before this past Christmas, my boys were due home from college, and I sat in a chair by the tree we’d just decorated with my printed out novel and started to cry. Because it wasn’t going to work. It didn’t need another tough edit (and there were many, believe me). It really, no-kidding-around wasn’t going to work. So I just cried with that hard truth and let it sink in.

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The next day, one boy came home, and then another. It felt unbelievably good to have them close. They asked about the novel, and I told them about its failure—because I think it’s important to share things like that, how you can work hard and still not reach your goal and it sucks and life is still good. Vacation continued with music and fires and walks and home-cooking and teenagers coming in and out of the house.

 

I wasn’t planning to think about the lost novel over winter break, but things churn in the back of your mind when you relax and focus on other things.

 

And what I started to realize is the reason the book hadn’t been working, edit after edit, was because I had two ideas that didn’t belong together, like conjoined twins who were entirely separate beings except that they were mistakenly attached.

 

So, the next day, because I couldn’t help myself, I began to surgically separate the conjoined novels. I scooped the messy cuttings into two separate folders and was happy to leave them there a while without thinking about them further. But one of the novels began to call desperately for me. Because the town and the surviving characters, so grateful not to have a plot thrust upon them, began to tell me the story they wanted to tell.

 

I simply listened and wrote. Sometimes I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up. And four months later, it was done. I saved maybe 30 pages from the original conjoined thing it had been.

 

I’m happy with the story, which was written not from the head but from some subconscious place. I’m a very heady person, so this was new for me.

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Lately, the other half of the conjoined novels has been calling me, but the story doesn’t belong to those gentle characters I had thrust it upon. The second story wants to be told by quite a different team, and I am trying to listen more than steer. I’m not pinning any expectations on what I write or how fast I write it or whether it becomes a novel or something much shorter.

 

Anyway, I feel I’ve emerged from a long journey wiser (and grayer) than when I set out. And now I have two books, not one. I mean sort of. And I have generous, talented, big-hearted people helping. How grateful I am for that!

 

Would love to hear your stories about process or failure or whatever you want to chat about in the comments.

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As always, I’ll close with a list of books I read since my last blog post:

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem

Mary Gaitskill, The Mare

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

Alice Sebold, Lucky: A Memoir

Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares

Edith Pearlman, Honeydew: Stories

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Jim Daniels, Jane McCafferty, Charlee Brodsky, From Milltown to Malltown

Ron Carlson, At the Jim Bridger

David Margolick, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House-Five

Don DeLillo, Underworld

Elana Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

Rob Roberge, Liar: A Memoir

Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories

Toni Morrison, Home

Ruth Ozeki, All over Creation

Lauren Groff, Arcadia

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Larry Levis, The Darkening Trapeze

Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train

Bruce Bauman, Broken Sleep

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

Noon magazine, 2016 issue

 

And a few re-reads:

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Marilynne Robinson, Home

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing”

 

Oh, and one that Mr. H read to me:

Magnus Mills, All Quiet on the Orient Express

 

Let me end with this beautiful piece Dylan Landis brought to my attention: Learn this: you don’t write in competition with others.

{ 29 comments }

Question of the Month: Writing and Living

by Susan Henderson on December 5, 2015

Tell me about your life and where writing fits into it.

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This is a photo of a hatching nest. See the baby praying mantises? My neighbor called me away from my writing one day so we could watch it together. Incredible, isn’t it?

A lot of my neighbors know that, if they want to reach me during the day, I’m either writing in my office or I’m walking, which is my more productive way of thinking through a story.

If they happen to see me out and about, they’ll often ask, How’s the book going? It’s a perfectly sensible question, but I always feel like there’s the answer people want to hear, and then the one I’m going to give them.

What they’re really asking about is the end-product. Is the book done yet? Is it on a shelf in the bookstore?

When you’re a writer, you regularly answer such questions with no and no. Which gives an illusion of failure. Maybe you’re not writing fast enough. Maybe you’re not smart enough. Maybe you don’t work hard enough. Maybe you’re fooling yourself when you say you’re a writer.

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But most of a writer’s work is not about this end result. It’s about the private and often circular process of thinking, scribbling, re-thinking, rearranging, erasing, scribbling again. This process can take months or years or decades, depending on the writer and depending on the work.

My first book took roughly 6 years of thinking and scribbling and revising. For many of us, ideas come in fragments. Or perhaps they seem whole when you get the great idea while you’re shampooing your hair. But when you sit down to explore the idea more fully, it starts to look small, ordinary, dumb. Sometimes that’s enough to ball up the idea and toss it in the trash.

Except some of these unformed ideas nag at you, beg you to dig deeper. You can’t share your ideas at this stage because they’re like soap bubbles, easily punctured. And so you close your door and think and scribble where no one can look over your shoulder and whisper, Are you sure that’s what you want to write about? Don’t you think it’s cliché? Far-fetched? Dumb?

This is my office buddy today. He’s never once called my ideas dumb.

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By the time you accidentally share the idea that you’re working on a book, you may have a first draft. For me, the first draft is only the beginning of a very long journey. There will be many drafts, most of them terrible, but each showing a glimmer of hope—a character who starts to feel real, a puzzle you’re invested in figuring out, some phrasing here and there that reminds you sometimes your writing doesn’t suck. For most of the 6 years I spent working on the first book, I had to tell people, No, I’m not done yet. No, it hasn’t sold yet. 

Over those same 6 years, plenty of life happened. I was not simply thinking and scribbling behind a closed door. Think of how many pairs of shoes a kid can outgrow in that time. Think of all the meals and sick days and vacations together. All the stories shared. How many hairstyles and friends and hobbies may come and go.

My children were short and cuddly when I started the book. Here’s how we all looked then…

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They were much taller when they came to the book launch, rolling their eyes because they were too cool to be there with their mom.

I loved the rolly-eyed version of my kids as much as the cuddly version. :-) But the point is, life happens while you’re writing and you don’t want to miss it.

Measuring a writer’s merit by whether the work is finished is kind like measuring a relationship by whether there was a wedding, or measuring a life by whether there was a birth or a death. Most of who we are and what we do happens in between, in the being.

What I learned in writing and publishing the first book is that you better find ways to enjoy the process because that’s the longest leg of it. Enjoying doesn’t mean that the writing is suddenly easy or without frustration. For me, it means that you’ve chosen a topic, a storyline, a setting, a cast of characters that intrigues you. That you value the process of creating, of being able to go in any direction you choose. That you enjoy the dreaming and digging and puzzling, the search for meaning, for answers, for more questions. Writing, like life, like relationships that matter, isn’t all one singular emotion, doesn’t move in one singular direction; but you commit, you are present, you have chosen to devote your time and your heart.

So this is where I am with book #2: thinking, scribbling, revising. And maybe getting close. I’m also remembering to live my life. I’m writing these words for those of you who feel like you’re failing. Not reaching that end-product fast enough. I’m also writing these words for myself.

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Books I read since my last blog post:

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables
Fred Botting, Gothic (The New Critical Idiom)
Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund, Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom)
Valerie Martin, Property
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories

I also re-read…
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living

And I have just started Broken Sleep by my friend, Bruce Bauman.

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A couple of newsy things: I did an interview with the talented Karen Stefano, which you can listen to here. It’s over a half-hour of us chatting about books and writing, so make yourself a cup of coffee first.

I also published a story in New World Writing. It’s a glimpse into the new book. Many thanks to the amazing editors, Kim Chinquee and Frederick Barthelme, for including me in such a tremendous magazine.

And a quick shout out to Connie Mayo for this.

That’s all from me for now. But I’d like to hear from you. Talk to me about your writing, your life, what you’re reading, how you’re doing.

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Question of the Month: Unplugging

by Susan Henderson on October 14, 2015

Talk to me about your experience with social media, the good and the bad.

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I’m just back from California, where I worked on my book with some truly brilliant people. (Special thanks to David Ulin, the best line-editor I know.)

I have been unplugged from social media since April of this year. It’s been good for me in ways I’d hoped and in ways I never expected. My goal when I made this decision was to take back the time I frittered away online and apply it to my novel-in-progress.

What I didn’t expect was to find out that social media did not steal my time so much as it clogged my head.

Let me explain what I mean.

Whenever I signed on to FaceBook or Twitter, I would scroll through feed. What I liked about this was a quick sense of catching up with friends and writers and the world. What I didn’t realize until I let it go of this habit was how much it affected my thinking and my mood.

Every time I checked in, I would absorb the daily happenings, medical scares, triumphs, political rants, looming deadlines, vacation photos, linked articles, world news, and so on of the roughly 5,000 people posting in my feed. And I would respond as best I could, hopping between congratulations to a friend who’d won an award and sympathy to a friend who’d hospitalized a family member. I fretted about my responses. They always felt rushed, but I had to move along. That list would grow hour by hour and never stop.

When I moved from the online world to my novel, my head was so full I could no longer find the thoughts and feelings that were mine before I’d opened the computer. I didn’t even realize the effect of this until I stepped away from it.

And so, when I unplugged, it was not so much that I gained time but that my thoughts and feelings were uncluttered. More accessible. I could be more present with my work, and more importantly, with the people sitting across from me in real life.

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So just quickly, for those of you wondering how I’ve been… Mr. H and I are feeling all the newness of our now-empty nest. We miss the boys and their friends and the noise and the chaos of a much busier life. We eat on the front porch more, where there’s only room for two, and watch storms and walk through museums and see cheap afternoon movies and plan trips to visit the boys. Right now we’re all dealing long-distance with the deep grief of losing one of our beloved pets. Something that doesn’t feel real yet and still catches me by the throat. I’m relieved we’re seeing both boys this month. I want to hold them so badly.

I know many of you are also curious how the book’s going. I want to talk at length about the writing process, and the process of writing this particular book, but not now, not while I’m still in it. All I can say is I’m working deeply on it. I’m allowing the process to be what it is, one of discovery, of digging, of circling back to early pages after I know more. While I keep loose deadlines in mind, my real goal is not to finish at a certain speed but rather to make this book the best it can be.

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Before I go, I’ll share with you the books I read since going off-line:

Connie Mayo, The Island of Worthy Boys (I blurbed this beautiful book!)

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

Sara Gruen, At the Water’s Edge

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Annie Jacobsen, The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA

Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise

Harold Michael Harvey, Justice in the Round

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, March: Book One and March: Book Two

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

David L. Ulin, Sidewalking

Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End

Saeeda Hafiz, The Healing: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Yoga

Jen Grow, My Life as a Mermaid

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

Monica Wesolowska, Holding Silvan

Therese Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho

F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

And I re-read these books:

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories 

So that’s a little about my world. Would love it if you’d catch me up on your life and your writing and your experience with social media before I disappear again.

{ 42 comments }

Question of the Month: Nest

by Susan Henderson on April 4, 2015

Anyone here have kids leaving the nest, or already flown? How is it for you? For your children? I don’t just want to hear your stories; I need to hear them.

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Two autumns ago, my oldest went off to MIT. I can’t count how many times I passed his empty room or sat at the dining room table beside his empty seat and just started crying. I waited for phone calls, emails, texts, but his life was not about missing what he’d left behind and waiting to hear from us. His life was full, fast-moving. He was stretching his wings, deciding for himself how he would spend his day, how he would decorate his dorm room, who he’d share his time with, what he would choose to study. Each time he comes home, he is new and changed in remarkable ways—deeper, with more life experience, and more opinions about the world and the direction of his own life. He left for college thinking he wanted to be a mathematician, but he’s since fallen in love with the space where quantum physics meets quantum computing. And more importantly, his friends, the music he creates in his free time, and the larger world interests him as much as his studies.

Now it’s my youngest’s turn. He just said yes to the Eastman School of Music, where he’ll study jazz guitar. That’s a photo of the beautiful school up above and a shot of one of the concert halls below. He got an absolutely massive 4-year scholarship and will be a part of a tight-knit conservatory, only 500 undergrads total, most of them classical musicians. Soon, he’ll begin his great adventure and spread his wings. Our home will be so terribly quiet.

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My youngest has always been creative. Even before he discovered the guitar, he’s been all about creating art of one kind or another. When he was small, he loved costumes, wearing several a day.

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He went through a phase of patterning and sewing shirts. I’d find needles and thread under his pillow and realize he was only pretending to go to sleep. As soon as we left the room, he would thread a needle and get to work.

He tried to create board games and often wrote the first chapters of novels. He’d say things like, “This one’s Treasure Island meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

For a while he loved gourmet cooking—especially intricate recipes and anything requiring a blow torch. And there was a drawing phase. He drew these at eleven.

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He loves watching, critiquing, writing, editing and scoring films. (He’s quite the expert at mixing batches of fake blood!)

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But it’s his love for playing the guitar that’s been constant over the years. He’s had amazing teachers, all gifted artists themselves: Ed LozanoCarl RoaPatrick BrennanNils WeinholdRick Stone. And there are the teachers he’s never met, those artists he listens to when he walks around wearing his ear buds: Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Mike Stern, George Benson, John Scofield, Snarky Puppy.

Next fall, as he lugs his guitar through the Eastman hallways (this original Maxfield Parrish is hanging in one of them!), he’ll start to grow and change in ways I will be so interested to discover. But until then, I only hope that time will slow down, because I love this here and now in the nest.

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Question of the Month: Discovering the Story

by Susan Henderson on October 6, 2014

How many of you know precisely what you’re writing about when you begin a novel?

Lantern Parade -- Thomas Cooper Gotch, ca. 1918

I love this painting, Lantern Parade by Thomas Cooper Gotch, because it reminds me of how my stories develop.

Say you’re driving or taking a shower or trying to fall asleep (these are the times most of my stories come to me), and suddenly you see an image in your mind that looks like this painting. Compelling but not quite in focus, much of it in shadow. You love the image, the mood it evokes. But mostly it engages your curiosity.

Where are they going? Is this festive or solemn? Are they silent or singing? You can’t quite see it all, but you slowly start to feel the ground under a patent leather shoe. Whose shoe? Is it broken-in or bought only for this occasion? Why are you drawn to this one girl? Will this be your narrator? Someone important to your narrator? Or simply someone who’s symbolic of… what? Sometimes images don’t hold your interest. They’re too straight forward. But this one has more and more lurking in the shadows. Who are those boys standing above it all? What are they standing on? Is it chilly or humid? What will I see in the daytime? What of this procession will be left on the ground. And where are we?

This is often how it starts… an image or scene, a voice or question comes to you, trembling and underdeveloped. You don’t even know what it is you’re holding in your mind, but it’s got you.

And from here, you are following characters and details, looking under blankets and stones. Where does this one go after the parade? What does she keep in her pockets? Who is she meeting or avoiding? You can do this for hours, weeks, okay, years. Sometimes you even think you’ve got the story figured out.

And then, aha, you bump into that one crucial object or put two unlikely characters together and something clicks. That initial image that had so entranced you has attached itself to something fierce and unsettled at your core. Your story has brought you to a question or conflict that nags at you, that lies tangled in the gut. It’s brought you to something you’re afraid to voice, something that makes you want to shut your eyes, but you are going to follow it anyway. Now you have urgency. Now you have a journey that’s not only for these characters you’ve come to know, but one you must follow to the end because there’s a stake in it for you, an answer you’ve been seeking.

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This wandering in the dark, hands out, bumping into one thing and then another, is what I love about the work. It’s also what I find maddening. Because you don’t entirely know what you’re doing or where you’re going. E. L. Doctorow described it this way: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

To be honest here, if you have a profoundly bad sense of direction, a drive in the fog means there’s a good change you’ll lose your way or find yourself upside-down in a ditch. Sometimes there’s a lot of  backtracking, needed repairs, and intense searching to find the road again. Eventually, though, you arrive at your destination. Sometimes it’s a place that surprises you, and sometimes it’s a place that is as familiar as an old soul you lost touch with years ago.

Is your writing process anything like mine or something entirely different? Tell your stories! I always learn so much from them.

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If you have a minute, please head over to the Type Rope Walkers blog, where I was invited to share some thoughts on writing. My piece is called, Perseverance: 3 Tips to Help Writers Keep the Faith. Hope it offers help to some of you.

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Many thanks for the mentions in Soho Press, Tumblr, and HarperCollins. Many thanks, as always, to all of you who share your stories here and make our lives richer for it!

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