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LeConté Dill, Back for the First Time

by Susan Henderson on January 29, 2018

I am so honored to introduce you to one of my personal heroes, Dr. LeConté Dill, who has something to say to those of you who feel beaten down by rejection or overlooked by the writing community. LeConté is a professor, a brilliant poet, and a powerful advocate for social justice, particularly in the area of public health.

After you read the letter she’s written to you, check out some of her poetry in berfrois and as part of the National Academy of Sciences’ Visualize Health Equity Project (I find this direct link easier). Or read this groundbreaking piece for the National Institutes of Health.

If you are a magazine editor or chapbook publisher and want to see some brilliant, important writing, or if you’re planning a local reading and want a vibrant speaker who will raise goosebumps on the arms in the audience, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

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Dear You,

I’m approaching 40, and I feel like I’m back for the first time. When I was a college student in Atlanta, the rapper Ludacris put out his “first” commercial album, entitled “Back For The First Time,” because he has been a local radio personality and had already put out numerous mixtapes and a full-length album years before this commercial release. In a similar vein to Luda, I, too, have been honing my craft for a long time. Still, at times, perhaps like Luda in 2000, I feel ‘unseen.’ The invitation to even write this blog is a reminder that, nah, folks do indeed see me! So, I offer to YOU, I see you, too, Boo!

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Even if folks don’t seem to see you or don’t see you exactly as you want to be seen, write anyway! Write like a 1st grader filling time in the space between lunchtime and recess. Write like a 5th grader turning in a book report. Write like a 10th grader submitting to the high school lit magazine editors who meet to review submissions on Tuesdays at 2pm. Write like a college student with a minor in Creative Writing, navigating your way from the science labs to the social science libraries, looking for a major, but always having a home in the English Department. Write like you’re applying for your first writing workshop, first learning the leap-and-land routine that is this writing life. Write like you’re actually sitting in that writing workshop, surrounded by strangers who emerge as writing partners and wind up as dear friends. Write by building community—going to readings, even when you’re not the one reading, buy the books that will topple off your bookshelf, meet up for “writing dates” with your folks or even with just yourself and your pen. Take the writing classes, the webinars, the workshops—the free ones that you still contribute a donation, the ones that take sliding scale payments that you save up for, the pricey ones that you crowdfund. Teach the writing classes and workshops to young folks, to peers, to elders. Whether you call yourself a “Teacher” or not, just teach your work, share your practice, learn with the community of learners you’re gathering. Write like you saw your work in a major publication for the first time, and want to feel that warm feeling in your chest again and again. Take care of yourself when you get that “no,” that “thank you, but…,” that “we’re sorry, but we had an unexpectedly large amount of submissions this year.” Pout! Definitely pout! And engage in any selfcare and squadcare practices that you lean on… or that you’ve put on your to-do list to try out. And continue to write like you claim “writer” in your bio, in your intro, on your webpage. Write for your own page, whether you call them morning pages or evening pages, a gratitude journal or a blue day journal, the back of the light bill or the corner of a cocktail napkin.

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At least that’s been my journey since I was that 1st grader, finding my way from writing as a hobby to writing as praxis and writer as identity. This writing now feels urgent. This writing now feels hopeful. This writing now can hold bold urgency and hope together. I am urgently working to publish my poetry chapbook, and hopeful that it will enter the world this year. I am urgently working on an ethnographic book manuscript that also integrates biomythography, autoethnography, and poetry, and hopeful that it will thoughtfully articulate how young people of color across the U.S. activate resilience in their lives. I am urgently developing a poetry workshop/community intervention that will engage Black girls in Central Brooklyn in reading, analyzing, writing, and sharing poetry, and am hopeful that our emerging community will conjure strategies of resistance in our everyday lives. I am urgently remembering to play!, and hopeful that I’m actually back… for the first time.

Love,

LeConté

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LeConté Dill was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles and is creating a homeplace in Brooklyn with her husband Umberto. She is an alumna of Spelman College and holds graduate degrees in Public Health from UCLA and UC Berkeley. LeConté has participated in VONA Voices and Cave Canem workshops and was a 2016 Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Fellow. She’s been published in literary journals, online magazines, and academic journals, such as Poetry Magazine, The Killens Review, Berfrois, The Feminist Wire, Very Smart Brothas, and Journal of Adolescent Research. Her creative writing, community work, and applied research focus on safety, healing, wellness, and justice, particularly for urban Black girls. Currently, LeConté is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at SUNY Downstate.

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Question of the Month: Intensity

by Susan Henderson on January 14, 2018

Do you know the feeling when too much is flying your way at once and you’re trying to keep calm?

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Two months till launch, and I’m starting to feel the intensity pick up. All last minute edits are in. No more changes allowed. This is the final cover, front and back.

Discussion questions are ready for book clubs.

I’ve contacted a baker for my book launch. (She’s going to make cemetery-themed desserts!)

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I’ve made several trips to HarperCollins. (In the first picture, it’s the building on the right, with the World Trade Center in the middle. The second picture shows what it looks like inside.) One trip was for a party, another for a marketing meeting, and a third to film a video about The Flicker of Old Dreams with my editor, the amazing Sara Nelson.

I feel good about my book and about my team at HarperCollins. Most of what happens from here is out of my hands. And most days I’m okay with that.

But sometimes the fear sets in… Will any of the big outlets want to review my book? Will they like it? Will they even know it exists? Did I do enough? Should I do more? Am I going to lose friends because I’m talking about my book so much? 

The intensity can get inside of me. I can look at all the good things that are happening and see failure. I can look at a beautiful day and see gloom.

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I’m trying to stay steady, no matter what good or bad comes my way. I’m trying to keep it in perspective, in the background where it belongs. And I know how to do this—it’s what I’ve done since college—don’t get caught up in the last thing you wrote, keep moving forward, keep creating. This is the only world I have a shot at controlling, this one on the page, and I’m working hard on something new.

The other thing that keeps me steady is remembering to notice the gifts that are in my life each day, whether it’s a sunrise, a smile at the checkout line, or a word from my kids.

Rather than comparing this time to what it might be like in my most fevered imagination, I need to notice each act of kindness and generosity, however small. Some thank you’s are in order: Eric Forbes at Good Books Guide, Jennifer Haupt at Psychology Today, Publishers Weekly, Ron Block, Virginia Stanley, Binnie Klein, Eileen Tomarchio, Amy Wallen at Savory Salons, LibraryThing, LibraryLoveFest (here and here because they’re that awesome), A Cook and a Book, and folks who posted reviews at GoodReads.

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As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear 
William H. Gass, On Being Blue
Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Luke Dittrich, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window
Lucille Clifton, Mercy 
Melissa Scholes Young, Flood
Carl A. Zimring, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism
Marisa De Los Santos, I’ll Be Your Blue Sky 
Jean Cocteau (translated by Mary-Sherman Willis), Grace Notes

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That’s it for now. Talk to me about keeping steady, about not losing perspective. Tell me some stories. Oh, and I have a gift coming for you soon! One of my personal heroes will be here with Words for the Weary. I’m so looking forward to hearing what she has to say, and I can’t wait for you to meet her!

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Question of the Month: Endings and Beginnings

by Susan Henderson on July 3, 2017

How do you transition between endings and new beginnings?

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So much happened last month. My oldest son graduated from college, and my youngest son moved in with him, so they’re now sharing an attic in Boston. This will be the first summer since they were born when I don’t have a child living at home.

I’m also experiencing a deep sense of being finished with my book that will launch in March of 2018. Lots of steps have now been completed. I’ve done my big edits and my copy edits and my first-pass edits. The layout designers have chosen a font and a look for the inside of the book. I got my author photo taken. (I highly recommend Taylor Hooper Photography!) And we’ve chosen a cover, which I’ll share when I’m allowed.

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We’re getting awfully close to the stage where a galley (sort of a pretend copy of the book) will be sent to potential blurbers and reviewers. The book is basically out of my hands at this point, and this lull before its March publication date is a good time for me to dive deeply into the new work.

But what exactly is that new work?

I definitely have a sense of the next book I’m trying to write—its premise, its setting. The characters and plot are coming more into focus. But it’s early in the creative process, and so much is still unknown. Also, I don’t know that I’ve fully left the last one behind.

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It’s a funny feeling, shifting gears. Like my son, I’m considering my next steps and still feel like I’m decompressing from the intense work that’s consumed my mind for the past few years. Right now I’m in some weird in-between space.

Talk to me about where you are in your own writing process, and how you transition from endings to new beginnings in your work or just in life.

As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

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Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Elizabeth Crane, Turf: Stories
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Taylor Larsen, Stranger, Father, Beloved
Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell), Fever Dream
Claire Cameron, The Last Neanderthal
William Landay, Defending Jacob
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan
Kim Chinquee, Veer
Stephen Pimpare, Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Patrick B. Osada, Changes
Karen Dionne, The Marsh King’s Daughter
Jennifer Gilmore, The Mothers
Kate Clifford Larson, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

And one re-read…
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

That’s it for now. I look forward to your stories in the comments section!

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Question of the Month: Research

by Susan Henderson on March 6, 2017

What kinds of research are you doing for your writing projects?

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Most of the research I did for the book I just finished was on dead people: bodies, dead bodies, the weight and feel of things, bathing the dead, embalming.

I watched YouTubes of surgeries and autopsies to listen to sounds of cutting and the sounds of the room itself. I learned about tools and machines. I talked to morticians and I listened to people who had lost loved ones.

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My favorite research books were Mary Roach’s Stiff, a collection of essays about what happens when you donate your body to science, and Richard Selzer’s Mortal Lessons, a book of essays I’d first read in middle school when I found it on my mom’s bookshelf. That book is pure poetry.

What I discovered as I delved into the research was this: the more you study and write about death, the more you are examining what it means to be alive. And this became something I wrestled with via my narrator, an embalmer who would rather spend her time with the dead than the living. So I gave her the uncomfortable task of leaving her basement workroom and stepping into the world of the living, where she feels so vulnerable.

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There’s research for this new book, too. But I’ll keep it to myself for now. I always love the spectacular alone time with a book in its earliest stages, when no one in the world knows what’s in your head and what’s developing on the page. Some people like to share and get feedback early in the process. I don’t.

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I’ll end (as usual) with the books I read since my last post:

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Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories

Jose Saramago, Blindness

Elizabeth Crane, The History of Great Things

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things: Poems

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog

Jim Crace, Harvest

Natashia Deón, Grace

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Elm Leaves Journal, The Dirt Edition (Winter 2016)

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Empty Mansions

Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, Whole30

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book Three

And two re-reads of poetry collections:

Jim Daniels, Punching Out

Cornelius Eady, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze

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In the comments, share with me the research you’re doing, or have done, to find a way into your stories. Also, share any good books you’ve been reading, or just share about your life in general. It’s always good to hear from you.

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Question of the Month: Partners

by Susan Henderson on October 3, 2016

Tell me about your partner.

We talk so much here about ourselves and our writing lives. But who’s that person (or animal or drug or ritual) you go home to, or that person you rely on to balance out your life? I want to hear all about him or her.

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Mr. H and I met our second year in college. He was a drama major reading Einstein. I was still a science major reading Oliver Sacks. We traded books. He read mine and I pretended to read his.

Our first date was to an August Wilson play.

He grew up in Honolulu, Singapore, and London. He had a British accent when we first started dating, but now you mostly hear it in his syntax or in his funny choice of adjectives.

Mr. H teaches, paints, designs and builds sets, designs and builds costumes, creates cool scar make-up, writes songs when he’s in the shower, and plays guitar in a punk band.

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When our first dog was dying, he carried him up the stairs every night so he could sleep in our bed and carried him down the stairs every morning. Our boys were the first babies he ever held.

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He played Lego with the boys and sewed costumes for them. And when they got older, he taught them games like Magic Cards and Glory to Rome.

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How is my life better because of him? Because we talk about anything and everything. Because we’re both constantly curious and constantly learning. Because we laugh. We laugh a lot. Because we know life has ups and downs, and he’s the person I want with me on this great rollercoaster of life.

I’ll end by sharing the books I read since my last post:

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Yukio Mishima, Death in Midsummer

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

Jessica Anya Blau, The Trouble with Lexie

Thelma Adams, The Last Woman Standing

Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar

Don DeLillo, Zero K

Anand Giridharadas, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars: Poems

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

Paula Whyman, You May See a Stranger

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

Gina Frangello, Every Kind of Wanting

Akhil Sharma, Family Life  

Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

 

And some re-reads:

Elie Wiesel, Night

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

 

So that’s it for this month. But jump into the comments section and tell me about your partner. I want to know that side of you.

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