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Weekly Wrap: Mistakes that Changed Us.

by Susan Henderson on May 11, 2007

For a lot of writers, there’s a trauma, or a set of traumas, that we carry with us, that we are always working with in some fashion or another in our stories.

Today I want to talk about mistakes we’ve made. I’ll share one of mine. There are many to choose from — and this story certainly isn’t the worst of them — but it’s the earliest mistake I can remember, and one that led me, for decades afterward, to view myself as the villain in my story.

When I was a kid, our cat Rosebud had a litter every spring. This, I believed, made our family very popular in the neighborhood because we were the givers of free kittens. But Rosie’s last litter (the one that convinced my dad to have her fixed) was born in a cardboard box that was tipped on its side, sitting on the porch. It rained for days, and the litter was washed into the woodpile.

I remembered there had been five kittens, but we only found four. My dad pulled them from the wood, saying things like, “Oh, little fella.” There was only one I could reach. It was so bony, I thought it would break if I pulled hard enough to dislodge it. Dad moved the log above it, and I took its fragile body in my hands, watching the tiny pulse of its heart and the fleas milling over its thin fur.

Dad set the kittens beside Rosie to see if they would nurse, but Rosie only growled and walked away. Sadly, this is not the worst part of the story. The worst part is always when I enter the scene and make some sort of decision. And here, the trouble came when I believed I could feed the kitten condensed milk if only I could pry open its mouth.

I won’t go into the gore or the reason I decided I needed to use a screwdriver. The short of it is that I had desperately wanted to save the kitten, who was likely not savable. But my way of saving the kitten created such a disastrous scene, what could I do in the end but bring the limp kitten back to its mother? Rosie carried it off and left it under a bush.

This was the beginning of a long lesson on the difference between what I wanted to believe about myself and what I actually was. Later that day, my dad packed the other three in the cardboard box. I found my kitten under the bush and held it because it was still warm and almost lovely. I tried to think of a name for it before Dad took it from me. I was still trying when he drove off with the whole box of them.

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Sometimes friends heal your old wounds without realizing it. My friend Brian did that when he drew this for me.

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Sending love to all of you and the whole gamut of mistakes you carry with you: poor decisions, impossible decisions, indecisions; people we ganged up on, forgot to thank, forgot to forgive; times we lost our courage, acted out of fear, said yes when we meant no, no when we meant yes; times we were selfish or not selfish enough. Now go write.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

lance reynald May 11, 2007 at 12:32 am

“Be bold. Don’t flinch. Find ways to tell your story. Doesn’t have to be here, but tell it somewhere.”

sums up exactly why I call you the Wondertwin…though you say these things so much more kindly that I can.

beautiful wrap!

xoxo-LR

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Nathalie May 11, 2007 at 3:48 am

That is a sad story you are sharing and I can see how this one would be haunting you.
And yes, mistake can be exceedingly painful to tell, the tale a re-opening of wounds one might be tempted to call pointless, because what can it change ?
But the effort is never completely useless, for the writer – of course – as well as for the reader. Nothing is quite as comforting as the realisation that others have made mistakes too.

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n.l. belardes May 11, 2007 at 9:42 am

I remember trying to take a baby frog home once from the lake. I stuffed it in my pocket. There was no screwdriver involved, but I’m sure it wasn’t a good way to go–stuffed in a dark suffocating place…

Now on to happier tidings:

Don’t forget to check out the review of the Noveltown Review… The mom of the little girl whose photos are attached to Susan’s story writes a comment there about how her daughter “felt like a VIP” at our mixer…

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n.l. belardes May 11, 2007 at 9:44 am

Oh, and thanks Susan for posting that video and Kerouac quote. Kerouac was my hero for many years. His musical spontaneous prose style always sticks in my head…

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Myfanwy Collins May 11, 2007 at 9:50 am

Happy Anniversary, Susan!

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Juliet May 11, 2007 at 12:09 pm

I’m thinking of writing a choose your own adventure book about the dating world of Susan and Lance…

I love you guys. Thank you again and again for providing us with a place to litter our words, to jump on someone’s bike and to take a whirl or two on the vowelomatic.

And beyond everywhere, thanks for bringing us out of the no-touching rules of the playground and letting us just interact and have fun.

A bloody nose or two, maybe. But damn, what a day!

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LaurenBaratz-Logsted May 11, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Like you at Paperback Writer this week, Susan, I came here to say something else, saw that kitten, and now all I can say is: Awwww!

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Susan Henderson May 11, 2007 at 1:43 pm

Hey everyone, I just got my kick-ass but hugely challenging edits for my novel and I’m going to give it my full attention and write with my eye on the NYTimes bestseller list.

I have lots of comments for everyone, today and yesterday – the bottom line being you’re all great and I’m glad to know you. If I can squeeze in some time before I run to Chinese school tonight, I will.

In the meantime, one important comment so you don’t think I’m a neglectful mother. In that Mindfreak photo, maybe you’re wondering what on earth is going on with Green-Hand’s hair? You’re maybe thinking he looks like a Pez dispenser with all that hair? Well, it’s because he was playing a homeless kid in Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechwan and he was ordered NOT to cut his hair. The play’s over now, and yesterday he went right to the barber shop.

Okay, back to scratching my head about where to start….

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Lee May 11, 2007 at 1:48 pm

People have told me that the only mistake is one which you don’t learn from. Either these people have never made a mistake, or are failing to accept my experience of the mistake with their perceptions. I’ve also received the irrefutable wisdom that one should not dwell on one’s mistakes. (Same categories applicable.) I say a mistake is a mistake. If you learn anything from it, good. If not, accept your mistakes as elements which have the potential to balance you and give reason to enjoy those “good” decisions all the more splendidly.
I enjoyed reading this. Thanks Susan, and everyone who contributes!
~Lee

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Lee May 11, 2007 at 1:50 pm

Is it just my computer, or has anyone else noticed that when you move your cursor over a link thatthe text above it shifts to the right?

~Lee

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Carolyn Burns Bass May 11, 2007 at 2:21 pm

Thank you for sharing the full kitten story, Susan. As children, my older sister and I held a grudge against our younger sister because she:

1) wrapped our pet rat “deucie” in a towel and loved it to death;

2) poured old motor oil in the aquarium where our pet tarantula soon died of hazardous waste poisoning;

3) walked out the front door of our house with our parakeet “Blue Boy” perched on her shoulder. Blue Boy flew to the highest branch in the tree and looked down at us, finally flying away toward Disneyland and never coming back.

My sister’s gone now, but I’m happy to say that through the years our grudges turned to teasing and she was a good sport about it. I wish Brian could draw a rat/tarantula/parakeet angel picture for my sister Angela.

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Juliet May 11, 2007 at 2:23 pm

You loved that little kitten from the depths of self. That shows ever-clearly.

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Aurelio May 11, 2007 at 4:00 pm

I wondered if Green-hand was trying to give Neil Gaiman some competition with the big hair thing he had going on…

Kittens…

Today our cat, Tanya, (no longer a kitten) was yowling and hissing in the yard, so I went out to find her face to face with a BOBCAT three times her size! I chased it away – fortunately it didn’t do anything to her.

The bobcat was beautiful, but I found my heart racing after I chased it, because if it had wanted to, it could have hurt me bad.

But I didn’t think about that – I just wanted to save my cat.

(I guess we are never too old to do foolhardy things for love of a pet.)

Thanks for sharing, Susan, and good luck with your edits.

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Robin Slick May 11, 2007 at 4:07 pm

Sigh…my, my, the mindfreak is indeed beautiful.

Oh. Sorry. I lost my train of thought.

Happy anniversary, and thank you for sharing your bittersweet, poignant story.

And Lance? Heather? Great interview!

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Jody Reale May 11, 2007 at 4:33 pm

What an interesting, great week at the park. Thanks, everyone, and happy anniversary to Susan and Mr. H.

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Brian Hadd May 11, 2007 at 6:26 pm

Emotions need release, indeed. How?

The Hood Company

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n.l. belardes May 12, 2007 at 11:27 am

Oh yeah. Happy Anniversary! Woo!

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kyla May 23, 2007 at 11:14 am

The Things They Carried is one of my favorite books as well. For me, it redefined what it means to be brave [in a completely unconventional way] and showed how to speak truth. It’s beautiful.

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Mayi _ October 9, 2007 at 6:53 pm

I love u CRISS ANGEL!!!
T.Q.M.

I LOVE U SO MUCH!!

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maryanne stahl February 14, 2008 at 11:01 pm

happy anniversary.

so sorry about the kitten. but a cool way to release your sorrow.

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