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Monthly Wrap: When Patience is Required

by Susan Henderson on January 9, 2009

Years ago, when I left my job as a rape crisis counselor, I was presented with a plaque. In beautiful calligraphy, my co-workers had listed the qualities they valued most about me: Dedicated Somethingerother. Compassionate Listener. Some Other Things. Patient.

I showed the plaque to Mr. Henderson, and he asked, “Do you think they meant this as a joke?”

Because not only am I known for listening only when I feel like it, but I will do things like put a frozen waffle in the toaster, and as soon as the edge is even slightly cooked, I’ll eat around the outside because I can’t wait two minutes for something I want.

You’d think I’d have picked a career that involved immediate rewards.

But logic is never one of the reasons a person becomes a writer. You know how it is. Your friends see you madly scribbling your ideas down on paper. They see you carrying around typed pages, crossing out words, circling things and drawing arrows here and there. They comment on how you disappear for weeks, sometimes months, to work on your manuscript. And, innocently, they ask, “What have you published?” And, “Can I read your book?”

They have no idea why these questions are so deeply frustrating. Or how a person can write for months, for years, and have nothing to show for it. Nothing that counts on their terms: A trip to the bookstore to find a beautiful hardcover book on one of those front tables.

It baffles them how you can write so slowly. How the things you’ve published are so hard to find. How you are never, or hardly ever, paid for your work. How, after not being paid for twenty years, you continue to call yourself a writer. And yet, that’s what you are. And you know the big break will come soon. It must. Because you’re good. Because you have things to say. Because you know your writing is better than the books on the bestseller list, or it will be after this next revision.

So what do you do while you hope someone falls in love with your work? What do you do while you hope for that career break?

If you’re an impatient type, you do this: You move forward. You put your finished manuscript in play, and then you get to work on the next one. And you try to make this new thing the best you’ve ever written. You move forward because a writer doesn’t wait; a writer writes.

*

I can’t tell you how moved I was by your answers this week on how and why you endure, and was glad to see David Niall Wilson continue the discussion over on his blog with a post entitled Perseverance: Writing is NOT the Hardest Part.

What I read this month: Tawni O’Dell, Back Roads (Dark and brilliant); Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Love it even more now than when I first read it as a teenager. Choked me up so many times. No real plot, but, oh, what a portrait of a generation! Wonder if it would sell today?); Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed (Wow. First half of the book is better than the second half, but still: Wow); Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (Like most first books I’ve read, particularly the unpublished ones, it’s a bit of a mess. But here and there is something wonderful, like this: “They can romanticize us so, mirrors, and that is their secret: what a subtle torture it would be to destroy all the mirrors in the world: where then could we look for reassurance of our identities? I tell you, my dear, Narcissus was no egotist…he was merely another of us who, in our unshatterable isolation, recognized, on seeing his reflection, the one beautiful comrade, the only inseparable love…poor Narcissus, possibly the only human who was ever honest on this point”).

What I read to my kids this month: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (Just try to read the first 2 pages and not buy the book. Loved it); Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales (We read this out loud every year, and whoever happens to be reading when they get to snowballing the cats, or Ernie Jenkins, or the dry voice singing on the other side of the door always feels like they won the lottery).

*

Thank you to my January guest, the fabulous editorial cartoonist Jimmy Margulies. Thank you to everyone who played here this month.

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

eileen_rita January 9, 2009 at 6:50 am

I love what you’ve said here – a writer writes! It’s so magical in it’s simplicity.

We write! Not always for any particular goal or reason, but because it’s what we do. I feel most comfortable when I’m holding a pen. Even as I type now, my biro sits atop my right hand, ready to swing into action when required. The sad thing is, even though I usually have a pen, do you think I can find a piece of paper when I need one?

I find I’m patient with others, but not with myself. I have so many beginnings of scripts lying around the house. Stories blast in to my mind, but I try to force them out so quickly they end up going nowhere. Maybe I should just join them all together and contact David Lynch!

Perhaps if we percieve ourselves to be story-tellers, yet cannot finish our own stories impatience and frustration begin to fester?

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Nathalie January 9, 2009 at 11:06 am

Logic? What’s that?

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SusanHenderson January 9, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Worth reading: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-01-08/an-autopsy-of-the-book-business/full/

Thanks to Colleen Lindsay (http://theswivet.com) for the link.

I’ll be back to comment later. Doing research for my next book, not easy material, and won’t let myself play till I hit my goal.

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Amy_Nathan January 9, 2009 at 1:21 pm

I scratch my head at writers who continue to revise work they’ve submitted, be they novels or articles or essays. That’s when I finally breathe – when it’s gone. And I start something new.

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SusanHenderson January 9, 2009 at 7:18 pm

Mr. H brought home flowers tonight because this morning totally sucked. Not done with my research yet, but family’s fed and off to this geeky game club they go to on Friday nights. Got lots of private notes about today’s blog, but most aren’t posting publicly. Interesting. Here, let me catch up, and then it’s back to my new novel…

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SusanHenderson January 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Ha! I know just what you mean about unfinished pieces that began with a blast!

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SusanHenderson January 9, 2009 at 7:22 pm

It’s something most of my neighbors have – most are carpenters and firefighters and cops and repairmen and teachers. And what I do looks mighty strange to them.

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SusanHenderson January 9, 2009 at 7:25 pm

I know one of those strange people who goes back to fix things she’s already submitted, and the reason she does it is there’s always a better way to say something, or this little touch of detail she could add that would make a later chapter resonate with an earlier one. And if she doesn’t do this, she can’t sleep at night.

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Nathalie January 10, 2009 at 2:39 am

You are not saying (of my eyes are deliberately ignoring the line) but I suppose that, since we are on patience, next update will be next month and not next Monday?

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Nathalie January 10, 2009 at 2:40 am

That is so sweet of him.

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Nathalie January 10, 2009 at 2:42 am

Not only you but also your whole family must be strange to them. You are not exactly average… The neighbours must shake their heads and say “Well, you know… Those artists…” (Probably meaning hippies in the back of their brains, if they are the proper age).

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SusanHenderson January 10, 2009 at 9:41 am

Yes, the whole family is strange to them. On the weekends, everyone in my neighborhood takes their kids to baseball practice and mine go to Chinese school. Mr. H goes fabric shopping to make curtains for the whole house. Everyone has a lawn; we decided to make a forest. Etc.

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SusanHenderson January 10, 2009 at 9:41 am

Next month. But it will be worth the wait!

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Aurelio January 10, 2009 at 12:25 pm

You know, Susan, I keep waiting for one of your interviewees to tell me the secret: the one that opens the door without having to pound on it for hours, or find a super and convince them to open it for me because I belong there, or steal a key? The one where I don’t have to slip my very important notes under the door and wait, and wonder if anyone is even at home, or if they’ve read them, or if I’m even at the right address?

What the hell. Life is kind of a crap-shoot anyway.

“Oh, boo-hoo!” I’m saying now, mocking myself . I may be lost and trying to blaze a new trail, but it’s not as if I’m an early explorer, fighting bears, or mountain lions, or having to gnaw off my own leg to free myself after being trapped by a landslide.

It only feels that way. And LitPark feels like the old cabin in the woods were I can stave off the cold, and meet strangers who tell of good huntin’ just ahead, or hidden treasures over the next range, and I listen with both healthy skepticism and eager belief.

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SusanHenderson January 10, 2009 at 2:45 pm

The day I figure out the secret, I’m going to display it on a banner inside the cabin.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass January 11, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Susan, you have again captured the frustration of the writing life. Most jobs have measurable results that equal promotions, pay raises, shiny badges or crisp uniforms. Our job doesn’t. We work in our pajamas; we agonize over words, not just phrases; we rejoice when one of our peers finds success, but deep inside we ache and wonder, when will it be me? And how our non-writing friends just don’t get it.

You said it best here: “Or how a person can write for months, for years, and have nothing to show for it. Nothing that counts on their terms: A trip to the bookstore to find a beautiful hardcover book on one of those front tables.”

Still, when one of our little pieces is published, though it doesn’t earn the money to buy our family a pizza, we get enough *litergy* to continue pecking at words and stirring phrases.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass January 11, 2009 at 12:56 pm

I am thrilled to hear you say “my new novel.” One word after another.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass January 11, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Are you talking about yourself? Or me?

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marilynpeake January 11, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Hi, Susan,

I have some catching up to do here. Wonderful posts from you, and I love Jimmy Margulies’ work! For some reason, I thought LitPark was on hiatus until February, and I’m very sorry I missed out on the chance to post about struggle and perseverance as a writer. I plan to read everyone else’s posts on the subject. It’s definitely a subject near and not so dear to my heart.

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SusanHenderson January 11, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Great Steelers game! I’m absolutely giddy.

I’ll stop in after the boys are asleep to respond to these comments, but before I forget, let me link a great interview between Caroline Leavitt and Jessica Keener. Here: http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/2009/01/best-books-you-havent-read-yet.html

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SusanHenderson January 12, 2009 at 11:19 am

Yes, that’s the other thing we all have in common. After naming all of our frustrations, we say, Still… and then we go write some more.

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SusanHenderson January 12, 2009 at 11:20 am

You’re not too late to play the Question of the Month. I’d love to hear your answer.

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gailsiegel January 12, 2009 at 3:19 pm

You’re back! Yay!

I will take a look at all of this and be back later in the week.

xxGail

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marilynpeake January 12, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Oh, that’s wonderful. I’ll check it out.

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marilynpeake January 12, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I just finished reading all the comments at LitPark on how writers keep going as well as David Niall Wilson’s blog about perseverance. Very inspiring!

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darbylarson January 12, 2009 at 6:58 pm

I’ve fallen into a groove of doing this, but kind of using the submission process as a way of controlling my want to revise submitted work and getting needed distance from pieces. Otherwords, I don’t sim sub anymore. Seq subbing, I’ve found, allows pieces to easily and continually be taken out of rotation so I can revise after each rejection, benefited by the inherent distance from waiting for a reply, and then submit elsewhere. I used to sim sub a lot, but now, instead of subbing one piece to twelve places, I tend to have about twelve pieces all being seq subbed to various places. Also, I tend to enjoy rejections more because of this, giving me the chance to take a look at a piece again knowing it’s not in any slush anywhere gives me a kind of revisional freedom.

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SusanHenderson January 12, 2009 at 10:30 pm

What a great idea!

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SusanHenderson January 12, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Yay! I’ve been missing you.

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SusanHenderson January 12, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Inspiring and un-crazy-making. I can’t tell you how often I feel like I’m being carried by the folks here when I can’t do it on my own.

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jessicaK January 13, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Thanks for posting this link, Susan.

Jessica

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kategray January 14, 2009 at 1:48 pm

I have to admit that I’ve been trying, for a week, to figure out how to answer the perserverance/endurance question. I decided to try this whole idea of “professional” writing on my own, in a vacuum, really, and have been muddling ever since. Probably my first real sense of the concept of endurance came from going through officer candidate school, when I discovered that the human organism can tolerate just about anything. Perserverance came during my five (year-round) year quest to get my degree. Every time I thought I had everything I needed for the classical archaeology degree, something else came up: a scholarship evaporating, credits not transferring, courses missing…. And patience, well, patience is what one learns from having children in one’s life (especially in a former life as a nanny).
I suppose the trouble is that I hardly know how to roll it all into seeking success as a writer. It’s a little daunting now, given the dire news I’ve heard here about the publishing industry. It almost seems as though we need, collectively, to try to foretell the future of the written word, and make it happen for us, rather than wait to be told by those who’ve been running things up until now.

On other subjects, Susan, how did you get your kids, or how did they get themselves so immersed in music? My younger son regularly asks to become a rock star – and I can only scratch my head in trying to figure where to start a 3 year old on music lessons. I’m in awe of your boys’ poise and talents.
And while they’ve gone and left me alone this week, my parents are off in New Orleans, helping to build houses:
http://neworleansmissiontrip2009.blogspot.com/

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Lac January 14, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I felt the same way toward other writers until I wrote a book of my own. “Writers write”… oh, is that what they do??

-Lac Su

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SusanHenderson January 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

Lac! So great to see you here. I can’t wait for your book’s release!

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SusanHenderson January 15, 2009 at 10:19 am

Awfully nice of them to build houses.

My feeling about how to be a successful writer is that you read and read and read and write and write and write, and you make sure you’re ready with really good and solid finished things when luck or opportunity presents itself. I still think your ticket is going to be writing about autism. I think that’s going to be the door you’ll be able to get through first.

Re: music. It’s all accidental in our house. My husband’s played guitar since I’ve known him, but he was always playing the same three songs over and over. And my oldest son with the scary-smart mathematical brain used to be calmed by finding patterns in sheet music when he was a toddler, so we got him on the piano early – 2, I think. Then we just kind of coasted like that, with the one picking up the guitar twice a year to play the same songs and the other taking piano lessons, and the baby not interested in piano in the slightest.

Then my littlest one made a friend at school and we went to that family’s house for dinner with two other couples. After dinner, one of these adults sat at the piano, the other passed out guitars and shakers and songbooks, and everyone (but me because I find all of this painfully embarrassing) played music all night. It had never occurred to us that music could be something that’s just for fun. I always thought you suffered though piano to see if you were one of those Julliard kids, and then when you found out you weren’t, you just tossed it aside. But that night, people who knew how to play three or four chords and people with so-so voices all joined in. One of those people runs regular open mics and so that just became part of something we do to socialize, and the boys have joined in.

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gailsiegel January 15, 2009 at 12:01 pm

I came back today imagining I could add something to the discussion about perseverance, but truth is, I am finding that I don’t persevere. I have not written more than a handful of short-shorts in the last few years. Not having the time or energy to write leaves me with an ache, a sense of incompleteness, the knowledge that I’m not really experiencing life if I can’t rehash moments on the page — even if I change them beyond recognition and and give them over to fictional characters. But I do have hope. A teacher of mine once said wisely, “Writers don’t have careers; they have lives.” It’s a good reminder.

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kategray January 15, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I keep getting told that, about the autism thing…something to brainstorm, I guess.

Very interesting about your kids and the evolution of music…something that requires a sense of community that we’re lacking in many places. I keep thinking that it would be fun to start an artists’ village up here…or at least a village where people care about each other and want to share each other’s lives more than we tend to. We have some pretty great neighbors, for instance, and we get together now and then, but we all seem to hold each other at arm’s length, and I’m not entirely sure why.

________________________________

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SusanHenderson January 15, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Bach-Boy is playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue (the fugue part) on the piano right now. And at the very same moment, Green-Hand is playing Gimme Shelter on the electric guitar. So forgive me if my brain shorts out and gives a bad link, but if this works, it’s really funny.

http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2009/01/contest-query-in-140-characters-or-less.html

You can pitch this agent if you can keep your description to 140 characters or less.

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SusanHenderson January 15, 2009 at 6:50 pm

This is so real, Gail. And familiar. Because what makes a writer write? Often the very fact that they’re introverted or don’t believe in themselves or can’t say the things they need to say out loud. And so what do we ask of writers? That they become athletic, ballsy extroverts, selling themselves, giving public readings, sustaining a belief in their ability for years and even decades. It asks what we’re barely able to give, and that asks that we sustain that very thing some more.

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SusanHenderson January 15, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Some day when you can find an hour and a half, make an outline of a book about autism you think you might have in you – fiction or non-fiction – just to see what’s there, and where the gaps are (either in interest or information you still need to learn)

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SusanHenderson January 18, 2009 at 8:42 am

My kids’ band horsing around at open mic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wO5eDTBkpKs

Mine are the two on the right.

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SusanHenderson January 19, 2009 at 11:03 am

Woke up this morning feeling like it’s Christmas all over again – the eve of Obama’s inauguration and Steelers have a shot at their sixth Super Bowl ring. Wow.

Fun Steelers trivia. When I was in HS, I used to work out in the weight room after school with Reggie Harrison (our gym teacher/football coach, and winner of 2 Steelers Super Bowl rings and responsible for the safety in Super Bowl X). Babysat Franco Harris’s son once when Franco was helping out with an MS marathon. And when I was very very pregnant with Bach Boy, I nearly rolled down the hill at Steelers training camp in LaTrobe because the hill was that steep and I was that round.

Anyway, very very happy, and thanks to all of you who sent me notes this morning and last night.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass January 19, 2009 at 5:56 pm

I missed the deadline on this, but what a hoot they were to read!

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass January 19, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Part of the truth here, Susan, is how difficult it is to separate the “belief in their ability” with “belief in oneself.” While a person can believe they are a good writer, there is nothing they can do to convince others except to write. People can write and write and write some more, but it’s the grandstanding that one does to get noticed that is so exhausting.

I imagine the word olympics you described above is one of the reasons why LitPark went from a weekly to a monthly. While everything you’ve produced here is great stuff, your personal writing–the stories and dreams and imaginings of the night–was falling behind.

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SusanHenderson January 19, 2009 at 9:36 pm

If you want to know the kinds of songs Steelers fans know by heart:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naaU8YHvoGc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=At69PJ3ymIg

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SusanHenderson January 19, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Yeah, the weekly schedule and finishing the book were incompatible. But if I quit completely, I’d get so depressed from missing you guys, I couldn’t write at all.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass January 20, 2009 at 11:21 am

We are so glad you didn’t quit LitPark. You have a gift for creating community.

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