Question of the Month: Renew

by Susan Henderson on May 3, 2010

Tell me about an experience that renewed your spirit, your energy, or your belief in yourself.


And if we’re talking of renewal, I have to tell you about my trip to Canada last month with three amazing writers. We left our homes feeling strung out, stalled with our current writing projects, and nervous about our careers in general. Not anymore. In just a few days, we were completely transformed.

We became confident, focused, and productive.

I love the picture up above because the snow was totally unexpected. I packed tank tops, shorts and sunscreen! That’s Tish Cohen on the left and Robin Slick on the right. Jessica Keener took the picture, and that’s her in the next shot, waving.


Let me try to sum up the trip in a way that might pass along some of the magic to you. We used an egg timer and wrote in one-hour spurts. (No internet! No phone!) We had three of these writing periods a day, and in between, we told stories and secrets. We laughed and vented. What we found is that our time relaxing together fueled our writingit churned up emotions and got us into storytelling mode. It reminded us of the things we’re passionate about. And doing focused spurts of writing turned out to be more productive than the marathon hours we were putting in at home. Who knew?

Besides friendship and discipline, we helped each other get rid of our pessimistic writing talk. It just wasn’t helping us get to where we wanted to go. It was tying up our energy and casting gloom on the future. When any one of us started to see ourselves as failures, to worry over past rejections or whether our current projects would make it, we heckled each other back into confidence and a sense of power. And where we really pushed each other the most was with our one sentence elevator pitches. We became convinced that it was no good to work on a manuscript until you could distill it into a single, exciting, action-based sentence. You have to know it’s an idea you can sell before you write it. And once you know the sentence that every action in the book will be reflecting, it’s so much easier to write!


If you want to hear the extended version of our trip, Robin’s got all the details.

But back to the idea of “renewal” for a sec because I’d like to announce that LitPark is about to undergo a transformation. I want something that’s more welcoming and less disorienting to first-time visitors. Also, I just want to celebrate the approaching publication date for UP FROM THE BLUE. So if the site’s down next month, be patient with me. I’m looking forward to showing you the big change!

I’m going to end with some very kind words from the wonderful NY Times bestselling author, Jamie Ford. His post is incredibly generous, and it cheered me to no end.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

jessicaK May 3, 2010 at 9:07 am

Sue—you continue to inspire me every day. As one of the four on that magical weekend, I can vouch for the power of writers supporting each other. –Not “yessing” each other but pushing each other to dig deeper, face fears and vulnerabilities, and step into regions that are uncomfortable as a way to grow as artists. I can’t wait for the world to read your book. It’s going to take off big time!


billiehinton May 3, 2010 at 9:21 am

Love the way this retreat fueled all of you so quickly – I go on writing retreat with a few writing friends 2-3x/year and it reminds me each time that the writing, the actual writing process, and sharing it with other committed writing friends, are the most important things. Best of all, neither depend on any agent or editor or buying public. One of the friends I do this with is now coming to my home one weekend a month, and although it’s not quite like the retreat time, it has become a treasured way to keep that retreat energy going. We share meals and hang out with horses and little donkeys, we take chunks of the day to write, we read pages late in the night in my garret, and when she leaves I feel like I’ve had a shot of something miraculous! 🙂


Xujun May 3, 2010 at 10:14 am

I’m envious, Sue. I feel too isolated as a writer.


billybones May 3, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Love your advice. I usually start with a synopsis, but am going to reduce it to one exciting, action-based sentence from now on. It will make a lovely compass.


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Saw your books at the store the other day, Bones, and I made them a little more prominent.


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 2:05 pm

I’m really hoping my book tour goes through Boston (I’ll find out later this month at the big marketing meeting) because I’d love to have another day of soup and literature with you.


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm

That sounds wonderful, especially the horses and donkeys and the garret!


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Oh no, we sure didn’t “yes” each other, did we? But magical: absolutely. xo


Darlin May 3, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I’m spending lots of time in New Mexico this summer. I expect it to be renewing. Some of the trip will include the Taos Summer Writers Conference which I’m very excited about.

I like road trips.


billybones May 3, 2010 at 2:19 pm

That qualifies as a renewal moment for me. Thanks!


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Not only renewing but good fodder for your next book!


Tish Cohen May 3, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I love how you put that, Jessica. No yessing each other. That weekend feeds me still–every time I get stuck I go back to our talks by the fireplace. Sue, Jessica, Robin–you three have changed me and I love you for it.

And, yes, UP FROM THE BLUE is going to shake up the book world in a big way.


billybones May 3, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Also, please let me know it the book tour will bring you all the way to Minneapolis.


Xujun May 3, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Yes, that’ll be great! I look forward to it!


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 7:56 pm

I would love to go to Minneapolis, and they have great public radio. I’ll do my best to make myself look marketable and worthy of those plane tickets!


SusanHenderson May 3, 2010 at 7:59 pm
robinslick May 4, 2010 at 7:12 am

Without sounding overly dramatic, our weekend totally changed my life on so many levels I could write a mini-series here. Before our retreat, I was getting ready to trash the novel I was writing and my “career” in general and would have been looking for a real job again except that I was finding it more and more difficult to leave the house. Sue linked my blog about our retreat and after I read what I posted, I teased Tish, Susan and Jessica that I spent more time posting about getting to our destination than I actually talked about our retreat. But there was a reason for that — my getting on that plane and actually flying by myself was a major deal considering I had been having heart palpitations for the past couple of months just walking to the corner grocery store…something I was hiding from even my own family. I had fallen into a serious pattern of negative thinking and could actually talk myself into panic attacks and not doing the thing I loved most: writing. But once I got off that plane and the four of us talked and talked and had our writing sessions, everything changed. I can’t tell you exactly when it happened…maybe after the first session when Tish set that one hour timer and I sat there for several seconds in total terror, knowing that if I didn’t write, everything I worked so hard for all these years was gone….and so, somehow I wrote. And wrote…and wrote…and wrote. And then when I learned about the elevator pitch and as a group we hashed out our own and helped each other nail them down and I was actually able to focus on something so tangible, the ideas that were eluding me for so long began to rush to the surface. I felt unstoppable. Part II of my “recovery” was our walk. Of course I wanted to tour the grounds of Tish’s magnificent vacation home. But what the others didn’t know while we were walking is that I had to talk myself down from the ledge about ten times. What if I had a panic attack while we were all together outside in the middle of nowhere. The farther we walked from Tish’s house, the more anxious I got. But we kept talking, and I kept taking deep breaths, and then finally, I was honest with everyone. That I was nervous to walk up big hills because I had been housebound for the last couple of months and out of shape. And I was scared to walk too far. No one looked at me like I was a lunatic, and I said to myself, if I can get through this walk without fainting or making a scene, I’ll be okay. And from now on, everything will be fine because all of this fear and negativity is only in my head and that being so, I had the power to change. It was time to stop being my own worst enemy.

Needless to say, I survived the walk, hills and all.

It’s now been a month since our retreat and I haven’t reverted back to my old ways of thinking or writing; in fact, I’m more determined than ever, more organized, and less afraid. I force myself to go outside for a one mile walk every morning, no matter how crappy the weather is, I joined a yoga class (oh yoga, where have you been all my life), and not one day has passed where I haven’t written for at least two hours. No matter what happens with this new book, writing wise, it is already my proudest accomplishment, ever. and that is good enough for me.

Sue, you did ask us to “tell me about an experience that renewed your spirit, your energy, or your belief in yourself.” and wow, I did write a mini-series here after all. So consider this a very public thank you note to you, Tish, and Jessica for saving me at a time when I needed it the most.


SusanHenderson May 4, 2010 at 8:05 am

Well, you gave as much as you got because I was utterly inspired by the writing you produced that weekend. You were the rock star of our group. And your pure, unconditional love and support freed us all. It was truly a life-changing trip, and of course the best of it is in the stories we can never tell another soul.

Can’t wait to see this new book fly. And it will. xo


Tish Cohen May 4, 2010 at 10:08 am

I adore you for that. Steve and I are putting together an order today – with UP FROM THE BLUE first on the list.


Tish Cohen May 4, 2010 at 10:11 am

I agree with Sue – you truly were our rock star. Not just for the writing but for all you overcame to get there. It took massive strength and from here on I’m holding you up as my shiny example of how to just knock panic on its ass.


SusanHenderson May 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Who here is going to BEA? Let me know somehow or another so I can find you. I’ll be autographing galleys at Table 29, 10:30am, Wednesday, May 26th. And lucky me, I’ll be sitting right next to Rachel Shukert’s table!

Hopefully soon, I’ll get the okay to announce THE PARTY…


jessicaK May 7, 2010 at 7:03 am

Yes to all. Robin, your creative burst inspired me in a huge way. I think about how you broke through, and how I was privileged to witness that, and be included in it. Even more inspiring is how you’ve continued to keep going every day. Your new book is going to rock the world!


Jimnichols May 11, 2010 at 9:07 am

Sue, you might have heard this story: I met Norman Mailer at the little airport where I worked (this was 1990, I think) when his flight stopped there on its way to Bar Harbor. He had no where to go, so I was able to corner him and lay a story on him. He grumbled but took it when I said he only had to read it and leave it in the seat pocket so that when the plane came back I could retrieve it. I just wanted to know that NM had read a story of mine. (It had been published in a little magazine called Jam To-day.) Well, when the plane came back there was no story. But when Mailer was heading back a few days later, he got off the plane when it stopped, told me he’d liked the story and asked for something “more ambitious” to read. I just happened to have another story on me, which I gave him. He took it back to Brooklyn and later sent me a kind note along with notes of recommendation for Esquire, Atlantic and I think Harper’s. I tried Esquire first and they took the story. Mailer wrote an intro for it which they published in sidebar to the story. Very uplifting and affirming event!


SusanHenderson May 11, 2010 at 10:43 am

An incredible story… of your talent and chutzpa, above all else!


Jimnichols May 11, 2010 at 10:56 am

I published it as a Reader’s Narrative in Narrative Magazine, if you ever want to read the details. I miss him…we corresponded right up until a few months before he died. I still have the message he left on my machine with a blurb for my collection.


SusanHenderson May 11, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Amazing. And I love that you saved his message on your machine.

Can you link the Narrative story?


Jimnichols May 11, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Sure…they were a little over-zealous with the editing — see the extra comma in sentence 4 and the end got a little muddy — but what the hey…
right here


SusanHenderson May 11, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Great story! And love this: “He said he’d liked it pretty goddamn well, all things considered.”


Jimnichols May 11, 2010 at 9:33 pm

He was a kinda burly, rough-spoken little guy but I remember him looking at me out of the corner of his eye like a kid. He used to send me these strange, funny line drawings…portraits of people with names like “Fuckface Frinolli” (something like that; I’m not within reach of the drawing folder).


SusanHenderson May 12, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Would love to see those line drawings.


mlakers May 19, 2010 at 9:09 am

Gad, Robin, you just made me weep like a baby.


Dean Adams May 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Wow! Sue, those are some great words!


SusanHenderson May 28, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Can’t even tell you how happy it makes me whenever I see your name around here.


eeleenlee May 30, 2010 at 11:36 am

a recent funeral renewed my spirit, which sounds morbid but no, really.


SusanHenderson May 30, 2010 at 8:37 pm

One of my favorite things to read about is when events don’t elicit the expected emotions–you fit right in around here!


sheila September 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Hi === just read your brief article, posted on another site, on when to call yourself a writer — loved it! Thanks.


Susan Henderson September 7, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Sheila, Thank you. And welcome!


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