Question of the Month: Intimidating People

by Susan Henderson on March 7, 2011

Do you ever get intimidated by brilliant people? Tell me a story about it.

The one author I find truly intimidating is Terry Pratchett. Even before he was knighted, it seemed right to put the word Sir in front of his name. I just find his work—whether you’re looking at it from a bird’s eye view or sentence-by-sentence—to express more layers of wisdom, humor, and historical reference than I know how to juggle… and all of it without slowing down the plot.

I feel no jealousy toward Sir Pratchett; it’s more of an awe of the unattainable. And this makes his current struggle with Alzheimer’s all the more heartbreaking.  His open discussions about his disease, including his recent thoughts about assisted suicide, remind us that the window on his brilliant mind is closing, that we’ll soon be holding his very last book.

Alzheimer’s has struck close to home. My grandmother suffered from it even before her hair turned gray. And more recently, my first love’s father brought his own struggle with it into public view, documenting his descent both in books and on NPR. Tom DeBaggio, who helped Francesco and me make that sinking raft in the photo up above, died last week. There’s a very nice tribute to him by Melissa Block, and you can catch his earlier NPR pieces here: 1999200520072010.

I’ll post one more photo of Fran with my brother and my “other brother,” who, by the way, gets hung in the opening scene of TRUE GRIT. And maybe my point, if there is one, is that the people we admire, even if they are brilliant beyond our reach, are just as human. And the other thing is that many of the people we admire have no idea how important they are in our lives, and maybe we should start telling them. At the very least, we should eat more cake with our mouths wide open.


In writing news, I’ve spent the past 40 days digging deep into the new book, and I’m beginning to dream of it, too. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with characters demanding that I write something down. I love this part of the process.

There’ve been some nice reviews and interviews lately: Robert Gray talked to me about UP FROM THE BLUE’s readers over at Shelf Awareness, Meg Pokrass talked to me about mentors at Fictionaut Five, Williamsburg Regional Library blogged about my book here, Evanston Public Library blogged about it there, and then there were some really lovely print reviews for which I’m so grateful—Bill Duncan at The News-Review, Veena Sterling at the San Francisco Book Review, and Chuck Erion at The Waterloo Region Record in Ontario, Canada. Later this month, I’ll be in San Diego, talking with the wonderful Amy Wallen, first at SDwink and then at the Savory Salon. And how fun is this?! Very excited about my trip!

I’ll end with a celebration of my friend, Robin Slick’s book, DADDY LEFT ME ALONE WITH GOD, which is a roller-coaster ride full of rock stars, insecurities, and the terrifying task of guiding talented children through a golden, but potentially dangerous, opportunity. It’s a book that will break and then rebuild your heart.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Billy Bones March 7, 2011 at 12:43 am

Oooh, oooh! Mr. Lincoln has a story about the brilliant guy standing next to Sir Terry. Here it is:

Who gets invited to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day at Neil Gaiman’s house? Well, two years ago I was one of few and very lucky. I won’t tell you how this came about because it’s far more interesting to keep it a mystery than tell you the boring truth. But there I was, one of the shadowy figures surrounding his backyard bonfire.

Despite near senior citizen status there’s more than a little fan boy in me, and sadly something else: the chairman emeritus of the company I work for once called me a social eunuch. One doesn’t become chairman emeritus unless one is a shrewd judge of character. He is. And I am one of the shyest people I know. Truth is I wouldn’t even sidle up to myself to say hello if given the chance. Well, maybe I would, but that’s only because I’ve known myself for fifty-eight years.

That’s how I am with normal people, so you can imagine how I am meeting brilliant people like Mr. G. To cope in these kinds of situations I generally lurk. I am an excellent lurker, which is how I spent the rest of the evening, tongue-tied and lurking nearby.

Susan, because you are an excellent writer, you are probably wondering why? Back in the fifties and sixties when I was growing up they already had a name for what ails me—actually three: stupid, lazy and forgetful. Nowadays they call it A.D.D. It’s been years since I thought I was really any one of these three. But it is when I meet brilliant people that I’m most likely to forget this hard learned lesson.

For the record, along with being brilliant, Mr. Gaiman is a kind, generous host, who does his best to make everyone comfortable, even the socially inept.


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Ooh, I really like this story–a secret, high-powered gathering for Guy Fawkes Day! Did you burn him in effigy? And is it just me, or is this one of those stories you absolutely must turn into a piece of fiction, narrated by the person who’s slightly on the outside of the fun? I think if you let it mix with a lot of crazy what-ifs, you can make something really magical from it!

And I agree with you that Neil is brilliant and generous.


Billy Bones March 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I’ll have to have a good think about writing something like that. Thanks for the suggestion.


Aurelio O'Brien March 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Wow, that’s a nice story you shared, Bonsey. You really humanized Mr. Gaiman for me. (It’s easy with famous people to forget their common humanity whilst being dazzled by their celebrity.)


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Bonsey. I like that!

Billy Bones March 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm


Nathalie March 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I can’t believe you were shy of Neil, he’s the sweetest person!


Billy Bones March 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I’m afraid it’s all a part of living the life absurd.


Jess March 8, 2011 at 2:23 am

Meanwhile, my hub and I shared a table with Mr. Lincoln and his lovely missus at Charlie’s in Stillwater during a Paul and Lorraine gig. He was handing out copies of his book and I was too shy to say much other than “sure” when he asked if the extra seats were free. 🙂


Billy Bones March 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Thanks, Jess. That made Mr. Lincoln’s day.

Susan Henderson March 8, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Now that is a great story.

Jess March 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I hope we can lurk together again one day!

billie hinton March 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm

When I was young I was intimidated by everyone I didn’t know VERY well, whether they were brilliant or not. So I think when I grew up and went off to college I had a lot of NOT being intimidated catching up to do. I can’t think of anyone who has intimidated me in the past 25 or so years!

I wish I had a good story to tell but I don’t. So I will join you in celebrating Robin’s book – yay, Robin! I am going to click over and buy it right now.


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm

What a cool thought that you could just sort of wear out that emotion so it doesn’t have a hold on you anymore! So glad you’re going to check out Robin’s book. 🙂


billie hinton March 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

One interesting observation that came to me as I read your comment – all those years being intimidated by nearly everyone gave me lots of time to observe and think about people and their ways of being. So much later in life that skill is well developed and the most intriguing dynamic happens when I meet someone who *wants* me to be intimidated (fortunately not all that many, but there are a few) and what happens when I’m not. It’s a little string of human behavior unfolding that I never even knew existed when I was young. And even more interesting is how this informs work with animals of all kinds, from dogs to cats to horses. What you see behind the need to intimidate is usually a far cry from what you expect to be there.


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I’m a people- and animal-observer, too. I kind of prefer animals in the end.


Nathalie March 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm

He does cast rather an intimidating figure at first glance (but I have only seen him at a signing) and his writing is just so amazing.
People we do admire are indeed intimidating (at least they are to me, regarless of their field of competence), I believe because of inherent fear of rejection (and, in many case, of not even being worth of anything as definite as rejection). Something in us that wants to shout “I am here! I am a fellow human being and worthy of your attention! Love me. Or loathe me if you must!” while in the end a little stuttering “I love your work” is about all that does come out.


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I think you’re right, that’s it’s all wrapped up in a fear of rejection. Or a fear of sounding dumb or dull in comparison. I would sit with that idea of “I am here!” for a bit. There’s something kind of marvelous buzzing through that simple statement, and maybe there’s an entire story just behind it.


Kate Gray March 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I’m in the camp with Billy Bones. Everyone used to intimidate me. Also raises hand for ADD…. Yep. A few things have pushed me beyond that through the years. The first was joining sports, for me, the track team. I still remember my dad saying, “If your grades get any lower, you’re done.” I was a solid C student. Imagine the shock and awe of the very next report card with accompanying letter from Awesome Principal – honor roll, along with congrats for lettering in 3rd meet. Physical activity in the ADD mind tends to lead it toward organization, of all things.
Also have found that the acting class I took is handy for social events…I just pretend to be myself, and it eventually works out.
Probably the single best thing for not being intimidated, but not necessarily for everyone – join the Marine Corps. Yeah, I wasn’t sure what I was thinking either, but when you face the screaming instructors and realize you didn’t, in fact, die of shame or anything else…it’s pretty liberating. Of course, I was a foot taller than the instructors, and they had to jump on the footlockers to yell in my face, so that took some of the scary out of it.
(My kids and I are taking hefty doses of omega 3’s right now to help with the ADD – and I feel like it helps a lot. I am writing more than I was, and finishing things without forgetting what I was doing. I do recommend it!)
The last person I felt in awe of was Temple Grandin – when I got to meet her last year, all I could think of to ask her was how she felt about Claire Danes’ portrayal of her (which she liked). I think it’s awe in light of our hopes for our older son, especially when she confessed that her speech patterns sounded a lot like his when she was young. We feel like she’s the watermark for achievement, and it leaves us a lot to do to shepherd him toward her level of accomplishment.


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Wow, I never knew that about exercise settling the mind. Though, as many of you know, I do the bulk of my writing while I walk… I just talk it into the voice memo on my phone. I find it focuses me, not to mention keeps me away from the internet, fridge, and endless sitting.

Temple Grandin’s amazing. I find I don’t like to meet people unless there’s a mutual interest or we have a real conversation or a real connection. Standing in a line to say hello and try out the stupid phrase I’ve practiced in my head for that whole wait usually leaves me feeling small.

I didn’t know you were a Marine.


Robin Slick March 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Oh wow, thank you so much for the shout out! I blush…

Too funny – of course my story is about Neil Gaiman, too, but I’ve told it a million times. Suffice it to say I went all fan girl when I met him — this, after I dragged my poor son along with me, broke my promise to behave, and managed to sully the Slick name forever Nathalie is right, Neil, to his credit, was very sweet and even kissed me on the cheek the next time we bumped into each other – when you and Ellen Meister read at the Highline Ballroom, Sue. Contrary to popular belief, I did wash my face before I went to bed that evening but it wasn’t easy. 🙂

But honestly? Don’t think I’m weird but I feel humbled by your brilliance, and Ellen’s, and Tish’s, and Jessica’s, and Caroline’s…basically most of the LitPark authors. When I read your work I barely breathe — I’m serious – you all inspire me to do better and if I didn’t know you all personally, I’d probably go all fan girl when I met you, too. xo


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I’m laughing at how many Neil Gaiman moments we’re racking up here. When I was in college, I had a crush on this boy named Ro’ee. And whenever I was near him, I literally couldn’t speak. So one day, I’m walking to class and I see we’re about to pass each other, so I thought I could at least smile at him. He noticed, and then I walked right into a tree.

Also, thank you for what you said. xox


Aurelio O'Brien March 7, 2011 at 10:14 pm

It’s interesting: the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life weren’t famous. I think the most captivating thing about being around someone truly brilliant is to watch how their brains work–usually they have a heightened ability to focus. They tend to say the least in conversation but contribute the most.

And, more often than not, they are very witty. Rather than intimidate me, I develop crushes.


Susan Henderson March 7, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Amen to everything you’ve said!


Jessica Keener March 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Hi, Sue.
I’ve been avoiding this question, though it’s a great one. Does this mean I’m “intimidated” by it?
I guess so.
–So, I’ll do what I do when I’m intimidated, I’ll slip out of view and defer to Billie Hinton’s answer. She kind of sums up what I think now that I’ve lived a good amount of years.

Okay, I’ll step back into view for a second: The truth is, in the old days, in my twenties, if I felt intimidated by someone–usually a young writer who had “made” it at a young age-my age at that time–it would send me on emotionally downward spirals for weeks. I don’t like to think that I allowed someone else, often someone I hardly knew, to have that kind of power over me. It tells me how insecure I was, how uncertain I was on my feet. I guess I was an emotional toddler and fell often (and wailed often). Now, not so much. I can almost count the people on two fingers that intimidate me and the feeling now is still primarily envy—which I try hard to eradicate from my life because I know it’s a loser’s feeling and game.


Susan Henderson March 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm

There’s an interesting theme that’s developing here in the comments section and it’s about getting more comfortable in your own skin, slowly learning to value your own talents despite all the potentially intimidating achievements going on around you, and reaching a point where you won’t let others try to take you down. Fearlessness. Except on those days we’re scared shitless! 🙂


Heather Fowler March 10, 2011 at 4:28 pm

🙂 I get intimidated by brilliant people, but only when they turn their gaze to what I’m doing. I think it’s funny, but I could ask them questions and hear their answers for hours, no discomfort, just fascination. But if they should mention being aware of what I do–*squirm*–or compliment me–*triple squirm*–and I have to fight the urge to say, “How about those Padres?” or “Wow, great weather right?” xoxo


Susan Henderson March 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Heather! I’m so excited I get to see you in San Diego! I’m with you — I have a real fascination with listening to brilliant people–anyone, really–but it’s more comfortable when I’m just observing so it’s all about them.


Heather Fowler March 10, 2011 at 4:30 pm

P.S. But I operate under the constant principle that my friends and people I admire are so much more interesting and beautiful. It’s not a negative trend toward the self, more like a wish for an absence of self in terms of assertions or entities. I’m strange, right?


Susan Henderson March 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm

No, I totally get that. Or possibly, we’re *both* strange! xoxo


Heather Fowler March 14, 2011 at 9:15 pm

I like being your kind of strange, Susan! I think we are marvelously strange. 🙂 xoxo


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