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Question of the Month: That Urgent Voice

by Susan Henderson on May 2, 2011

What is the urgent thing you need to say that’s at the core of the story you’re currently writing?

You don’t have to answer here, but see if you can distill the idea into a single sentence. And then read that sentence every time you sit down to write.

*

In March, I took a trip to San Diego to speak at Writers, Ink, and later at Amy Wallen’s Savory Salon, both fabulous experiences for writers. One of those talks turned out to be surprisingly emotional, and the tears had to do with the idea of this urgency at the core of our work.

You know I like to keep my posts short, but it’s going to take more words than usual to tell this story right, so get yourself a cup of coffee, and stay a while. I think this trip helped to clarify a lot of the anxiety and sorrow and desperation that many of us have experienced as we’ve workshopped our stories and submitted them for publication, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Have your coffee now? Good!

So I land in beautiful San Diego with all of its color and Craftsman architecture, and I’m so glad to see my friend, Amy, who will be interviewing me at SDwink as well as hosting the Savory Salon at her house. We spend the afternoon walking around her town and end up at her friend, Carolyn’s, who makes us kumquat mojitos.

I never had a kumquat before this trip, but now I’m obsessed with them, especially when they’re soaked in rum.

Okay, so that night, we go out for phở with Frank DiPalermo, and then I stay at Frank’s house and fall asleep with his dog, who’s usually not allowed on the bed. I wake up to a full breakfast—scrambled eggs with onions and sundried tomatoes, and we spend the day at the zoo. I threw my back out right before the trip so this is like the geriatric version of hitting the zoo, but wonderful catching up with each other and talking about the books we’re writing.

In the evening, we head to San Diego Writers, Ink, where I’m surprised and so glad to see my friend, Shauna McKenna, as well as folks I’ve known for a long while but have never met in person—Richard Cooper, Bonnie ZoBell, Andy Roe, and Heather Fowler (both pictured below).

We get started, and Amy begins by asking me to tell the story of getting my book published. Regulars of LitPark know it was a long and winding road full of rejection letters and waiting and editing temper tantrums, and I worried, as I was telling the story, that I’d totally killed the audience. Strangely, many were inspired by the very story I consider so embarrassing and depressing.

The next morning, Frank cooks the most fabulous French toast in the world, and then we head to Amy’s for what we don’t know yet will become a 10-hour literary salon with many, many tears and so much nurturing.

We go around the room for introductions—folks say what they’re are working on, where they are in the process, what other workshops they’ve participated in—and right away I hear the hurt and the frustration that was so much a part of my own process. So when Amy asks me if I’ll re-tell my publishing story, I tell something very different than the night before, something much closer to the vest, a grief I was only beginning to be able to put into words.

All the while, I should add, Amy is guiding our discussion and serving the pies she baked. There is a Lemon Shaker Pie with a Whole Wheat Crust; Chicken Pot Pie with Thyme Cream Sauce and Lemon Crust; mini Orange & Lime Cream Pies with Macadamia Crusts; and my favorite, the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life, a Persian Beef Stew Pie with Eggplant, Lime, and a Seedy Lavosh Crust. (Amy, can you send the recipe… or maybe just move in?)

But back to the grief. It’s not the one I expected—not the wear and tear of trying to get a foothold in this business. It has to do with that initial and urgent impulse to write and finding how far our work has slipped away from it.

So I tell my publishing story with much less emphasis on the business side of things and much more on the actual process of writing. Maybe this story will feel familiar to you.

It begins with something that haunts you, taps at you from the inside, or simply won’t let go of your subconscious. For some it’s the memory of a specific event, for others it’s a build-up of many events or simply a strong feeling with no particular sense of why it’s there. But this is the place where your urge to write comes from—that place inside of you that cracked, or nearly cracked, that place that is at the root of your fears and vulnerabilities, but also your compassion and wisdom.

Fast forward through several drafts, and we feel our poem or story or novel now has a shape to it and speaks to something we’ve needed to say, and so we take it to a workshop for feedback. And here is where the tears flow, talking about what happens when we invite others to critique our work… and it’s not what you think because none of us are delicate flowers who get defensive about tough feedback or believe our work can’t substantially improve.

So we form a critique group, whether it’s online or in real life, whether it’s with people we know or strangers we paid to be in the company of; and we pass them this story that we’ve edited and re-edited. And, of course we know there is much work to do on this draft, but something begins to happen as we receive all the marked-up copies of our work, all the ways it’s not right, not dramatic enough, too lazy-paced, how it doesn’t begin with enough of a bang, and how this part has too much internal monologue, and how you can cut this other part entirely and really speed up the scene.

We start fiddling—cutting, moving scenes, adding action, changing points-of-view and so on—because, well, because many of these comments are on the mark, and also because we feel like stupid failures and because we suck and no wonder we’ve never made it.

We turn in a next draft to this critique group, and we’re told it’s much improved—it’s more groomed, faster paced, a much tighter and more exciting read. Except…

Something doesn’t feel right in the gut. We can’t place the feeling, not at first, sometimes not for a very long time about why this groomed, faster-paced, more exciting thing doesn’t interest us anymore. Or why we wake up in the morning and can’t make ourselves write. We numbly move sentences around or maybe we don’t get out of bed at all. And what the hell happened?

What happened to the story we were so obsessed about? How could it be so much better, and with input from successful and famous people, no less, and yet we’ve completely lost interest?

And then we make the terrible discovery: we’ve edited out the story’s beating heart. That urgent thing that made us need to write it in the first place, that thing that was so present in our messy first drafts, is gone. And this is what we talked about, and cried about. What was that urgent thing we had to say, and how do we find it again?

And maybe the answer has to do with what Amy taught us—to have a day built around comfort and nurturing and pie. I’m honestly not sure how she did it, but I think most of us left transformed, and I hope all of you sign up for one of her salons and experience the magic. (Amy’s story of our Savory Salon is here.)

A number of us went out afterwards and spouses came along. I was literatured-out (can you tell from that special look in my eyes?), so Amy’s significant other, Eber, and I talked a lot about football and music. And here’s a tip, if anyone gets the bright idea of asking the entire table to go around and tell a story about your best and worst job ever, I will always win the worst job contest, and no one will really feel like eating after I tell it.

*

A few announcements: UP FROM THE BLUE launches in the UK this month. And I’ll be on a panel with both my agent and my editor at the Backspace Conference on May 27th.  I also have a number of links to share… here’s video from the BookMania conference (click on the link called “FIVE @ 4: The Grand Finale” to see my panel discussion with authors Elizabeth Berg, Joyce Maynard, Martha McPhee, and Michael Morris); Rosie O’Donnell’s blog talks about my appearance on Rosie Radio; I did a Rhode Island radio show called Reading with Robin with Robin Kall on 920 WHJJ; the San Francisco Book Review had some very kind words about my book, as did the book blogger at More Than It Seems; I have a small piece over at The Laughing Yeti, where Shome Dasgupta is compiling quite a collection of reading experiences; and someone brought this very old slide show on NPR to my attention.

In other news, Mr. H is busy designing the set for Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and just signed on to do sets for CAROUSEL; and last month he and his students (he’s Chair of the Drama Department at his university) played some Vietnam era songs for the vets. The boys and I volunteered at TEDxTeen, and here’s some of the music they’ve been involved with: My 9th grader and the other School of Rock All-Stars played Pink Floyd’s THE WALL in its entirety at B.B. King’s in Times Square; my 8th grader did a workshop and got to play the song “Welcome Home” with Travis Stever, the guitarist for Coheed & Cambria; and the boys and I are in this School of Rock ad (my 9th grader is playing keys on the soundtrack, which he recorded in studio with Rocky Gallo and Dave Tozer).

That’s it for May. Looking forward to your comments!

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

billie hinton May 2, 2011 at 2:47 am

I love this post – and the photos – I would have SO loved to be there at the Savory Salon.

I know what you mean about the beating heart of the books we write. In some ways, my decision to start my own little press and do it on my own has to do with protecting that part of my stories. It’s a tender thing, writing. And a fierce thing too.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2011 at 11:41 am

Billie, You would have loved it! Maybe you can sign up for a future salon. She throws one every month. And I just love what you said about the tender and the fierce!

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Aurelio O'Brien May 2, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I’d come for the food alone–I got hungry looking at the pix.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm

I would go again for the food alone, but the rest was pure magic.

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Billy Bones May 2, 2011 at 11:51 am

This is on the dedication page of Mr. Lincoln’s latest WIP. It’s there to keep the story’s heart beating.

Then they drag her from the river,

Water from her clothes they wrang,

For they thought that she was drownded;


But the corpse got up and sang:


‘It’s the same the whole world over;

It’s the poor that gets the blame,

It’s the rich that get the pleasure.

Isn’t it a blooming shame?’

A portion of “She Was Poor But She Was Honest” by Anonymous. Public domain.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm

I think it’s so smart to keep that at the front of your WIP, and, by the way, I really like what’s at the heart of your story!

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Aurelio O'Brien May 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm

You don’t have to have anyone else’s permission to be yourself and like yourself.

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Aurelio O'Brien May 2, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Or, the most attractive person you can be is yourself, so relax–don’t try so hard.

I’ve noticed this theme permeates almost everything I write. The fight against self-loathing is one I battled with a therapist (back in my 20’s) and still fall back into from time to time.

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Billy Bones May 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Sounds like a good rule for imaginary people, too.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I love this core message!

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Aurelio O'Brien May 2, 2011 at 11:52 pm

I’m using the Dorothy Parker line, “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone,” for my book’s opening quotation.

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2011 at 1:21 am

What a great opening quote! I love the way Dorothy Parker never pulled her punches.

Looking forward to your appearance on #LitChat this week. Everyone meet on Twitter at 4pm EST. Aurelio promised to post a reminder over on my FaceBook page… LitChat is always a great (and chaotic) discussion for writers, and I’m really looking forward to this one!

Susan Henderson May 4, 2011 at 7:16 pm

You have a picture now, hooray!

Colin Matthew May 2, 2011 at 5:49 pm

The core of my WIP? Hmm… Is it bad if that’s something that I never sat down and thought about? I know my characters, and I know what they go through throughout the course of the story. I know where they end of how they changed, but I have never thought about the core. I guess, just off the top of my head, the core of my WIP would be something along the lines of “the impact of television and the loss of creative control”. But that’s a really pretentious way of putting it. I just want to write a fun novel.

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Colin Matthew May 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm

I amend that after re-reading the question. What is the urgent thing I need my WIP to say? I would say that my new revised core is something along the lines of “Never take life too seriously” or “You don’t need a laugh track to laugh at everyday situations.”

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Ooh, I like that. It’s a refreshing message!

Hey, how did you get your avatar to show up? Any chance you can walk the others through how you did it? I don’t remember how I did mine.

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Colin Matthew May 4, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Unless you have some weird blog plugin that I don’t know about, the avatars for the comments are pulled from Gravatar.com

Commenters would need to register for a Gravatar account and they would upload an avatar that would be associated with the e-mail they type in on your site (between Name and Website).

So assuming I am correct, I typed in a different e-mail and instead of my Book Pirate logo it should be showing a picture of me.

easypeasy.

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Susan Henderson May 4, 2011 at 7:16 pm

You rock. Thank you so much for this.

Reba Yardley May 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

My current WIP, at the heart, is about giving yourself permission to overcome grief and anger, and letting yourself fall in love again.

Oddly, I was halfway through another story, before I realized this was the one I needed to tell. Sometimes, stories are tricky that way.

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Susan Henderson May 2, 2011 at 9:14 pm

That’s beautiful, and I love the way stories call you when they’re ready. Alice Sebold talked about how she was trying to write The Lovely Bones but an older story kept calling her… the one that ended up being Lucky. That’s where all her emotional energy was driving her, and she says she couldn’t have written The Lovely Bones until she’d told the other one.

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Amy Sue Nathan May 3, 2011 at 11:32 am

The urgent voice in my novel says: we have to learn to see beyond someone’s outer layer — and allow people to see beyond our own. It also says that family is what – and who – you make it.

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2011 at 12:27 pm

LOVE that!

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Ronlyn May 3, 2011 at 12:43 pm

The second page of the notebook for Novel #2 states in one word what the core was. Since then, it’s morphed. And I know what it is…in two words…but the story eludes its message. Maybe I’m trying to hard to assign logic to something that is beyond it.

Good friends, a friendly cat, and pies….what a weekend!

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Novel #2 must be awfully important because you and it are sure in a wrestling match! Let me know if you want to do one of Amy’s salons and I’ll put you two in touch. xo

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Ronlyn May 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

It better be, otherwise I’ve wasted nearly five years of my life. I’ll keep that offer in mind for the future. Thanks and big hugs.

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2011 at 8:16 pm

It’s not wasted time. You may even be writing a classic. And afterwards, the struggle and the knot you keep running into might make sense.

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Aurelio O'Brien May 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I used the instructions you sent in order to have my pic show up–looks like it worked!

Cool.

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Billy Bones May 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm

I think I need those instructions. I’m tired of looking like a snowman.

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Susan Henderson May 5, 2011 at 12:19 am

Very glad to see your faces here. Just follow the instructions Colin posted up above.

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Billy Bones May 5, 2011 at 1:03 am

Am I here?

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Billy Bones May 5, 2011 at 1:03 am

Yes!

Nathalie May 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Only love will keep us there.
There meaning on Earth.

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Susan Henderson May 6, 2011 at 11:05 pm

That’s wonderful!

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Despina Yeargin May 8, 2011 at 8:36 pm

So many WIPS, so little time! 🙂

It’s always–always–about healing (me and others) and connecting. I love connecting. That’s what’s at the core of my writing and of my current WIPs. 🙂

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Susan Henderson May 9, 2011 at 12:35 pm

This sounds so much like you and makes me sure I’ll love the final result!

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Despina Yeargin May 9, 2011 at 12:26 am

http://gardenandgun.com/newsletter/power-pie Don’t let the name fool you–good magazine. They even have Southern writers doing book reviews.

Working with TEDxGreenville, I was able to get John Bielenberg of Project M to speak about a new collaborative network called COMMONworks. Cool! In my research I found out about PIE LAB, a Project M project, which is featured in this link.

With your post about pies and writing, I thought this might be a good and natural connection.

BTW, all this pie talk is making me SO hungry!

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Susan Henderson May 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm

That is too funny and so Southern to call it Garden and Gun! I hope you have a little of that in your WIPs, too, the yin and yang!

I love all this pie talk and how we’re both busy with TED programs in our neighborhoods. I want to hear updates about the pie lab and COMMONworks. These good ideas might spread!

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Amy Wallen May 10, 2011 at 3:02 am

Oh I love this Pie Idea!

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Amy Wallen May 10, 2011 at 3:07 am

Susan, thank you for the wonderful write-up. I’m so late at chiming in here, and I’m sure folks have gone and made pies and written novels by now. Just wrapped up the most stressful month of every year for me–the month of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I moderated a fabulous panel. Next year we have to get you out her for the country’s largest book festival. It’s also probably the best one. Great literary discourse.

But I digress. I love what everyone here had to say about WIP. I know that the day you sat in my living room, you saved some lives and thus some WIPs.

I, myself, started making pies because I needed a creative outlet that would have a shorter end date than a novel. I nearly drove myself mad trying to keep myself going on those years-long projects. So, before my novel was published, pies were my “I can’t take any more days without endings!” outlet.

All authors are welcome to San Diego for a salon. I love hosting them. And now I’m expanding into Los Angeles! Who knows, maybe New York is next!

With love and lots of butter,

Amy http://www.savorysalons.com

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Susan Henderson May 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I would love to do the festival next year because I would be that much closer to your kitchen and your living room, and that’s where I want to be all the time. With all your talk of pies, the one thing you never said (and I love it so much) is that you needed a creative outlet with a shorter end date. Can I just say that there may be a book in that simple but terribly profound statement?

And I’m going to send you an author’s name this minute… someone who will save more lives and someone who could seriously use a day of pie.

xo!

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Susan Henderson May 12, 2011 at 6:29 pm

I’m posting this especially for the folks who were part of my savory salon. Sound familiar? http://blog.fictionaut.com/2011/05/12/line-breaks-jessica-anya-blau/

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Jessica Keener May 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

Sue,
Beautiful post and one I can relate to completely. I’ve had too many people looking at a draft until that urgent voice is lost in the din. That’s when I end up shelving my manuscript for a while (months and sometimes years) until it gets “cold” and quiet, and I can return to it with that urgent voice/burning core you talk about here and sum up so brilliantly. Thanks.

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Susan Henderson May 19, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Yeah, it’s such a funny balance taking in useful feedback, even very tough feedback, and losing your ownership of the work in the rewrites. No answers here, but I’m glad we’re all talking about it.

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Andy Roe June 4, 2011 at 2:49 am

Hi Susan,

Late in commenting, I know, but I loved this write-up and reading your description of the Savory Salon.

Again, it was so nice meeting you and getting to spend some time together (albeit brief) during your San Diego sojourn.

I hope Amy can lure you back to Southern California for next year’s book festival in LA!

All the best,

Andy

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Susan Henderson June 5, 2011 at 3:26 pm

It was great to have a chance to hang out with you, Andy. Next time we’ll have to find a better bartender. 🙂

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