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Question of the Month: Gratitude

by Susan Henderson on March 5, 2012

We all have horror stories in this business, but today I want to hear stories about the good moments that keep you going, that make you feel like your writing matters and that it was worth it to work so long and hard on that story.

Recently I got the nicest surprise—a charm bracelet from someone who was moved by my book. The charms include a bear, an apple, a ruby, a cup, a newborn, and all kinds of other surprises drawn from Up from the Blue. It’s one of the nicest presents I’ve ever received, and I’m going to link Nancy’s website, NMC Originals, in hopes that some of the goodness flows back to her.

Our business requires much of us with no guarantees of success. We dig deep into often painful territory, rewrite and often throw out what we’ve worked on for hours, take tough feedback and the inevitable rejections. Often, what keeps us from giving up are those who make this road a little easier—responding to our writing, sharing tips and encouragement, opening doors.

Recently, the esteemed Robert Gray wrote an article for Shelf Awareness about literary friendship, and I’m very grateful to be included in that essay, along with some people I adore: Jessica Keener, Patry Francis, and Leora Skolkin-Smith.

Strangers matter, too. Thank you to The Foreign Circus Library, The Florida ReviewThe Year of Writing Dangerously, and to Norway’s KK magazine for the nice words!

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Haven’t talked about my kids here in a while. Last week, they played a song on the radio with their School of Rock house band. The audio is here, along with some great photos taken by Tracie Smith. The radio station is WRCN 103.9, and the deejays you see in the photos are Frankie Dee, Henry K, and AJ Pero (drummer for Twisted Sister). It was a great opportunity for the kids, and they had such fun!

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Let me end with an announcement of a book I was honored to blurb. Deborah Henry’s startling debut, THE WHIPPING CLUB, brings us inside a hidden page in Ireland’s history. When Ben Ellis, a Jewish journalist, becomes engaged to Irish schoolteacher Marian McKeever against their families’ wishes, Marian’s discovery that she is pregnant fuels fears that this may be one too many stresses on their upcoming marriage. Her uncle, a Catholic priest, convinces her to disappear into the Mother Baby Home where she can deliver her child in secrecy and give him up for adoption.

A decade later, haunted by her guilt and a sense that she and her husband are growing apart, Marian searches for what has become of their son. The search leads to a corrupt system of orphanages and industrial schools for boys, where fear and humiliation are used to force the children into submission.

Gripping, cinematic, and told with a poet’s touch, THE WHIPPING CLUB shows us the consequences of silence, of good people standing by, and of unchecked power. Ultimately, however, this is a story of survival, redemption, and the courage that is born of love. One of my favorite reads of the decade! Seriously.

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Hope to see some of you this month in Orlando, Florida and Portland, Maine!

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Nathalie (@spacedlaw) March 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Sounds like a compelling book. I’ll look it up.

I am not out to make a career in fiction writing for myself, so I don’t need much to keep me afloat, except for the odd good feedback (even if it comes with a rejection note!). It’s alwasy nice to know that my little delirious bits mean something to someone out there.

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Susan Henderson March 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Yeah, it means so much to get a little feedback… I liked it, it resonated, I liked this particular passage so much I copied it down and pinned it to my bulletin board. It’s a good habit for us to get into as readers, too. If you like something you read in a literary magazine, drop the author or the editor a note. If you love a book, talk about it publicly, whether that means an Amazon review or a tweet.

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Elizabeth Crane March 5, 2012 at 2:53 pm

All gratitude all the time over here. Ok, well, fine, I have my moments, but mostly I have reason about every day to think, holy cow, this is my life? How lucky am I?

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Susan Henderson March 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I feel the same way… and when I don’t, I try to remind myself of just that.

Oh, and by the way, I’m on chapter 30 of your book and I’m so in love with these characters and the story and the sentences! What a hell of a book… (go pre-order it, guys! http://www.amazon.com/We-Only-Know-So-Much/dp/0062099477/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330959560&sr=1-1)

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Elizabeth Crane March 7, 2012 at 4:46 pm

Oh, I’m so glad, Susan, yay!!!

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Jenny Milchman March 5, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Wow–not only is that a book rec I have just added to my Must Have’s, but your moments are so wonderful to read about. The bracelet is lovely.

I’ll add one for literary friendship.

I was 11 years, 8 novels, and 3 agents in to this game–and about to go another route. Maybe a teeny tiny press. Maybe myself. It’s not something I recommend to everyone, but I knew my work was publishable–during those 11 years, I’d also had 15 almost-offers from editors.

Enter my literary angel. A favorite author who agreed to read my unpublished manuscript. Several literary angels had done this for me, and offered wonderful words and even referrals to people who might be able to help. But this particular author just happened to have an editor whose tastes reflected her own.

She put it in her editor’s hands–and five weeks later my debut novel sold.

Five weeks and eleven years later, I mean.

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Susan Henderson March 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm

Jenny, I love that story. There’s two things I see over and over with success stories–one is that someone, somewhere opened a door, and the other is that the writer had the perseverance that allowed her to be around (and to be ready to march through) when that door opened. So glad it happened for you and looking forward to your book!

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Jessica Keener March 6, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Hi, Sue.
I have Deborah’s novel on my reading list, in part because of your incredible recommendation, and also because the story sounds compelling and complex.

Gratitude is something I have felt a lot of these past six months –it’s been overwhelming at times–learning how to thank people for helping me, which in turn helps me learn how to accept support from others (not easy for me, sorry to say). I’ve even begun to be grateful for difficult situations, because it’s so much better than feeling bitter or resentful. Feelings of gratitude have their own power. They open me up and reinforce other good feelings like faith and belief that things will work out. When I’m not grateful, the opposite happens-I reject and feel rejected. I’m going to meditate on this word some more this month to help me deal with matters that feel impossible. How can I be grateful for what can’t be solved or immediately understood? I think feeling gratitude is going to give me some insight around that.

Finally, I’m grateful for your monthly questions and updates. Thanks for keeping at it.

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I think you’ll love her book, and I’m betting someone snatches up the movie rights real soon.

We’ll talk a lot about this when we’re in Maine together later this month, I’m sure of it, but with all the celebration of launching a debut novel, it is a year of real emotional growth. You’re so right about learning how to accept support and attention, letting go of expectations, letting the book go from being a private thing to something in the public domain, doing what publishers ask you to do and no introverts in their right minds would do. So so much to learn and feel and you’ve said it well. Can’t wait to share wine and stories.

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billie hinton March 7, 2012 at 12:24 am

I’m grateful for readers. I love writing and the entire process of editing and incorporating feedback, etc. so I would do it anyway, even without readers – but reading reviews and emails and various ways of sharing what they think after they read puts the candles on top of the cake for me.

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 1:14 am

Readers are the best, especially when a perfect stranger makes a connection after discovering your work.

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Billy Bones March 7, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I’m like a grateful puppy when someone tells me they like my work. “Really? You do? Are you sure? Oh, thank you! Thank you.” In fact, I’d probably lick their outstretched hand except for the danger of arrest, or stretching the limits of a metaphor. But the reasons I keep going back to my stories and coming up with new ones have more internal roots. Insecurity, pride, an almost sociopathic need to share, and, oh yes, a mulishly stubborn streak: these are the real forces that keep me going.

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Yeah, for me draw is all internal, often a desire to take something chaotic and work with it until it has shape and meaning. Or if there’s something I’m wrestling with, I like to fiddle with it on the page to see it from a distance and discover a lesson in it.

You, by the way, are so ridiculously talented that I find it charming you could also be insecure.

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Billy Bones March 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Thank you for saying that.

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Kimberly M. Wetherell March 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Recently, “grateful” is a very difficult word to grasp — professionally speaking. I know I have a whole heap of things to be grateful for, but major disappointment after major disappointment on top of major disappointment has kept it hovering just beyond the tips of my fingers.

So I’m working diligently to focus on other things to be grateful for: friends, good food, the roof over my head, my return home to Brooklyn (3 weeks!!!), my health, family — things that I might have taken a little too much for granted in the past.

I’m embarrassed to say that it’s not as comforting right now to be grateful for the ‘ordinary’ (since I usually demand the extraordinary) and it takes much more work on my part to distract myself and actively seek gratitude every day.

And in that process, I’m learning that the humility of being grateful for the ‘ordinary’ is something I should have learned a long time ago. And not to sound corny, but for that, I’m pretty grateful.

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Yeah, it’s crushing to spend so much time and money and get so much support and near-yesses and see the possibility of something big and glorious about to happen and then it doesn’t. The only good I can see in it, because honestly it hurts and makes me angry, is that it’s brought you back to Brooklyn. David and I are going to take you out to dinner when you’re back in town. And the one thing I’m certain of is that you are going to great things. xo

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Kimberly M. Wetherell March 7, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Thank you for always being kind, strong, encouraging you and please refer back to the first thing on the above list that I’m grateful for: friends.

How do you feel about Key Lime pie? ‘Tis the season, you know… 😉

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 3:46 pm

I’ve never had it before because I was under the impression I was allergic to it. Doesn’t it have cream cheese or sour cream in it? And we’re both up for either taking you out or staying in and cooking together. I’m so happy you’re coming back to New York!

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Kimberly M. Wetherell March 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Nope – condensed milk and egg yolks whipped into a custard. (The eggs are technically raw, tho’ – is that a problem?) And then there’s whipped heavy cream as a garnish/topping (but I also make a dairy-free marshmallow fluff topping sometimes to mix things up).

Dinner either out of in? Both work for me… or… (gasp!) BOTH??? 😀 I think my arrival date is on/about March 30, but I’ll let you know when that’s set in stone. <3

Raima March 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Thanks for another provocative question, Susan! I am grateful for readers and didn’t really know how grateful I would be until I started getting feedback on my (very) few published pieces. It is SO encouraging when a reader tells me what he or she liked in my story, how the piece affected them, how they want me to write more so they can read more of this stuff – especially that last one. 🙂 It’s not so much that I love being praised for my work (although, of course, I do!) but that I need the validation that I’m not shouting into a vacuum and my words are actually making their way into somebody else’s mind. That knowledge completes the cycle for me and I am able to go back and write some more words.

Thanks for all you do to encourage the rest of us, by the way. It’s very much appreciated!

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I’m with you about not wanting to shout into a vacuum. Someone asked me once if I journal and my reason that I don’t is because I desperately want my writing to connect with people, to spark a dialogue.

Let me know if you end up going on a writer’s retreat this summer… and which one you choose.

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Raima March 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I’m going to apply to Squaw Valley after all (wish me luck!) and I may also do some kind of self-directed retreat for a week or so (I often go to the Omega Institute in upstate new York for one of their R&R retreats and spend the days writing in a cabin) but I don’t know if I’m ready for a month-long sabbatical. Or able to get away for that long! Even without kids at home, there’s still other things in life I can’t leave behind for that length of time, including my yoga students. And my garden. 🙂

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I’ll wish you luck in person because I’ll be there, too! I’m doing a reading… on July 10th (I think).

I’ve been toying with the idea of Yaddo, or some type of residential program, but I think I may instead go stay in the town that my work-in-progress wants to be set in, and just call that a retreat.

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Raima March 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm

PS: I also meant to comment on your comment about journaling. I have kept a journal for decades (since high school) and have found that my most important “audience” is my older self. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read back in my journal and learned something about myself that changed the future course of my life. One of these things was the discovery that I wanted to write full time – it took me years and years to get to the point where I’m now doing that, but without the journal I wonder if I ever would have known?

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 3:22 pm

That’s lovely. 🙂

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Kimberly, (writing here because I guess we exceeded the single thread limit), Sounds like I’m about to try key lime pie for the first time! I’m out of town till April 1st, but after that we’re a go! Can’t wait to see you and catch up!

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Kimberly M. Wetherell March 8, 2012 at 12:59 am

Lovely! I’ll save it for a housewarming dinner at my new place (since it’s best kept ice cold, if not frozen) and hopefully, that’ll entice you to come all the way out to Brooklyn! xo

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Mary Akers March 15, 2012 at 3:05 pm

How apt that you would mention Patry Francis in your post. Before I got to the part where you mentioned her, I had already been thinking of her as one of the people/readers I’m grateful for. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her in person, but she read the non-fiction book that I co-authored and took the time to write one of the most heartfelt and beautifully generous notes I’ve received for that book. So I’m grateful for readers who take the time to respond. Readers like Patry. 🙂

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Susan Henderson March 17, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Patry’s just an amazing human being, don’t you think? She’s one of those people that inspires you to become a better version of yourself.

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Krista March 21, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Still so grateful to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers for letting me into its fiction program this past summer–such an amazingly inspiring experience, and where I picked up a copy of Up From the Blue in the Squaw bookstore. It’s too simplistic to say I loved the book, Susan, but I did. It was haunting, in part because Tillie was coming of age in an era that I recall from my own pre-teenhood, and also because she and the other characters were so well-drawn that it was impossible not to become deeply enmeshed in the mysteries and impossibilities–and hope–that come with a family’s struggle with mental illness. When a writer can start with a subject that most of us “can’t imagine” and imagine it into a gorgeous story, that’s art. Loving this blog, too, with your discussion about the writing process.

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Susan Henderson March 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Your note’s made me so happy. I appreciate your comments about my book so much. I didn’t realize my book was out there at Squaw and feel so honored to be in their bookstore. It’s an amazing place–the geography and the spirit of the place. I have so many memories of that main meeting room and the hard boiled eggs and all the great writers, discovered and undiscovered, and the readings and the music. Going back this summer for a reading and can’t wait!

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Krista March 28, 2012 at 3:46 am

I’ll be watching for the Squaw schedule because even though I’m not applying this year (hope to go next year), some writer friends of mine and I plan to take a field trip up from Sacramento for a day or two of afternoon panels and readings. I’d love to hear you read.

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Susan Henderson March 28, 2012 at 8:34 pm

If Dorothy Allison’s on the schedule, be sure to see her, too. She’s absolutely inspiring!

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