Question of the Month: Divided Attention

by Susan Henderson on November 5, 2012

Tell me about something in your life that keeps you from giving your all to your current writing project.

This month, my manuscript took a back seat to my 16-year-old’s college application. He’s applying early to his first choice school, and on top of the time-consuming nature of applications—and having to balance them with a full course load of regular school work and outside activities—I was seeing him grapple with something I know all too well: self-doubt. How can I capture who I am on a piece of paper? What if I put every ounce of who I am into this thing, and it’s not good enough? What if I’ve misjudged my abilities and I don’t get into any college at all?

The good news is that this early application is now done, and I think he’ll be a strong candidate, though I understand the odds at these top schools. My son is hoping to study theoretical math in college, and luckily, they allow multi-media supplements to the application, where kids can communicate what doesn’t fit as easily into words.

Here is how he told the story of his crazy Moog project that’s made such a mess of his room and our basement:

(Direct link:

And here are two examples of different keyboard playing styles (first ELP’s Tarkus, and then Deep Purple’s Lazy) which he needed to submit in order to take electives in the music department:

(Direct link:

(Direct link:

I know I set aside my own work again and again to tend to my son’s project and the emotions that came with it. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The period of childhood is precious and brief, and I want to be fully engaged in it. For all of you whose children are in this same process, much luck to you. And for you writers who know rejection and self-doubt so very well, much love.


Some thank you’s for the links and press this month: Huffington Post, Ragnh, the Star Tribune, Great New Books, and People Magazine. Hope you’re all enjoying fall (my favorite season!), and I’m looking forward to hearing your stories.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Billy Bones November 5, 2012 at 1:07 am

Mr. Lincoln writes just about every day. The thing that holds him back the most is self-doubt. But happily, not that often. He has also joined a terrific writing group that is hugely supportive and smart.


Susan Henderson November 5, 2012 at 1:09 am

The way I’ve learned to conquer self-doubt is knowing that I don’t have to nail anything in the first draft, and I don’t have to show anyone my writing till it’s ready. A shitty first draft is easier to revise than a blank page.

Glad you’re in a great writing group!


Billy Bones November 5, 2012 at 1:15 am

Where self-doubt crops up the most for me is when I’m stretching toward places I’ve never been before. Make writing pretty interesting, though. : )


Susan Henderson November 5, 2012 at 1:18 am

But this is why I love writers… because we want to understand what we don’t know and bring into focus what is otherwise too blurry or too subtle to see.


Billy Bones November 7, 2012 at 3:22 pm

So happy that one huge distraction is now out of the way for a few more years.

Sarah Normandie November 5, 2012 at 12:07 pm

My writing has most recently taken a backseat to law school. It’s my first semester, and the amount of work (while liberating and inspiring) takes a lot of time. The time I used to squeeze in during late nights (I have two young children) for writing is now consumed with law books. However, I have found the stories I read in my case books inspire me. They are mini novels that fuel my creativity (future story ideas!). Also, I have been squeezing in time to send out queries (sent out some requested fulls, so also checked my email repeatedly, but alas was rejected). I think though that we are always writing, even when we are not “writing” Sometimes we need to switch gears to get the creative process rolling again. If we don’t live life, we have nothing to write about. I find my best inspirations come in the strangest places/times. In the shower, emptying the dishwasher, or when taking a nature walk with my kids. A writer’s brain never shuts off 🙂


Susan Henderson November 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Sarah, What an incredible balancing act! I’m in awe! And I agree with you that writers are always writing somewhere in the back of the brain because we’re observers and thinkers and like to make order and meaning from what we see. Sometimes the best way to write a good story is to spend time living and engaging fully. Looking forward to the stories you create when you have time to type them out again!


Sarah Normandie November 5, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Thank you Susan! And also, your son’s project is amazing! Happy writing 🙂


Susan Henderson November 5, 2012 at 3:34 pm



Jennifer King November 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Hi Susan! Thank you so much for mentioning Great New Books. That means so much. We loved your novel, and especially getting to meet you at Backspace in May! I hope your writing is going well despite all the ways life intervenes.

I also have sons at a fun age, and though being a mom pulls me from writing, often, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m so glad I can flex and be there as they grow, because soon this period will be gone. Cheers to enjoying it and making time for the writing, too.


Susan Henderson November 5, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I’m finding that the more I’m involved with life and my kids, the better my writing is, even if I don’t get to it as often. And I’m with you, I wouldn’t trade this time with them for anything!


Nathalie ( @spacedlaw ) November 9, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Holding me back? Oh, let me count the ways…
Too much work, not enough time. Although that is normal. In fact, in many ways, stress at work helps me write as this is my way to escape it all.
What isn’t normal is the lack on energy I have been suffering from for about a year or so. General apathy on the physical side. Not depression a priori as I have no cause for depression. But the lack of energy gets to me all the same. Which is why I resort to poetry (my own automatic writing exercise) rather than stories (though I still manage the odd drabble here and now).


Susan Henderson November 9, 2012 at 7:31 pm

Oh, Nathalie, I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through that. It sounds familiar, as I’ve cycled through times when my body just felt tired and heavy, not a mood swing but a purely physical blah, and then it goes away with just as little explanation as when it came. It’s frustrating, especially if you’re someone who likes to create. That’s great that you could make a change in your writing to adapt to it, and I hope it eases soon.

I’m also shifting back to poetry and flash fiction with my reading. My draft is pretty much complete as far as the basics go (structure, narrative, themes, all the plot stuff), and now I’m just trying to rework it scene by scene, pretending each is a stand alone piece so I slow down and pay attention to rhythm and imagery and word choice and emotional resonance. I find reading shorter work really wakes me up to the importance of each word. (Have any poets you recommend?)


Nathalie ( @spacedlaw ) November 10, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Classics: Cesare Pavese. Pablo Neruda. They heal anything.


Susan Henderson November 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Fabulous! I’ll read them both.


billie hinton November 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Somehow the beginning of November slipped right by me. 🙂 Right now I have one teenager taking the SAT and applying to colleges and another one taking an honors biology course and actively riding in foxhunts, etc. As you said, parenting teens takes time, especially when they get to the stage where they’re doing lots of prep toward college and have busy schedules to boot. It’s a precious, sweet time. That I am well aware is fueling some future novel that I haven’t even conceived yet. On some level we have to engage in our lives in order to put material in the bank, so to speak, for future work.

Otherwise, we have a very senior cat who is starting to decline and that’s really taken up a lot of my time this month. But again, he found us and joined our family and has given us so much over the years – right now he needs more from us than usual and we’re happy to give it.

I realize as time passes that writing is my way of processing all the things that happen in my life – so when life is busy I know that somewhere down the line I’ll be deluged with things to process – and at my life stage with teens preparing to leave the nest, there’s going to be lots of time to sit and write. And it will be that much better for the experiences I’m having right now.

All that said, I do sometimes get frustrated that what I’m trying to process *right now* is getting put on hold. What saves me is the art of making notes for the books – capturing the essence in a way that I can easily expand on later.


Susan Henderson November 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Well said: We have to engage in our lives. And I agree with you about using writing to process what’s otherwise too complex or chaotic or weighty. I find I write plenty in waiting rooms for all of their activities, and I’ll have the shock of too much time soon enough. For now, I just want to be here in this moment.


billie hinton November 11, 2012 at 12:04 am

I love how you put that – the shock of too much time – because I suspect it is going to be a huge one for both of us. 🙂 It is sort of mind-boggling to me that I have spent almost 18 years full-time parenting. And since we have home-schooled the entire time and never used babysitters or child care other than grandma, almost all of the hours have truly been spent with my children. I’m not sure how it will feel to have them out of the house and out of my daily life.


Susan Henderson November 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Well, I”m glad I’ll have your company when we get there. They are the sound of my car rides, the number one consideration of my schedule, and my first and last thought of every day. I suspect some of that won’t change, even when they’ve moved out of the house.


Mikel K November 11, 2012 at 8:45 pm

My dogs. My cats, My turtle. My frog.
Doctor’s appointments. The list goes on
and on. If I do not fight for the right to
write, I will not write. I have to stay focused
and remember why I tattooed “Poet” on my
chest. I’m not a banker, a lawyer, a vacuum
cleaner salesman going door to door. I am a writer
and write I must above all, and against whatever odds.

–Mikel K


Susan Henderson November 12, 2012 at 2:26 pm

You are so very right! If you don’t carve out time for it, a million chores and distractions will be your excuse every day. (I wonder if I tattoo “Exercise!” on my chest, if it will help?)


Ric Marion November 12, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Gee, I could say something like I’ve doubled my business in the past year, propelled by the specter of retirement with no real plan on how that is supposed to work. Or, I could go with Susan and say I’ve been wrapped up in family affairs – but the kids are pretty much on their own, with minimal adages from Dad to keep them rolling – and Mom, who at 89, requires a bit more time, but mostly is self-sufficient with an excellent caregiver. Any excuse might sound plausible.
However, It has been 10 years since I completed the last novel – the one I was so sure about, the one that was going to make my fortune and my name. And, after 140 rejections, more or less, seemed destined to be the ‘second novel’, I really don’t have any good excuses left save the bane of the writer’s existence, fear of failure.
Can’t seem to get thirty pages without stopping, going over every word, and, subconsciously, deciding it might not be good enough.
I find the ability to reinvent myself, to sit in front of a blank screen, is becoming harder and harder to do.
Life happens. Writing is what I tell myself I do. But I can’t find the one thing that is keeping me from doing it.
So, I have a bookshelf full of first novels by the friends I find online. The ones who started blogging when I did, ten years ago, and they all have published novel after their name, and I wait in the dark.

Gee. That was depressing. Especially from someone who is optimistic to a fault.


Susan Henderson November 12, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Maybe your new work has been incubating. Here are some thoughts for how you might bring it to life… Go to the physical place that feels representative of your novel. Spend a weekend there, if you can. Touch and taste and photograph everything that interests you. Wake up all of your senses to that world. Watch movies that remind you of the place or themes or heart of the story you want to tell. Read something that you wrote when you were on fire, and let it remind you of your passion and your talent. Think about why you kept writing after 140 rejection letters because there’s something you wanted badly to communicate and something I’m guessing you still need to say. Read your favorite book of all time and write down the reasons it speaks to you. Write free-hand on a legal pad and don’t reread a word of it until you’ve filled it. Creating and editing are not the same process, so don’t let one do all the hogging. Let yourself write horrible, long-winded rambling first drafts because that’s where the magic is. And before you quit for the day, write down your goal for tomorrow and be specific. I would start with a scene of a man who finally has time to do what he’s always wanted and finds himself frozen and frustrated. You can do this!


Elizabeth Crane November 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Oh boy, what doesn’t distract me? We’ve had an incredibly busy year, and travel for a new book, and then a move to NY… I only just now feel like things are slowing down just a smidge. Somehow this fall I sort of wrote/reworked a few new stories, but it felt very piecemeal, not like that in-the-groove kind of writing I find the most satisfying. But hey, I’ll take it however I can get it!


Susan Henderson November 14, 2012 at 3:01 am

You know what? I’m a big believer in the value of shitty first drafts and piecemeal writing. My inspirational moments are rare. But you can be emotionally flat one day and still create a clear and well-plotted scene. Later, when you’re feeling more poetic or more emotional, you can add lots of depth to that scene. But every day, you can move forward, groove or no groove. That you can write at all while you’re packing and unpacking boxes impresses me to no end!

I’m so glad you’re in NYC! I’m about 2 hours outside of the city so I don’t make it in very often, but when I do, I’m grabbing you for drinks!


Elizabeth Crane January 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Not going anywhere, so I’ll be psyched to see you anytime!


Susan Henderson January 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Definitely taking you up on that as soon as the weather warms up. I’m definitely a hibernator.


Susan Henderson November 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm

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