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Question of the Month: Writing and Living

by Susan Henderson on December 5, 2015

Tell me about your life and where writing fits into it.

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This is a photo of a hatching nest. See the baby praying mantises? My neighbor called me away from my writing one day so we could watch it together. Incredible, isn’t it?

A lot of my neighbors know that, if they want to reach me during the day, I’m either writing in my office or I’m walking, which is my more productive way of thinking through a story.

If they happen to see me out and about, they’ll often ask, How’s the book going? It’s a perfectly sensible question, but I always feel like there’s the answer people want to hear, and then the one I’m going to give them.

What they’re really asking about is the end-product. Is the book done yet? Is it on a shelf in the bookstore?

When you’re a writer, you regularly answer such questions with no and no. Which gives an illusion of failure. Maybe you’re not writing fast enough. Maybe you’re not smart enough. Maybe you don’t work hard enough. Maybe you’re fooling yourself when you say you’re a writer.

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But most of a writer’s work is not about this end result. It’s about the private and often circular process of thinking, scribbling, re-thinking, rearranging, erasing, scribbling again. This process can take months or years or decades, depending on the writer and depending on the work.

My first book took roughly 6 years of thinking and scribbling and revising. For many of us, ideas come in fragments. Or perhaps they seem whole when you get the great idea while you’re shampooing your hair. But when you sit down to explore the idea more fully, it starts to look small, ordinary, dumb. Sometimes that’s enough to ball up the idea and toss it in the trash.

Except some of these unformed ideas nag at you, beg you to dig deeper. You can’t share your ideas at this stage because they’re like soap bubbles, easily punctured. And so you close your door and think and scribble where no one can look over your shoulder and whisper, Are you sure that’s what you want to write about? Don’t you think it’s cliché? Far-fetched? Dumb?

This is my office buddy today. He’s never once called my ideas dumb.

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By the time you accidentally share the idea that you’re working on a book, you may have a first draft. For me, the first draft is only the beginning of a very long journey. There will be many drafts, most of them terrible, but each showing a glimmer of hope—a character who starts to feel real, a puzzle you’re invested in figuring out, some phrasing here and there that reminds you sometimes your writing doesn’t suck. For most of the 6 years I spent working on the first book, I had to tell people, No, I’m not done yet. No, it hasn’t sold yet. 

Over those same 6 years, plenty of life happened. I was not simply thinking and scribbling behind a closed door. Think of how many pairs of shoes a kid can outgrow in that time. Think of all the meals and sick days and vacations together. All the stories shared. How many hairstyles and friends and hobbies may come and go.

My children were short and cuddly when I started the book. Here’s how we all looked then…

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They were much taller when they came to the book launch, rolling their eyes because they were too cool to be there with their mom.

I loved the rolly-eyed version of my kids as much as the cuddly version. 🙂 But the point is, life happens while you’re writing and you don’t want to miss it.

Measuring a writer’s merit by whether the work is finished is kind like measuring a relationship by whether there was a wedding, or measuring a life by whether there was a birth or a death. Most of who we are and what we do happens in between, in the being.

What I learned in writing and publishing the first book is that you better find ways to enjoy the process because that’s the longest leg of it. Enjoying doesn’t mean that the writing is suddenly easy or without frustration. For me, it means that you’ve chosen a topic, a storyline, a setting, a cast of characters that intrigues you. That you value the process of creating, of being able to go in any direction you choose. That you enjoy the dreaming and digging and puzzling, the search for meaning, for answers, for more questions. Writing, like life, like relationships that matter, isn’t all one singular emotion, doesn’t move in one singular direction; but you commit, you are present, you have chosen to devote your time and your heart.

So this is where I am with book #2: thinking, scribbling, revising. And maybe getting close. I’m also remembering to live my life. I’m writing these words for those of you who feel like you’re failing. Not reaching that end-product fast enough. I’m also writing these words for myself.

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Books I read since my last blog post:

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables
Fred Botting, Gothic (The New Critical Idiom)
Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund, Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom)
Valerie Martin, Property
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories

I also re-read…
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living

And I have just started Broken Sleep by my friend, Bruce Bauman.

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A couple of newsy things: I did an interview with the talented Karen Stefano, which you can listen to here. It’s over a half-hour of us chatting about books and writing, so make yourself a cup of coffee first.

I also published a story in New World Writing. It’s a glimpse into the new book. Many thanks to the amazing editors, Kim Chinquee and Frederick Barthelme, for including me in such a tremendous magazine.

And a quick shout out to Connie Mayo for this.

That’s all from me for now. But I’d like to hear from you. Talk to me about your writing, your life, what you’re reading, how you’re doing.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Stefanie A Shilling December 6, 2015 at 3:50 am

Susan, seriously…reading your words helps me so much! I, like you, am trying to balance my creative side (writing and painting) with being a wife and full-time stay-at-home mom of an 11 year old and 7 year old. I think I found it easier to respond to questions about my painting than my writing because the painting was a more immediate completed art vs. having to say “yes, STILL working on the SAME novel.” You, and stories like yours, keeps me going. 🙂 I have recently read “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty, “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick, and “Pieces of My Mother” by Melissa Cistaro. A few months ago, our external drive (that stored ALL of our family photos since the kids were born) crashed. We had about 60-70% professionally recovered but I’ve had to spend time going through the recovered files. It’s a looooong process. So let my pain be a lesson for all: BACK UP YOUR PHOTOS TO A FEW PLACES! 🙂 Thank you for sharing your writing experience, it really hit home for me and I truly appreciate it!

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Susan Henderson December 6, 2015 at 4:52 am

Oh, Stefanie, I’ve learned that hard drive lesson twice now and I know how horrible it feels to lose photos and writing! So glad to be in the long-game with you, to have the company and understanding. I’m off to check out descriptions of those books you mentioned…

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Kim Wenzler December 6, 2015 at 9:29 pm

Hi Susan,

Great post. And very needed. I am working on my third novel and the balance of writing, work and family responsibilities is a huge challenge. It’s comforting to hear your perspective.
I really enjoyed Up From The Blue and I look forward to your next book – whenever it’s ready. 🙂
Thanks so much!!

Kim

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Susan Henderson December 6, 2015 at 10:17 pm

So good to see you here, Kim. We’ll have to get together over the winter and discuss unfinished novels and boys who play jazz!

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Christopher Lincoln December 7, 2015 at 12:07 am

So this is interesting in a palm-to-the-forehead kind of way. Look and see how few words changed between Neil Gaiman’s longhand drafts and his final product.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hayleycampbell/the-art-of-neil-gaiman#.pqOQNE2Z2R

And yet, I’ve heard him talk about feeling like an imposter. Sheesh!

Well, anyway, I’m so addicted to writing everyday that I can’t give it up. So I’m stuck with it, even on the days I feel stuck.

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Susan Henderson December 7, 2015 at 3:02 am

That’s just a beautiful, extraordinary thing–those handwritten notebooks. I’ve found a pretty big difference in my writing when I use a pen (or even voice memo) over a keyboard, but, sadly, it doesn’t make me write like Neil Gaiman.

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GC Smith December 7, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Writing, for me, is one of many things I do and enjoy. I don’t have to write. I’m not driven to write. I enjoy writing. It’s to me much like the musician who loves playing his/her instrument, or the wood worker who enjoys carpenter for carpentry’s sake. I like to write.

I also like doing other things. I have boats and I cruse for fun and fish and shrimp and crab. I play golf several times a week. I was on the community’s board of directors when the golf course went toes up. We developed a plan, sold it to the community and bought the thing. We rebuilt a clubhouse, built a swimming pool, refurbished the tennis courts, and leased the golf course to an operator. I was in the middle of all of that, often hands on, and it gave me pleasure.

Professionally I was an Economist with Uncle Sam’s Government pushing a pencil for my and our family’s daily bread. Later I got into the home remodeling business. So, I’ve worked with my head and I’ve worked with my hands. Each brought something worthwhile to my life and my writing.

There was a time when I aspired to commercial writing success. Several agents liked what I did but even though two tried my stuff never sold. So, I published four novels, a book of short stories, and a book of poetry, Several thousand people have bought and presumably read my stuff and though it hasn’t made me rich I’m pleased. Short stories and poems found homes here and there, and again, someone read them. That’s all good.

So, I write because I like to write. Here’s my website should anyone be interested.

<a href="http://gc-smith.weebly.com/"<CLICK HERE

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Susan Henderson December 7, 2015 at 10:05 pm

Love hearing about your many passions and jobs and how you dive fully into each of them. Life is good.

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Juliet deWal December 7, 2015 at 11:59 pm

I recently spent nearly three weeks on a solo vacation that was largely traveling through the province of Newfoundland, winter-camping and hiking and all manner of wandering.
While doing so, I had a constant stream of ideas and an almost overwhelm of creativity.
As I was constantly on the go, I scribbled notes on paper and birch bark, on the inside of my arm and on any scrap of paper I found along the route. There were a few wonderful evenings when I’d find myself with a bed (and bath tub!) but those nights came after three or four nights camped on a cliff by the ocean, so I slept and slept and bathed and slept some more!

Since arriving home and all that comes with responsibility, I find myself constantly rubbing the ideas I had, like a worry stone or your mother’s hand in yours when you’re little and overwhelmed.

I have the voice of my characters nattering away in my head all day, but haven’t had a chance to sit down to really write.

It makes me a headache, as my son used to say!

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Susan Henderson December 8, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Ooh, I would read that memoir, hiking through Newfoundland and scribbling on bark and arms. And, of course, I can’t wait to hear what the nattering characters have to say!

I just got the most beautiful card in the mail. Smiling and re-reading it. I’ll write back soon. I forgot how nice and different old fashioned letter writing feels. xoxo

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Juliet deWal December 9, 2015 at 2:08 pm

I love the feel of letter writing! What fun this is!
Can’t wait!
xoxj

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Juliet deWal December 7, 2015 at 11:59 pm

PS Great interview, by the way!

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Susan Henderson December 8, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Thank you!

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billie hinton December 9, 2015 at 2:49 pm

I was just thinking this morning about how the editing I’m doing (the third pass on a full first draft) reminds me of how I approach a sand tray in my office (my own, not a client’s): I spend time digging my hands in and letting the sand run through my fingers. With this book I’m currently changing from past to present tense. It may not stay that way but bringing the whole thing into the present moment feels like what I need to do right now to get more deeply into the characters’ heads. It’s not a quick process but it’s so valuable.

I’m reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and loving it.

We have the tree up and every day I bring up one bin of Christmas and winter decorations to sift through and see what fits for this year. Pixie the calico cat still loves climbing up into the tree to the very top, so breakable ornaments are on hold yet again. 🙂

My son went to his apartment mate’s family for Thanksgiving, which was both hard for me and also wonderful, as it means he’s out in the world, spreading his wings, finding new friends and families to know and love, and that’s a really good thing! But I’m sooo happy he’ll be home for Christmas. We get spoiled living with them for all the years of childhood – the visits home become more precious every year since he launched into college.

And – I love the mantis nest! This moment I am sitting in the living room enchanted by the fact that the white lights on the tree are reflecting through the kitchen window so that it looks like the bare pin oak outside the back yard gate is also strung with white lights. That it is foggy and gray today makes it that much more magical. Happy solstice!

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Susan Henderson December 9, 2015 at 3:46 pm

How beautiful–your hands in sand, and your way of bringing yourself closer to your characters and their story.

I know just what you mean about those precious visits. I used to be grouchy about decorating for Christmas. I’ve always been low-maintenance about those things. But now, I love transforming the house, baking, making it a place for the weary to land after finals. Would love to see a photo of your foggy day if you can post it or link it here.

P.S. I absolutely loved Station Eleven!!

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Laura J. W. Ryan December 14, 2015 at 11:43 pm

As soon as I saw the praying mantis babies I started to laugh! OMG I found one of those little egg sacs in the field on my way home from school when I was about eight (I think?) I stuck it in my purse along with my homework, dropped the purse on the floor of my bedroom closet on Friday afternoon, and naturally forgot about it…until my Mom started screaming on Sunday afternoon when she found the purse, opened it, and all these baby bugs crawled out! Poor Mom. Poor praying mantis babies…the purse and bugs were slung out the back door. I found it Monday afternoon…no more praying mantis babies…and my forgotten homework never got done. (I think it was a vocabulary list or some ditto sheet of stuff, who knows.)

The writing process is my favorite part of making the book. All the scribbles on any available piece of paper, especially post-it notes, then typing, cutting, pasting, typing some more, and just when I think I know everything about the characters and what they’re going through the surprise epiphanies that happen along the way are a special treat! I’m still slugging it out with one that has taken me over ten years to finish…it’s almost there. Just when I lose confidence in it, I pick through it and am pleasantly surprised (Wow, I wrote that?) Almost there. Almost.

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Susan Henderson December 15, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Everything about your post is making me smile this morning. As incredible as praying mantis babies are, I don’t know how I’d feel seeing them crawl out of a purse!

So glad to hear about your process and your work. The patience and belief required to stick with a story for 10 years amazes me. What a spectacular moment when all that work and dreaming starts to take form. I’m so impressed!

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RIc Marion December 23, 2015 at 5:45 pm

Susan,
Life is what happens while you’re waiting for the book to get done. You are sooo right!
My life took a serendipitous turn this summer when I stumbled across one of those news fillers broadcast on a slow news day. Professor Happy, Shawn Achor, who I dismissed as a New Ager psychologist, until I actually tried his Be Happy exercises. The world is a totally different place for me now, less stress, and a bright exuberant personality. People ask how I’m doing and by the time I’m done telling them, they are sorry they asked. My productivity skyrocketed, my sales went up 30%, and I’m entering the new year with more everything.
And the oddest part is everything else starts going better as well. The wife is getting extra hours to help with Christmas expenses, and the kids are phenomenal. Daughter’s company was absorbed by a bigger entity to her advantage, Oldest Son is relaxing/rejuvenating after long hours working on our crumbling roads and doing so with a fat bank account, Middle Son skyped us as he proposed to his long time girl friend last Sunday, and our Youngest Son, having moved to California after college in July, is here for the Holidays.
Only thing that hasn’t happened is the WIP has not appeared complete and edited. Ah, but that will come – sometimes you get too busy living – and we are really living around here.
Currently reading Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach
and The History of Atlantis by Lewis Spence (this found going through my Father’s old books) written around 1927 and the voice is archaic, with words and phrases one finds odd, but still an exercise in what was once popular.
Life is good, sometimes even great. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, we are thankful and our stockings are overflowing with good feelings and love.

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Susan Henderson December 27, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Ric, You have to share the Be Happy exercises! I’m fascinated by anything that changed your life so much.

I love hearing about your family, all the different ways they’ve become a part of the world. I have no worries about your WIP. It’ll happen in its own time and way. Maybe reading the book in the old fashioned voice will be your way back in to the story you’re writing. Or maybe just living and enjoying your family will tap the right emotions or memories.

I’m glad to hear from you!

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Kim Chinquee December 25, 2015 at 12:59 pm

Dear Sue,

Thanks for these graceful words. So helpful in this revision process. Important and wise. Happy holidays. xo.

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Susan Henderson December 27, 2015 at 4:14 pm

Merry just a little bit late Christmas, Kim! I’m loving having the boys home (I’ll send you some pictures when I’m more organized.) I was up early the last two mornings writing. I feel like I’m starting to find my way again. Man oh man, these revisions! xoxo

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