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Reaching for the Impossible

by Susan Henderson on October 30, 2018

Tell me about some risks you are taking or ways you are stretching out of your comfort zone, either for your career or your life in general. And if you haven’t been taking risks, tell me what’s stopping you.

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Since I turned 50, I started applying for things that are more prestigious than I had previously allowed myself to dream for, and most times these risks have ended in rejection. But no one can choose you for an award or opportunity if you don’t apply, right?

So here is some unexpected good news… I was chosen as a Hawthornden International Fellow. For a month (don’t know which month yet), I’ll live for free at the Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, Scotland. There will be four other writers there, as well as a cook and a housekeeper. We are there—without internet or cell phone service—to write.

I’m grateful to Drue Heinz for this generous gift, and I vow to work hard on my third novel while I’m there.

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My traveling and events for The Flicker of Old Dreams have slowed down. But there have been a few lovely moments, such as the Saturday I spent with these brilliant women at the Young Indian Culture Group, where their book club has run for over 13 years. We had long, deep discussions about death, dying, burial practices, hate, compassion, books and more.

I also spent time at the Hockessin Book Shelf, Whisper Woods assisted living community, and the Montana Book Festival (you can see pictures on my instagram account).

Online, you can find interviews I did with Zara Potts for her New Zealand publication, Dear Reader; with Crystal-Lee Quibell for her Canadian podcast, Literary Speaking; and with Okoyomoh Egbekhuwa for her Nigerian podcast, The Spoken World.

And, if you’re not already an avid listener of Ozan Varol’s Famous Failures podcast, you can start by listening to our interview, where we discuss writer communities, DARPA, high school janitors, New York Times bestseller lists, 1- and 2-star Amazon reviews, and all kinds of failure. It’s 36 minutes long, so brew a cup of coffee first or listen as you go for your daily walk… but do listen. I think the work Ozan puts out into the world is terribly important. Here is the link… click it! Please.

And now to my beloved alma mater in Pittsburgh…

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I traveled there in October to spend four days with professors, students and alumni of Carnegie Mellon’s Creative Writing Program. It was a terribly intimate time, partly because any honest conversation with other writers lends itself to the discussion of rejection, insecurity, work that is deeply personal and underfunded.

Then, on the morning of Saturday, October 27th, as we gathered together to hear a panel of alumni who became teachers, we started to hear about an active shooter in a synagogue down the street. Most of us have long roots in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and we were stunned and frightened and not even aware that we were also in lockdown.

The photo up above was taken that evening, after we’d all gone together to one of the professor’s homes to try to heal. We ate and drank and pet the dog. And Javi Grillo-Marxuach gave a speech about radical kindness. It helped. I’m still hurting, but it helped.

Please vote on Tuesday. Your voice matters.

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As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Orhan Pamuk (translated by Erdag Goknar), My Name Is Red
Bob Woodward, Fear
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
Ellen Notbohm, The River by Starlight
Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
Robert McKee, Story
Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand
Maude White, Brave Birds
Brandon Hobson, Where the Dead Sit Talking
Carrie La Seur, The Weight of an Infinite Sky
John McPhee, Draft No. 4 

And one re-read: Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Oh… and a few thank you’s… to Ed Davis, Book Bound with Barbara, and Vanderbilt Magazine.

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I’ll finish with reminder that I’m not the only artist in my family. My husband’s been working late nights in tech- and dress-rehearsals for Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Then he goes right into rehearsals for We Are Pussy Riot.

And our youngest comes home tomorrow to use our house for a several day film shoot. More about that soon!

But first let’s talk about risk-taking, or your fear of risk-taking. Post your thoughts in the comments thread, and I’ll see you there.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Billie Hinton October 31, 2018 at 1:10 pm

I’m not sure I’m stretching out of my comfort zone in any area at the moment, and not really feeling overt fear either, except for the generalized anxiety I feel for our country right now, which may be why in a more personal/career sense I just feel sort of numb. I’m still finding pleasure in daily small things: the antics of my two Corgis, Bear and Baloo, when we go on our farm romps; finding my fall asters covered in honey bees yesterday and seeing the bees’ pollen baskets loaded with bright yellow pollen; the changing color of leaves on our farm and beyond. It may be that I am actually snuggling deep INto my comfort zone right now!

I have a long-held novel ready to query in the next few weeks, and on some level that is risk-taking, but I’m not as giddy about that process as I’ve been in the past. It will be good to get it off my desk and free the space to move into a new project.

I’ve been reading (as usual) and also listening to novels on Audible (for the first time – normally I use Audible for science books or other nonfiction) and am enjoying the listening more than I expected. Right now in the early chapters of An American Marriage and very engaged. Again, this feels like I’m digging INto my comfort zone instead of pushing out of it, but maybe it’s just one of those times for me.

I am SO excited for you, going to Hawthornden Castle. It’s been on my radar for years and I am beyond happy that you’re going! What a wonderful thing to have on your schedule this coming year! I hope you’ll be writing and photographing while there to share after you’re back home again. I confess that this past year I discovered on Airbnb that you can rent entire castles in Scotland and I was dreaming about getting a group of writers to coordinate a retreat to go write in one sometime. Daughter and I are planning a trip to Scotland this spring, as yet undetermined as to exact itinerary, but we want to incorporate some kind of walking tour into it and definitely drive the countryside for nature/wildlife viewing and photography. I’m not sure if we can fit Shetland into it time-wise, but would love to do that as well. I’m looking forward to that. Driving in Scotland will definitely be outside my comfort zone, so maybe that’s when I’m going to push out of this digging in I seem to be doing now! 🙂

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Billie Hinton October 31, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Also meant to remark that your husband’s ability to create something so beautiful out of nothing, repeatedly, apparently, totally inspires me. Theatre people make magic, that’s all I can say!!

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Susan Henderson October 31, 2018 at 7:07 pm

Totally understand the need to move toward the comfort zone. And I’ve been doing the same… making sure I notice the small joys, the dots of sunlight, the smell of my dog’s ears. There’s so much that’s alarming about the world right now that I’m having trouble knowing where to hold my attention.

(Did you early-vote?)

I read Tayari’s book this summer and just loved it. And Oprah’s making a movie of it.

About Scotland… I’ve never been. And I’m thrilled! As soon as I know my dates, I can know better how to use my time before the trip. This is the shot in the arm I’ve needed. I’ll share my dates with you in case we’re out there at the same time.

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Billie Hinton October 31, 2018 at 7:30 pm

I always vote on Election Day itself – my voting place is a little predominantly black church that is in a very poor section of our county but they are extremely generous, community-oriented, and involved in local environmental issues (nuclear power plant years back, more recently fracking and coal ash) and I find the energy there is too amazing to miss out on. Our early voting location is at the board of elections office in the county seat, so if I go early I really do miss the energy of the church and its people, who of course are the reason behind the energy. The night Obama was first voted in was slightly rainy and foggy and standing in line and voting that night was surreal – silent and almost holy. I won’t ever forget it.

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Susan Henderson October 31, 2018 at 7:42 pm

Love this story of your voting place and the silent and holy night you were a part of!! I can see why you’ll wait for Tuesday!

Ric Marion October 31, 2018 at 1:24 pm

Wow! I was hoping you would have a post up before I left on vacation.
I tend to be a risk taker – though, as I get older, I don’t seem to come across opportunities very often.
My fear – of risk, of failure – has stopped my WIP dead in it’s tracks. All my good intentions, reworking my schedule, forcing myself to sit and stare at the white screen, nothing gets me more than a few hundred words closer to the end. And the risk that this one won’t sell, that I’ll end up printing a few copies for the kids, and schilling them to well meaning friends, yuk. Anyway, I’m still working on that, and a couple other things to get myself back into ‘writing mode’. Back to feeling good about turning out a thousand words every morning, watching the pile of bright white paper peppered with words growing on the side of the desk, I’m getting there, just taking a little longer than I want.
In other news from my little part of the world: My wife and I are celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary in November by taking a long vacation. Tomorrow morning, we are loading my new car and driving to Scottsdale, with myriad sights to see along the way. 17 days at close quarters to see if this might be a retirement to look forward to – or not something to repeat.
Also, plans are in the works for me to spend my next birthday -in March – in Paris with my youngest son. (were you aware there are guided tours to every spot mentioned in The Movable Feast?) Hemingway was one of my concentrations in college. All excited.
My children are all doing fabulous and fantastic things, getting on with their lives. And Mom, now 95, has recovered from her setback in June, confounding the Hospice people, just hanging out. Got a “Hi, Ric.” this week – those are getting few and far between.
Very jealous of your latest accomplishment. A month in a castle? With other writers? How cool is that? Congrats.

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Susan Henderson October 31, 2018 at 7:16 pm

Wow, I sure know every one of your fears. Sometimes, when I freeze up like that, I’ll take a break from reading and writing and try to jar my senses some other way… art museums, opera, Oscar-winning movies, foreign movies without subtitles, or those online master classes (https://www.masterclass.com).

I’m a big fan of your writing so, for purely selfish reasons, I don’t want you to give up.

So great about your mom and the kids. And I had no idea there were Movable Feast tours!! Take pictures and share them with us.

Happy anniversary! And safe travels!

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Gerard C Smith October 31, 2018 at 2:32 pm

I’ll reach eighty next month and risk taking for me has slowed with chronology as attested by the following:

Yesterday Was Yesterday
by GC

Now that time has passed me by
Days that have flown won’t come again

I’ll never race my car at Watkins Glen
I’ll never chance to climb the Eiger

Now that time has passed me by
Days that have flown won’t come again

I’ll not win the Nobel economics prize
Seminal ideas refuse to germinate

Now that time has passed me by
Years flown by won’t come again

No dalliance with Sophia Loren
Whose time sadly has also passed

Now that time has passed me by
Years flown by won’t come again

Pass I must on rodeo’s bucking horses
My aging bones are now too brittle

Now that time has passed me by
Days that have flown won’t come again

I’ll never fly a fighter plane
Land on a postage stamp at sea

Now that time has passed me by
Days that have flown won’t come again

I’ll not now set the world afire
With these my fading embers

Now that time has passed me by
It’s gone and cannot be recaptured

Yesterday was yesterday
Time came and then it flew away

But, I look back on yesterday
And sometimes dream it’s yet tomorrow

So, things have slowed but there is still a bit of risk. Our recent move to a new community with no connections was risky, but both myself and Mimi have made new friends and have met others who, if not yet friends, are interesting acquaintances.

As always. there is writing which I approach without a clue and once again risk ending up without a clue. I’m still at it with Back Of The Moon but don’t quite yet know where it will go. I risk several hundred pages in the trash can where I have tossed several manuscripts in the past.

This afternoon I have an eye procedure to clear up fogginess behind lens implants, It’s an essentially tried and true procedure but there is no procedure entirely free of risk, but so be it.

I’ll drive to Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday and highways always present risk but not the same as those racetracks I drove on in days gone by.

Mimi and I are planning a trip to Greece and perhaps Turkey, where I don’t think there is much that we risk other than a slight concern that we may be going to a somewhat dicey corner of the earth. But, what the heck, nothing ventured –nothing gained.

So, my life goes on with less risk than previously, but I’m still putting a little on the line and having fun.

Congratulations, by the way, on your fellowship and upcoming month in Scotland. If you haven’t been to Scotland there’s a treat in store for you. Engage locals if you can they teach the most creative of swear words. Besides they are just great folks.

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Susan Henderson October 31, 2018 at 7:28 pm

Happy early birthday!

I’m glad you’re liking the new place and making friends. It’s funny, about Back of the Moon, I think the places we get stuck are always the exciting moments where the book and the characters can surprise us.

We’ve also wanted to go to Turkey, but we have the same concerns, that this may not be the right time. We have plans, though, to go to Japan and Vietnam in January. Maybe you and I will figure out our books overseas!

And I’ve never been to Scotland but will happily take your advice and look forward to some new swear words!

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Despina Panagakos Yeargin October 31, 2018 at 2:39 pm

Susan, I am beyond thrilled for you and your ongoing gifts–those that you give (like your books) and those that you receive! I send many hugs and joy jumps and woo-HOOs your way.

Risk-taking, ah! My fear has been that of rejection. Failure I get. Been there–done that one. You don’t die–you learn and grow. Rejection is different. I used to think it meant you’re not good enough. Then I had a talk with myself. So I started writing for magazines. I was edited some, but not rejected, and they really liked my work. I realized that this was learning and growing too. So this was how I embarked on my risk-taking journey. Always, I now know, if you don’t risk, you risk not growing, not evolving, not becoming an even better version of you! So, stay where you are and risk becoming stale, or risk trying something new and growing spectacularly? 🙂 Easy decision, right? It’s risk in either direction, so you might as well go for spectacular!

I have now risked my way to a Cookbook Writing Boot Camp in Charleston in early January of this year. It was with the awesome Lee Brothers, and it was an intimate and very beneficial two days of inquiry and work. I learned HOW to shape the book, how and WHEN to query agents and WHY to go the way of agents. I was encouraged and given a clear direction.

Since then I’ve done research and recipe testing and re-testing. I’ve been working on growing my social media reach and I have a draft of the introduction and an outline. My next step in risk-taking is to rewrite the introduction, pull together the book proposal and send the query letters. I am feeling some of the old “I am not good enough” feelings, but now they sound like this, “they may not think I’m good enough.” I AM good enough, I am assembling a wonderful book, I will get it published, even if it takes a few more query letters and a little more time.

AND I read the beautifully written tender story of Mary Crampton. My daytime bookclub met just this week to discuss and now they want me to invite you to Greenwood, South Carolina, so they can ask you all sorts of questions, Susan!!! You’re invited! We are an hour from Greenville, South Carolina. Maybe we can coordinate two other appearances where you sell more books and even make a bit of shopping money.

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Susan Henderson October 31, 2018 at 7:40 pm

I’m accepting all of those hugs!!

And I love your wisdom… if you don’t risk, you don’t evolve. It’s been exciting to see how your cookbook returns you to your roots and gets you to explore them more and share family stories.

Please tell your bookclub hello and thank you from me! I would so love to be in Greenwood with all of you. I’ve never been to SC, but if I go, I’m headed your way! If any of the members who liked my book would be willing to write an Amazon review, it’s one of the ways that helps a book get audio rights.

Here’s to the spectacular ahead of us!

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Gerard Smith November 2, 2018 at 12:54 am

You have two friends in SC, one in Greenwood and one in Aiken. When you get to SC you and Mr. H. are invited to our Aiken home. We South Carolinians aren’t overly nutty though we live in a State that was declared by one civil war wag (Lewis Pettigrew) as “to small to be a sovereign Nation and to large to be an insane asylum.”

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Susan Henderson November 2, 2018 at 12:08 pm

Ha! That quote! If I make it to SC, I will most definitely hang out in Aiken with you.

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Aimee Bingham Osinski November 1, 2018 at 1:10 pm

I don’t really feel alive unless I am trying things that are a stretch. I’m a horrible athlete, but I do triathlons. And lately, I’ve been submitting my short stories to different publications. Rejection and failure don’t bother me, maybe because the thrill of succeeding is so great?

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Susan Henderson November 1, 2018 at 3:02 pm

I love your fearlessness… it’s inspiring!

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Watson, Eudora January 18, 2019 at 1:42 am

It’s taken me awhile to get back here! It’s a funny thing about risk, it’s so relative. When I was in my early twenties, I self-identified as pretty darned timid, so I threw myself into one situation after another – mostly to do with getting paid. I worked as a school bus driver (in my bus-training group I was the only one who didn’t have experience in driving a bus or semi – there was general laughter all around when, walking to the school bus for our first “lesson,” I admitted I didn’t even know how to drive a standard). Since then I’ve had a collage of jobs that might be considered risk-taking – I also worked in construction on big sites where I was sometimes the only woman on the site. But the real risks I took, unknowingly, were in romantic relationships, and I’ve racked up an impressive resume of disasters on that score. In comparison, quitting my last full-time job so I could get out from under bad conditions didn’t seem like much of a risk. And my sweetheart and I did some risk taking when we put our house on the market with no idea where we’d be living next – and one house sale and two moves within 7 months later it is working out fine. I’m gearing up to apply for the SPLICE Magazine conference in Brooklyn in September 2019. I suppose at this point I feel more like I’m stretching than risking.

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Susan Henderson January 18, 2019 at 2:27 pm

I love knowing this about you… the school bus driving, construction work. And all people I admire have racked up disastrous relationships or other humbling choices. So glad you’re applying for the SPLICE Magazine conference! Let us know if you’ll be there. I’ve been pretty much holed away working on the new book… except for some travel that I’ll post about when I’ve made enough progress to play for a little bit.

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Watson, Eudora September 6, 2019 at 12:57 am

Heading to NYC tomorrow for a weekend of the SPLICE Magazine conference. It’s a good hike from here – 4 hour drive to the train in Albany – looking forward to it all.

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Susan Henderson September 6, 2019 at 3:36 pm

Hope you have a safe drive and an inspiring conference. Bring an umbrella! We’re going to start getting the outer band of the hurricane today and tomorrow.

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