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Our Collective Breath

by Susan Henderson on June 22, 2020

How are you doing? I feel like I need to check in with you. What are you actively doing to keep safe and emotionally well? What are you actively doing to keep others safe and emotionally well?

I thought I’d spend much of 2020 on my novel-in-progress. I have 33 wobbly chapters pinned to my bulletin board, waiting for my attention, but life had other plans. In March, my father got terribly ill. I went back to my childhood home in Virginia to spend time with my folks. Then a pandemic swept across the world, and I decided I’d better get to New York before it locks down. After only a few days back home, I broke my hand—naturally, the one I use for writing. Then, one night while my husband attended a Zoom meeting in one room of our house, I took a call in another room and learned my father had died. 

If I sound emotionally distant writing all of this, it’s the only way I can tell the story right now.

I went back to Virginia (this time in a mask) to stay with my mom for a month. When I returned to New York, exhausted and unmoored, I flipped on the news and watched another black man murdered as he called out, “I can’t breathe.” I can’t get the image out of my mind of that cop looking so nonchalant, one hand in his pocket, as he killed a human being. 

My heart feels called in too many directions.  

Let me first speak about my father, whose death still doesn’t feel real to me. Here is a clipping from The Washington Post—I wrote this one. Supposedly, there will be a formal obituary written by one of their reporters, but it’s in a backlog since there are so many deaths these days.

This newspaper clipping doesn’t speak to my grief. I put that into an essay I was asked to contribute for the anthology, ALONE TOGETHER: Love, Grief, and Comfort During the Time of COVID-19. The book comes out September first, and I hope you’ll read it. 

If there’s anything I can clearly take away from the past many weeks of heartache, pandemic and protest marches, it’s how we’re all connected. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our actions, our very breath, can either harm or strengthen the lives around us. That is both terrifying and empowering. 

The sign above helps me re-examine the way I thought I was battling racism in the past. Like COVID-19, we must assume we have the racism virus, and we must take active steps to flatten the curve and, if we work and work at it, to bend that curve. Simply being kind people won’t do. Posting statements of love and equality won’t do. One time gestures won’t do. Policy changes that nibble around the edges or focus solely on law enforcement won’t do. 

Cries of “I can’t breathe” call out in compelling shorthand America’s enduring racial chasm in every measure of well-being: health care and infant mortality, wages and wealth, unemployment, education, housing, policing and criminal justice, water quality and environmental safety.

These are words from the recent NYTimes op-ed entitled What the Courage to Change History Looks Like, and the entire piece is well worth reading.

Let’s talk in the comments section about how to engage in, rather than shrink from, this moment. Let’s talk about the uncomfortable work of holding ourselves, our friends and colleagues accountable. How can we use whatever power and platforms we have to change the systems we’re a part of? What are some ways to get (and stay) active in local elections, school boards, city council? Share your thoughts. And let’s give each other the space to be clumsy and make mistakes because that’s the only way to break old habits and build better ones. 

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Some thank you’s are in order… I was honored to be a part of the judging committee for the 2019 John Leonard Prize. Congratulations to all the brilliant finalists and to the winner, Sarah M. Broom, for her memoir, The Yellow House. I’m grateful, as well, to Jack Smith, who elicited my thoughts about character change for his article “Change of Heart” in the June issue of The Writer magazine. More thank you’s: Greg Olear’s Sunday Pages, National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Notes, Robert Gray’s Shelf Awareness (where he featured books that discuss mortality), FSG’s Work In Progress, the Big Sky Journal, TTC Books, Harper Academic, Changing Hands Bookstore, Bookhounds, Wishful Endings, and Jean Book Nerd

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

Wayétu Moore, The Dragons, the Giant, the Women
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch
Virgil (translated by Seamus Heaney), Aeneid Book VI
T Kira Madden, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir
Ann Napolitano, Dear Edward
Anna Burns, Milkman
Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House: A Memoir
Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth
Victor Hugo (translated by Julie Rose), Les Misérables
Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Alice Hoffman, Faithful
Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing
Cameron McGill, Meridians
Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche
Sarah McBride, Tomorrow Will Be Different
Bryan Washington, Lot: Stories
Harriet Shenkman, The Present Abandoned
Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Hannah Tinti, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble
Ellen Meister, Love Sold Separately
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World
Marie Mutsuki Mockett, American Harvest
Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
David Koehn, Twine
Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

And a few re-reads: 
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals

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Last thoughts: As we learn to engage more in the urgent issues of our time, how do we also take care of ourselves and make time for our own dreams? And where is that line between self-care and simply exercising the privilege to disengage? Would love to hear from you in the comments section. I’ve missed you.



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The Gift of Silence

by Susan Henderson on November 12, 2019

Have you ever tried tuning out the noise and discovering what you hear in the silence? 

I’m back from Scotland, where I stayed at the Hawthornden Castle this fall, working on my new book. My fellowship was funded by the Drue Heinz Trust. Drue Heinz was the publisher of The Paris Review from 1993-2007 and there is a literary prize named in her honor. 

I lived at the castle with three other writers (poets!) and each of us stayed in rooms with a particular writer’s name painted on the door. My room, Boswell, was in the attic (second doghouse from the left in that first photo), and my room overlooked this pretty courtyard (the oldest section of it built in the 1400s).

We had our breakfasts and dinners together. Breakfast was porridge served in a pewter bowl and the coffee was so strong I think my teeth are a little browner for it. At dinner we ate things like cottage pie and fish pie and treacle tart. But the time in between, from 9:30am to 6:30pm, was spent in silence. That was the rule. 

Many of you know I do the majority of my thinking and writing as I walk, so my days were mostly spent exploring the castle grounds—trails down mossy steps and through the woods, along high cliffs or down beside the River North Esk. (I wish this photo could show the sheer drop you could take off the path!)

Other days, I went out of the castle gate and walked where I might run into some dogs or friendly Scottish people who would greet me with a “Hiya, pal.” 

After a walk, I usually came back inside via the boot room, kicked off my muddy wellies, and climbed the much-hated spiral steps to the attic. Outside my door would be a picnic basket. Each day, there was a thermos of homemade soup, a sandwich, and carrot sticks. Usually, I’d go out again after lunch and walk some more or sit on this great mossy chair overlooking the river. 

At first I wrote a chapter a day, the story sort of falling out of the sky as I hiked through the woods and talked into my voice memo app. It was an unexpected gift, experiencing my head without all the clutter and to-do lists, without the worry of grocery shopping, meal planning, laundry folding. I’d end the day feeling satisfied, and then, just before dinner, I might hang out with another writer in The Garden Room, across from paintings of Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, and Aldous Huxley (friends of Mrs. Heinz), where we talked or read or were encouraged to drink a glass of sherry together (except, blech, cooking with sherry is one thing, drinking it straight, no!). Then, at night (and on rainy days), I transcribed the voice memos and gathered my questions for where the story might go next. 

I wrote the first nine chapters of the book this way and thought I might keep going in this direction and at this pace. But I began to feel a little twitchy, a little sick of porridge and soup. I desperately wanted to watch the news and play my online Mahjong game, and I couldn’t get to sleep without a dog pressed against me. And so, instead of sleeping, I paced the castle and took showers at three in the morning. About this time, I found some music hidden on my computer (I thought I’d come without any). In the middle of the night, I played it as loud as I could stand over my headphones.

This is what my husband knows to be my bored-to-rage work ethic. It’s the huge burst of writing I do when I’m in the mood to, say, chew off my own arm. And, in this weird and uncomfortable state, I mapped out every beat of every scene of what I now know is a 36 chapter book. 

I wouldn’t dare call these 36 chapters a first draft—they’re too wobbly, too sketched, but the shape of the novel is clear and solid. It has a strong emotional heart, high stakes, and now I get to do the fun work of diving deeper into the characters and the scenes. 

It was the silence that helped the most—being away from the news, the internet, all the ways I could escape the work when it got hard. I thought other people were keeping me from my work, but it turns out that I was the culprit, reaching for distractions just when I got close to pushing past a barrier. 

I’m deliriously happy to be back in New York. It’s good to be playing too much Mahjong again, eating spicy food, and hearing my husband’s band rehearsing in our basement. While I was away, these awards came in the mail. I’m so very grateful for them and sorry I couldn’t be there to pick them up in person!

After almost a year away from social media, I’m happy to be returning… but this time I’ll be more mindful of what all the noise and clutter does to my creativity. (That’s Mr. H and Douglas hanging out where he can run off-leash.)

A few thank you’s are in order: Billings Gazette, Havre Daily News, Lone Star Literary Life, MSU Billings, Hodder and Stoughton, Jean BookNerd, and BookNAround. Also, thanks to everyone who helped keep me focused on my work during my hiatus. It was good for my writing and good for my head. 

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

  • Ann Carson, Nox
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer
  • Rene Denfeld, The Butterfly Girl
  • Clive James, Sentenced to Life
  • Philip Pulman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm
  • Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter
  • Philip Larkin, Great Poets of the 20th Century
  • Anna Quinn, The Night Child
  • Gore Vidal, Selected Essays
  • Sophocles (translation by Robert Fagles), Antigone
  • Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”

And a few re-reads: 

  • Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck
  • Tana French, In the Woods
  • Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Grateful for Hawthornden. Grateful to be home again. I’m writing this post with a dog beside me, and tonight we’re going out for poké and then the movie, JoJo Rabbit, by writer/director, Taika Waititi. And now to YOU… catch me up on what you’ve been up to… I want to hear about your writing, your pets, your heart! 

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Off to the Castle

by Susan Henderson on September 24, 2019

For those of you who are working on long, complicated, often overwhelming projects, tell me some tricks you use that inspire you to go deeper into the work. I’d also love to know how you break up your novels and memoirs into more manageable tasks.

Yes, I’m still alive. I know I haven’t been very visible online since November, but I’ve been trying hard to keep my mind free of clutter while I work on this new novel. Up until now, I’ve been doing the bulk of my writing in New York, but I’ve begun to pack for my stay at the Hawthornden Castle (in Scotland), where I’ll be living this fall, thanks to very generous funding from the Drue Heinz Foundation. This week, they sent a packet with details about my stay, including the fact that I can get a hot water bottle delivered to my room if I get cold. The picture above is one of the caves I’ll have access to while I’m there. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to go on this writer’s retreat and get some serious work done! Mostly I’m packing flannel, sticky pads, pens, that sort of thing, but I also want to take your good ideas with me.

Because I haven’t been playing on Facebook or Instagram during this break, I’ve had more time in the real world—visiting book clubs and radio shows, attending dinner parties and plays. It’s been a great wake-up call to reconnect with a world I can physically touch.

And while I’ve had to learn how to say no more consistently, in order to protect my time, I did blurb this book that was physically pressed into my hands… pretty sure it will be made into a film.

“I spent much of my childhood inside DARPA, where my father was Deputy Director, and this book captures the imagination and double-edged sword of our greatest scientific leaps. The same technology that can cure the world’s ills might also cause us to spiral into our own greed, selfishness, and vanity. Charles Soule’s Anyone is a remarkable, consequential novel and a terrifying wake-up call.” (Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams)

My family has been moving in some new and interesting directions. Mr. H and his pop-punk band, Bad Mary, toured Japan, playing six gigs there before he had to return to the much more normal life of a professor. My youngest is now living in Brooklyn and working for a company that uses stop-motion animation in commercials and short films. And my oldest has been presenting research papers. Here’s a link to his first publication (just be sure to turn your math brain on before you click).

Once I’m off to the castle, only my family will be able to reach me via a landline phone reserved for emergencies. Other than that, I’ll be completely off the grid, hopefully doing a lot of writing and saving up stories to bring back home. (If I don’t come back, please have someone check the caves!)

Before I go, some thank you’s are in order… First of all, The Flicker of Old Dreams won some awards and some kind praise, and I’m grateful for everyone who helped bring the book to other readers. And thank you to these awesome folks: Yellowstone Public Radio, Women Writing the West, Billings Gazette, Byron Reads Now, NBCC’s Critical Notes, Roundup Magazine, Foothills Sun-Gazette, Book Bound with Barbara, Writing Unblocked, Daily Inter Lake, Western Writers of America, Great Falls Tribune, High Plains Book Awards, Billings Gazette (again), Lively Times, Front Porch Books, The Belle of Cowbell, Reading Glasses, USA Breaking NewsAuthorsInterviews, Montana Book AwardVanderbilt News, and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who said of this about TFoOD “A lyrical meditation on life lived outside the city; this powerful novel of resilience, redemption and human imperfection will leave you breathless.”

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

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Emily Fridlund, The History of Wolves
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Tommy Orange, There, There
A.K. Small, Bright Burning Stars
Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account
Oliver Sacks, Gratitude
Anne Rice, The Witching Hour
Alice McDermott, Charming Billy
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Richard Powers, The Overstory
Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light
Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends
Marcia Butler, Pickle’s Progress
Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner
David Oshinsky, Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem
Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
Ryünosuke Akutagawa, “Rashömon”
Jim Ray Daniels, The Perp Walk
Ann Hood, The Red Thread
Yuyi Morales, Dreamers

And a few re-reads:
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

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Talk to me about ways you keep inspired on your long projects. What are your tricks for keeping the work fresh and exciting? Let’s help each other stay inspired.

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Montana Book Awards… Honor Book!

by Susan Henderson on February 12, 2019

Many of you know I’m on hiatus from social media while I work on the new book. I’ve spent part of my hiatus in Japan and Vietnam. I’ll share more down the road, but this break has been good for my head and for the new book, so I’m going to stay with it until I have a solid first draft.

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But… need to share the news: The Flicker of Old Dreams was chosen by the Montana Book Award judges as an Honor Book. I’m grateful to be in such stellar company! Congratulations to the other Honor Award recipients—Rick Bass (The Traveling Feast), Sneed Collard (Warblers and Woodpeckers:  A Father-Son Big Year of Birding), and Katie Yale (Howl Like a Wolf)—as well as to the big prize winner, Chris La Tray (One-Sentence Journal:  Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large)!

Here are some news clips about it: KPVI NewsThe Missoulian, and Fact and Fiction.

Okay… heading back to my writer’s cave!

 

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