Monthly Wrap

Monthly Wrap: Lessons from Squaw Valley

by Susan Henderson on September 11, 2009

A lot of you asked me to pass along what I learned at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, so I’ll try to boil it down to the information I’ve used the most since I got home.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

The view out the window of our Squaw Valley house.

First, let me briefly describe what happens at Squaw, for those who aren’t familiar with it. For one week, you live in the Olympic Village, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Everyone’s divided into a workshop group of about 12 people; and for three hours every morning—always with an established writer, editor, or agent as the leader—you workshop each other’s stories and chapters. The rest of the day is filled with panels, staff readings, and one-on-one manuscript evaluations. The unpublished writer and the seasoned writer are side by side throughout, and this goes for meals, as well. I remember a writer, who had just placed an order for one of the cheap bagged lunches, telling me, “I signed up for the roast beef sandwich, and so did Ron Carlson!”

Ron and Andy.

Ron Carlson and Andy Dugas

Some thoughts (not necessarily direct quotes) from the only day I took notes:

Ask yourself what, specifically, does your character want right now? Then, have the story conspire to keep her from getting it. (Carol Edgarian)

Don’t give your characters time for the problem at hand. Each of them had to stop what they were doing to deal with it. (Ron Carlson)

A novel is like a symphony or opera. If you have a day scene, you’ll want a night scene. If there’s a solo, it’s time for a trio. Fast song, slow song. Inside, outside. Internal scene, crowd scene. But also remember the importance of repeating earlier musical pieces, taking a thread and picking it up again. (Janet Fitch)

Take the story out of the head and into the body. (Ron Carlson)

Dialogue should read like a sword fight: One thrusts, the other reacts. (Carol Edgarian)

End with a sense that you know what the character’s trajectory is. (Carol Edgarian)

Don’t end with the narrator in a confused or philosophical state. (Ron Carlson)

Only focus on one day’s work, not on something so daunting as “a book.” (Amy Tan)

Leave the editor at the door. Don’t worry if it’s good enough. Just write the next substandard sentence. Let your spelling and tense go to hell, and keep going. (Ron Carlson)

What’s it like to get all of this advice from your heroes and peers? To have 12 pairs of eyes on your work? To hear hours upon hours of do’s and don’ts from every corner of the business? It’s inspiring. Humbling. Overwhelming. It helps very much if you’ve made some good friends who will laugh and cry with you.

My Squaw Valley roommate, Wayetu Moore, and my gossip buddy, Frank DiPalermo. I adore them both!

If you ask me what was the most valuable thing I learned at Squaw, the answer is easy, and it’s not about craft but about the heart of the writer.

Every day, I write for hours in my little camouflaged office, writing and crumpling up papers and writing some more. I dream of communicating something important and then hate myself for falling short. There are always reasons to give up: It takes so much work to get it right; what looks right one day often looks horrible the next; there’s rarely any pay; it’s hard to keep the momentum; I don’t have the toughness for rejection. And yet, I can’t stop myself.

So guess what the superstars at Squaw Valley spent most of their time talking about? This very thing: The struggle with the blank page, with chaotic first drafts, with self-doubt, with deadlines they fear they won’t meet.

Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora

Susan Moke, Vlada Teper, and Noel Obiora

Knowing my writing heroes struggle in this same way renews my energy and courage for editing this book. Now that I’m back in New York, writing in my little camouflaged office, I don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel like a failure. Because writers with bestsellers and movie deals are doing this, too: thinking, typing, crumpling, and just committing to finding the story and the best way to tell it.

Before I go, let me get back to Ron Carlson of the roast beef sandwich bagged lunch. He talked to us a lot (and me, specifically) about how it is the writer’s responsibility not to spread herself too thin. And I considered long and hard the many hours a month I spend blogging, and the effect it has on my time and my writing. So this is my very last Monthly Wrap. And soon, I’ll run my very last interview. But I can’t, and won’t, give up the Question of the Month because I like hearing your stories, and because I’m a happier person and a more productive writer when I take time off to play.


Thank you to my September guest, Judi Hendricks, to everyone who played here, and to the three outrageously fine authors I read this month:  Ron Currie (EVERYTHING MATTERS), Dylan Landis (NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS), and Binnie Kirshenbaum (A DISTURBANCE IN ONE PLACE). I felt like I won the literary lottery!

And finally, shout-outs to some really lovely, talented people at Squaw Valley, who either led my workshops or lent me things when my suitcase got lost (Remember the LaGuardia bomb threat evacuation?) or flew with me, or gave some crucial piece of help on my book, or wowed me in some way or another: Sands Hall, Louis B. Jones, Lisa Alvarez, Andrew Tonkovich, Janet Fitch, Mark Childress, Michael Pietsch, Susan Golomb, Peter Steinberg, Rick Kleffel, and Glen David Gold.

Have a good one!


Monthly Wrap: Killing the Piano

by Susan Henderson on August 7, 2009

This month, we talked about the instruments we played when we were kids. Mostly I played imaginary instruments, playing as fast and impressively as the masters. In real life, I was impatient with the learning curve, but I do have a story for you about me and the piano.

The high point of my piano playing was Humpty Dumpty, a humiliating song to lay on a girl who’d rather play Rachmaninoff. But even Humpty Dumpty didn’t come easily. I didn’t like to practice. And sometimes I walked up the street to my piano teacher’s house and never even rang the bell. I just stood there, considering, and then walked back home the long way.

I don’t know what upset me so much about her sitting beside me on the bench, her gnarled fingers on the keys, singing the correct notes as I played the wrong ones. Maybe I have issues with inadequacy. Failure. People telling me what to do. People sitting too close.

I’ve never been the kind of person to fly into a rage. I’m quieter than that. So one day, I sat at the piano with my father’s wrench and quietly snipped a piece of ivory off of every key. In order: low notes to high notes. Every one. And then, without a word, I swept the pieces into my hand and closed the lid. Never told a soul.

I’m not sure what that says about the kind of child I was, but I suspect it says something.

Shortly after Mr. Henderson and I got married, my parents surprised me by sending us the piano. It was an expensive shipment, very generous, but it came into the house like a ghost and made me avoid the room we’d put it in.

This is how much my husband loves me. That year for my birthday, I came home and found that he’d magically removed the piano from the house, even while wearing a sling for a dislocated shoulder, and replaced the piano with a tank filled with frogs.

Best birthday present ever!


What did I read this month? Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez (editors), WRITER’S WORKSHOP IN A BOOK: THE SQUAW VALLEY COMMUNITY OF WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION (Gave me new writing heroes like Anne Lamott, Mark Childress, and Lynn Freed); Jennifer McMahon, PROMISE NOT TO TELL (The wickedness and heartbreak of young girls; LOVED it!); and the book for next month’s interview.

Thanks to my August guest, Naseem Rakha, and to all of you who played here. And thanks to those who linked to LitPark: Simply Wait, In Her Own Write, Confessions of a Hermit Crab, Publishers Weekly, The Writer’s (Inner) Journey, BackspaceMarilyn Peake, Yearning 4d Sky, Jim Hanas, Blanquis26, Recommended ReadingBook Bird Dog, Kirk Farber Fiction, Laurel Snyder, Ashlyn Harper, Dynamic Josh, kmwss2c, Charles Palmer, AS King, Joanne Levy, Robin Slick, Maureen McGowan, ktsetsi, Backword Books, Emrson Creighton, David Habbinphalpern, i follow the night, lancerey, Brigita09, Eileen Rita, sarzee, TNB Tweets, Carmelo Valone, Laura Benedict, Despi Doodle, Georgia McBride, Maria Schneider, Jason Boog, HarperPerennial, Lori Oliva, Spaced Lawyer, Kimberly Wetherell, Jamie Ford, KayinCatEyes, BukowskiD, Laura Benedict, Regina Marler, Mike Gackler, My Feng Shui Life, Emrson Creighton, Rumbly in my Tumbly, Upstate Girl, Editor Unleased, and Lee Crase’s Vagabond Lit. I appreciate those links!


Monthly Wrap: More Human than Hero

by Susan Henderson on July 10, 2009

We talked about heroes this month, and every time I think of the word “hero,” I get that Mariah Carey song stuck in my head.

I heard that song constantly when I worked as a counselor at a rape crisis center because one of my teenage clients loved to sing to me. She liked over-the-top songs: “Hero,” the theme to “The Titanic.” Oh, she was an awful singer – I suppose she couldn’t help it because she was hearing impaired – but what she lacked in pitch, she made up in emotion.

When you’re a counselor, people come to you with expectations that you’ll be some kind of super hero who can save them from the complicated pain they’ve been living with, but you know better. And your clients will find out soon enough: You’re just two human beings sitting in a room together and hoping for the best.

Downstairs in the waiting room, week after week, were the parents of my singing client. They’d adopted her when she was a malnourished orphan living on the streets. They gave her a home, took her to a doctor to get hearing aids, found her a school, and brought her to me when she was date raped.

Heroes? Maybe not.

Imagine you’re a 25-year-old counselor who looks like you’re going on twelve, and it’s the day your singing client tells you that those parents in the waiting room have been molesting her. As you’re riding down in the elevator, you’re trying to find the right words, words that will become part of the court case, to explain why their daughter can’t go home with them, and what they can expect when the investigators get in touch.

If you think there’s anything heroic about stripping a girl from her family and sending her into the nightmare of group homes, there isn’t. The thing about group homes is that the workers and the residents there have that same quality as counselors and adoptive parents and all the rest: they’re human. Sometimes beautiful. Always flawed. Capable of great good, great evil, and mostly, great mediocrity.

Maybe the word “hero” can only truly describe a single moment, a single courageous choice that happened to get good results. Most times, there are no heroes, nor even heroic moments – just people trying (or not trying) their best.

If you’re wondering how the girl’s story ends, I don’t know. Counselors share a tiny room full of painful secrets and brave recovery for just a brief time. And then you just hope the kid’s doing okay. You hope she still sings.


What I read this month: A whole lotta research books for the novel I’m writing, plus Naseem Rakha’s THE CRYING TREE (I’ll talk more about this beautiful book very soon), Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (What took me so long to read this book?! It’s glorious), and John Connolly’s THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS (Two beautiful opening chapters about death and fairy tales and WWII before it becomes, much more clearly, a children’s book. I read it through anyway, hoping the ending chapters would hit the same notes as the first two, and I’m glad to say they did).


Thanks to my July guest, novelist Lance Reynald. Thanks to all who played here, and to everyone who linked to LitPark: She Writes, Georgia McBride Books, joannamauselina, Mots Justes, Side Dish, Tayari’s Blog, Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Amazon Blog, Stet, Alpha FEmale Mind, acparker, EllenMeister, spacedlawyer, lancerey, marilynpeake, artbizlaw, kmwss2c, BklynBrit, redRavine, LitChat, TerryBain, LanceRey, lorioliva, PD_Smith, nicebio, and zumayabooks. I appreciate those links!

Okay, off to dinner in the West Village with Amy Wallen, Eber Lambert, Neil Lambert, Rebecca Friedman, Rachel Shukert, Kimberly Wetherell, and Mr. H. Looking forward to it!


Monthly Wrap: Sore Throat

by Susan Henderson on June 5, 2009

I have the kind of voice that’s meant to whisper. Good for libraries and pillow talk. When I answer the phone, the first thing people tend to say is, Did I wake you up? They didn’t; I don’t even like to sleep. I just have one of those voices. It’s my father’s voice. The sound of someone who needs to clear his throat. The sound of someone who can’t raise his voice though he certainly has the temperament for it.

When I try to speak up – even enough to talk to someone across the table from me, my voice quickly gives out. I speak from that place you shouldn’t – the place Brian Johnson of AC/DC uses to sing. If I have a long conversation one day, I’ve got a sore throat the next.

Do I have an accent?

I never thought of myself as having one until I went to college, where I was teased for my southern twang. I worked hard to lose it by reading out loud to my Boston-bred roommate and letting her correct me. Now I’m not sure why I tried so hard to lose it. But my Virginia roots show when I’m tired – I get lazy with the vowels.

I was glad to hear your stories of stutters and loud laughs and nasal tape-recordings. For those of you I haven’t met in real life, it’s a nice way to sharpen the picture of you.


What I read this month: Joe Hill, HEART-SHAPED BOX (not my usual genre, but, wow, it’s a good ghost story, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone). I’ve also been knee-deep in a whole mess of research books for my new novel, but I’m not telling what the books are about.

Thanks to my guest, Attica Locke, for her courageous story of finding her voice, and to all of you who played here this month. Also, big thanks to those who linked to LitPark: The Thrill Begins, In Her Own Write, Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Amazon Blog, Upstate Girl, Side Dish, Terry Bain’s Amazon Blog, Rumbly in my Tumbly,, Kimberly Wetherell, Red Room BlogsRachel Kramer Bussel, EI Johnson, Tayari Jones, Tanya Egan Gibson (thank you for the book!), Neil Gaiman, Brad Listi, Alexander Chee, Robin Slick, kmwss2c, Urban Haiku, Trish Tha Dish, Tayari, Rachelle Gagne, Nick Belardes, Bella Vida Letty, th3maw, Spaced Lawyer, and to the mentions in Wikipedia pages for Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Maria Dahvana Headley, Daisuke Tsutsumi, Scott Snyder, Denis Johnson, Greg Downs, and Bruce Benderson. I appreciate those links!


One announcement before I go…

The Nervous Breakdown: Off The Blog!
A New Monthly Reading Series
Beginning June 9, 2009

The Nervous Breakdown is a creative non-fiction literary blog, written by published and emerging authors from around the world.

Come hear the writers of this award-winning collective as they read hilarious, journalistic, poignant and often salacious tales, as told on the pages of this engaging and highly interactive literary website.

The series kick-off includes readings from:

Jessica Anya Blau (The Summer of Naked Swim Parties)
Autumn Kindlespire (Random House Books)
Greg Olear (Totally Killer, coming Sept ’09)
Kimberly M. Wetherell (Filmmaker: Menage a trois, Why We Wax)
Todd Zuniga (Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match)

Tuesday, June 9
101 E 15th St, NYC
(downstairs from the Daryl Roth Theatre, Union Square)
$10.00 Cover

After party at Bar 119, 119 E. 15th St.


Monthly Wrap: Time for Waltzing

by Susan Henderson on May 8, 2009

Sometimes, in the midst of revising my novel, I was consumed with the terror of uncertainty. If I made this one big change to the text, would I be able to handle its ripple effect throughout the book? Would I ever get this right? Was this even a story worth telling? And I crawled deeper and deeper into what friends call my “writer’s cave,” sometimes so focused or in such a funk that I’d forget daylight.

Here’s a story I call on again and again to give myself perspective…

I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).

This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused soley on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.

But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.

The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.

So, for those of you in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty, know this: First of all, your story matters or you wouldn’t be fighting against such odds to tell it. Keep writing, a little every day, and you’ll get there. But also remember to let in the sunlight, walk with a friend, hold the ones you love, watch those crocuses come up, and dance. Because now matters, too.


What I read this month: Chris Adrian, THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL (God floods the world again and the only survivors are inside a floating children’s hospital. The first 300 pages are some of the best pages I’ve ever read – quirky, profound, emotional, and the brother, Calvin, who is dead before the book begins, is one of my favorite characters ever. But something too magical for my taste happens in the middle of the book, including a wedding I didn’t care for, and for me, the book never quite recovers its magnificence after that. I’m going to recommend it all the same. Uneven or not, it lit me up from the inside in a way few books do.)

What I read to my boys: We did that thing I hate where we start too many books at once and kind of ruin the momentum of all of them, so the only finished book was John Masefield’s THE MIDNIGHT FOLK (The boys found it fascinating in that great and creepy Neil Gaiman-y way, but slow because of the 1920’s British writing). And I also read them a whole bunch of little-kid picture books because I’m their mom and they still go along with what I say, even though they groan about it now. So: Jacques Duquennoy, THE GHOSTS’ TRIP TO LOCH NESS; Robert Bright, GEORGIE; Mark Teague, THE SECRET SHORTCUT; and Leo Lionni, FREDERICK MOUSE.

Thanks to everyone who played here, and to my guest, Lac Su, for giving such an honest and emotionally powerful interview. And thanks to all of you who are here, making this community one I’m proud to be a part of. See you soon with a new question and a new guest!