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A Summer of Make-Up Memorials

by Susan Henderson on August 8, 2021

How is your summer going? Are you stepping back into the world?

Art by Chloe Cushman for the New York Times.

My summer has been one of make-up memorials for loved ones lost during the pandemic. Only now have we been able to gather and celebrate their lives.

Last month, in Virginia, I attended a memorial for someone I babysat for many years. I started working for her family when I was in middle school. When she turned four and I was, I guess, fourteen, she developed a brain tumor. Her whole family is terribly important to me, and I wrote about them here. Later this month, we’ll be in Pennsylvania to celebrate the life of Mr. H’s college roommate and to spend time with folx we love dearly. And I have just returned from a trip to our family cemetery in Montana, where we finally buried my father. Can’t tell you how badly I needed hugs and time with people I love.

Those of you who know me or have read The Flicker of Old Dreams know our family does old-school burials. I posted more Montana photos here (let me know if you need help getting past my privacy filters).

Other than these memorials, I’ve ventured out only a little. My first outings were for the Pfizer vaccination and a proper haircut. I quickly visited my mom, my kids, and a few friends. I started going to the grocery store again instead of ordering from Instacart, and was surprised how much that simple act revitalized my creativity. There’s something about spontaneity, chance encounters, or maybe even the shapes and smells and colors in the produce aisle that awoke my senses and my desire to write.

But re-entering the world hasn’t felt as natural as I’d hoped. On a purely physical level, my feet—after a year and a half without shoes—are rebelling with blisters. And while I’ve gone to a restaurant here and there, I find it stressful relying on others to keep an environment safe.

I’m way behind on sharing writing news. Grateful to The National Book Review for publishing my interview with the brilliant Marcia Butler. It was an honor to judge the High Plains Book Award for Fiction, which I awarded to Joe Wilkins for his extraordinary novel, Fall Back Down When I Die. I taught virtual workshops for Hampton Roads Convergence of Writers, 14:55 Literary Arts, and the Brandeis National Committee. And, soon, I’ll be offering private consultations through the Community of Writers.

What else? I did readings and panels with so many amazing writers, including Jennifer Haupt, Steve Yarbrough, Richard Blanco, Ada Limón, Pam Houston, Gina Frangello, Stephen P. Kiernan, Susan Rich, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Ron Block, Caroline Leavitt, Ruben Quesada, Anna Quinn, Kristen Millares Young, and Dawn Raffel. Oh… thank you to Joan Frank at The Washington Post for mentioning my contribution to the Alone Together anthology. A big hurrah to the narrators of the Alone Together audiobook for winning the Independent Audiobook Award for Nonfiction. I’m grateful to One Book Billings for choosing The Flicker of Old Dreams to read city-wide this fall. And thank you to 14:55’s Executive Director, Sean Murphy, for this interview, which was lots of fun:

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

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
Claudia Rankine, Just Us
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
Tosca Lee, The Line Between
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Joe Wilkins, Fall Back Down When I Die
Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
Therese Anne Fowler, A Good Neighborhood
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos
Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures
Gina Frangello, Blow Your House Down
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
Jessica Anya Blau, Mary Jane
Nedra Glover Tawwab, Set Boundaries, Find Peace
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
Ellen Meister, The Rooftop Party
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale
Leslie Lehr, A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me … and You
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Walter Mosely, Devil in the Blue Dress
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Salman Rushdie, The Golden House
Christina Baker Kline, The Exiles
Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World
Noel Obiora, A Past That Breathes
Garth Greenwell, Cleanness
Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Tamara Winfrey Harris, The Sisters Are Alright
Kate Bernheimer, Horse, Flower, Bird
Marcia Butler, Oslo, Maine
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Amanda Stern, Little Panic
Clare Pooley, The Authenticity Project
Jodi Picoult, House Rules
Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone
Edith Wharton, House of Mirth
Paul Auster (graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli), City of Glass
Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl”
Rebecca Curtis, “Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit”
Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t”

A couple books I read for a second or third time…
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

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Say hello in the comments section. Would love to hear about your summer and how you’re transitioning out of pandemic-mode.

{ 19 comments }

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

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

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.

 

 

{ 24 comments }

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! 

{ 40 comments }

Question of the Month: The Blank Page

by Susan Henderson on May 1, 2017

What do you do when your new book is only a blank page? How do you start getting ideas? The picture just below is how the great Jean Cocteau works with a blank page. What’s your process of mapping things out or free-wheeling it? I want to hear any tips you’d like to share.

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HarperCollins has my final edits on the Montana book, and I should get the copy-edits back from them any day now. Soon the book will be out of my hands. Next steps are more about collaboration than anything else as we move to blurbs, cover design, and marketing.

So now it’s on to the blank page of something new.

It’s taken me a while to leave the old book—to leave the small Montana town and the blizzard and the mortician’s tools behind. I’d stare at the new, blank page and wonder if there was another story in me that could hold my attention for two, three years. And for a long while, the page stayed blank.

What an exhilarating, intimidating thing a blank page is.

At some point, I began to make some marks on my paper—random doodles, bits of ideas I’d had over the years that I still remembered. But none of them were big enough to excite me. I need fire, obsession, ideas that send my head and heart racing.

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So I set out to recharge my senses and my imagination.

During what would normally be my writing time, I watched silent movies and foreign films with the subtitles turned off, taking in images and emotions and music, trying to spark any sense of curiosity or anything unresolved and burbling inside of me. I doodled on pieces of paper as I watched these movies.

This is one of J.K. Rowling’s early pages. Same, further down.

Rowling1

Whenever I left the house or read the newspaper, I tried to become more conscious about what moved or enraged or frightened me. I walked a lot. And that’s when I became aware of my first notable obsession: a particular abandoned building in my town. I began walking and jogging past it regularly, transfixed.

My stories tend to begin with my interest in settings. Some writers talk about the main character’s voice beaming down, fully-formed. Other writers begin with concepts. Some dig through their personal history.

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I fall for settings, I guess. What’s on the other side of this window? What’s this interesting decoration or this elaborate padlock about? I wonder what happened in this room?

I start to collect puzzle pieces and questions. And before long, these tangible images and textures spark old longings and fascinations and wounds I carry with me. My imagination wakes up. I wonder…? What if…? And suddenly my head is popping with ideas and I begin to fill page after page, chasing a new story.

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As always, I’ll end with the books I’ve read since my last post…

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Jim Daniels, Rowing Inland

Dan Chaon, Ill Will

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Sally Koslow, The Widow Waltz

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam

John Bingham, The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

And one re-read:

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Jump into the comments below and share what you’re reading or how you approach the blank page or whatever else you’d like to talk about.

{ 21 comments }

Question of the Month: Partners

by Susan Henderson on October 3, 2016

Tell me about your partner.

We talk so much here about ourselves and our writing lives. But who’s that person (or animal or drug or ritual) you go home to, or that person you rely on to balance out your life? I want to hear all about him or her.

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Mr. H and I met our second year in college. He was a drama major reading Einstein. I was still a science major reading Oliver Sacks. We traded books. He read mine and I pretended to read his.

Our first date was to an August Wilson play.

He grew up in Honolulu, Singapore, and London. He had a British accent when we first started dating, but now you mostly hear it in his syntax or in his funny choice of adjectives.

Mr. H teaches, paints, designs and builds sets, designs and builds costumes, creates cool scar make-up, writes songs when he’s in the shower, and plays guitar in a punk band.

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When our first dog was dying, he carried him up the stairs every night so he could sleep in our bed and carried him down the stairs every morning. Our boys were the first babies he ever held.

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He played Lego with the boys and sewed costumes for them. And when they got older, he taught them games like Magic Cards and Glory to Rome.

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How is my life better because of him? Because we talk about anything and everything. Because we’re both constantly curious and constantly learning. Because we laugh. We laugh a lot. Because we know life has ups and downs, and he’s the person I want with me on this great rollercoaster of life.

I’ll end by sharing the books I read since my last post:

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Yukio Mishima, Death in Midsummer

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

Jessica Anya Blau, The Trouble with Lexie

Thelma Adams, The Last Woman Standing

Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar

Don DeLillo, Zero K

Anand Giridharadas, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars: Poems

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

Paula Whyman, You May See a Stranger

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

Gina Frangello, Every Kind of Wanting

Akhil Sharma, Family Life  

Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

 

And some re-reads:

Elie Wiesel, Night

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

 

So that’s it for this month. But jump into the comments section and tell me about your partner. I want to know that side of you.

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