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Hawthornden Castle

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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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.

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