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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

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.

 

 

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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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Marcia Butler – When Things get Tough

by Susan Henderson on April 17, 2019

I know many of you are working on memoirs and novels that require years of dedication. In a world filled with distractions and discouragement, I offer you a moment with Marcia Butler to refuel and refocus.

Marcia is an oboist, a filmmaker, a memoirist, and now a novelist. She has fought depression and addiction to create a life filled with extraordinary art and extraordinary artists. Her newest book (Pickle’s Progress, out last week!) is a story of identical twins–equally reckless and vulnerable–struggling to figure out what they want from life. Check it out, as well as her poignant, lyrical memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, about her 25 years as a professional musician.

But today she is here with some hard-earned wisdom just for you…

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My Lovelies,

Sit at your computer for ten minutes. You can endure almost anything for ten minutes.

In the event that you do not produce words, sit there for another five minutes. This is meant as punishment. But you might write something, in which case, view it as a gift.

Proceed to the next task in the event that you do, or do not, produce words.

Take a bath. Bubbles are preferable. Gandhi believed in restorative ablutions. I think. (Or maybe that was a commercial I saw in the 80’s.) In any case, this bath is meant as a reward for having produced words. It is a one-time only avoidance tactic for those who did not produce words.

Towel off. Get dressed. Notice how awful your nails look. Get your emery board out and file the nails, followed by washing the hands. Then apply lotion. Understand that this whole nail thing is also procrastination.

Resume sitting at your computer.

Think about your novel/story/essay. Read through what you last wrote (maybe this was months before, though maybe it was yesterday) and decide whether you will produce new material or edit what you already have. Strongly err on the side of producing new material. If you do this, you will feel better. If you decide to edit (against suggestion) you will feel fine, but not as good as when you produce new words.

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In either case, work for thirty minutes.

At the end of thirty minutes (regardless of whether you actually produced words or edited old words, or did neither) you will have an overwhelming desire to check email/social media (if you have not already done so during the thirty minutes you were, or were supposed to be, writing.)

Think about this deeply for seven seconds. Do not give in to this urge. It is the devil.  When you dogive in, go ahead and feel moderately awful.

Wonder briefly whether you are a grown up or an addict.

Decide you are a grown up. Install Freedom (or like program) on your computer and lock yourself out of all internet for the preset time you have given yourself to write.
Face your computer with the Freedom all set to go. Get up and stretch. Bend over and allow the blood to flow to your brain. Run in place really hard for fifteen seconds. Shake out your hands. Sit back down at your desk. Face your computer. Be that adult you know yourself to be.

And write.

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If you’re searching for love, or even for reasons to wake up in the morning and keep going, this book will speak to you. It also happens to paint a passionate portrait of New York City.

Write, because you have a great story to tell. Write, because you are the only one in the world who can tell that story. Write, because someone once, when you were very young, noticed your talent and encouraged you. Write, even though your parents would rather you become a dentist or take over the family business. Write, because now you can actually admit that you have talent. Write, in spite of the fact that you’ve understood that talent is not enough. Write, like a ditch digger in chains because you know that is what it often feels like. Write, because you know that this is also, exactly, what it takes. Write, because once in a while your private alchemy floats across your brain and you are in heaven. Write, because you know how words have changed your life. Write, because you have a secret notion that your words will mean something to others. Write, because you suspect that words in general (including yours) can change the world. Write, because you feel you might die if you don’t. Write, because it is the only way you can truly live. Write, because everyone in the world is waiting for the beautiful gift of your voice.

Remember all of this as you stare at your keyboard.

Review the above as much as you need: every day, every hour, every minute, every fifteen seconds.

My darlings. Write.

With love, Marcia

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Marcia Butler has had a number of creative careers:professional musician, interior designer, documentary filmmaker, and author. As an oboist, the NewYork Times has hailed her as a “first rate artist.” During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer/pianist Keith Jarrett. Her interior designsprojectshave been published in numerous shelter magazines and range up and down the East coast, fromNYC to Miami. The Creative Imperative, her documentary film exploring the essence of creativity, will release on June 9, 2019.

Marcia’s nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, was one of the Washington Post’s “top ten noteworthy moments in classical music in 2017”. She was chosen as 2017 notable debut author in 35 OVER 35. Her writing has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today, Aspen Ideas Magazine, Catapult, Bio-Stories and others. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She was a writing fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 2018. Her debut novel, Pickle’s Progress, is published by Central Avenue Publishing. She lives in New York City.

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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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