writer residencies

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!