I met author Susan Henderson earlier this year at the Community of Writers summer writing workshop at Lake Tahoe, a transformational 10 days of intensive workshops, seminars, and readings. We’d been paired up for an “individual conference”: an opportunity to receive feedback from an industry professional (author, agent, editor) on a sample from my manuscript. What I got from Susan right away was her care and empathy for other writers—their stories, their careers, their goals. She listened to what I was trying to achieve. Her feedback on my work was comprehensive and precise. Sure, she was a fan of the premise and my writing (yay), but there was something else. I took a mountain of notes on not only what to fix, but also who to speak to, who to network with, and how to make my book sing so that it is sellable. When she told me about LitPark, her pay-it-forward author site, I wasn’t at all surprised. Of course Susan had an author career site like me! Of course we were on the same page—yes, the craft, but also, yes, the career element. It brings me great joy to publish her interview on Aspiring Author, and I strongly encourage you to head on over to LitPark and read her author interviews.
How did you get into writing?
I first fell in love with rhythm and word-play by listening to Betty Carter scatting on our family’s hi-fi during the day and listening to Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss at bedtime. The sounds just lit me up—the click of consonants; the long, sexy breath of vowels; the staccato of short words strung together; the emotion you could create from sound alone. As early as elementary school, I was telling people I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. But I knew, by the time I applied to college, that a career in the arts was impractical so I studied biomedical engineering and saved the writing classes for electives. However, by the end of my first year, I called my dad, who was paying my way, and told him I wanted to be a poet. It felt like I had asked him if I could major in Unemployment. I tried again to be practical in grad school and in the first few jobs I took but, if you looked at my car on those drives to and from work—the passenger seat littered with story ideas and strings of words I liked, all scribbled on the backs of gas receipts—it was clear where my head was. Eventually I gave in.
You started LitPark (a literary playground) to build a supportive community of writers and artists who are in this game for the long haul. How important is community and finding your people?
Community is terribly important because so much about being a writer can feel like an uphill battle. You write a promising novel into a dead end. You edit a story and, like a game of Jenga or Dominoes, make one change and the whole thing collapses. You work really hard for no pay. You diligently send out your best work for publication and collect nothing but rejection letters. A writer community can help you know what’s normal in this business and what’s not. This is where you can learn different work styles, get reminders of contests or grants you can apply for, and have help assessing whether a problem lies in the story you’ve written or the markets you’ve targeted. Mostly, it’s good company on a long, weird journey.
How do you separate the business end of writing from the craft?
I’m just learning how to do this, actually. Better late than never, right? Earlier this year, I pulled myself off of social media because—well, for lots of reasons—but also to get the whole idea of marketing untangled from my creative process. I need to spend more uninterrupted time in my story-world if I’m going to finish this draft. And what a difference it’s made to start the day with my own thoughts, rather than letting social media steer my mood and where I turn my attention!
You’re a prolific blogger. How does blogging regularly help you shape your creative work?
When I was blogging more regularly, it helped me find my own voice and opinions. It also helped me overcome my perfectionism. When people expect you to post at a certain date and time, you can’t tinker with your thoughts forever. That was really good for me, learning to move forward rather than freezing in place, always questioning, Is this good enough? Besides, my blog is designed to be a dialogue, not a spotlight on my writing. And, truly, the magic of LitPark isn’t my posts and interviews so much as the wisdom that emerges in the comments section.
Stamina. Overcoming rejection. Maintaining the creative life. What’s your secret?
I think endurance is the most essential quality for a writer’s success, so whatever allows you to stick with it is the secret. For me, that means moving more than I sit, putting my writing away for a while if it’s not working, and using little tricks to hold my interest in any project that is likely to take years to finish. For example, I like to edit my manuscript out of order to keep the material surprising to me. I’ll take two random chapters that are spaced far apart (say chapter 5 and chapter 27) and edit them back-to-back. Suddenly I’m aware of a detail (maybe an item tucked into a character’s pocket) in chapter 5 that I can play with again in chapter 27. Editing this way helps the chapters cross-pollinate, adding depth and a consistency of voice. Another trick I use to keep a long project exciting is to occasionally carve out little pieces of it to publish as flash fiction.
How important is it to you to pay it forward to aspiring authors?
I try to share the trade secrets and shortcuts I’ve learned with other writers. It’s the reason I started LitPark. I’ve posted about craft and finding agents and lots of emotional support for writers who feel beaten down by rejection. But all of us, at every stage, have opportunities to be generous in really practical ways. If you like a writer’s social media post, leave a comment. If you like a literary magazine, subscribe to it or, at least, make noise about the story you liked. If your local library invites an author to give a talk, show up. If you love a book, tell people about it, write a review, post a photo of it. A deeper kind of generosity—and this goes back to your last question about helping writers preserve their stamina and maintain their creative life—is to be careful not to make laborious requests of other writers. My rule of thumb: Would I make a similar ask of a plumber? Would a plumber give away this service for free? So, for example, I can imagine asking a plumber, Could you tell me why you became a plumber? What brands of tools do you like best? Do you recommend going to trade school or jumping right in as an apprentice? But I would never dream of asking a plumber to come fix my shower for free. However, writers do this to each other all the time, asking for manuscript edits. The need is real, but it’s a professional service and not something most writers want (or have time) to do. The more appropriate ask is, Who are some editors you’d recommend to look at my manuscript? And my answer would be Marcy Dermansky, Marcia Trahan, and Gina Frangello. If a writer wants a free edit, there are plenty of options: join a workshop where everyone has agreed to share feedback on manuscripts. Many libraries and bookstores offer workshops, and continuing ed programs (check with your local universities and community colleges) offer them for cheap. New Yorkers have Gotham Writers, and I’ll bet there are ways for non-New Yorkers to access their classes and workshops online. Treating writers as we would treat our plumbers honors their professionalism, their time and their headspace.
We met at a summer writing conference. How important is it for aspiring authors to attend such events?
I think it’s one of many ways to be in community with writers and artists. You can get that from going to readings at your local indie bookstore, attending online classes at places like Politics and Prose or Sackett Street, getting an MFA, or forming a workshop that meets at your house. All these things help turn your attention to craft and community and the daily work of writing. It’s just about your preferences—which of those events fit your personality and budget. I do think writer residencies are a whole different matter, and vital for those of us who create our best work when we fully immerse ourselves in it. Most residencies pay for your room and board, and free you up from daily distractions like grocery shopping, cooking, TV, and even wi-fi, so it feels nourishing and validating on so many levels. When I’m at a residency, I can accomplish, in a month, what normally takes me more than a year.
How long does it take you to complete a project?
I take about six years to write a novel. I usually start a project because I’m obsessed with a setting that seems to have a story physically rooted in it. So I begin the work by physically wandering the real-life setting and letting my imagination tuck away details that captivate me. My current setting is an abandoned mental hospital that once housed 10,000 patients. For a long while, I just wandered the grounds, slipped inside through broken windows, and talked to everyone I could about the history and mythology of the place. Slowly, a story started to emerge. What I’m always after, as I sift through research, is a question in the moral gray area that requires an entire novel to answer. Usually there are a few false starts—ideas that don’t hold my interest or don’t dig deep enough. I know a keeper is starting to form when what I think of as the floor of my story-world suddenly cracks open and I fall into the mildewed basement of that story. That’s when the fun begins. And that’s where I am now, in the magical, mildewed basement of this abandoned hospital.
What is your daily writing routine?
Normally I do the bulk of my writing while walking. I leave the house with a question I want to answer or a scene I want to flesh out, and I don’t let myself go home till I’ve answered it. The question is the hard part. Once I have the question, the answer always comes, and I talk it into my voice memo app. I’m working in Mexico right now so my routine has had to adapt to the noise and stray dogs and crooked cobblestone streets of this town. Here, I have to pay attention to where I’m stepping, and because it’s often too noisy to use my app, these walks are not writing sessions. They’re more of a time to think about a scene or a character until I have an image or detail worth playing with. Then I go back to my lodging to write or edit one scene at a time. When the scene is done, I head out the door again. (My favorite writing aid, by the way, is something called “New-Skin,” which is pure magic on blisters.)
Who are your literary inspirations?
Shirley Jackson (We Have Always Lived in the Castle), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds), William Gass (“The Pedersen Kid”), Max Porter (Grief is the Thing with Feathers), James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room), Kent Haruf (Plainsong), Kendrick Lamar (“United in Grief”), Edward Hirsch (Gabriel: A Poem), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Leaf Storm), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), Naomi Shihab Nye (19 Varieties of Gazelle), and The Brothers Grimm (because “Hansel and Gretel” still takes my breath away).
What books on getting published do you recommend?
I equate getting published with pushing my writing to be better, so the first books that come to mind are more about inspiration and craft. One that helped me, almost two decades ago, was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Now my copy of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story gets the most wear-and-tear. But a great book that talks about both writing and getting published is a brand new one by my friend, Amy Wallen. It’s called How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies, and it’s not only funny and practical but has illustrations!
What advice do you wish you’d listened to or ignored over the course of your career? What does success look like to you?
I wish I’d learned earlier in my career not to take everyone’s suggestions for how to make a story better. I’d come back from a workshop and start changing this thing and that. Before I knew it, I’d edited the soul right out of it. A weird bit of advice I did take came from a stranger in a dark bar. He told me not to save my rejection letters—something I didn’t try right away because, you know, drunk guy in a bar. But it turned out to be brilliant advice. The accumulation of rejections can fuel self-doubt, anger, jealousy, and a focus on proving people wrong—none of which is healthy. The truth is, choosing stories for publication is subjective. And also, sometimes you write duds. I’ve learned not to focus on the losses—or the wins, for that matter. I try to keep my focus on doing the work. Right now, success is producing a coherent, readable draft of the new book.
What keeps you sane?
Dogs, long walks, and a mini-trampoline I keep in the corner of my office. Plus, I go to a lot of NYCFC games in Queens and the Bronx—I’m definitely more sane during soccer season.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors starting their writing careers?
Just one?! The best writers I know read more than they write.
About Author Susan Henderson
Susan Henderson is a seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee, the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Award, and the author of two novels, Up from the Blue and The Flicker of Old Dreams, both published by HarperCollins. Her latest is a Montana Book Award Honor Book and winner of the High Plains Book Award for Fiction, the WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction, and the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Western Contemporary Novel. Susan is a lifetime member of the National Book Critics Circle and the NAACP. She lives in New York and blogs at the writer support group, LitPark.com.