If you happen to be walking one day in Susan Henderson's suburban New York neighborhood and you see her yammering into her iPhone, odds are that she'll be telling her husband she's coming home soon. Whatever you do, don't bother her, because it's all a ruse. She's actually channeling her inner Wordsworth and writing. She just wants people to think she's talking to someone, when instead she's actually composing. Of course, this part of her writing process is far less hazardous than the previous variation, when she really did write while walking, sometimes for as long as three hours. This created problems during those moments when she actually had to see where she was going; consequently, she walked into a lot of parked cars.
Henderson's new novel, Up From the Blue (Harper Collins), is out this week. It's received a substantial amount of advance praise. Some of you may know her as the founder of the literary blog LitPark, but her literary accomplishments are many. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of a variety of awards and grants. Her work has been featured in several literary journals and popular press publications.
Henderson's writing process is a good example of one that actually doesn't involve a lot of writing. Like any good writer, she sees the actual transcription of words as only a small part of the process. She recognizes that her process involves thinking, blogging, brainstorming, conversing, you name it. In fact, if she's actively engaged in the process for eight hours a day, only about ninety minutes of that is dedicated to putting pen to paper.
So read my interview with Susan Henderson. You'll find out what she has in common with William Wordsworth, why her neighbors might think she's crazy, why she fought being a writer, and more about that iPhone. And watch this teaser as well:
I feel like I've spent most of my life trying not to be a writer. It was never a logical choice. My father was a computer scientist in the military and good at concrete things. I felt like writing was intruding on me. I went to college for biomedical engineering, but I kept on writing. I tried to stop myself, but I'd sneak over and take a creative writing class or write some poetry.
A lot of people describe writing as a great pleasure in their lives. For me, it's more of a need. It takes a lot of time, and I hate rejection and things that are not practical. I wanted to be self-sufficient, with a job that made sense that I could talk about at a barbecue. The writing just felt like it was coming after me. After a while, I realized I had to write this story (Up From the Blue) down, then I would stop writing. So I wrote a story that later became several stories with recurring themes and characters, and then I figured I should just stop everything and write the book.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
Right now, the publicity process for the book has been distracting, but when I am really disciplined, I block out about eight hours a day. Probably an hour and a half of that is really useful writing.
But if you define writing more broadly, I've learned that I don't produce as much as I want. So the night before, I decide the theme or the characters or the question I'm trying to figure out, and I write it down with no expectations for what the answer is going to be. I pin it to my board and when I go to work the next day, I spend probably two hours working on nothing but that thing. I've learned that if I try to wait for a zone, when it feels like God is moving the pen, that works for me maybe twice a year. So I have a much more blue collar approach: I have a job to do and a goal to achieve each day. It's ok to write it badly, because I know I can go back and revise.
Most of the day, I am sharpening the writing pencil or my brain: I'm reading, blogging, thinking about writing.
But that's still part of your process. So you have a very, in your words, "blue-collar approach." When is quitting time each day?
I try to stop about a half hour before my kids come home from school and shift gears. My office is in a little room in our garage, and I found that when I wrote in the house, I never really stopped. I had to separate the writing from the rest of my life, instead of writing while I was cooking dinner. I needed a place to physically leave.
How has having children affected your writing process?
It infused a lot of guilt into the process. I think part of being able to finish the novel was that they (her two teenaged boys) saw me engaged in the process for so long, whether I was thinking about it or writing about it. If I was going to do that, I needed to know when to come out of my writing, and I needed to produce something. The guilt of taking family time away to write made me realize I had to finish. When I told my kids that I was doing something important, I had to make sure I was creating something. Otherwise, in their eyes it would just be like their mom taking a long bubble bath.
The important thing is when you think something is done, put it away for a couple of weeks or even a couple of months. Then go back and look. If you're at a stage where you're just picking at things, moving a few things around, you're close to done. I ask myself: is this something that someone who has had a hard day at work would consider reading? So if you have a sense that someone might be different for having read it, whether it's changed or transformed or healed or lifted up, it's done. The purpose of my writing is to start a dialogue, and if it's only useful for me, it's not finished. Then it's just a personal thing.
That's what I tell people: that if you produce something for public consumption, your audience must leave the conversation in a different state of mind, whether intellectually or emotionally, than they were in when they started. If they finish the piece in the same state of mind, you've wasted their time.
Back to the discipline idea. Is there anything you must have with you when you write in order to put yourself in the right frame of mind?
I did the Squaw Valley Writers Conference a few summers ago, and Ron Carlson kept saying, "Keep your ass in the chair. That's the way to write." I thought about that, and I realize that's dead wrong for me. I am a restless person, and I hate to sit down in a chair. So my new thing is an iPhone, and I use the voice memo. Now I do almost all of my writing while walking. For my first draft, I go to the woods and hike for two or three hours. I'll go with a specific question, scene, or dilemma, and I'll just talk it into the voice memo. I pretend like I am talking on the phone, so when I pass people I pretend have a conversation on the phone, like "Hey honey, I'll be home at five." Then when they pass, I continue composing. But I realize I have to be walking.
Then you should read The Friendship by Adam Sisman. It's about the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and it was nothing for them to walk 30 miles or more a day. Both were famous for composing their poems in their heads while walking. Wordsworth preferred flat terrain, while Coleridge preferred more uneven terrain. There's also a lot of research about how aerobic exercise has an immediate--as in same day--effect on creativity and higher order thinking.
That's fascinating, and it makes sense. Friends ask if they can walk with me, and I tell them that they can't because I am working.
Your friends probably think you are crazy.
Yeah, but I looked even crazier before my iPhone, when I would try to write while walking. I'd walk right into parked cars. I always walk when I am stuck, so I'd have a piece of paper in one pocket and a pen in the other so that I could get myself out of a scene. My goal was that I could not come back home until I was unstuck. Now I just look like one of those rude people on the phone all the time. Now it's a more socially acceptable crazy.
I can only imagine what your neighbors think about you! So when you go to write, how do you compose?
I find my writing is significantly better if I write on paper, but I tend to use the computer. My thoughts are more coherent and the storytelling is better when I am on paper. But when I am typing, I confuse the writing and editing process more.
What do you mean by that?
I get distracted. When I'm writing, I'm thinking about a large story. But when I am typing, I see each word and letter as they go, and I tend to get distracted by the sentence level issues. I'll move things or change things before I've finished a scene. But when I handwrite, I do the whole thing, type it in, then mess with it. There's a cohesion I get when I handwrite that I don't have when I type.
You used to write poetry. Talk about how being a poet makes you a better prose writer.
I have a well-trained ear for rhythm and pacing within each sentence, and I know to end on a strong word rather than a weak one. I cut clutter easily so that there are no wasted words.
But I had to learn how to unpack my stories. They were too dense. I went from poems to short stories to novels, and I needed to let the words breathe and let the readers take a breath, soak something in.
What writers inspire you?
My favorite is William Maxwell, who was the editor of the New Yorker and wrote They Came Like Swallows. I love Tim O'Brien and The Things They Carried. I love it because sometimes you have to use fiction to tell the greatest truths. I love Jimmy Baldwin, Zora Neal Hurston, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Ellen Gilchrist. Then I love children's books like Pippi Longstocking.
What are some of your revision techniques?
It depends on the stage. I focus on the action on the page. I pay attention to the rhythm, but I make sure that the second you open a chapter, you want to keep reading after the first two sentences. I try to come up with something significantly different from the chapter before it. And with the last paragraph of every chapter, you should be different for having read that chapter, and there should be a guarantee that the story will be moving forward in the next chapter. I try to really respect the reader's time.
I have a note on my bulletin board that says, "Simplify simplify." The deep part of a book should be working in the reader's gut, and you don't want your readers to have to work too hard to get what you are trying to do. I might be talking about a lot of things, but it should still be easy to read. I'm not talking about writing about simple things, but my writing shouldn't feel like homework.