Sometimes, in the midst of revising my novel, I was consumed with the terror of uncertainty. If I made this one big change to the text, would I be able to handle its ripple effect throughout the book? Would I ever get this right? Was this even a story worth telling? And I crawled deeper and deeper into what friends call my “writer’s cave,” sometimes so focused or in such a funk that I’d forget daylight.

Here’s a story I call on again and again to give me perspective…

I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).

This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused solely on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.

But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.

The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.

So, for those of you in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty, know this: First of all, your story matters or you wouldn’t be fighting against such odds to tell it. Keep writing, a little every day, and you’ll get there. But also remember to let in the sunlight, walk with a friend, hold the ones you love, watch those crocuses come up, and dance. Because now matters, too.

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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

15 responses to “Time for Waltzing”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    A touching and needed reminder, Susan: in all our worrying, planning, controlling, catering……”there’s room for joy”. We can click on the peace-joy screen behind our obsessed-by-concerns screen, and feel our priorities automatically realigning themselves. A move well worth making a habit!

    • LitPark says:

      Hi Judy,

      I spent a long weekend with some other writers and one of them brought an egg timer. We’d hang out and talk and eat and drink, and then she’d set the timer for one hour and we’d all go away and write. The kind of startling discovery we had was how productive we could be in a single hour when we stayed focused and stayed off the internet. We did 3 of these timed writing sessions each day and probably produced more than we would have in a month. So I guess one way to make room for joy that I didn’t understand until a few days ago is to do a focused burst of work, surrounded on either side with play!

      Glad you’re here, and thanks for your kind words.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Great situation, Susan! However, after great chats and eating and drinking, it’d take more than the ding of an egg timer to awaken me if I got off to a place by m’sel’ and contemplated ugh *writing* something. 😉

        But seriously. Some such mobilised writing activity happens to me in the British Library’s Reading Room. So in awe of the room and the BL’s contents, I sit immobile and blank-minded for several minutes…….and then something clicks in—-prolly all the non-noise and collective concentration of 200 brains—-and I begin writing copiously with that damned little pencil on my little index cards. Writing “flows”, as Csikszentmihalyi called those moments when we’re swept along with the flow of our doings, when we’re unaware of our surroundings and obligations.

        Deprivation of distractions would seem to be the common element in your (FAR MORE FUN) group thing and my BL thing.

        • LitPark says:

          I thought it would be hard, too, but it turned out that chatting with other writers woke up all kinds of stories and emotions. And yeah, eliminating the distractions is big… and way harder to do when no one else is watching you!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Oh yes, Susan—-absolutely the chattings “woke up all kinds of stories and emotions”. I find a similar thing happening here on TNB with the comment-interactions. Better in person, natch, but we can bless Cosmic Birther of All Radiance and All Vibration (my words for Love, God, The Good, etc) for aether/others’-connecting.

          Give me some of your thoughts on the upside to distractions vis a vis our writing processes. Occurs to me that it’s often useful.

        • LitPark says:

          That’s a great question. Off the top of my head… Distractions can shift your mood, increase your energy, open you to other ideas and emotions, relax you, give your brain a chance to idle. And it seems idling (walking, driving, sleeping, cooking) is often the key to reaching into your subconscious mind where those zinger ideas are waiting if you’d only slow down enough to notice them.

  2. Billy Bones says:

    And now you are teaching us all to waltz, in swirling steps between life and words.

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    What strikes me is this family had a sense of balance. You touch on that, too, in your response to Judy about the playtime around the concentrated work times. It’s a lesson I could stand to learn.

    • LitPark says:

      Balance isn’t something that comes naturally to me at all. But there’s nothing I’ve ever faced that is more serious than what this family was going through, so I figure I have no excuses.

  4. amy says:

    Wow Susan, Great story and reminder. I came upstairs to my desk and my first task of the day was going to be to cancel my piano lesson this week and through the summer until I get both the novel I’m working on to a good place and this reading project (86 books to read as Fiction Judge for PEN/USA Literary Awards) my anxiety was so great I just couldn’t see how I could fit in the one thing that always feels like it’s my very own. But reading your essay, I’ll be going to my lesson this week and I’ll be practicing after lunch today. Another reason I want to go to my lesson–my teacher is one of my dearest friends, so why would I pass up an hour with her!

    Thanks for keeping us real!

    • LitPark says:

      I love that you’re taking piano lessons! And as daunting as reading 86 books sounds, what a fantastic honor to be judge… wow. I want to hear all about it.

  5. Ric Marion says:

    Take the time, Make the time. Life is short, life throws weird stuff at us.
    The book is important, the story is important, but the journey, the journey is the part that makes it special. And, if it is special to you, it will be more so for all the rest of us.

    • LitPark says:

      I remember when I was a kid, we waited in line for what felt like hours to see the King Tut exhibit. Once we were inside, I practically jogged to the gift shop so I could have a souvenir saying I was there. I need constant reminders to slow down and enjoy the journey and the weird stuff along the way, so thanks for this.

  6. Meesto says:

    Hi Susan,

    I received a response alert email pertaining to my question but it ended up in my yahoo spam folder and when I went to the forum I was already bumped out by one of your many enthusiastic and or insecure, needy readers. Especially Greg – that dude is annoying. Bla bla bla – shut up about your query letter already.

    My question does not matter now as I am realizing that the book industry has become like the music industry that I was part of professionally for 15 years. In that it expects you to do all the work before you ever get a an agent or a deal, as in a huge platform of public seminars, previously published books and blogs with a million email data base. Then they sweep in like vultures to ‘assist you’ – gimme a break! If I am going to put all the energy it takes into spending hundreds of hours online trying to convince people to read my book and attend my seminars why don’t I just go all the way and buy bar codes and get my book on Amazon? I’ll tell you why because I dislike hunching over my computer straining my brain to get faceless folks or guys with pompous pictures of them riding rented horses in tropical waters to check out my new philosophy for the 21st century that actually does see life as a miracle and is not merely empty platitudes but is in your face didactic reasoning on why life matters. Unfortunately this important life changing philosophy may never see the light of day because I do not have the patience or like of the new communication technology that would allow for my voice to be heard. I think I am going to buy a robe and start preaching at Union Square. I will set up next to the angry Black ‘real ‘ Jews and try to balance out their negativity with light and intelligence.

    I admire you – raising kids, locked in a book deal and finding time to write and correspond to so many desperate artist types – bravo! Amazing. How do you do it? I bet you never watch TV.

    Keep on Keeping on!


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