Monday, April 23, 2018

My First Time: Susan Henderson

My First Mentor

I have a school assignment all the way back to third grade, declaring that I wanted to become a poet. I loved rhythm and word play and nonsense rhymes. I had crushes on the dead poet, Dylan Thomas, and the dead jazz singer and crooner, Donny Hathaway. I wrote bad copycat poetry on my arm and on my desk at school. I was a weirdo misfit everywhere I went—my hair stuck out in a lump in back because of the knots I couldn’t comb through, and was I often mistaken for a boy—but I felt certain the poets understood me.

I never knew another writer until I was in high school and met the janitor, a man in his 40’s who also wrote poetry. I’m not sure when we first learned this about each other. He kept a locker in the janitor’s area, back by all his equipment, and on the top shelf, he had pages of poems he’d written in calligraphy. After school, in between mopping the floor and emptying the garbage cans, we sat at a table in the cafeteria that was close to the wall because he always brought a little cassette player that he’d plug in. He was a big fan of the opera singer, Jessye Norman, and we’d sit there, listening to her sing out of those little, tinny speakers, and he’d read his poems to me. We talked about words and music, and eventually I had the courage to show him some of my own writing. He never pointed out the many obvious flaws, only told me that my voice mattered. This man—the unknown poet, Melvin Brooks—was the first spark in my writing career, a voice of permission that said, It’s okay to write down everything you feel and imagine. It’s okay to write badly.

After 30 years in this business, with two novels and a shelf of printed work in obscure literary magazines and anthologies, it’s clear to me that endurance is half the battle to success. And what keeps me in this game, despite the rampant rejection and feeling of invisibility, is the writer community—the avid readers, the misfits and introverts, the observers and deep thinkers who sustain me.

Many of us work in a near constant state of doubt, consumed with the ways our ideas seem so big when we dream them and so small when we translate them to the page. We know what it is to write through a fog, to write into a dead end. We share the scars of rejection, of “help” from people who may have meant well as they wrote notes in the margins of our stories that read like hate letters. We face the same, hounding questions that make us feel like failures: Have you finished your book yet? Oh, still? When do you think it will be done? We’ve all been in this game longer than our résumés would indicate. Many times, we’ve considered giving up, the experience too discouraging. Our drawers and hard drives are filled with stories that didn’t work or didn’t sell. Many in our lives wonder when we will get a real job, encouraging us to move along to something more reasonable and lucrative. But we keep on, writing with no guarantee of success, because something inside speaks louder than logic or fear.

School staff gathers for a photo. Melvin is on the far right.

I’m grateful for this beautiful and bruised body of writers for creating the paths I’ve followed, for opening the doors I’ve walked through, for teaching me how to fight the self-doubt, for being generous with their time and their hearts. I’m grateful for every soul who looked at my terrible drafts and taught me to nurture rather than strike out against that wrinkled and trembling life. And I’m grateful to Melvin, the janitor-poet, who guided me into this community with his example.

I wonder where he is. I’ve looked for him. I would love to tell him thank you.

Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of two novels, The Flicker of Old Dreams and Up from the Blue, both published by HarperCollins. Susan lives in Kings Park, New York and blogs at the writer support group,

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.


  1. Kindred spirits, understanding, and encouragement are sometimes found where we least expect them...if we're lucky. I love that story. And thank you for saying it, that we "work in a near constant state of doubt, consumed by how so big our ideas seem when we dream them, and so small when we translate them to paper"...or canvas.

    1. I remember Amy Tan telling stories about Kurt Vonnegut, how he didn't know if he had anything to say or if he should ever write again. We all struggle with doubt.

  2. This is such an enormously generous and encouraging post. Your writing has an incredible beauty to it. To know that you also have doubt as you're writing your novels is everything to all of us that feel that way. And what a wonderful person Melvin was to be writing poetry and listening to opera and reaching out to you while doing the hard work of a janitor! Dylan Thomas was one of my favorite writers from the moment I discovered his works in high school.

    1. Marilyn, Thank you for these kind words. Doubt is always along for the ride, sometimes co-pilot, thought I try to relegate it to the back seat or the trunk. I'm so glad I had a chance to tell others about Melvin!