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Book Reviews, Craft of Writing, Literature, The Writer's Life

The Gretchen E. Henderson Experience, or How I Found Out I’m Much More Stupider Than I Thought

If you haven’t already figured it out from following this blog, I like to think I’m pretty smart.[1] But once in a while I run into someone who’s so intelligent it reminds me of where I really rank on the IQ totem pole.

Usually this person is not trying to make me feel stupid—she’s just being herself and after a minute or two I realize I have to be careful what I say, lest I expose my inner moron. That’s pretty much what happened when I had the opportunity to interview Gretchen E. Henderson, author of four books, including the much-honored The House Enters the Street, for Delphi Quarterly. Over the past couple of months we’ve emailed back and forth to conduct the interview, in which I tried to develop an understanding of what is a complicated and non-traditional book, an interdisciplinary endeavor that wraps a series of story threads around experiments in language and music. The “glue” that holds the various parts of the book together is a 1910 painting by Umberto Boccioni, titled “The Street Enters the House.” You still with me?

It’s a fairly in depth and far-ranging interview, and if you read it you’ll quickly see that after her first answer I’m just barely hangin’ in there, trying to think of something to ask that’s worthy of her novel and her intellect. Several of my questions, in retrospect, sound like the kind of leading query offered up by a “60 Minutes” reporter, with an answer built in to try to direct her into a discussion I have half a chance of understanding.[2] But notice the shrewd replies—a gentle refutation of my logic before she talks about what was really going on while she wrote the book.

Gretchen’s answers also reveal a lifetime of study and thought devoted to the arts. This is a person who I’d bet never wasted time watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” when she was a kid, let alone “60 Minutes.”[3]

And there, of course, lies part of the difference—if my parents hadn’t let me watch Gilligan, if they’d forced me to study and not let me give up music lessons, then maybe I’d be able to write and converse at something approaching Gretchen’s level—or maybe not. Education doesn’t always dictate intelligence.[4]

It is funny, though, how many people float through life thinking they’re the smartest kid on the block, and how their opinions make so much more sense than the people who disagree. I would suggest they spend a couple of hours with someone like Gretchen to get a better perspective on what intelligence really is. Personally, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to have met her and spend a little time talking. It’s actually good to feel stupid once in a while—it lets a little air out of the ego and helps me realize how much room there still is to grow.

[1] Although, how smart can I be? I chose to be a writer…

[2] Catch a segment with Leslie Stahl and you’ll see what I mean. It’s annoying and it’s not very good journalism.

[3] But at least I was smart enough not to ask her about that.

[4] If you doubt that, visit your local Tea Party chapter.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


16 thoughts on “The Gretchen E. Henderson Experience, or How I Found Out I’m Much More Stupider Than I Thought

  1. Gilligan’s Island was NOT a waste of time. How else would we have learned of the dangers of quicksand?

    Posted by Averil Dean | April 20, 2013, 1:54 PM
    • Yes, but in every episode?

      And now that I think of it, I often call Henry, the dog, little buddy.

      Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 2:17 PM
    • And the professor’s many and complex scientific experiments. I’m pretty sure that all I learned of science came from Gilligan’s Island — if only my school science teachers had been as captivating as the professor and his crush on Mary Ann.

      Posted by Teri | April 20, 2013, 2:32 PM
      • Not to mention my crush on Mary Ann. I actually remember reading an article on how most guys would rather date her than the glamorous Ginger.

        Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 2:35 PM
  2. Interesting interview, Joe. Well done. I’m struck by her language– she speaks a different tongue than the typical writer does, one informed by the concerns of a visual artist, and it’s quite exhilarating.

    Posted by girl in the hat | April 20, 2013, 1:57 PM
    • It’s not only the different concepts she brings to the conversation, but her ability to think across genres and develop a synthesis of ideas. Exhilarating and very challenging.

      Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 2:19 PM
  3. Gretchen is the kind of writer who makes me want to try harder, that smart girl in the class who makes me just as curious about her as I am about the things she knows so well that I’ve never heard of. One of the things I loved most about this interview was the combination of how charming and accessible she is in her answers, while the answers themselves are so complex I had to reread them.

    I love the reminder of what writing really is: storytelling while seeking answers, which applies to both fiction and nonfiction. I remember hearing a prominent nonfiction writer say that if you’ve written a story without trying to answer a question (or many questions), to please not bother publishing it. While this struck me as harsh at the time, I understand it more all the time. Like Gretchen’s quote in your interview: “My writing is a quest of questions, where questions beget more questions. Rilke encouraged: ‘Love the questions themselves…Live the questions.’ The more I learn, the less I know. The point is to remain open, curious, questioning. “

    Posted by Teri | April 20, 2013, 1:59 PM
    • Chekhov said that too, that a good writer does not propose answers, but only asks the right questions.

      And what you said in your first paragraph really points out the attitude of a writer–it’s someone who always wants to learn more, to try harder to understand. I know too many people who treat new knowledge and perspectives like a disease, something to be avoided lest they catch it themselves. Most of them hold elected office, by the way.

      Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 2:26 PM
  4. Don’t worry too much about feeling stupid–we’re all stupider than someone, probably into infinitude. It’s realizing one’s own limitations that’s the hard part–doesn’t feel good, does it? I used to have an uncle who told me that as long as he was sitting inside a refrigerator box and that was the limit of his universe, that he was the world’s greatest pianist. The problem came when he stepped out of the box. We all have moments like that. Just try to upscale your boxes, gradually larger and larger, and I guess that has to be progress. Hope that perspective helps.

    Posted by shadowoperator | April 20, 2013, 2:15 PM
    • I love that perspective. As difficult as it is to continue to step outside one’s comfort zone, I believe we have to do it, to keep forcing ourselves to learn and experience. I’ll never be in Gretchen’s intellectual league, but just talking to her has helped me take a step higher on the ladder.

      For now, though, I need a little ego boost. Excuse me while I go sit in the refrigerator.

      Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 2:22 PM
  5. You did a marvelous job. Enjoyed the interview. And I didn’t even glimpse your “inner moron.” Too funny. Off to tweet.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | April 20, 2013, 2:54 PM
    • Oh, he’s there. He cleverly disguises it with those big words, but he’s there.

      And thanks for spreading the word.

      Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 3:50 PM
  6. The interviewer is a referee in a football game: The object is to be invisible and let the game play out. You did that perfectly. No moron there.

    As to Ms Henderson’s relative brilliance: Hell yes. She clearly has more than her share of well connected neurons, has fed them many cross discipinary feasts, and knows how to use them.

    I have known a few (very few) people like her and I understand your feeling. As they swim laps, I tread water. I felt lucky to be in the same pool.

    Posted by jonzech | April 20, 2013, 4:00 PM
  7. I’m right there with you, and wearing water wings to boot.

    Posted by jpon | April 20, 2013, 9:41 PM
  8. this is a sweet post. I wasn’t allowed to watch alot of tv, but my parents went out alot, so I got very good at sneaking past the baby-sitter and watching forbidden fare like Dick Van Dyke and my absolute favorite Petticoat Junction…. this explains probably why I too am not as smart as I ought to be….

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 21, 2013, 6:48 PM
    • Reminds me of how I used to sneak out of bed when I was 13 or so and sit on the stairwell behind my grandfather to watch late night sports. He never knew…

      Posted by jpon | April 22, 2013, 12:32 AM

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