• THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

    THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is about writing, publishing and what makes writers tick. This blog is dedicated to the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gather here. I post less frequently now, but hopefully with as much vitriol. Please join in! Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives.

    If I’ve learned one thing about writers, it’s this: we really are all alone. Thanks for reading. Love, Betsy

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I Want to Know if it’s You I Don’t Trust ‘Cause I Damn Sure Don’t Trust Myself

Over the years I’ve tried to read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I’d never get more than 15 pages in. Some people I deeply respect say it’s their favorite book. Still, it continued to dog me. And I didn’t want to read any subsequent books of hers until I read this one. I’m a little rule maker like that. I started it again last week and boom I was at page fifty. I found the language so fresh and arresting. Something unlocked and the book let me in. I really don’t know why a book lets you in or locks you out. Is it the book itself or your circumstances, your “mood,” or your “readiness.”

Have you ever had that experience with a book?

Molly is the Singer in the Band

We all know I’m jaded, blah, blah, blah. But I still do feel a sacred responsibility when I am the first reader on a book. It’s a moment in the life of a writer and the life of a book when the finger paint is still wet, when the colors are vibrant and livid and shiny and happy to be hung on a string against a wall of construction paper. I’ve often felt that life recapitulates kindergarten when it comes to ribbons and pats of on the head and your first taste that a bully is mean just for the sport of it. When I read a manuscript, I’m harsh and unholy. It’s not my job to deliver a soft boiled egg. But then I figure out a way to say it, to hold a mirror up to the mirror and ask, did you want to look this way? Is this your best light? What can you see that you couldn’t see?

How do give your fellow writers feedback?

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch

Whenever I read that someone is leaving a job to spend more time with their family, I’m like no you’re not. It’s a euphemism for getting fired and it truly sucks that you’re fired. But spending more time with your family is no consolation.That’s worse than any boss giving you and your ideas the stink eye. Worse than having to sit by yourself in the corporate cafeteria with a cold helping of mac and cheese and some runny green beans. “Loyalty to the family is tyranny to the self,” a quote I’ve remembered my whole life from a woman in her nineties whose adventurous life took her around the world by steamship. When I met her she was home bound, reliant on a magnifying glass to read and kept company by a goldfish in filmy bowl. Small though her world was, she donned her artist’s smock every day, and studied her art books. I worshipped her. My family nearly came to blows on vacation over whether we leave for Portland at 10:30 or 11:00. Yes, a half hour took us down.

Work v. family. Discuss.

I Hate to Wake You Up to Say Goodbye

Going on vacation for two weeks. You can probably guess I’m not terribly good at vacations. Going on vacation, when you’re a workaholic, is like sending an innocent person to prison. The goal is to look at my phone twice a day. Sleep eight hours, or six. Stay off Ambien, and trust me it hasn’t been pretty. And to read FOR PLEASURE. I really hope I can hack it. I’ll miss you guys.

Do you do vacation?

Joy to the Fishes in the Deep Blue Sea

Does the name Paul Sheldon ring a bell? Well, I just had my one celebratory smoke upon completing the project I’ve been working on. I believe I also had a MilkyWay Bar. Please don’t let anyone tell you I don’t know how to live. And two pieces of pizza. And like the pack.

How do you celebrate?

Cry Me a River

The New York Times Book Review has this column every week where a writer is asked a bunch of questions such as what books are on your night stand, what’s the last book that made you laugh, what was the last book that made you masturbate? This week, the novelist Diane Johnson was asked, among other things, what was the last book that made her cry. She replied, “I’m a hardhearted professional writer — I’m always more interested in how it’s done. It was probably Anna Karenina when I was sixteen.”

I’m with her on that. I don’t read so much as study. I care more about the prose than the subject. I like to get under the hood. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cry. I honestly can’t remember the last book that made me cry.

What was the last book that made you cry.

Catch Your Dreams Before They Slip Away

My entire life has been defined by writing. Keeping diaries as a girl that morphed into journals in college and throughout my twenties. All the little poetry fragments that became grown up poems and got me into graduate school. There was the classic MFA breakdown, the internship at Simon and Schuster, the Ann Taylor suits and Ferragamo shoes my mother bought me for my first day as full editor at Houghton Mifflin. The writers, the writers, the writers. And then somehow harnessing my own will and creative spark to publish my own work. I never expected to kick things off with an advice book to writers, but that happened. I often act cynically and jaded. Like many seniors, I have less elasticity and patience. But I also have immense gratitude and can still connect with the girl who kept her secret diaries in a crawl space beneath the stairs, committing her secret thoughts to the page knowing on some level that feelings needed to be managed or handled.

What is your writing time line?

Hold Me Like You’ll Never Let Me Go

We’re going on vacation in a couple of weeks and the piles have started to appear. I’m referring of course to the book piles on the dining room table. It’s this delicious dance of adding and subtracting books that we might take, imagining what might be the ticket. It’s got everything from what I’ve wanted to read, have been desperate to read, felt I should read, a guilty pleasure, a prize winner, a book that’s been on the bestseller list for 103 weeks, a book that’s buzzy or an odd little duck that no one gives a fuck.

What do you recommend we take?

Hey There Lonely Girl

For me, for most of my life, writing and loneliness went together. I was a lonely kid. I was perfected my chameleon skills in high school, I passed through college unnoticed. Every diary I have is a study in loneliness, is a sustained screed, a nursed wound, a bruise, a plum. Writing for me was not being alone. Writing was a great conversation, a balm, a salve, a bicycle built for two. I’ve been thinking of throwing them all away, the thirty or notebooks, the pages like cotton batting, the covers plastered with ticket stubs and photo booth pictures, and the silver backs of gum wrappers.

Why do you write?

From Your First Cigarette to Your Last Dying Day

What I like about agenting is that it’s a three ring circus. Just as you sign a new client, or sell a new project, another client delivers a book, you go to a publicity and marketing meeting, or you get out your red shoes and go to a reading or party for a book just published. You’re there for the birth and baptism, the prom and wedding, the break-up and divorce, the death rattle and death. In my heart of hearts, I’m still an editor. I wonder if I would have lasted or gotten bumped like so many others on editorial row. I preferred being an editor because you’re closer to the whole gestalt of the book from editing to jacket to publishing plans. And I liked being part of a publishing team.Though I was also part of some pretty viscous teams. LOL. People trust editors. Agents not so much.

Are you an agent or an editor? A Jet or a Shark?