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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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No One I Think Is In My Tree

I’ve been thinking a lot about the comments on Monday in response to my tantrum about my own writing. I never expected to have such kind responses, encouraging and supportive. That’s because I’m always expecting what my own brain doles out: buck up, get to work, you’re a piece of shit (actually it’s you’re a fat piece of shit but we don’t need to get ugly here), you’re a phoney, no one cares about your lame ass excuses, etc. Whenever people say, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, I always want to reply: then who will be? It has never occurred to me to be nice to myself, which is probably why I loathe the entire self-help industry, spirituality, and whistling.

The thing is, your comments got to me: it’s winter, the toughest time usually comes before a breakthrough (or breakdown), you’re not alone, something about an insect near my vee-jayjay, and the clay. I want to thank everyone who commented. I’ve never known a writer to say, I’m at the top of my game, or I killed a new chapter this morning, or I’ve got my next five books outlined, or People seem to really love my writing. It’s so much darkness and even more scratching. It’s living inside your head, brutal and beautiful.

What I want to know is: what do you tell yourself? What is the drumming in your head?

48 Responses

  1. Life is hard and the only way to get through the swells and the lulls between them is to ride them out. And maybe write about them.

    Betsy, you inspire us. You touched a nerve. We come to your blog every day from all over the country, perhaps the world, because we feel what you feel. We thank you for giving voice to our anxieties, our hopes and frustrations.

    A blog is a shitload of work; here’s thanks for what you do!

  2. The drumming is there only to drown out the voices.

    P.S. Glad you avoided that open window.

  3. Like Coach Bob says in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire,”You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed and keep passing open windows”

    But he didn’t tell us how to stay obsessed — but reading your blog really helps. Thanks.

    • I love John Iriving but I decided I’d better avoid his advice after he said in that interview last year that he’d probably shoot himself if he were a 27 year old novelist trying to sell their first book. At the time I was a 27 year old novelist trying to sell my first book so…

  4. Interesting insight into why you might loathe spirituality. Did you know that at Shakespeare and Company downtown, Forest for the Trees is right next to the I Ching? Your book is balanced with ancient Chinese wisdom. East meets West. Both great books.

    • Dude, I’m so psyched to hear that a bookstore actually carries my book. They can shelve it next to Secrets of a Porn Star. And I think I went too far to say that I loathe spirituality. But I really don’t like it. Thanks as always for commenting. B

      • I think many of us don’t like spirituality because of the way it’s been presented to us (the rabbi’s in A Serious Man?). Boy, if you were to try me, you’d like it better than therapy!

  5. Everyday I get up and I want to write. My only problem is that there’s never enough time to do all the writing I want to do, never that I don’t want to do it. I don’t know why I keep doing it except for the corniest reason of all: I believe that what I write is supposed to be outside in the world and not just in my head.

    • Can you get up earlier? Makes all the difference for me. Get up and do it before the feeling leaves you or you have a chance to get distracted by life.

      • Thanks, Spring Chicken. You’re right. I really love working in the mornings and exercising in the mornings. If I just woke up earlier (and got to bed on time) I could do the writing I want to do. Because, you’re right, later comes all the distractions.

  6. The rhythm varies, but the chorus is always the same in my head: Keep writing and selling, don’t ever go back. Keep writing and selling, don’t ever go back…

  7. (Inside Head, Day 1: Dude, grab your notebook. Hurry hurry hurry get this into your “ideas for novels” notebook immediately before it’s too late. Don’t tell anyone don’t tell anyone. Someone’s probably just jotted down the same idea this very minute somewhere else. It’s going to be a race between me and them.
    Day 2: Are you serious? You’ve got to be kidding. Are you and I the same person? Who are you, really? )

  8. You sound like a very intellectual person, a deep thinker and an extremely logical person. You’ve got a razor sharp mind, and probably enjoy pushing your thinking capabilities. The thinking part of your brain is so finely exercised that it doesn’t have to stretch itself anymore.

    So this will be a weird suggestion, but here goes: try a complex activity that really pushes your body, not your mind. By engaging in something that makes you physically feel clumsy…it will force your brain to build new neural pathways…which will result in new ideas, new realizations, novel ways of thinking. Make sure it is an activity that you cannot master quickly…and an activity that makes you feel kind of stupid in the beginning….and then keep at it. You will be surprised how offended your brain will be and how bruised your ego will be when it realizes it can’t easily master something. It gets all mad and huffy and then it relaxes and laughs, and has realizations about all sorts of human things.

    I suggest going with tap-dancing. Take a few beginner adult classes. Watch your brain’s inability to talk to your feet! Go to at least 4 classes…or until you learn to do the time-step. Just hunt around for adult tap classes on the internet (if you are in NYC, go to Steps on Broadway http://www.stepsnyc.com/ ) And get yourself some tap shoes (see if there are capezio stores in your area).

    Hope this helps!

  9. I’m of the ‘good enough school’, Betty. The good enough and near enough.

    I refuse to allow myself to indulge too long in any perfectionistic tendencies and I tell myself to write my way through the self abuse, check it our later when I’m calm, and if it reads well enough then keep it for later, otherwise put it aside. There’s always plenty more where that comes from but its best not to indulge in too much self abusive propaganda.

  10. I know it’s new age hooey, and you and I aren’t warm and fuzzy. But watch What the Bleep Do We Know? (again, if necessary), and remember those messages from water: if a negative thought can do that to water, imagine what it does to you. Or sign up for a “note for the universe,” which comes to my in-box every other morning and tells me how beautiful I am and what great things will come to me in my life.

    I’m finished with the suck voice. I think much better shit happens to yourself when you treat yourself like you would a friend who is saying how fat and ugly she is.

    I haven’t always exorcised it, but I treat it now like the boil from How To Get Ahead in Advertising. I stuff its mouth with pimple cream and keep it under my shirt.

    Soon, you start to believe the good things.

  11. The voice in my head is probably the most pitiful of all. I want so much to please my agent. I don’t want to disappoint her because she tells me all the time that I’m a great writer, and that always surprises me. How can that be true? I never wanted to be a writer, didn’t write a word until I was closing in on sixty and then only did it because I was bored. I have no idea how a writer is supposed to act. I don’t know the rules. I’m trying to find my way in the dark and I keep tripping over things like self doubt and searching for a plot. I hear a book needs one.

    But Wendy’s like my father used to be. He treated me as if I were the daughter he’d always wished for, even though I wasn’t particularly good at anything. And because of his kind and patient actions, I wanted to please him, prove him right, make sure he didn’t find out that I wasn’t so hot after all and change his mind.

    I don’t want Wendy to change her mind.

  12. “Does the world really need another mediocre novel?”

    “Nobody cares if you ever write again.”

    “in fact, a few people would be really pleased if you spent the day folding their laundry, baking a pie, roasting a chicken, and getting rid of the weird smell in the bathroom.”

    “Damn, this really sucks, doesn’t it. Wow!”

    You can see where this is going.

  13. Well, I usually tell my self to just shut up and keep writing. It keeps the whining down.

    I bought Forest for the Trees when it was first published and it’s time that I reread it. Interesting to see where I’ve yellow highlighted passages. Thank you for your refreshingly no-bullshit blog. It’s a highlight of my day.

  14. This is an excerpt from my novel, which is actually plagerized from my memoir:

    “Her mind was a rollercoaster and the carts had names like Not Graceful, Not Witty, Not Smart Enough, Not Good Enough, Too Fat, and Too Plain. The train coasted endlessly around the track, day and night, digging its groove deeper in her mind with each completed loop.”

    That’s my mind. How do I replace the labels on the carts with something to get me through the rough spots? When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I just try to hop off the coaster once in a while to go get a cotton candy or carmel apple from the vendors.
    (This would be literal if you replaced the candy and apple with things like pizza, fudge and ice cream.)

  15. Oh, the mean voices. The good thing is that I have heard them tear me down in so many different ways for so long that now I just have to remember I have been through this before. It’s awful. i always think this time it’s really true–this time i’m done. But that is the time for faith. Whatever you want to call it. This too shall pass this too shall pass this too shall pass. Because it always does, eventually.

    And after reading your post I realize why all those chirpy little status updates and blogs I see about how wonderful it is to write–“had tea and cookies with my WIP today!” “the slant of light on my almost-finished WIP is beautiful!”–drive me nuts.

  16. It is one big suck-fest before the writing begins. Seriously. I tell other people who ask me for writing advice not to self-edit before they even get something down on paper ( screen) — and then I sit there and do exactly that: self-edit. Usually, when I can’t stand myself a second longer– when my body has reacted in some stressed way like a rash or intestinal issues– it’s time to write.

    Granted– I need to think of a better way to do this– seriously. It is rough on the psyche and the body.

  17. The voices in my head for the past minute: I need a miracle, I need a miracle, you don’t believe in miracles, no, what you don’t believe in are God-created miracles, but miracles can happen accidentally, so I need an accidental miracle, CAT [a cat just came up to me] you’re going to starve, no, surely someone will feed you, no one loves me, everyone hates me, okay hate is strong, but they don’t love you, Bach! [the song that just came up in itunes, love Bach] oh God, I’m going to starve, please please please give me a miracle please I’m begging you.

    That’s enough of my head. I think it’s weirdly positive, for me anyway. There’s hope, belief that an accidental miracle is possible, etc. Normally there’s more self-loathing.

  18. Annual mortgage payments: $16,560.
    Annual health insurance premiums: $5,844, with a $15,000 deductible.

    2009 income: $0.

    Projected 2010 income: $30,000, minus agent’s commission and taxes.

    My drumbeat: “A real man provides for his family.”

  19. My inner voice: “You’re too old; it’s too late; if only you had done X or Y or Z 10 years ago….” I wish I could quit writing and find some sanity, but I can’t. I’ve tried to quit, and I always go back.

  20. I try to tell myself, this too shall pass. Because, it will. You absolutely have to have faith in the fact that you’ll get that spark again–when the time is right. The key is to not let yourself go to the place where you are afraid that you’re simply done. You’re not. You just need to ease up a bit and not force it. It will come back if you just don’t panic. It will come back when the time is right. Look, you did it before, you’ll do it again. Make yourself shut the fuck up about it and just bake or clean the house or some other mindless thing until the cycle ends. Trust in the process. At some point you’ll have an itch of an idea or something–something that makes you want to try again. And you will. And you will succeed.

  21. Let me clarify–by you, I mean me. 🙂

  22. same time, same place. if i’m feeling down, i get dressed up in professional style clothes and write. i ignore the voices during the day. 2 to 3 a.m. is a perfectly gothic hour for ruminating about failure. and chickens.

  23. I go through good times and bad times with my writing. I quit writing about 10 times in the last year (that means boxing up all my writing books, hiding my files in weird places on my computer, etc). I’m in a good place now because I’m finally writing in what feels like my own voice and it’s liberating.

    I think it’s important to have other things in one’s life to balance out the angst-y writing life. I sing in a women’s choir and garden and do other other things that help keep me balanced.

  24. I tell myself a combo platter of unholy things, ugly things…then I belly up to the bar, um, my laptop, tell my pea brain that it’s time to shake its money maker and to listen to the OTHER voices (characters) rattling around up there.
    And I write.

    When I’m not writing (or reading) then I spend my time enjoying my life, friends and family. I am pretty selective who I spend time with, narrowed down to those that I enjoy.

    And I make it a point to remember this: Even Miss Manners/the Queen of England/Audrey Hepburn have to take a dump and pass gas. Every single person has embarrassed themselves, doubted themselves, at times disliked themselves, overwhelmed themselves. So, I figure we’re in good company.

    Plus, I figure we are slightly ahead of the curve since we don’t believe that 1,236 virgins will be given to us if we suicide bomb a bunch of innocent people. (‘sides, I’d think they’d want some experienced ho’s instead of virgins in their afterlife.)
    So, I say dance to the beat of your own drum, hang on for the sunshine, and in the words of the Beastie Boys: You Gotta Fight for Your Right to PAAARRTTAY!

  25. Betsy, I bought ‘The Forest for the Trees’ years ago when I was feeling sorry for myself because I wanted to be a writer but I was studying biology to please my parents, and I thought, “Boo hoo hoo, my life is so hard!”

    I’m over that phase of self-pity now (okay, well… no) but I still turn to your book for its nurturing words of wisdom, delivered with a nice strong dose of reality. I think it’s what all writers need: a caring person to sort of give you a hug, then pull you by your ears to the table while firmly saying, “WRITE!” You provided that with your book. It was clear that you were trying to tell writers, if writing really mattered to them at all, how to hang in there and just do it. Plus, it was obvious that you cared for the nameless, faceless masses of writers out there in the world trying to make it on a dream.

    It meant a lot, and it still does – I only recently learned that you have a blog (via Maud Newton’s tweets), and I was thrilled to find it. So… thank you!

  26. Great post. When I was reading “Bird by Bird,” I recall Lamott’s passage about her own stream of inner criticism (which she called K-FKD, as if it were a radio station). I remember thinking, “Wow, I am lucky not to have that running through my head.” But then I discovered, maybe a year or two later, that, in fact, I did have my own crappy version of K-FKD and that its volume had just been turned really really low (which now seems way worse). As disturbing as that realization was, I soon decided, that, instead of giving myself a head trip about not being able to write or having inferior ideas, that maybe the very fact that I was now aware of these thoughts was actually a good thing, since what remains outside of consciousness can’t be healed. By the way, I loved Forest for the Trees.

  27. If you are not hard on yourself, who will be? I think that line is infinite. There is no need for you to lead the throng.

    I tell myself that while I have a long way to go and despite my shortcomings, I am still ahead of 99% of the people who do nothing more than spout about writing and yet never cobble together a page of prose, let alone complete a novel.

    I tell myself that success is achieved not by the literary genius but by the tenacious, who keeps on keeping on.

    The drumming is the incessant chatter of ID’s obnoxious pals, who do not have the good grace to sit down and shut the hell up until their words are recorded and staring back at them for their mocking pleasure.

  28. Sometimes the drumming in my head is the expectation that nothing at all is going to come of this. Sometimes it is the excitement of feeling something is coming right now. But either way what i do is show up. Write. Work on the current project.

    You too, on this blog. You write about getting your hands on the stuff, and you are telling it and doing it all at once. It is always inspiring.


  29. I’m lazy, irresponsible, and a constant disappointment. I will never find my way. I will never find the right path. I have wasted a law degree, and still haven’t paid for it. I owe more money than I will ever earn and I sure as hell won’t do it writing. Where do I get off thinking I can do this?

    That’s what I tell myself. You’re not alone.

  30. Nasty Voice: No one cares; you’ll never make it.

    Practical voice: Right, if you don’t get to work and stay working you WILL never make it. Butt. In. Chair. NOW!

  31. I write and then surround myself with great friends, eat good food, drink good wine, listen to awesome music, seek out books that make me laugh, read poetry, run, read the NYtimes, travel, recycle, and try to be a good human being.

  32. Lower brain screams ” too old, too much, too late,” while higher self says, “you know you are fucking yourself over, reveling in the dark arts of despair and loneliness, loving the never never of it all, so sit down shut up and work.”

  33. G-u-i-l-t, plain and simple.

  34. From the Bhagavad Gita via E. M Forster:

    “But thou hast only the right to work; but none to the fruit thereof; let not then the fruit of thy action be thy motive; nor yet be thou enamoured in inaction.”

    “It is never too late to be who you might have been” (George Eliot)

    Also, I have two fortune cookies taped to my computer. One says, “Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together as they do in you.” The other says, “You will become an accomplished writer.”

    Anyone may feel free to use the first two quotes. The fortune cookies, however, were clearly intended just for me.

    • Yeah, I heard Elvis Costello say something along the lines of the Bhagavad Gita quote. BTW – I like the Stephen Mitchell translation.

  35. I have a New Yorker cartoon from a few years ago taped next to my desk. A dog and a cat are sitting high up in a tree–way above the ground and houses. The dog’s telling the cat: “Sheer will, I tell you–sheer will.”

    I’m frequently tuned into KFKD too.

  36. What do I tell myself? That I deserve the space on the page. No matter what anyone else thinks, that white space is first and foremost for me because it gets no interruptions. I spent the first two decades of my life being silenced by a lot of things, largely family-based. I’m just beginning to reclaim my sense of a self, and that has only happened because of writing. So yes, on many days, the writing is bad. It’s a bunch of sentences that barely make sense. But they’re there for me, those sentences. Thank the gods, they are there.

  37. I always feel comfortable around other writers, because they know what it’s like to talk to yourself, to live in your head, to doubt one’s own writing and believe in it at the same time.

  38. Rilke said it all in _Letters to a Young Poet_ , which never fails to comfort me.

    Even though I don’t write poetry.

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