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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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How Can You Run When You Know?

Can you teach writing? Asked another way, is talent god-given or genetic? How much does hard work matter? Where does drive come from? Are some people hopeless? What is a gift? How important is publishing in the writing equation? Asked another way, is writing fulfilling enough on its own or is it only consummated when you see the words in print? And what is it, exactly, to see those words in print? What is the charge?

Why am I asking all of these questions?  Because every writer I know is bummed out, disgusted, or irate. And every agent I know is thinking about an exit strategy. And every editor I know is whistling a happy tune so no one will suspect she’s afraid. Because the bar for rudeness gets lowered every day. Because it’s all so fucking hard. But mostly because in the face of all this: tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Music to my ears.

33 Responses

  1. I believe writing talent is innate; writing skills, however, are learned.

    As far as most writers being disgusted or irate, I think blog forums simply give us a necessary place to come together to vent our frustrations. Personally, if I were fully dejected about the writing and publishing process, I wouldn’t still be at it. As cynical as many of us seem to be, few would continue if we didn’t harbor great love for the work and a glimmer of hope for the outcome.

  2. Just read that Sarah Palin has another book coming out.

    I’m going to stick my head in the toilet and see what comes out in the morning.

    Perhaps I’ll start another book, perhaps I will revise my latest that has actually been requested- full- by eight agents and none have gotten back to me (yet); or perhaps I will read Kafka again and again and again and again. . . . or maybe I should just get back to getting my Large Hadron Collider working again…that’s about the odds in getting published. All hail Hawkins…all Hail Hawkins and the great worm hole.

  3. I saw myself in print recently, something I wrote years ago, and it’s such a quiet satisfaction to finally see it there in an actual magazine. I still believe it’s possible, it just takes so many years. By the way, I was at the Fillmore East the first night they sang that song, “Four Dead in Ohio.” Neil Young was a new addition to the band. Those were such exciting days. I also saw Laura Nyro there from the front row, stoned out of my mind. She was my Goddess then. Now you are. (How can I run when I know?)

    • Definitely off topic, but: I used to work at the Fillmore! It’s amazing to even run across someone who’s heard of it, let alone been there. How very nice.

      • It dates me, but I brought it up because I was there the night they sang the song (including Betsy’s title for this post) for the very first time. Interesting that it’s been in the news lately, and apparently they were ordered to shoot.

  4. some days it’s a sentence; other days, a title. same goes for paragraphs. a balanced, articulate paragraph can be quite satisfying.

    today, it was a sentence for me. Sarah crosses the vertigo line. i like that sentence.

    signed,
    a fucking writer

  5. I think writing is easier to teach than learning how to be patient or knowing when to take chances.

    Yes, you can be taught to write. Yes, you can have so much talent in one little finger that other writers cower in the corner while sucking their thumbs. But the quality of your writing isn’t what gets you published or keeps you published.

  6. I’m not irate!

    That said, all writers cycle in and out of angst-filled self-doubt (er, don’t they?) It’s a creative field but it’s also a business. Most people in the writing business are creative, bookish people and sometimes fitting creative, bookish people into business-shaped square-holes creates friction. The friction manifests as “irate, disgusted and bummed out.”

    But! But sometimes it’s awesomely all rainbows and sparkly unicorns and puppies. And kittens. And sparkly rainbow-coloured puppies and kittens.

    So I think it’s a phase that will pass, and I think that the internet has a way of making people feel disgruntled because it’s such a huge forum for airing feelings, and feelings are kind of contagious.

    I’m torn on the whole topic of the teachability of writing. I think you either have it or you don’t, but also that a lot of people who “have it” need to be taught how to do the work of writing, certainly the business of writing, and the discipline of writing. That said, I don’t think someone who just doesn’t have it can be taught.

    I love your blog! Don’t be disheartened. It will all cycle around again.

    Maybe the thing with writing is that when you are a writer and you love writing, you want it to be your full time job. And the business realities are that it’s rarely the case that you can write full time. And maybe the bubbling bitterness comes from the yearning for something that isn’t quite attainable?

  7. Yeah, it’s hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
    Oh, wait…
    Tyra Banks just sold a YA project I heard described as America’s Top Model meets Harry Potter.

    Lyn, shove over and let me in that toilet.

  8. it think writing “voice” is talent (or at least the right combination of creativity, intuition, experience, memory, emotion, language, etc.) but writing “craft” can be, and should be, developed.

  9. That “have it or you don’t” thing is a total canard. Maybe 2% of published writers are natural-born geniuses. The rest of us got there by reading a lot, writing a lot, and maybe being given a kick in the right direction by a good teacher.

    Lately I’ve been thinking that we writers really are a narcissistic bunch. You get a few of us at a cocktail party and you could just drown in the black sea of bitterness. Whence that bitterness? Foiled narcissism: the world refusing to recognize our vision of ourselves.

    Writing isn’t magic. We’ll always be under-loved. It’s okay.

  10. Writers are born. Like singers. Either you got the pipes or you don’t. What you do with the gift is up to you. Hard work tends to make it better.

  11. Writing can be taught but it’s like Yogi Berra said: There’s some people who, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em. I read a lot of amateur stuff (as an indexer and a workshop leader) and it seems to me that the less talent a person has, the more convinced he is of the merits of his work. And not just crazy people either — regular, ordinary, functional adults, people who have jobs and are raising children who can’t write a coherent sentence worry over their manuscript’s copyrights and talk — seriously — about getting $100,000 advances.

    But “real” writers are just as much a pain in the ass as these wanna-be’s. Have you ever listened to some literary fiction guy talk about his novel with Lenny Lopate? It’s like listening to someone discuss his love for prime numbers. Or, even worse, like listening to a Boradway actor discuss The Theatre. Like mermaids singing to one another.

    What was the question?

    No: writing alone, without being read, is not fulfilling. But I write non-fiction. and even when I wrote about jewelry history (Renaissance pearls and the like) at the beginning of my writing career I only did it because there were stories (wonderful, true stories) that I had to communicate to others. There was no value in keeping that kind of info to myself. Hey, jewelry is important, you know.

    And when I was introduced to Scott Simon as a Jewelry Historian, he thought I was a Jewry Historian and he made a dopey joke about JEWERLY historians that wasn’t funny when Gilda Radnor did it back in the ’70s. I’ve always resented Scott for that.

    What was the question?

    • Hey, don’t knock prime numbers. They’re three of my favorite things.

      I dunno the question, but ‘like mermaids singing to one another’ is definitely the answer.

  12. I’m not feeling angry or disgusted, but I’m not querying right now. I’m writing. As long as I stay in my writing bubble, I’m happy.

  13. Mary Jo is right. The writing bubble is where it’s at. I do think writers need to be read, but ultimately the public stuff fails. The only real satisfaction is in making something beautiful, alone, in one’s study.

    As far as teaching writing, I think it’s like anything else. You can’t start from nothing–just like I could never be a pro tennis player, or anything whatsoever that involves hitting a thing with another thing. But past the initial raw talent, determination is the, uh, determining factor.

  14. You can teach writing. I took a Freshman English class in college that had a paper due every Monday and a tutorial on it during the week. It made me a journalist. Now, decades later, I teach writing. The students write a paper every week and by the end of the semester they’re all better than they were at the start. Of course, they also start with different abilities, but they all improve and the ones that work hardest improve most.

    Will they get jobs as writers? Not likely.

  15. What is different now than any other time, Betsy? Some folks got the magic and some don’t. Tell us the change you’ve seen.

  16. Agents are thinking about exit strategies? I haven’t heard that before. I thought everyone was going *into* agenting.

    BTW, to Kyler: Laura Nyro is my goddess too. Still.

    And yes, writing can be taught. Agree with RE there. The only requirement is that you work at it, which means not only doing a lot of writing, but also reading and learning. I think it’s that last that trips up a lot of people. They refuse to learn.

  17. I think writing is a craft that can be taught but like everything else (tennis, dancing, cooking) you’re mixing hard work with whatever natural talent you happen to be blessed (or cursed) with. Everyone can make progress but the starting gates aren’t equal.

    I’m with Mary Jo and Holly in that I’m happier with the writing part than the trying to get published part; although there’s something to be said for the thrills and chills of that part of the process as well.

    I think you can’t count on writing alone to make you happy the way you can’t count on any one thing (or person) to make you happy. You’ve got to have something else that makes you feel good to hold onto on those bad days. I recommend tennis, dancing and cooking. Wine and bitchy-in-the-best-possible-way girlfriends don’t hurt either.

  18. You can’t teach writing, but you can learn it. Hard work matters, but doesn’t help. Drive comes from the grind of depression against desperation. A rare gift is the luxury to follow your own nightmares instead of someone else’s dreams. A priceless gift is a partner who loves you despite understanding you. A damn fine gift is a place to vent and people to vent with; thank you. Publishing is irrelevant, but money is the only measure of success. The charge is negative.

    Tap tap tap. If writing is Morse Code, what’s the message?

    And where’s Shanna? I’m concerned that her labiaplasty went terribly awry.

    • I’m concerned about Shanna, too. And Tulasi.
      August, what are we going to do with you?

      • All I can say is, if Tulasi-Priya went and attained Krishna Consciousness while I’m still stuck in -this- shit, I’m gonna be so pissed.

    • My labiaplasty went fabulously well. I now have the vagina of a 15-year-old girl. She wasn’t going to do anything useful with it anyway.

      Having plastic surgery is like having your kitchen redone–it costs 50% more and takes twice as long as any original, optimistic estimates.

      I am hardly on pain medication anymore, which is unfortunate, yet I seem to be treating life outside of my bedroom like a particularly vigorous game of double dutch I’ve forgotten how to jump into.

      Maybe tomorrow.

      • Just as long as you’re okay. I took the terrifying step of registering on WordPress (my email: thebetsylernerwebinar@yahoo.com) to leave a comment on your blog, but then lost my nerve. So yeah, the fear of jumping is known to me. Don’t rush things. The bedroom is your friend.

  19. I just wrote a piece about being a writer, and the ambivalence I feel towards our profession. I know that since I could put pen to paper in any legible manner, I’ve loved to write. Nothing could have helped me more as a writer than the four years I spent in college, learning under the best of them, who labored over m-dashes and taught me how to work with what I think is probably a given talent.
    http://thefastertimes.com/lifeaftercollege/2010/05/10/journalism-and-why-i-hate-answering-so-whadyou-do/

  20. It kinda bugs me that writers have such a bad rep. We’re not all awful, rude, unreasonable people. I wish other writers would stop acting like such knobs.

  21. Yes, writing is a god given talent, but so is serial killing. The only thing that is relevant that a writer has something to say, and is willing to say it, about that the world of today needs to hear/read. I sometimes wonder how I would manage in this life without Blanche Dubois, Lector Hannibal, and Jay Gatsby in my psyche…they’ve helped me more than therapy, spirituality, coffee, altogether. People are weird. Writers are annoyed because they know that all too well.

  22. Wow… This post really depressed me!

  23. Someone powerful who appreciates books and encourages other people to appreciate books is Oprah. Heard in CNBC this morning she’s getting her own Cable Channel. Maybe that’s a hopeful thing. Maybe she has some answers. She’s certainly got the clout.

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