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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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They Say We’re Young and We Don’t Know

Took our intern to lunch today. She’s really smart and lovely. She’s working for us two days a week and at an ultra hip lit mag two days a week. They may be cooler than we are, but do they sit around and listen to the Mel Gibson tapes? Does Patti Smith drop by their offices and sing a few songs? Do they order in take-out from Grammercy Tavern and talk about books while eating foie gras and french fries? No, I didn’t think so.

Our fair lass has one question for me: to be or not to be. To work in the book business or not to work in the book business. Will it hurt my writing? Will it help my career? In one question, our dear intern has nailed my life’s conflict. And I believe many who work in publishing. I mean you’re not toiling on editorial row because you want to be a lead guitarist, or a sous chef, or a hfm. I could be wrong, and I’d love it if a lurking editor or two chimed in with a comment, but I think almost everyone in publishing has dreams of writing. And many have gone on to publish.

I swore I would quit if I ever got paid for writing and I didn’t quit after either book. I also stopped writing completely for 12 years after I got my MFA, when I poured myself into my editorial career. I didn’t think the world deprived of my poems would be any poorer. Too, I loved being an editor, or rather becoming an editor. Those years were heady and exciting. I actually felt myself improving with each manuscript I worked on.

But when I did start writing again, the conflict reared its head. But for me, I know working in publishing has helped. Not only did I learn how to write a proposal. I learned how to write prose. And how to think about books in the marketplace. And just to be in the world where writers and books are at the center.

I still wish I were the kind of girl who could tend bar at a western town, ride horses, have love affairs with the occasional movie producer passing through town, and write a masterpiece. Ain’t me, babe.

What do you tell a twenty year old about the writing life?

45 Responses

  1. So I write a nasty comment about interns and an hour later you’ve got a whole post about yours? I don’t feel shitty enough about myself?

    Tell her: marry rich.

  2. Tell her: don’t stop writing.

  3. Tell her that the writing life is only as good as you make it. Write and write some more. Every day. About everything you see and interpret. No better way to figure things out than to get it all out on paper.


  4. I worked at a literary agency and in publishing (Penguin) for ten years. I learned so much, but I didn’t start writing until I left the job. Everyone was so frightfully bright and intimidating there–the atmosphere didn’t do much for my writing ego. Only when I was away from Penguin for years did I consider that I could write something, too. If I were her, I’d work in publishing for a few years to soak up the book/editing knowledge and then maybe move on to something else and concentrate on writing.

  5. Tell her the editorial career is practical insurance against ending up a career bartender. It’s a chance to be creative even if it’s not “the first best dream.” By throwing all your eggs into a basket that is a brass ring on the other side of the moon, you can end up wasting your life. And it’s crap to claim that doing something else during the day is what’s keeping you from writing. Many folks wrote first novels while working full-time jobs. It’s possible.

  6. For every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

  7. tell her that whatever she does in life she should ask herself if she’s living and writing with passion at least a part of the time.

    betsy, are you passionate about blogging?

  8. That if she can do anything else, she should.

  9. Tell her to make every mistake under the sun. And then start writing.

  10. Tell her how jealous I am that she gets to lunch with Betsy Lerner.

  11. Tell her that working in the industry even if it’s not permanent will teach a lot more than working at any other job – about writing and how the industry works.

  12. Five random examples of bankable genre writers with odd jobs: Octavia Butler (sweeping floors, telemarketing), John Grisham (attorney), Dan Brown (high school English teacher), Zane Grey (dentist), J. K. Rowling (ESL teacher collecting welfare). Five random examples of bankable post-modern literary fictionalists: Nabokov, Coetzee, Atwood, McCarthy, Bolaño.

    “To be or not to be” is one cut-and-dry line in a long and winding work. The question is irrelevant. Working in the book business only provides insight into the business of books. Publishing is the fat and face of writing, not the muscle and bone. She should read, live life, learn a few languages, sleep around, join a radical political organisation, and serve some time in jail. “The play’s the thing!”

  13. I got nothin’.

  14. Hope that universal health insurance sees the light of day, because you will have chosen and hard row to hoe (cliche to the end of the back forty) with little mooooooola for a while….unless, well, there’s M&D…
    At least she started in the right crowd!!!! What does one do to become an intern anyway? Would you take someone over forty or with Alzheimer’s?

  15. Tell her to develop a thick skin but not become jaded. Tell her to write every day while doing whatever it is she must do to pay the bills. Tell her to cultivate a group of brutally honest writing friends who will tell her the truth about what she’s working on. Tell her to get used to hearing, “No, not for us.” Tell her she will never know until she tries and not to waste years of her life wondering if she’s good enough while not doing anything to find out.

    I find a healthy relationship with gin helps, but she’s underage, so I can’t lawfully advise that.

  16. Listen to all advice. Ignore most of it. Go with the gut.

  17. I’m a lurking editor, and one of the few who has no aspirations to be a writer. I’ve always considered myself a reader, and I think that’s where my strength lies. And what more is an editor than a super-reader, essentially? This is pretty much my dream job: I get paid to read, I discover books I love, and then get to work with the authors to make them even better. The office work is the drudgery of the job, but I think the rewards of editing and publishing outweigh the pointless meetings. Either that, or I need a few more years in the industry to become more jaded.

    • Dearest, darling lurker editor: Thank you for writing. Nan Talese always said the same thing — that she was a reader. Had no writing ambitions. Could pour everything she had into her writers. And that she has. Betsy

      • Ever since South of Broad came out, I’ve been so curious just how much Pat Conroy let Nan Talese pour into the book, or more accurately, filter what he had poured in.

        There was a post awhile ago about what we hate about published writers. I hate someone with Conroy’s extraordinary gifts letting a wonderful story such as South of Broad into the stores before it was ready.

      • Pat conroy said in an interview a year ago that his book (South of Broad) was running over 600 pages. He quipped that he could not write a prologue in less than 250 pages.

        As published, South of Broad seemed to be a 650 page novel pared down to 350. Lacking all the lyrical soaring prose that create “rabid pat conroy fans.” If this is Nan Talese’s fault — for shame.

  18. I am her older brother. On behalf of her other siblings, we are proud of you CBJ!

  19. If you have an opportunity for a career having anything to do with books, don’t say no.

  20. Years ago, right after I graduated from college, I went to the Denver Publishing Institute (does it still exist?). Our keynote speaker the very first day, a powerful editor with his own imprint, said, “If you want to be a writer, you are in the wrong place.” I nearly got back on a plane outta there that day and I probably should have.

    For me, he was right. For a few others, he would have been wrong. Personally, I couldn’t compartmentalize that way. I did go into publishing, for about 5 minutes, and frankly, it was an office job and no more. (Of course I was basically just a secretary at a tiny academic publisher.) Yes, it’s nice to be around books all day, but editing/selling/marketing them is a completely different thing than writing them.

    Personally, I always thought if I could be a carpenter or a gardener or baker–some solitary, nonverbal craft that paid–that that would be the ideal complement to writing. But that never worked out. So instead I was a waitress and an office temp and a stay-at-home mom, among other things.

  21. tell her: marry someone with insurance.

  22. I’m also a lurking editor. For me, writing is kind of like playing the piano for family singalongs: Nice for my own amusement. If it makes money, great; I’m certainly not going to turn it down. But overall, I’m definitely an editor first, writer far second.

    Here’s the one worry I have whenever I come across interns who want to further their writing careers by working in publishing: This can sometimes be a fast path to heartache, not only because of the intimidation factor that some have mentioned, but because some people have a hard time separating their own ambitions from the job at hand. I’d hate for a would-be writer to come into our industry and get bitter, as in “I can’t believe they’re publishing this crap! Why aren’t they publishing me me me?” This is the kind of attitude that’s totally understandable and completely unhelpful, both to the intern and the press they’re working for.

    So I guess I’d say to tell your intern that if she can keep her writing ego firmly in check when she’s working to help other writers, then publishing is a fantastic field. She’ll learn a ton, most likely meet a lot of interesting people, and gain an edge when it comes to getting her own writing out there.

  23. Well, I’m still aspiring, so I don’t know how much this will count, but I think her internship will probably be sufficient insight into the business.

    Really, it’s the reading, the writing, the honest feedback, and the desire to turn that feedback into revisions that’s going to make her a writer in the end. I don’t think it would *hurt* her either though. Everybody has a day job – and an interesting day job will give you interesting things to write about.

    Me though, yes, I did marry someone with a good job and insurance – being a stay-at-home mom can compliment writing well. But I wrote a lot back in college too, when I was a waitress/bank-teller. If/when I get an out-of-the-house job again, I’m sure I’ll still write.

    I think a writer is going to write, no matter what they do for a day job. Tell her that.

  24. Another non-writer editor here.

    Writing just seems like so much damn WORK. At least with my job I get health insurance.

  25. It does seem to me that an ambitious writer who works in publishing is always going to be comparing her company’s writers to herself, and that ol’ competitive feeling could taint her perceptions about whether other people’s submissions are worthy enough.
    Just sayin’.

  26. When I was 20 I was in my third year working full time as an office clerk in a factory outside of Philadelphia counting myself lucky to have a clean desk job ( I was above the file clerk but below the secretaries — I couldn’t type, back when all typing was done on Selectrics). It would never have occured to my parents to take me out to lunch to discuss my future, let alone my boss. 30 years later I’m listening to my second husband’s 20-year old daughter complain that she “rilly rilly, like” needs a full body massage the next time she goes to her mother’s spa because she’s under so much pressure at school (as a theater arts major in a ritzy California college).

    I don’t have a goddam thing to say to 20-year-olds afflicted with upper middle class existential problems.

  27. “Pray to god but row for shore.” Make a plan. Stick to it. Most importantly, find a secure day job with health benefits that you can stand and doesn’t drain your creativity or mind so much that you can’t write when you’re not working. If a job in publishing is stable enough to keep food on the table and pays well enough that you’re not stressing about money when you sit down to write, do that.

  28. If there is something, anything, that only you can do–do that thing above anything else. No matter what.

    If not, be a worker among workers.

  29. For me being in the business was a good thing for my writing as a career. Leaving the business was an even better thing for my writing as a craft. So perhaps it’s a matter of degree.

  30. Former editor here, but in the journalism field. Trust me, print journalism sucks the life right out of you — reporter or editor. Still, it’s a great place to learn the ropes of writing rules so that when the rubber hits the road with your creative writing, you will get some traction.

  31. About the same thing I’d tell her if she was aiming towards a job on the Hindenburg.

  32. I’ve looked at life from both sides now, and ultimately writing trumps editing; but on some gut level I can’t imagine one without the other, Chang and Eng. The two arts intersect each other like a Venn diagram, yes? You ask a vastly complicated question, one that strikes at the core of me as well.

  33. Late again. But anyway, I’d tell her that she definitely asked the right person that question (you).

    And I would tell her to spend a whole day every week just wandering. Letting go. Following her nose. Or picking a destination but let the getting there be just as much a part of the experience. And notice. Notice, notice everything. Listen. Pay attention. Watch. Collect life like some people collect shoes. Or gum wrappers.

    And let go. Let go. Let go. Be open, listen to your instincts and don’t try to override. And if you’re a control freak, a Type A personality, get over it. If necessary, get hit in the head; it worked for me.

  34. There are a thousand reasons not to be a writer, and only one reason to be a writer.

  35. It does not matter what you decide….If you are meant to write you will. Your soul won’t let it go.

    Your ego will keep tripping you up, and telling you ‘yes I’ll do it when I’ve done this’, that day will never come if you listen to your ego.

    If it is meant for you, your soul will keep gnawing at you, and put pressure on you, and believe it or not, you will do it at exactly the right time, no matter what anyone tells you.

  36. It’s not the “writing life” any more than my dad’s was the “carpentry life”.

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