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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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You’re Leaving There Too Soon

Went to Brooklyn today (three subways) to talk with Pratt undergraduates about publishing. Naturally, I became nostalgic about my college years, never mind the near constant misery. The big difference as far as I can tell is that we never met publishing professionals, never talked about how to get published. I think in some ways we were lucky not to start those engines too soon. We didn’t even have a creative writing major. We were allowed to take one writing course and I took poetry; the professor favored the ballerina-poets. I wrote all the time in my journals. I went to cafes and wrote and smoked and read. But I had no idea what a query letter was or how to write one. I had no idea what an agent was or what they were for. Today’s kids have seen Jerry Maguire, they  study the box office grosses, they know the names of power agents.

I’m old fashioned. I think it might be better to stave off getting that knowledge for as long as possible, to protect your innocence as a writer the way we try to protect childhood. Am I ridiculous? Does the act of writing imply the desire for publication? Is it better for young people to get as much information as possible, to hear about how publishing works from people like me? Do you remember when you made your first attempts to get published or find an agent — whether you got one or not, got published or not — how did it feel to enter the fray?

39 Responses

  1. You mean, in a real publication? I was published once in grade school, a couple times in high school, but that was merely a side effect of being a good little girl who knew how to do an assignment that would land me an A. The first time I ever really went after being published was when, disenchanted with the ashram, I moved out for a while. I saw a notice on a bulletin board outside a feminist bookstore asking for submissions for a new indie magazine called Cruel World. The theme of the issue was the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious red light district. Having only very recently abandoned my career there, I pitched them my idea for a memoir piece about a club I’d worked at, The Naked i (eye). The editor liked it; I was in business.

    Except, I wasn’t. I didn’t know where to begin, and kept procrastinating. He kept asking me when the piece would be ready. Finally I leveled; I hadn’t written Word One. I barely knew how to type, and didn’t have a typewriter. He said, come on over; you write, I’ll type. I sat on his sofa that afternoon pouring out words onto a legal pad, passing each torn off each sheet into his waiting hand, which he then rolled into the typewriter. I was so pumped, so energized by his attention, by the clacking of the keys, by the knowledge that he was typing MY WORDS, that when he said, Your stuff is like PJ O’Rourke’s, it was like putting spurs to a racehorse just before the finish line. I finished the article that evening and stayed to watch the election of Bill Clinton with the young editor’s friends. Except I didn’t give a damn about Clinton. I was thinking, I’m now a writer, a real writer.

    • I want to read your memoir…are you writing one? I will buy it. Between the stripping and the ashram I am sold.

    • Put me down for a copy too.

      • Wow, such encouragement. There’s a Bengali saying: when you cook rice, you only need to test one grain to know if the whole pot is done. So your “grains” of interest may augur well. Let’s see if I have the chops to bring the story to life on the page. What I need even more than chops, however, is persistence, which is not my strongest quality.

  2. I’m intrigued – what are ballerina-poets? They are flouncing around with ink-stained legwarmers in my mind right now.

    Also, I think the act of writing implies the desire for a reader, but not necessarily publication.

  3. I agree, it’s losing innocence. Stepping into the fray is corrupting. You’ll never be the same again. Like love–you’re almost certainly gonna get really hurt.
    But people grow up a lot faster now. I feel like the sensation of wonder has sort of dissipated in young people. I don’t think the pills taste as bitter, or get stuck in the throat as much. Why would anything matter, when everything will be different next week, anyway? It seems like even kids walking around in diapers sense it. It seems very sad to me.

  4. I got through a BA and MA degree in English and no one ever ONCE said, “You know, you could write freelance articles for magazines and make money writing while you’re working on Your Heartbreaking Work Of Incredible Genius.”

    I think a class on earning a living as a writer would be a great addition to any program. But it would have to be a full class that covered everything: how to suss out markets, how to come up with ideas for articles, how to write a query letter, how to read a contract, how to deliver your article on time.

    Part of the class should be actually submitting query letters for publication. The worst that could happen is a few students from that elite MA or MFA program graduate with a few writing credits.

    But when I graduated, I’d been indoctrinated to believe that either you wrote slim volumes of poetry no one would ever read, or else you turned out greeting cards that everyone mocked. There’s nothing shameful about writing what people want to buy at the same time as you’re crafting work you love. There’s no reason a writing degree means you have to work as a secretary or in the mail room for a few years while you dine on ramen noodles three nights out of five.

    • Re: your first comment. I was actually told the opposite, that I should not spend a bunch of time writing other small pieces and focus on my novels since that’s where my heart has always been.

      I resisted this advice initially but it turned out to be spot on. I think most of us only have so many words per day in us and we have to choose where to spend them. I think it’s a bit different for people who want to write long form nonfiction, mind you, in that case it makes sense to start off writing shorter stuff and then choose something to expand into a book.

      • I’d been writing novels since age thirteen. I didn’t realize how much easier it was to publish short fiction and short essays. Having several publications under my belt was a great boost because it meant I could sell. Editors were willing to take a chance on me, and eventually I had enough credentials that people assumed I could write. 🙂

        I generally write short pieces between novels, or sometimes to experiment with a technique I don’t want to try in a massive work like a novel. Or if I need a break from the novel.

  5. I write for myself. Thinking about What Publishers Want throws me off my game. I don’t care what they want. I want to write what makes me laugh. If it never gets published, that’s sad — but not for me. I’ve been laughing all along. So I’m all keeping the innocence as long as I can.

    Last year, thanks to Betsy and The Rejectionist, I finally learned what query letters really are. I’m no longer afraid of them. There’s nothing wrong with learning on a need to know basis.

  6. I got lucky with the first getting published thing. It was no big thing in the big scheme of things–I started writing for my high school paper when I was fifteen–but it was a certain rite of passage for a young writer, to see my words in print, being read by people I knew and was physically with nearly every day.

    When I was seventeen, in my senior year of high school, I started writing poetry and sending it around to magazines I learned about in Writer’s Digest. Within six months, I’d had a half-dozen poems published in three or four little magazines no-one’s ever heard of. Another rite of passage for the young creative writer.

    Then I hit a wall. I went through some stormy, distracting years. I would still submit poetry when I could, but nothing was getting published. For a few years, I stopped writing altogether. I simply wasn’t very good at it. My early successes as a high school journalist and poet had deceived me into thinking I was.

    What I needed, didn’t really know I needed, didn’t have the sense to seek in any sustained or prudent way, and didn’t have enough of a trusting nature to be sufficiently open to, was formal guidance in the craft of creating art with words. All the stuff about how to market the end product is the easy stuff. Might as well let the little buggers know about it when they’re in swaddling clothes if that’s when they first display an interest. Let them know about all the different kinds of writing that can be done, all the different ways one can achieve fulfillment or hammer out a living, or both. Teach them writerly craft in its various emanations.

    And teach them about the dangers. I think it was Gardner who pointed out that one of the gravest dangers to a writer was alcohol, and believe you me, he was right. I think he also pointed out that, if you’re not going to make a living off your writing but you still want to be able to write and write well, be careful how you choose to make your living. Some vocations can set up interference patterns you may not have suspected would develop. I have an old friend from those long-ago high school poetry days who went on to a career in journalism. Some few years ago I asked him if he still did any of the wonderful and zany creative writing I remember him doing when we were teens. He said no, he didn’t do that any more. He said he’d been writing 500-word journalism pieces for so long, he didn’t think he could do anything else.

    But the greatest danger to a writer is ignorance, be it ignorance of how to put words together on the page to make writing that’s worth reading, ignorance of what to read and how to read it in order to strengthen one’s own writing, or ignorance on how the market place works. With regard to the last of those, the sooner young writers (of any age) learn how tough and unforgiving the market can be, how coldly professional they’ll need to be in their approach to it–including with regard to the quality of their product–how writing may be a solitary act but publishing is a community endeavor, and how much of a role luck and timing can play in being published, the better. It’s not a virginity that needs to be protected.

    • That comment was a mini-course in itself.

      • And by that I mean it’s wonderful. It could be printed up and handed out in all writing classes, maybe a teeny bit expanded into a Strunk and White-type booklet.

    • Such good points. And I totally agree with you and Gardner about day jobs. Being a full time book piblicist in-house was totally messing with my head as a writer.

  7. I received my first rejection slip for a poem at 23 and it made me feel like a real writer.

  8. I hope you told those undergrads that nobody under the age of 35 has anything interesting to write about anyway so they shouldn’t fret about getting their boring coming of age memoir published. Tell them to stop playing for the unseen camera, stop reading novels, go get a trade (something useful), become very good at what they do (whatever it is), meet other people who are also very good at what they do, take many long walks. Then they can write.

    I didn’t write for publication until I was 35 and I had a lot to learn about the power structure between editors and writers, but I was not innocent.

    I got cornered last week by a guy who wanted advise on how to get his book published. He’s discovered that American society is too materialistic, and Christians have been mis-reading the Bible for a thousand years, and he’s got 16 lawsuits against Satanic cults (they are everywhere), and he’s got the book all in his head — he only needs to write it down. Of the hundreds of would-be authors that the average literary agent meets, what percentage are bat shit crazy is what I want to know.

    • I know I’m being predictable and rising to the bait here (I’m also not sure if you’re being completely serious) but I disagree about people under 35 having nothing interesting to write about. I’ll maybe give you the memoir thing but not just as a general statement. I also happen to think that one should be a lifelong committed reader of novels if they ever hope to write a decent one.

      I think it’s good not to get super obsessed with getting published young and I agree that a trade other than writing is a good thing to have. But to say just don’t bother, your writing won’t be worthwhile until you hit an arbitrary age? Come on now.

    • Vivian, give me a fucking break. No one under the age of 35 has anything worthy to write about because they haven’t yet “lived”. Horse shit! The real issue is developing your craft. Yes, this does take time. But whatever, close minded snobs like you are in every trade. The writing world, no exception.

  9. Like you, I too am old fashioned. Unlike you and the students you speak to, I discovered my lust for writing late in life.
    I wrote a good story, then learned how to make it better. Soon I realized I had a novel on my hands. Now figuring out what to do with it became a whole new learning experience.
    “Just send it to somebody, and they’ll send you a check.” Simple enough, but I soon learned it doesn’t work that way.
    “Query letters, SASE, prologue, what to hell is a synopsis?”
    “Formatting, links, blogs and a platform. C-mon, I had an eight- track.”
    I spent my youth raising a family and earning a living. Yes I went to a community college full time and worked forty hours a week, but writing majors weren’t available.
    If young people are able to learn about the industry while they have that initial burst of creativity due to the thrill of just learning the pleasure of writing, then I can see no reason not to withhold all the facts, as hard as they can be to swallow. ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child.’
    Does the act of writing imply the desire for publication? Only if the confidence in one’s work, and self is sufficient for that author to go through the agony of rejection, the constant running to the mail boxes (e-mail, or snail mail), carrying the phone to the shower, so you don’t miss your agent’s call. It all sucks, and it is all exciting. My vote is Yes, good writing desires publication. Don’t hide the truth. It is a dog eat dog world. Only quitters get eaten. It’s best to learn one’s weaknesses young in life, to build on one’s strengths.

  10. The first thing I did was apply to Bread Loaf. I thought I’d meet lots of authors -the ones that were there did not talk to the common writer. Everybody drank and screwed and I slept in the library because my room-
    mate kept getting up and peeing in the closet. The nicest and most infomative person there was Thomas Mallon. then I went…oh, who cares anyway….they’re all over and done with. No more conferences for me.

  11. I agree with you that as an undergrad, one should experiment and play with writing. Maybe the time to hear the publishing professionals and think about the market is in grad school. I did my MFA in writing for children at the New School, and I truly appreciated all of the panels with editors, agents and the like.

  12. “It’s so noisy at the fair
    But all your friends* are there…”


  13. I tried looking for an agent less than a year after graduating for college. I loved learning about the publishing world and how it all works, and I had a pretty good experience querying agents — even if I didn’t end up with one. But yes, I wish I had waited and stayed in the dark. I should have focused on the writing instead of getting published. I wasn’t truly ready for an agent yet, and I think that’s a very, very common mistake young writers make — including the promising, hardworking ones still in college.

  14. It took me 8 years just to finish my BA what with early marriage motherhood and not knowing how to chose between theatre, painting or writing. No one talked to me about agents. They told me to be a good mother and to support my husband in his endeavors. Struggling to stay creatively awake business was the last thing on my young mind.

    Now I’m more than middle aged. Remarried to a guy who loves my prose and after years of writing finally truly wanting to publish- to be read.

    I agree with Vivien. Live.

  15. I didn’t “learn” anything about publishing until grad school, at which time I’d already published a short story and thought I knew everything. Ha. I have gone on to have 4 books published and have built somewhat of a career (though I still have the day job) and I am both excited by the amount of material available on the web for new writers and frightened by it. My day job is teaching creative writing full time at a community college. The overwhelming majority of my students don’t read and don’t really want to write (there are the few gorgeous exceptions, of course). They want to be published. They want to know how publishing works. How to find an editor. How to get on Oprah. But they have not written — not even the requisite years of bad writing. 🙂 I haven’t found a way to convince them that they are worrying about the outcome before they’ve created a body of work.

    I went to undergraduate school in the late 80s. Nothing was ever spoken about publishing then. We just wrote. And we read. And we wrote. But now, I can’t make it through a semester without addressing publishing, marketing and publicity. It’s just way too soon for most people. It’s like giving them condoms and the sex talk at 5 years old. 🙂

  16. The advice I was given in undergrad (though we didn’t discuss publishing a lot, we mostly focused on the actual writing part) was to wait until you had something finished to start pursuing representation from an agent, and furthermore to wait until you had something that you felt good about.

    So I first jumped in the deep end two years ago with a novel. I have hundreds and hundreds of pages I will never seek publication for. Being in the fray was tough but it made it all feel real, which was exciting. In retrospect I didn’t feel as confident about that novel as I do about the one I’m just finishing right now; hopefully the results will reflect that.

  17. Oh, the way-back days…After my seond year of college, I sent off queries for my first novel (I use the term in the most loose sense of the word, of course) directly to publishers and got back a slew of hand-typed rejections that I still have to this day. DIdn’t know then that the days of the unsolicited manuscript acceptance were numbered…

    It seems like a lifetime ago, in both years and in changes in the industry.

  18. Everything is more acclerated and competitive now.

    My kid’s 7 and we were told it was a last chance to get him going in the AYSO soccer league because the boys are already highly skilled at his age. Turned out to be the case.

    But what is truly worth lamenting is that you “went to cafes, SMOKED, and read.” How are our young bohemian sto spend their larvae years, when they are merely painting words for lack of life experience, if they can’t at least light up and look the part?

  19. Ten months ago, a story idea came to me. I am not a writer, and at the time the only writing I’d ever done consisted of emails and the occasional newsletter for my business. But the story wouldn’t go away. It needed out.

    I sat down and wrote a paragraph. Re-read it. Revised it. Wrote a page. A chapter. Soon the words were absolutely out of control, as though the end of my pen were a cartoon fire hose. Words were everywhere – scribbled on the backs of grocery lists, in the margins of my kids’ notebooks, typed as notes on my iphone. I was physically sick for months, vomiting words over every flat surface in the house. To date I’ve written and re-written three books and countless blog posts (and an inane series of comments) – all of which are shit, of course; no one writes at this breakneck pace and produces anything usable except as a collection of spare parts.

    In an optimistic freshman haze, I did send out queries for my first book. (Stop sneering at me. I didn’t KNOW, I tell you!) Of course they were received with disdain by the publishing world, and rightly so. I had absolutely no business seeking publication. I may never have.

    Still, the words need an outlet. I’m well into the first draft of my fourth book, and I blog every day – which strikes me as as an art form in its own right. If I had a blog like this one, it might even be enough.

    One year ago I was minding my own business, reading everything I could lay my hands on as I always have. Now I’m flailing around at the end of my pen. Forget aiming that fucker. All I can do is hold on for dear life and pray someone turns off the water.

    I printed those books on Amazon, by the way, and gave them to my 86-year-old grandmother, who thinks they’re perfect in every way and sent them as bragging material to her sister’s family in Australia. What more can I ask?

  20. Hold this spot for me, will you. [For Bethany’s answer when she returns.]

  21. Funny. I have always somewhat feared this about writing. About what getting published might be like, and the pressures to follow.
    I don’t work well under pressure. I work my best in my freedom to do whatever the hell I want to.
    Sometimes, though, it’s just getting started under pressure. Once you (or I, rather) get started it all seems to be downhill from there.
    That’s me speaking from naivete. I’ve been published in middle school, and high school. I got published every month as an editor of my high school newspaper. Needless to say… I have no clue. Just a romanticized idea.
    In my opinion, the act of writing does not imply a desire to get published. I’ve been writing for a very long time in my journals, and other forms. Only recently has the tickling thought of being published entered my mind.
    Is the thought of it more romantic than the actuality of it? That’s what I’ve always been under the impression of.

  22. Man, don’t get me started about teenagers. I have unwritten manifestos about work camps out in the desert. And don’t let me remind you about my first attempts at getting published, it would embarrass you more than me. Although, I think the word I might be fishing for is harassed, bludgeoned by ignorance. And the answer to your question about ridiculous — am I being seriously (sic)ulous, or what? And all those things you mentioned and then some. Nice graphic.

  23. Well isn’t this timely. I’ve just had a conversation with another instructor in the community college writing program in which we both teach. We talked about the inevitable “how do I get published” and “how do I prevent people from stealing my work” kinds of questions we get and how we’re both always thinking, “Huh? But we’re still at the writing part.”

    Oh sure, there are a few who are passionate about the art, but there are more who want to be the next J.K. Rowlings. .

    So I teach my courses mostly as I designed them: heavily focused on the creative process, unleashing ideas and taking risks and developing a voice.

    I also teach how to write a query letter and require the submission of a final story draft with a query letter to an editor as the final project. Mostly because it’s community college and the program says I have to make it a “practical” learning experience. But also because a lot of the students are in it for the publishing more than the writing.

    Personally, I never had a burning desire to be published in a traditional sense. I have had a lifelong compulsion to create, and a passion for the personal, community and cultural value of the *story*. As it happens, people read me, and tell me they’re rewarded for having done so and that, to me, is my reward.

    And yes, I call myself a writer.

    One of my students this term seems to be stuck on the idea that I’ll “give my writing away for free” and determines he will never do so. The subversive teacher me is really hoping I can support his goal to publish, but to also pass on some of my passion for the creating and the developing and the STORY.

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