• Bridge Ladies

    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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A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido


Am I the last person to find out Houdini was Jewish? Was this all about trying to get away from his mother, or what?


I was on a panel of literary agents the other day at the New School. I doubt I’m the only person to ever enjoy an existential crisis while giving advice about query letters, but today the hammer fell hard. It began the day before in therapy where I went into a fugue state while trying to understand why I never took the leap as a writer, how it is I’ve worked to help so many writers accomplish their goals while my nose remains pressed up to the glass. (Meow, meow.) From there I went to a burrito cart and that was just the beginning. Was it a coincidence that this happened on the same day that an essay I wrote was published? And then there’s the fact that I stood up for myself when the editor wanted to cut the bit about blow jobs.

It looks like progress, it smells like progress, and yet there are the egg shells of my life spread out on the pavement, there I am ricocheting off the sides of a well, down, down, down. I have a set of beliefs I don’t believe in. I have a set of rules I don’t abide. I am still fifteen years old and I hate everything and everyone.  I am Houdini only I can’t escape. I am a chameleon that forgot how to change. Writing is a urine stained cardboard box in Washington Square Park where someone lives who isn’t me.

Does anyone know what I mean?

66 Responses

  1. The cardboard box resonates. In order to write, I have to push everyone else out — neglect the kid and the dog, the husband and the aging parents. Forget the grocery shopping and the laundry. Most of the time the guilt is too loud in my head. It takes so much to keep a family, friends, clients safe, warm, feeling loved and being their best.

    It takes even more to be a writer. It takes checking in to the cardboard box hotel — alone — and putting out a do not disturb sign.

    My husband disappears until he finishes the perfect sentence. And when he does this, I am happy! He is a writer.

  2. Anyone who can come up with: “I have a set of beliefs I don’t believe in,” is a writer. That speaks to me.

  3. I am currently reading a splendid book that you, in fact, did write. I have previously read a fantastic memoir by you as well.

    You are not Tom Thumb.

  4. Try having an existential crisis while being paid to fix someone else’s. The question of course is do you really want to write?

    BTW you were right, the blowjob part works although I cannot get the image of you with pasties swinging from a pole out of my head. Thanks…


  5. Sounds to me like your not happy with the direction your being forced to take your muse. The cardboard box is a symbol of those who are still free to write what they want. You miss that freedom.

  6. My whole life I have always seen things as they appear…I don’t try to look for hidden meanings…I believe you are just experiencing the human experience…we are all a work in progress and always will be until we check out. Sometimes we’re the jockey and sometimes we’re the horse. 🙂

  7. If I read that essay without your book in hand, Betsy, I would be on Amazon right now to buy it.

    I took a photograph of myself a few weeks ago with my iphone. I put it up on my blog, I took it down. Up again, and down. It’s been such a long time since I saw my own face in a picture that I feel I’m looking into a stranger’s eyes every time I see it. It’s skeevishly disconcerting. Even buried as it is, pages back, the picture chafes me when it’s up, and taunts me for a coward when it’s down.

    This is writing for me. It’s who the hell are you, and what are you doing under my skin? Where did these thoughts come from, and how can I bear to reveal them? How can I bear not to?

    My mind is speaking in tongues and my body feels like a familiar room in the dark. And even if there were a chink of light, I still wouldn’t make for the door.

    • “My mind is speaking in tongues and my body feels like a familiar room in the dark. And even if there were a chink of light, I still wouldn’t make for the door.”

      I know exactly what you mean. Well said.

  8. I’ve never looked into that particular box, but I know well the feeling of walking through life a different color than you’re supposed to be (chameleon who forgot to change).

    I think maybe you need to crawl into that box until it fits you and you get used to the smell. When you realize the power your words have (and they do) then you may find out that you’ve been the right color all along and it’s the world that forgot to change.

  9. But you ARE a writer — a real writer, living outside the box, eating a burrito whenever you damned well please. Cheers. Or meow.

  10. Of course Houdini was Jewish…Bernie Schwartz played him in the movies…now if that wasn’t a tip off what is? As for your angst over writing the Great American Novel…in the immortal words of Cher to Nick Cage…slap slap…get over it. So you write the not so great american novel…alright already. Besides, you ain’t gonna be on the receiving end of the limo anyway…and you sure as hell ain’t gonna be blowing it. I think you may be overthinking this. But you do it brilliantly.

  11. ‘Risking It’
    by Robert Kroetsch

    Step into the flowerbed. Paint that museum wall
    a new shade of earth. And that art exhibition:
    put in your gilded baby shoes, a glass

    of water, that sliver from the true cross
    that you bought in Hong Kong, a painting
    by Norval Morrisseau. Tell us how

    you almost cut off your big toe.
    Argue against the charms of immortal life.
    Practice dancing the Highland fling.

    Risk it, dear reader. Looked at, from
    night’s perspective, your toothbrush is a dream.
    Your old leather coat will outlast you,

    hanging safe, as it does, on a closet hanger.
    Salami will come to give you heartburn.
    Celebrate today’s pizza as a work of art.

  12. a) Trying to understand why you never took the leap as a writer is like trying to understand why you never got serious about a career in the bukkake industry.

    b) Find a mentally ill composer, stat. FUGUE STATE is too good a memoir title to pass up.

  13. What female powerhouse worth her salt isn’t a little alot a shit ton afraid of her own flinty eyed self? So you good idea your way through the decades muscling for others in ways you can’t quite umph up for any you you’ve tried to be. You do it Till you can’t play that way anymore. Till nothing is pretty and you’re no longer kind.

    And then you start to write.

  14. It would be presumptuous of me to say I know what you mean. All I have are your words and my interpretations thereof.

    I read your essay. It has never been a fantasy of mine that publishing a book would be like getting a blow job in the back of the limo on the way to Oprah’s. Interesting image, though. I’m glad the editor left it in. It’s fun. But I would hope that if I were ever on the way to Oprah’s, I would be concentrating on what else was coming up besides my cock. Maybe I would be tweeting about my book, making good use of the time.

    You “never took the leap as a writer”? No, I don’t know what you mean. I read one of your books and it gave every evidence of having been written by a writer. If you’re not a writer, then the pope’s a Southern Baptist. If there’s some other leap you mean, well, fuck all, why don’t you take it? You don’t have an infinite amount of time, you know.

    • Maybe I don’t know what you mean, but I know this. For me your blog is all about the leap; the gravity, the urge to fly, everything that holds us back and calls us out. Nobody writes about this but you, not this way.

    • …Not so fast — I heard this current pope was applying to BE a Southern Baptist…or something.

  15. wait–you’ve published two novels. if you can’t call yourself a writer than we’re all fucked.

    and shouldn’t that read, “why I haven’t taken the leap as a writer yet…”? (which really isn’t even true)

    and there are no such things as coincidences. it’s a made-up word that encourages states of semi-fugue.

    you know why a bride smiles when she walks down the aisle? because she knows she’s given her last blow job. (Unless, of course, she happens to be the handler for Oprah’s darling-writer of the month.)

  16. I don’t know what you mean but you wrote the crap out it. Thanks for your witty honesty.

  17. yeah, you mean a denial. question is of what.

  18. no good u-tube of this but john stewart takes you into that cardboard box

    And he could have been a builder
    He could have been the one
    To turn his dreams to steel
    Cathedrals in the sun
    And he could have been a builder
    But then he bought the gun
    There are forces in that river
    That keep him on the run…
    Did you ever turn the corner
    And you wondered why you did
    ‘Cause you haven’t been that way, now
    Since you were just a kid
    And nothing really happened
    But then you’ve got to say
    That you wonder what would’ve happened
    Had you gone the other way
    There are strange rivers
    Rivers that you can not see
    And there are strange rivers
    Who know our destiny
    And there are strange rivers
    And we’re sailors
    You and me

  19. A little confused about what you mean. It seems to most of us that you have taken the leap–and that’s a good thing, overall, right? That said, taking a leap doesn’t put an end to doubt or reflection. And why should it? No belief without doubt, right? At least some of the time.

    I don’t really know you, so please take this with a shaker of salt. But from “I have a set of beliefs” straight through to the end sounds like needless distraction–though I realize you’re exaggerating/dramatizing for effect. Certainly it’s possible to feel things like this, occasionally, even as an adult. When I was very depressed, for example, I felt things similar to SOME of what you’re describing, though not with the same intensity.

    You’ll be okay, you will.

  20. The only answer might be in the act of writing. The aftermath. The result.
    Do they signify that you were really writing? Or is it the writing itself? The text? The reflection of the text in the reader? I ferment my manuscripts. I photograph them. I show the photographs. But it always returns to that act of writing for me.

  21. Mean? I’ve never given advice about query letters as I have not only never written one but I have never read one all the way through. But, I have enjoyed many an existential conundrums, or crisis, in fact, I’m almost positive we wouldn’t have the word existential without them. I must admit I needed to look up the word fugue, but it seems to me that if you used it as a musical reference, a contrapuntal, don’t stop, but if you used it as a pathology, I doubt you would remember what it consisted of unless, of course, your therapist reminded you of who you are and what you said. How can you trust that? People are people, they have ambitions, and often with the best of intentions. Anyway, to get down to the nitty-gritty, if you’re afraid of the writing it is probably that you think there is something wrong with you. So, to be your own therapist, who the fuck told you that, and what was their intention?

    • PS. I read the essay this morning — that seems like sane, clear sighted advice. That’s why I like to hang out here once in a while. I almost always come away with something I hadn’t thought and need to know. Thank you. Not that thanks pay the bills.

  22. It’s been said already upstream but you sure wrote two fantastic books for someone who never made the ‘leap’.

    I think the leap just widens and widens as we go. First it’s ‘if I could only get an agent’ then it’s ‘if I could only get a book deal’ then ‘if I could only win a booker/ have a bestseller/ get a movie deal’

    I wonder what your leap is that you haven’t made…

  23. Oh yeah. I’ve felt – feel that way. Doesn’t every breathing female who makes midlife? Should have, could have, would have. The great tragedy of looking backwards. And just when I’ve figured out what to do with those perky breasts? Gone. But the one thing I can be grateful for is I can kick some serious ass when I put my mind to it. If I don’t dwell on the fact that I wish I did it way back when.

    Great essay. Congratulations again.

  24. Just read the essay. Damn you have a way with words – if you hadn’t told me differently I would have said you were a writer.

  25. You’ll never be satisfied and that’s not a bad thing. Your writing is strong because you’re not afraid to push the boundaries and knock down walls. Or maybe you are afraid, but continue anyway, the difference being like that of a tree and the forest (sorry). Nothing comes easy, but why should it? You wrote about enjoying an existential crisis. There’s your answer.

  26. It’s not just one leap. You leap and you leap and you leap. And you hope.

  27. Here’s my take on this. I’m wrong most of the time, so I probably am here, too.

    Your writing talent is enormous. Your success in the publishing world is gigantic. Many/most agents/editors tried and failed as writers, so they settled for the next best thing. That’s kind of what you did, too. I think you’re scared that if you write the novels that are in your head and they fail that your tender little underbelly will be all out in the open for everyone to see and you’ll be ridiculed by colleagues who haven’t done as well and thousands of writers you’ve rejected, and maybe even your own mother.

    For someone like me, who nobody knows, it’s easy to let a book go out into the world. If it flies–great! If it sinks–nobody notices.

    Write them, get them published, and see what happens. If they fly–great! If they sink–at least you were brave enough to try. And you know what? Either way, your husband and your daughter and the people who really matter will still love you.

  28. You know, Betsy. Some days you’re just goofy.

  29. I know what you mean. So did Camus. Went googling for his absurd man essay, and found this synopsis from Wikipedia.

    In the essay, Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd: man’s futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world devoid of God and eternal truths or values. Does the realization of the absurd require suicide? Camus answers: “No. It requires revolt.” He then outlines several approaches to the absurd life. The final chapter compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. The essay concludes, “The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

    my boulder awaits…heading back upstairs to (joyfully) push it back up the mountain

  30. Define “leap”.

    And maybe you’re in mid-leap right now.

  31. That’s funny, I’m still 14. Although having kids cured me of the rest. Or exacerbated it. Not really sure.

    Yes, you are the last person in the universe to not know Houdini was Jewish. For Moses sake, what Jewish heroes did you grow up?

  32. Oh, yes. I know exactly what you mean. *sigh* *sob*

  33. I know exactly what you mean, and it is simultaneously surprising and comforting to know you go through it, too, because I think of you as a writer first and foremost. I have gotten so much out of your books. Me, I keep hiding as a ghostwriter of others’ memoirs while I repeatedly creep up to, then running away from, the ledge I need to leap off of in order to write my own.

  34. Welcome to the human condition! You are not alone.

  35. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Mr. Cobain, or suicide. As for your libido, I can’t help you with that except by saying you looked perky to me.

  36. Are you talking about that weird deja vu feeling that is like a memory of the life you were supposed to have in the future, but it isn’t coming true yet?

  37. Betsy,

    I’d be curious to hear what your definition of a writer is, since you’re published, most would consider you a writer.

    Me, I’ve been a writer for years and will just be first published next year. I know I write well and have plenty to say. Fuck anyone that can’t take a blow-job reference (never take them out, BTW. When there, they’re almost always necessary.)

    As I like to say:

    “It took me a while, but I finally figured it out. In order to get where you want to be in life, sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t want to do. In essence, and pardon the vulgar pun, sometimes you have to suck a little cock. In art as well as commerce, in business and even in love (or lack thereof), there comes a moment when you have to decide: Am I a cock sucker or not?
    To get things done, sometimes it’s what’s required; apathy or not. But I do feel that if you’re going to do something, for heaven’s sake do it right. None of this namby-pamby spitting crap. If you’re going to take the time to do it, take it to the head and swallow. ”

    Have some chocolate. That always improves my day.

    Fellow BJ Referencer 😉

  38. You are a writer, of course; you have such a gift for opening up in print. I’ve read both your books, years ago, and found this blog only recently. What makes your blog worth reading is your gutsy honesty. A poet told me once that one has to take risks to produce great writing, and you’ve got that part down.

  39. Helping those writers brought some great books to light–I am grateful for that…you were the agent for some of my favorite books–and I read JUST KIDS lately and loved it. So maybe you were meant to do that at a particular time of your life and maybe now you need to focus more on your own writing.

    BTW, I read THE FOREST FOR THE TREES recently (old edition–gotta buy the new one sometime) and it has the best description anywhere of what it’s like to be a writer…

  40. Arriving a little late as my computer is broken so I’m at the Apple Store. You are incredible as always. Do I know what you mean! Had my last day in Wash Sq Park just yesterday, only my box wasn’t cardboard and it wasn’t urine stained. It was stained with the travails of being a psychic for 19 years. Typing on these Macs is very cool.

  41. WWDvDD? And you know who I mean.

  42. You just need to get more selfish and less smart. Until then, keep doing what you do.

  43. If your talent and success doesn’t qualify YOU as a writer, the rest of us are clearly S.O.L.

    Even those with the means to buy out the whole store find themselves occasionally with their nose pressed up to the glass. And if they remain there long enough, they still manage to leave a print.

  44. Ms. Lerner:
    Sorry for your bad day. Perhaps your essay was not the neglected antidote to it, but its cause. It is an infuriating parroting of publishing conventional wisdom of the last 20 years and it reflects a world in which the publishers’ bad habits are a given which every author is obligated, somehow, to undo. Why in god’s name would you publish a book and then go and beg your sales staff to take a marginal interest in it? Why can they not take a strong interest in every book they are selling? Well, because you (meaning the publishers, whose side you’re on, and yes, there are sides, and yes, good writers ought to be on the other one) publish too many books, that’s why. It’s a giant egg throw and the ones that land in the boiling water get kind of poached and the rest turn nasty on stone, tree and lawn. And the throwers at this stage hate the fucking eggs in any case. They like pre-cooked eggs. they like styrofoam eggs. They like pictures of eggs and blogs about eggs and they think The New York Times egg section is very important indeed — but real eggs, only a few like them. Alas they’ve created careers throwing them so they never mention this fact.

    How many editors could tell you all the books they saw to publication three years ago?

    It is the serious writer’s vocation, not job, to use the language and her wits and his balls and anything else he/she/it can find to get the goddamned fucking sentences on the page and to have them be correct and therefore true and to have them matter in the most important possible ways and to have them be sufficiently graceful and powerful to move people, to wake them up, even possibly to change them. I admire what Dave Eggers does and i admire some of his work too but there aren’t many writers with that kind of energy to spare frankly. Silence, exile, cunning. When we’re done doing the above the publisher BUYS this from us. Thank you publisher. Looks like you own something you have no fucking idea what to do with. Well, when I sell you a Hoover I’m not coming over to your house and vacuuming for you.

    Mr Knopf and Mr Doubleday and Mr Cerf, and Helen and Kurt Wolff and Robert Giroux did not tell their serious and important fucking authors to start a charity and design a fucking blog. They tried to show the world why these people — some of whom had trouble navigating their way to the market and back home again in one piece — mattered and ought to be, if not purchased and read, at least paid attention to and admired.

    And you’re right, we don’t live in that kind of world anymore. But don’t add these mendacious “I’m not tellling you to be PT Barnum” and “Writing’s easy compared to finding an audience” little twinkly bullshit nails to the coffin lid, if you can possibly, next time, stop yourself. Geez. What’s stunning and scary and awful is that so many fine minds and fine literary sensibilities such as you have been blessed with have internalized these values. These values diminish the significance of what we try to do.

    The absolutely best thing that could happen to literature in this country, right now, is if the publishers all closed down and disseminating serious literary work became illegal — illegal in a bomb’s on the place sort of way. That would separate the wheat from the chaff big time. You’d have to pray that the security cameras didn’t catch your face when you were leaving some photocopies of your work to be found by the still-interested on the service cart at Starbucks.

  45. PS
    I was spooning bits of peanut butter and marmalade into my face while I read the essay and found that by the time I’d finished stewing about it half the jar of marmalade had vanished down my gullet. The peanut butter (unsalted, crunchy, unblanched) I’d been more circumspect with, tenks gott.

  46. And PPS Now that I think about it or gnaw on it (grrrrrrrrrrrrlrrrwwwrrrr) further, the whole lecture about Dave Eggers is totally contrary to your message and wrong: the only reason he is able to do all that he does is because he made a huge sum of money when a publisher SOLD HIS FUCKING BOOK. I reviewed and I remember the publicity push and advertising. He WAS getting blown on the way to the airport: remember the girls that used to follow him from reading to reading as if he were Dave Matthews? In short order when he wanted to do McSweeney’s he had a limitless staff of volunteer androgynes in Cons and multiple earrings. So maybe get rid of the Dave Eggers analogy.

  47. PPPS What’s even more dismaying hearing this coming from you is not that it’s corporate chatter but, worse: it’s Protestant corporate chatter. Aaaaiiigggggggghhhhh. I’ll stop now. I promise.

  48. I find it’s not what it looks like to other people, it’s what it means to you. You know for yourself where you took the leap, or a leap, and where you backed away. In my experience, I had to come to terms myself with what I knew I could have done and didn’t. When I finally admitted that I thought I had failed, that I was failing, people sometimes rushed to tell me, no, no you haven’t, just look at what you’ve done, xyz, how could you think you’ve failed? Which is loving but didn’t help. Because what I had to come to terms with, what I had to turn to face, in my own time, was what it meant if it was true.

  49. B–
    Broken promise. But I think I figured it out. Here’s the message: we’re exempt. We don’t have to do that shit — and if we did, we wouldn’t be who we are. And you were a fine writer and still are, and you were exempt too but you didn’t believe it. You certainly didn’t want to make that claim for yourself but that’s part of the audacity required I think. And likely you didn’t like people declaring themselves exempt when you’d forbidden yourself, when you’d been good and worked hard and played by the rules. But that’s just the way it is — it’s not a democracy. Does William Vollman have a blog? Does he work his Facebook page? Guy’s a total maniac. He’s not even in contact with this planet when his books come out, quite often. One of him defeats a heavily armed battalion of Skloots, I’m afraid. As pleasant and hap-hap-happy as she is and as much as she builds a grass roots network of people who liked her book. That’s swell. But as Mr DeLillo once remarked, “some truths aren’t arrived at so easily, [and] life is still full of mystery, [and] it might be better for you, Dear Reader, if you went back to the Living section of your newspaper because this is the dying section and you don’t really want to be here.”

  50. My first reaction was, “That doesn’t make sense, Betsy. From here it looks like you’ve taken the leap and landed — you’ve got books out and a kickass blog and a red hot career…?!”

    But now I see maybe you mean that you feel your potential is still unrealized on the page. Some part of you feels that you’ve held back, not quite given it your all? And you wonder why? And you’re getting all self-eviscerate-y? If my own struggles bore any wisdom, it’s that your self esteem pendulum’s totally going to swing from “I am shit” to “I am the shit” at precisely the moment you let go, say Fuck It, and write exactly what pleases you.

  51. And listen – there’s an inverse relationship between pressure to succeed and good writing. At least in my life there is.

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