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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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If I Listened Long Enough To You

When I gave the talk at McNally Jackson, someone asked how I know if I want to represent something. I said it was physical, my palms start to sweat, I feel accelerated, I want to tell people about it. Wanting to tell people about it, knowing exactly how I would talk about it, pitch it, is also key. Sometimes, but rarely, I see dollar signs, too. For me, it’s very physical. It’s like attraction. I’ve never believed there was an objective standard — we are attracted to smell above all if you believe the biologists. Then, for me, its facility with language and sloping shoulders. With books: all you have is your gut, your taste, and then, all you can do is work your ass off to help make it the best book possible and get it in the right hands.  Whatever it takes.  My mother once asked me how you know. How do you know? You don’t know, I said. You believe. And with that I turned into a deranged  Tinkerbelle on acid and flitted off for an irony time-out. But really, I do believe. I do.

Do you believe in your work? This is not a trick question. And please, just for a day, behave.

110 Responses

  1. “An irony time out.” Sentences and sentiments like that keep me coming back.

    i believe even in my lowest depths in the value and power of my story.

  2. I think your post makes perfect sense. Much more so than the many lists of do this and do not do this that often are contradictory and, at best, correct about structure and pacing but fail to capture that quality that we thrill to find in other people’s writing and we’d kill to create in our own.

    About a year ago it dawned on me that agents, and editors, want to fall in love with a book the same way I do. It may be hard to explain, but when you love a book you feel it more than you think it.

    Oh, and I do believe.

  3. My 9th grade English teacher loved to tell me that I was doomed to a life of wasted potential. When I first started writing, I used to say that I was writing to prove him wrong. Wasn’t that clever?

    In answer to your question, I used to.

    • What changed? You thought it was what? Important? Meaningful?

      • Well, it depends on what you mean by important and meaningful. There are so many books I’ve read that felt important and meaningful to me, and a good number of them are small stories (memoir or fiction) that illuminate the human condition (gross, but stay with me), that make me feel part of something bigger, that make me feel like there’s someone else in the world like me. Where I just had a moment of “yeah, I get it,” or “yeah, me too.” I’m not being very eloquent about this. Whatever. But, yeah, there was a moment where I thought I could do that, too. I’m feeling pretty beaten down about it, and the details of that aren’t really public fodder, at least not here. And I swear to fuck, August, if you get snarky with me right now, I will hunt you down even if “upstate NY, same town as Jonathan Lethem” is my only clue and I will get medieval on your ass.

      • Not getting snarky; I fear the cinder block. My question was, believe -what-? We can’t just believe full stop, that’s not how belief works. We’ve gotta believe -something-. Like believing in your ability to reach through the pages and flick that switch. Or believing in my next deal despite my previous one. When Betsy accelerates, when she believes a book, I’m betting she believes the same thing every time.

        And I’m great with a pep talk, so: beaten down and losing faith in yourself strikes me as a pretty good door into the whole human-condition-illumination racket.

      • and a pretty good door into rich writing

  4. I don’t even know what you mean. Believe -what- in my work?

    I believe the only time I make a woman’s palms sweat is when I warm my wife’s mittens in the dryer. I believe in my competence, I believe that I’ve achieved adequacy in my chosen field. Is that what you mean?

    What’s to disbelieve? I believe in my work with the same unquestioning faith that I believe in other reams of paper. I’m trying to behave, but are you sure this isn’t a trick question? Are you asking if we believe that our work is -deserving-?

    • I believe Betsy’s question is Do you you believe in the existance of your work.

      The question is, Do you believe your work is worth the $25 hard-back cover price to a reader who has to get up at 5:50 AM to get ready to work for an hourly wage at a job she hates with no benefits and no “career track” with a strange persistant cough that she’s too broke to have checked out.

  5. I f-ing believe. I love my memoir (yesterday’s pain in the ass on this very blog) about discontent and reconciliation — familial and raicial. Dear god. (andt that’s Christopher Hitchens’s non-god …).

    The behave-part is infinitely more complex. Damn. Dammit.

  6. Do I believe in my work? I believe in my work as much as a howling wolf believes in the moon.

  7. I believe. Also, I clap my hands.

  8. I believe in my writing much like people believe in religion: Because of the words of some prophet. Because we hope something greater than this life lies ahead. Because we fear our faith is the only thing standing between us and hell.

    Good thing I missed out on yesterday’s excitement. God knows I can never behave.

    • It’s less an issue of belief than of balls. I’m talking about commitment to DOING the work, whether it feels good or not. This is what I need to live by, but find so hard to do.

      I know I have *some* talent and something to say. What business is it of mine that I’ll never be as good as Annie Dillard or whether I’ll be published and successful? It’s not like I plan on burning my writings before I die. Somebody will read them eventually, and maybe they’ll get something out of the exercise. I just have to do the work of writing-rewriting-editing-marketing-lather-rinse-repeat. The result is not under my control, so why should I worry about it?

      I watched a blind man playing wooden clackers and singing bhajans at the gate to the cremation grounds a week or so ago, his little daughter playing nearby. He had a great voice and rhythm, and the mourners were dropping coins on his begging cloth as they left. Whether he makes twenty rupees or a hundred (not bloody likely) in a day, he won’t quit: it’s his dharma, his service. Service to God, service to his community, service to his family. Somehow, he’s doing what he can do, because he and his kid have got to eat. I want to be like that. I’m blind also, to the effects and ripples I send out into the world, but too self-conscious to go down to the burning ghat and sing my heart out.

      Commitment comes first; belief is a by-product.

      • I forgot to check the box requesting email notification of follow up comments to this post, so that’s what this pointless sentence is about.

      • great post, t-p

      • lather rinse repeat


      • Beautiful

      • Dharma = has to feed his kid. He’d jerk off ponies at a petting zoo if that was the only way to put food in his daughter’s face. Who wouldn’t?

      • lots of people wouldn’t and don’t

      • August, dharma is quite a bit more than that, but this is not the place to go into it. Thanks for putting the image of the ponies in my head. :b

        Mary: thanks!

      • That’s the definition of parenthood: being willing to jerk off a pony to feed your kid. (In a _completely_ unrelated subject, guess who’s in the process of accepting a ghostwriting job he doesn’t particularly want?)

      • Lucky pony.

        (Guess who’s accepted a job her husband says is so far down the totem pole at his office that it might actually be underground?)

        Way to go, daddy-o. Buy that child a happy meal.

      • August: Congrats on the job. It may not be your dream gig, but least it looks better on a resumé than “pony jerk-off.”

        All I meant was that dharma is more than parental care and duty, or any kind of duty. Sorry if I came off condescending. I’ve been worried you’d take it that way off and on since I wrote it, but I only just got my internet back in the last hour.

  9. Oh, hell no. I’m no fucking Tinkerbelle, and it would take more than a wand full of fairy dust to convince me that something interesting is going to emerge from the tip of my pen one day.

    I do hope, though, in my weaker moments.

    • Bullshit. I’ve read your blog often enough to know something interesting emerges from the tip of your pen every day. Stop hoping and start believing.

    • Sherry is right. Believe, our friend…

    • I believe in friendship.

      • It’s never too early to raise a glass/mug–cheers to that!

      • glasseye: I saw your remark re worrying about shifting to wordpress. I am a hopelessly challenged techphobe [and not a young brain] but when I started with wordpress a few months ago, I found everything I needed to take every step. They have an immense help section, both written and video. There was nothing I couldn’t find an answer to.

      • Okay, you’ve convinced me. I think I can … I think I can … I think I can …

      • I promise…easy. I require words of one syllable when it comes to computers. No joke. And I have a blog I am happy with. Could I do more with it? Yes, but the learning curve was steep enough to get what I have and I did it all with the help page. If you have questions and aren’t sure where to look, ask. I have probably been through it.
        I just checked the link with my name which no longer goes to my blog and I don’t know where to go to fix that. You can find me at: http://margoroby@wordpress.com

      • It’s importing the stuff from my old blog that worries me. I feel sure it’s going to end up looking like binary code by the time I’m through with it.

        Thank you for the help. You too, Sherry.

      • WordPress takes care of that too. Go on over and visit. That was the easiest part. I shifted from Blogger to wordpress.

      • Yay! I did it. My pictures didn’t import, but I’ll figure that out at some point. You were right, Margo, it was much easier than I thought. Thanks again!

      • Yay! I’m excited for you and hope the pictures is an easy fix. I didn’t have any as I am so new to blogging. I’ll come visit.

    • glasseye, if you don’t have a “subscribe by email” function on your blog, you need to get one. Trust me.

      • My blog is a mess, Tulasi-Priya. There are about nine hundred things it won’t do. But when I sit down to look at the WordPress sites with an eye to converting mine, I get overwhelmed and retreat to whatever manuscript I’ve got on hand.

        I just wrote about my sister’s trip to India, by the way. She loved it. Are you there permanently, then?

      • Glasseye: I just added a “subscribe by email” widget to my blog this week. I use Blogger. I could send you the link if you want.

      • Just subscribed to your blog. The rest of y’all are next. I read the India post; your sister nailed it. It was a good read and I look forward to more. I may just get my own blog back up and running again. I could just take everything I comment on Betsy’s blog and re-post it on my own.

        You’re doing right by choosing wordpress. I can give you some tips if you want for getting more out of it, if you’re will to spend a wee bit of money.

      • I’ll be back from India in two months, Insha’Allah.

      • Oh, I’d be your most loyal blog stalker, Tulasi-Priya. Do it! And I’d love any tips you could offer.

    • Believe Sherry, glasseye.

  10. How can I not believe when I go back in there every morning at 5:30, before I go off to work, and sit there in the darkness, knocking my head against a wall?

    Isn’t belief in our work what drives us?

  11. I do.

  12. I believe in my work.

    I believe it’s worth it to keep writing every day even when the words come in wooden blocks and even I have no idea what I was trying to say.

    I have to believe. It’s the only way I can keep writing.

  13. I believe that writing is what I should be doing with my life. I think that’s enough for me at the moment.

  14. crede quod habes, et habes

  15. i believe i have a strong work ethic and i’m persistent, so i believe that my writing will continuously improve over time.

    writing is weaving. underneath every intricate, patterned cloth is the basic interlacing of sets of threads. patience, skill and strength are also required because a great weaving takes time. tension is required.

    i also believe in actively contributing to a writing community.

  16. Jesus Christ. Behaving isn’t working for me, so good night. I hope the slave laborers who built my bed believed in it, or I won’t get any sleep.

  17. Noooo, don’t leave, August. Also, where the fuck are all of you that it’s FOUR hours later than the West Coast? Did you guys all go to Bermuda without me?

  18. Yes.

  19. I knew it. Fuckers.

  20. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. How I know when I’m having a truly pious moment with my work is that I sneeze. Intense emotions make me sneeze (sort of in that orgasm way, but a little different).

  21. This is such a great question. Do you believe in your work? I don’t even believe in you-know-who. But yeah, I believe – in the dark. In the harsh light of day, I’m agnostic.

  22. I wouldn’t be up writing in the middle of the night if I didn’t believe.

  23. […] grande Betsy oggi scrive che le chiedono sempre come fa a sapere nel suo mestiere che un libro funzionerà. “Come fai a […]

  24. Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying
    Planning, and dreaming…. yes.

    Believing? Not sure.
    Behaving? Absolutely.


  25. “Do you believe in your work?”

    Of course I believe in my work. Despite all the disappointments over years that now extend into decades–the wasted time, the botched projects, the missed opportunities, my array of creative inadequacies, all the money I could have made had I but had the sense to do something else–it’s the only life I’ve felt confident living, because, when I’m good, I’m pretty damn good: when the work seems to flow through me and transcend me and be about itself and about being a person and what it means to be alive. How could I not believe?

  26. I absolutely believe in my work.

  27. Does Nana shit in the woods? Of course, I believe in my writing.

    The publishing part? Calling Captain Hook … calling Captain Hook.

  28. My six year old often tells me who she loves. She names her family, her friends a kid on the bus who she thinks is cute but has a perpetually runny nose. And she always includes herself. I cringe slightly when she does, not because she’s not deserving of loving her self, but because that’s something I find hard to do. Believe in myself, love myself, believe in my writing, these words get stuck in my throat. I want to believe, but I’m afraid it’s been emotionally beaten out of me. Like others have said, I hope and that’s enough for now. Jeez, talk about a demented Tinkerbell – i’m going to borrow my daughter’s fairy wings today and wear them around the house while in my PJ’s. I’ll try to meet my deadline and hope the UPS man doesn’t ring the doorbell.

    • Sounds like you have a good kid. And when the UPS guy comes to the door, wish him well and send him on his way.

  29. Yes. I like the way the words appeal to something inside me. That’s when it’s going good. Some days I just write and write, hoping something will appear. Other times I sit back and reread a few pages from a week ago and think, Oh man, did I really write that hokey shit? And sometimes I can even salvage something from the crapper.

    But when it’s going good…Yeah, I’m a believer.

  30. That’s quite a question and I am glad I came late to the game, to read all the comments. I believe enough that when teaching took too much of my energy and I stopped writing I went into a bout of depression and stopped seeing the world as poetry. I believe enough that I retired from teaching after twenty years [and let my husband be the only wage-earner, as a teacher. Hah!], to focus on my writing. I believe enough to write whether or not I get published [but would also like the publishing part]. I believe in my writing much as I do in the necessity of breathing. Would we write if we didn’t believe? Is the compulsion that strong? Or is the compulsion part of the belief?

  31. Do I believe in my work. Yep.

  32. I think my voice and characters are pretty okay. I have trouble with the mechanics, though. So far, I’ve had great editors who’ve patiently helped me redo mss, so when a book is published, readers think I know what I’m doing.

  33. I believed in the concept, I believed in the outline. Half-way through the first draft, it’s an ugly, ugly sight, hard to believe in, although easier in spots. It’s workmanlike, and what’s the beauty in that? But I believe there will be beauty in the final draft. Can we stop calling it first draft and just call it ugly draft?

    • @ Yossi: I’ll second the motion. I think ugly draft is perfect. I used to give my students permission to write crap. The word shocked them into belief in what I said. But ugly draft…that has a realness to it.

  34. Lucky for me, I write illustrated travel memoir. So on days when I don’t believe in my writing, I draw. On days when I don’t believe in my drawing, I write.

    My work is defiantly worth the cover price.

    • Yes, it is. ‘These boats, waiting out the Winter on the shore of the Long Island Sound, are all the things I haven’t done. Yet.’ I love that.

    • The double-whammy talent. Cheers, Vivian Swift. I like reading you here everyday.

  35. I do believe…I think I’ve finally written something that has a voice….but this one isn’t getting as many bites as previous stuff I’ve written. I believe in it much more than the other mss, so will keep on with it anyway…

  36. My usual answer to this is, I know, I might be deluded … and I really am willing to believe that I might be … but somewhere deep down, I do believe in my work. Even after 10,000 agents saw my query, and lots of those read the whole book, and lots of those wanted the book but passed in the end. I tell myself, “heck, nobody said, ‘I’m sorry for the trees you wrecked in the process of writing this.'” Right? That’s kind of close, right?

  37. It’s my own flesh and blood. What’s not to believe in?

  38. I believe the story I’m writing has to be told. I believe I’m the one to tell it. Buy it or not. Read it or not. Doesn’t matter. If writing allows me fix a wrong, even in a nebulous realm, I succeed. If it gives Betsy, or someone like her, sweaty palms, terrific, but her love isn’t what makes the work valuable.

  39. Behave? What’s the fun in that?

    I must believe at some level or I wouldn’t keep at it, despite all the other demands of my life. I wouldn’t cry when I finish a book because I miss my characters more than I miss my children. I wouldn’t get all angsty knowing the brilliant vampire book I finished three years ago will never see the light of day because lord knows the world needs another vampire book. I must believe or I wouldn’t go around all starry eyed and stumbly when a new (equally brilliant) idea strikes.

    Believe or admit I’m on a fool’s errand. Hell, yes, I’ll take believe.

  40. I believe all this. Writing is the same as anything else.


  41. Among the rules and opinions and feelings, does anyone know why agents prefer Size-12 font? I write nearly everything in Size-14 Courier–except manuscripts. I write then in 12. By request.

  42. I believe in my work.

    That’s the first time I’ve ever said that, anywhere. Thanks for this post. 🙂


  43. Oh everyone is so nice today! Betsy’s behave rule has worked out nicely I think…


  44. Lovely.

  45. Clearly, I need to visit this site and see how people normally behave…

  46. Do I believe in my work? I don’t always like it (today, for instance), but I always believe in it.

  47. Do I believe in my work? Absolutely. Do I k now where I’m going with it? No clue. That’s OK.

  48. I believe if I keep working, I will keep getting better. I believe that if I keep getting better and keep throwing my hat in the ring eventually I’ll get a break on some scale. It’s an abstract, battered sort of belief but it’s there. God help me if I ever lose it.

  49. Look. It’s like this. Sometimes I write something rockin’ good. And sometimes I write something rockin’ bad. I don’t always know the difference at the time, but THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.

    I want to be good for YOU, the other, the reader. I don’t really care about me. I’ve seen too much bad writing because the writer is focused on him/herself.

  50. Today? Yes! Today I believe.

    Tomorrow? Who knows. I could be a quivering heap. But today, oh boy. Today I am even in love with the paper my new book is printed on.

  51. I absolutely believe in my work. I have found that as I get older (I’m in my mid-30’s) I am FINALLY GETTING IT – about how to trust your instincts and what that really means. I have heard that this is what happens and gets even better in your 40’s and beyond. In my 20’s, I didn’t know what the hell people were talking about when they said trust your gut and instincts. I was too full of doubt, still figuring things out. Getting older rocks.

  52. What Betsy got out of us with this post (and so many other) is greater than the post itself. That’s what Miz Katherine doesn’t understand.

  53. My belief is in the potential.

  54. I believe in my work. I have to – if I don’t no one else will. Since I was a little girl it has been my only true compulsion – to tell a story (and eating too many sweets).

    I gave up. I considered it a silly teenage phase. Then I gave up my beautiful life in Paris which I left NYC for, moved to the forest an hour away to a little house with nothing to do but write my heart out. So do I believe in my work? I believe it as deep as I can possibly feel that if I don’t force myself to work, write, live a life that inspires me, and achieve my goals I may not regret my life but something will be missing.

  55. “You don’t know… You believe.”

    The purest description of art I’ve ever seen. Also the perfect corollary to William Goldman’s line about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

  56. Hell yes, I believe in it. Under all the insecurity I fall in to from time to time I am enough of an arrogant asshole to think I have something worthy to say. I still think that. I’m still writing.

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