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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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What to do, what to do, O Betsy Lerner? I’m a writer with a quandary, seeking your wisdom and experience.

On to the burning issue at hand. My creative nonfiction is finally selling and a total gas to write, while my fiction writing is painful despite a promising plot, characters, and agent interest. I’m tempted to bag the novel in favor of more enjoyable nonfiction endeavors, but worry I will regret it forever if I don’t see the fiction project through.
The details, you ask? Okay, but only because you asked; I hate to impose. 

After my agent was unable to sell my first memoir (blergh), I have done pretty well selling chapters piecemeal to newspapers and magazines on my own this year. I have had a blast seeing my words in print at least once a month in one publication or another and cashing the (small) checks that arrive in the mail. I adore writing creative nonfiction, and often can’t wait to sit down to write when inspiration strikes. It’s a rollicking good time for me, and if the past year has been any indication, I’m pretty damn good at it.
And then there’s the novel. My first fiction, a YA book based on a really compelling true story, and the first 30-40 pages rock, if I do say so myself. I’m a teacher, and this novel is exactly the sort of book I’d love to put in the hands of my strong middle school readers. My lovely agent does not rep YA, so she gave me her blessing to find another agent who does. She, too, rocks. The first chapter and summary are currently in the hands of an agent who asked to see a chapter after one of his clients (an old friend of mine) raved to him about my work. No news yet.
Deep breath.
In your experience, is it worth it for an author to chip away at something that’s painful to execute and outside their comfort zone, or should said author continue to ride a wave of success while it’s got momentum and has the potential to fuel more work? NAME WITHHELD

Dear You: When I was younger, I believed that degree of difficulty was an essential part of any artistic equation as if writing were an Olympic sport and you could gain extra points for level of difficulty on the dismount. Now that I am old and time is running out, I think you should  follow the money, and by that I mean do what you’re good at, succeed, buy a condo. Success tends to breed success. Or it brings opportunity or it buys writing time. In some ways, your story doesn’t compute because you didn’t quit after you failed to sell your memoir. You still pushed it out there and met with success. You also don’t say what makes writing the novel so painful. Perhaps it’s that deeply pleasurable kind of pain, like pushing down on a bruise to make sure it still hurts.

It’s funny. I fancied myself a poet in my youth. I got an MFA in poetry, won a few prizes, got a few poems published, went to tons of readings and bought tons of poetry books. The poetry section is still the first I check out in any store and judge it by its collection. When people ask me why I quit, the answer is: it was too hard, I wasn’t good enough. Though another answer might have been: I wasn’t temperamentally suited to that life. And another: I was a pussy. Or, I quit when it got too hard. Or, Keats. Or, my brain stopped thinking like a poet’s. Did I think I was going to write an advice book? NO. Did I think I was going to work on my fifth screenplay? NO. Did I think I was going to write a memoir. NO NO NO. Did I think I was going to write a tv sitcom? NO. What is the point? I don’t know. Except I think writers ultimately write what they can. I wanted to be Anne Sexton, I wound up Erma Bombeck. You write what you write. You are what you eat. There are no career moves at the end of the day. Just you. And the shrimp special.

75 Responses

  1. Can’t even begin to tell you how much I agree with Betsy’s advice.

    It doesn’t mean FICTION might not be in your future, some day. It does mean that Life (yes, capitol “L”) has a sense of humor and an innate joy about it. Go with the good, and guess what? It ALL may happen for you. Get old. Maybe then?

    • Yes.

    • I agree.

      If the lucrative wasn’t enjoyable, I might have doubts, but since it is, I say go have fun, money, and recognition.

      If writing the YA noel becomes a need later on, great! If it doesn’t, it wasn’t really your schtick and now you know.

  2. “My creative nonfiction is finally selling and a total gas to write, while my fiction writing is painful despite a promising plot, characters, and agent interest. I’m tempted to bag the novel in favor of more enjoyable nonfiction endeavors, but worry I will regret it forever if I don’t see the fiction project through.”

    Follow your heart. Not only will it not lead you astray, it may lead you over a rainbow and to a pot of gold. And it won’t matter where it leads you. It’s your heart. Follow it, and damn all else.

  3. Dorothy rode out her success in Oz, and in the end went back to Kansas where, I’m guessing, she grew old and time ran out.

    I’m sorry, but in my brain Dorothy keeps repeating the words “rollicking good time” and she’s clicking those damned fake shoes — so I’m no good to you here.

    • Jesus, let’s try that again. What I MEANT to say was this. There’s a Rushdie essay about the Wizard of Oz. It came back to me reading this post. He always wondered why Dorothy — joyful and productive in colorful Oz — would want to go back to dreary gray Kansas. That’s oversimplifying it, but I’m wondering why you’d want to beat your head against the Fiction wall when you’re obviously enjoying your Nonfiction work.

      • “He always wondered why Dorothy — joyful and productive in colorful Oz — would want to go back to dreary gray Kansas.”

        Because she missed Aunty Em, of course. Dorothy was no artist, just an ordinary farm girl. And for her, Oz was not a possible life, only a dream. LW is in a much better position.

  4. Okay. I’m an ass, so I can say this: I hate that fucking person. Totally hate him or her.

    How dare he or she write and be so goddamn happy. And also be so goddamn fucking productive.

    Fucking twit.

    • At the risk of being a hypocrite (which I was recently accused of here on this blog), can we not go there for just a little while? I know you’re probably being facetious, ac, but I’ve learned from painful experience that it doesn’t always read that way. I’m not at all trying to scold you, just a friendly warning. Do as you will.

      I’m being comment-stalked by an angry anonymous person for my stupid, trying-to-be-funny comments FROM A WEEK AGO, and it really gives a fresh insight into the concept of karma, especially on the internet. I’m willing to pay for my sins, but I’d hate to see it happen to others. Others may relish the ruckuses they cause; I don’t have a very thick skin.

      • That last sentence should have read: Others may relish the ruckuses they RAISE . . . 😉

      • Nice of you to step in and post this Tulasi-Priya. I was harassed for nearly a year by an anonymouse and it made me sick, literally ill. Would not wish that on anyone.

      • We can’t stop calling people fucking twits because of a mouse, or the terrorists win.

      • So much grey area here, what with the nitwits and the ruckuses and the terrorists(!)

        When in stand-up comedy mode (a coping device that kicked in about 30 years ago), I’ve offended more than a few people.

        And humor and irreverence are wonderful things, surely.

        But–given the degree of rancor in the atmosphere these days–I sometimes wonder if being kind isn’t the most subversive thing one can do.

      • I admire kind people, and anyone with the cojones to do stand-up comedy. It’s just that self-censorship
        because of an idiot or two is a bit sad.

      • Yes … maybe self-editorship rather than self-censorship?

      • I’m all for self-censorship in the social sense. These comments we make here are simultaneously ephemeral and enduring, but compared to a book, or even a magazine article, they’re inconsequential. It’s not worth it to me to see myself forever emblazoned in this blog as a jerk, all for the sake of some dubious humor or to vent my spleen.

        My real point is that since I can’t take it, I shouldn’t dish it. I try to be funny (sometimes it doesn’t go over), dry but not vicious. I don’t call names. I try not to be insulting, but I can be cutting. But if somebody takes offense and intentionally, insults me in all seriousness, I can’t handle it. I am a delicate flower; thorns do not become me.

    • Actually, I was trying to express my admiration for that person. In my own twisted way.

      • If I hadn’t been so sensitized by the anger the coming at me from the anonymouse, I probably would have realized that immediately. At the least, I just assumed you were kidding around.

  5. I recently realized that I am in danger of having more success (and making more money?) writing about my writing failures and disasters than with my actual fiction itself. But I celebrate it.

    And in order to keep riding the wave of failure fortune, I have to keep trying (and failing) with my fiction to have something to write about. Right? Yeah. It’s pretty sweet.

    • Do it. Your failure will pay for your success. That’s true in all cases, but in yours it’s especially direct!

  6. Yep, Betsy’s got it. She don’t need no little man behind the curtain. 😉

    Tetman’s also got it.

    And Teri raises a fine point (yes, I will be constructing a camel with 7 heads this evening, as well as a horse of a different color).

    If you write what you’re interested in and passionate about you’ll do good work. If that good work is good enough you’ll succeed. After you’ve succeeded you can turn your attention to something you’re not sure you’re good at, something really fucking hard, even. At least you’ll have a reservoir of success and momentum to draw on.

    And then maybe you’ll live in a condo in Oz and you’ll summer at home (and maybe, if you write really well, you’ll be on the lam part of the time). And of course you’ll have a heart. A brain. And courage.

  7. This post is so on the money. Thank you, NAME WITHHELD, for asking the question, and thank you, Betsy, for the answer.

  8. Agree and second the thanks.

    (Despite the apparent conviction of my post I too am muddling along and struggling with the question of what I’m best at. And I definitely feel time-pressure and despair on a daily–if not hourly!–basis.)

  9. Did I think I was going to like shrimp when I grew up? No.

  10. Oh, and I love the title of the post!

  11. I wanted to be James Dean, but I ended up…Sylvia Browne.

  12. Beyond and beneath the care of reputation, when I’d failed at everything else and could write as if only my story existed, then I found my way toward finishing a work of fiction. Lack of success can be very freeing.

  13. What’s the point in writing anything but that which you enjoy?

  14. Great advice today Betsy. Erma would be proud.

  15. Suck it up, stop navel gazing and worrying about what colour is your parachute, write the nonfiction and the fiction. writing’s supposed to be painful once in a while, isn’t it ?

  16. One of the things I enjoy most about getting old is the surrendering.

  17. Life is way too unpredictable. Do what you want. At least you won’t have any regrets.

  18. You’re way more hip than Erma Bombeck.

  19. You know, amidst the chaos lately, there was a comment made about how easy it would be to write a popular page turner. When I was younger I tried this, thinking exactly that, how hard could it be? It was awful and it sucked, and it gave me new respect for all writers not just the ones belonging under the liter-ah-ture label. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t the way my brain works. Fantastic line Betsy, we write what we can.
    You write something that you enjoy, and people want to read it and pay you to boot. I’m not sure I understand the question, but go, go, go write.
    As for the fiction, it’s hard for you. I mean no disrespect (nor to sound like DeNiro, but alas), but you ask the question because you want someone to give you permission to quit. Quitting is easy. We’ve all done it. I say keep going because it’s tough, even if nothing comes of it. It’s the journey to be better, to challenge who you are and what you’re made of.
    And congratulations on your success.

  20. I think you should keep going with the novel. At 40 pages, you still seem jazzed about the premise and hopeful about its success. You have agent interest. I couldn’t bring myself to abandon ANYTHING that was truly working. And this, from what you’ve said, is working.

    I would suggest that you bang out the first draft as quickly as humanly possible. It’s the hardest part – for me, anyway. Once you’ve done that, set it aside, work on your creative nonfiction for a bit if you need a break, and return to the YA project once you’re ready to begin revising.

    I do think you’d regret abandoning the novel, not because writing fiction is more important than other kinds of writing, but because you quit something based on level of difficulty alone. Let the work you produce guide you. If it’s good, keep going.

    Good luck, and congratulations!

    • that’s a much nicer and more eloquent way of saying what I tried to say. I flatly disagree with the premise to do something simply on the basis that it’s easy, fun, or that you’re getting paid for it. That way lies damnation, STD’s and more Dan Brown novels. What worthwhile things are easy to do ? Marriage ? Parenting ? Paying mortgages ?

    • I see your point . . . but I also think abandoned novels can sometimes be picked up again.

      Mark Twain abandoned Tom Sawyer over and over again until it was finished.

  21. I once read or heard “Don’t define yourself by your writing.” I have no idea who wrote or said it, but it helps me keep things in perspective. I play in my little corner of the writers sandbox. If somebody likes my creations, good. If not, that’s okay, too.

  22. Whoa. Back up: it’s a bit too early in this writer’s career for her to be choosing between art and the filthy lucre. Getting a few magazine articles published does not committ a person to a life time of memoir if she really wants to write fiction.

    Yes, there will be a time when she’ll have to decide what kind of writer she is. And when that time comes she should take Betsy’s advise and let the marketplace be an important consideration.

    And here’s the important thing: Deciding what kind of writer you are is not a life or death decision. No baby birds will die because you end up writing one kind of story instead of another. Whew.

    • Think, as Betsy acknowledged, it’s the deadline, the time-pressure that makes the question an urgent one (for the person who poses it, obviously).

  23. Letter is so poorly written, yuck

  24. like george told me awhile back, sometimes you have to do the Batmans to make the Syrianas.

  25. […] anonymous writer asked Betsy Lerner if she should keep plugging away at her YA novel, which she describes as a “painful” […]

  26. This post was pretty timely for me because I *just* decided to switch gears on my writing projects this month. (And blogged about it, with a Betsy shout-out.)

    In my case, however, I am definitely not abandoning my novel, nor do I consider the novel painful to work on. But I do think writers can work on many different projects. Sometimes you have to try a lot of things to see where you’ll really end up. Or maybe you’ll find you can succeed at writing nonfiction and YA *and* something else, as well. So I vote for the writer to keep trying to work on YA novel, at least until a first draft is done, and then go from there.

  27. Who says you can’t do both? You are already a teacher and non-fiction writer in your “off” hours — why not toss another ball up to keep in the air? Keep the novel going. You won’t be sorry. Some day some of the pleasure and excitement of your non-fiction writing will ooze over to your novel. And then you’ll say, NOW I get it!

  28. Try day-by-day. Some times you’ll write, sometimes you won’t. Some times you win, some times you lose. The time passes. The increments add up.

    Who said something had to be fun? I like this prior post, by Mary-Lynne. Dabble. The various genres feed off each other. It all sticks to the ribs and it’s all writing.

    When you attach to a film project, you will hand in a script and imagine you’ll be done with it, and then the producer will send you their pitch to Ben Affleck and you’ll say, “Let me do it, please.” And then the script will get a nasty coverage from a frustrated hack at William Morris Endeavor and you will ask the producer to craft a response, leaving the hack in a steaming heap, saving the day!.

    I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s “Place of Greater Safety,” and, besides the minor woman revolutionary, Anne Theroigne, the most compelling character is Camille Desmoulins, whom Robespierre and Danton are constantly pressing for editorials, speeches, poems, testimonials, obits, responses to the charges of others. “Have Camille write it.” In-house writer of the revolution.

    Be your own.

  29. “In-house writer of the revolution” I like.

  30. If you enjoy writing creative nonfiction, write that and put the YA novel on the backburner. I wrote a lot of picture books for kids that weren’t published, then got published with nonfiction. Now I’m writing a novel for adults–not because it’s something I think I should do (God forbid), but because I ‘m enjoying it.

  31. I’d go for the 60/40 rule. If writing fiction sucks wind 40% of the time, and only mildly blows the other 60, baby, you’re a novelist.

    I wanted to write meaningful prose, so beautiful it would make literary snobs weep with envy. Instead, I write commercial fiction. It’s what I read, what I like. Sure, I dabble in reading hauntingly lovely novels I could never write, I love Beluga caviar, and I lust after six-pack abs, but in the end, I always go back to French fries and the guy with a paunch.

    Write what speaks to you. Screw trying to make yourself into something you’re not: Everyone will know you’re faking it. I can’t actually tell from what you’ve written if your heart’s in fiction, or not. Have some fries and think about it.

  32. I’m not disagreeing with Betsy, but isn’t it important to push ourselves out of what’s comfortable in order to find our true potential? Betsy’s seen it all and I trust her advice, but, well maybe i do disagree, sorry Betsy. At least looking at this writer through my own pov. Of course maybe if I’d spent the last two years trying to write magazine articles instead of my god damned book i’d be a lot happier. Wish I didn’t always have to touch the stove. Is it too early to drink?

  33. Steph, I relate so much to what you said, I totally aree with you…yet I wish I could write better and I’ve allowed myself to think that by pushing myself harder I can attain greatness…any advice?

  34. But Joseph, what IS greatness? Is it the guy who wrote the most lyrical prose, read and beloved by 500 people, or Stephenie Meyer? Greatness is defined by each individual. For you, pushing yourself to write outside your comfort zone is greatness. For me, making enough filthy lucre to call this a living, thereby ridding myself of the day job I despise, would be the pinnacle of greatness. Not that I want to be a hack, but commercial fiction sells, and lucky me, I have a commercial voice.

    Writing what you love has a lot better potential to sell than writing what you don’t love, but think is more commercial/literary/fill-in-the-blank-with-your-own-hangup. If Name Withheld loves writing nonfiction, she/he is more likely to find success in nonfiction. If she/he loves YA, even though writing it may be challenging, there can be success there, as well. See 60/40 rule.

    In the end, writing is a bitch. Is it easy for anyone? Even writing what you love is difficult. Selling it is nearly impossible. Even after you sell, will strangers buy it? (This is where I am – book releasing in September) The anxiety never ends.

    At the heart of it all, however, if the writing never brings joy, you’re sunk before you started.

    • Stef, I thought your advice was wonderful, and you nailed it with the fries, but seriously— “greatness is defined by each individual”? Shall we just throw that word out of the dictionary then?

      Do you really think there’s no objective difference between Shakespeare (to use the most cliché example) and Stephanie Meyer? How did Shakespeare get to be Shakespeare anyhow? I really don’t believe it was because a bunch of over-educated white guys voted him into the pantheon.

      • Is there an ocean between them, really? Wasn’t Shakespeare enormously popular in his day? I think he wrote plays and sonnets because he liked it. His subject matter interested him, and he had great fun stringing all those incredible words together.
        I’m guessing so did Stephenie Meyer.
        Passion for your work is what’s important.
        Honestly, I’m not stepping into the literary/commercial divide. My point is simply that you will be more successful – also user defined – if you write what you love, not what you think will earn money/accolades/ego gratification.

      • Stef, I agree with what what you’ve said here, but I think we on different pages. For me, greatness is a question of quality. Crap can be very successful, and if the writer is passionate about her work (not speaking of Meyer; haven’t read her stuff), then jolly good for her, but it doesn’t make what she does as good as Shakespeare (or a lot of lesser-known writers). I equate greatness more with quality—of craft, of theme, of thought. Augustine’s Confessions probably hasn’t had as many readers as Stephanie Meyer in the last few years, but he’s been in print for centuries! There’s a reason for that.

  35. Is it clear at this point that we, your beloved followers, NEED you, O wise and eloquent one?

    But feel free to take a vacation, by all means.

  36. Steph, I’m going print out what you said and pin it to my office wall. Someday, i want it to be yellowed and curled it’s hung there so long. I never thought of greatness as being reletive to each person, although it seems like i should’ve by now. Ultimately, I want to satisfy myself first, something that as yet hasn’t happened. I have to tell ya though, I do like your vision of greatness! That water sounds just fine! Thank you for your insight, congrats on your book and good luck! I would love to read it!!

  37. Joseph, I’m humbly honored, and I wish you all the best in your writing.

    As for the book, well, I sort of hang out here in Betsy Land as just another writer, no psuedo, or anything. Maybe when the book comes out, I’ll have the cajones to post as my alter-ego and beg/bribe the regulars to write a rave review on Amazon.

  38. Writing fiction killed me. Stick with the nonfiction.

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