• 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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I Climbed A Mountain and I Turned Around

Tonight something remarkable happened. A rag tag group of writers with seemingly nothing in common came together and became greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve taught at a lot of conferences and I usually walk away quasi-suicidal. But tonight I felt wonderful. Tonight I saw each person transform in front of me, either in their ability to comment on another writer’s work or their ability to see their own. One woman seemed to have stepped out of  a Roz Chast cartoon, had only written in her head thus far, but was adorable and no-nonsense in her feedback. One man, probably the smartest about writing in the group, was as shy as a blanket, but eventually made great observations. But the biggest surprise came from the woman who read her work last. We’d been listening to everyone’s work over the three hours. Now, we were tired and ready to get home (or in my case hoping to make a late movie). That’s when it happened. From her first sentence we were all transfixed. The quality and the power of the writing and story was undeniable. I welled up with tears. The room had shivers. And in her victory, we were all lifted up a little.

Earlier in the evening, we talked about taking chances with cover letters and in the writing itself. We talked about how you have to take chances to do anything that’s going to break through, but you also don’t want to do anything crazynuts. How do you know the difference? I told them to exchange emails with each other if they wanted to, and to be readers for each other. That finding reader friends at workshops is one of the most valuable aspects of attending. Having a trusted reader or two, especially where you feel safe enough to take risks, is priceless.

When we finished, as I was leaving, one woman asked the others if they wanted to exchange email. And then they did.

76 Responses

  1. Well, I’ve been writing for 5 years, and I’ve had a handful of fellowships and residencies that have netted me two (2) treasured readers. Out of hundreds. And your blog gave me August, who blows the doors off his competition. But mostly I hate the people I’m forced to engage with in workshops. Instructors included.

    Your loyal misanthrope

  2. Betsy – Tonight’s post lifted my spirits, told me reams about you, and made me happy for the lives you touch in your writing classes and with your blog. You are a marvelous writer. More important, I believe you are a good person — no matter how much you may sometimes resist that idea. I shit you not.

  3. since reading your blog, i’ve begun exchanging emails with commenters here regularly.

    two of us who live more than 2,000 miles away from each other got to meet over coffee and lunch just last month. (of course, we decided the best location would be a monastery. we ate cheese and crackers and talked about writing next to a set of garden steps that formed a rosary. it was all very spiritual in a heretical kind of way.)

    i have you to thank for these friendships.

    thank you.

    • The monastery, the lecturing nun, the swirling dark sky, all Midnight in the Garden. That was the best coffee klatch ever.

  4. Love this post.

  5. I have been dying of readerlessness for many years. I am a chicken, used to go faint at tutorials, joined a writers group and feel more disarmed than ever. Your thoughts are correct but terrible to the shy heart.

  6. I am happy for Betsy, happy for the group she led, happy for the woman who wrote to bring tears to everyone. I wish I could do that . Sometimes I believe I can. I’ve had my moments. But I never seem to never have the courage to slog through my own fear and resistance long enough to find out or give up for good.

    Something remarkable happened to me today also, though not as transcendent. I had been procrastinating for weeks, filled with dread at the idea of talking to the IRS about a non-profit I’m starting. It was as if death awaited me, rather than some functionary answering the phone all day. But somehow today a fierceness arose in me, saying, let it kill me, whatever it is; death would be better than this paralysis. So I called, and of course I didn’t die, but instead had a delightful time talking with an IRS agent. Who knew?

    I’ve run away from home, broken up a bar fight, faced down a drug lord, and single-handedly tried to save a burning building, but the blank page is still too much for me. And if I see my reflection, in a snow-covered hill, will the landslide bring it down?

  7. Betsy you are something remarkable and that’s no crazynuts.

  8. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being held in the supportive embrace of fellow artists, especially if your only reference point is somewhere outside the circle.

  9. Betsy, I also have to thank you bringing together one of the best groups of crazynut writers ever – in my short time here, I have been writing more, to a smarter and more savvy group of readers, and am a better writer for it.

  10. It is taking a huge risk to read aloud in front of people and get immediate feedback. I no longer do this in my classes at uni–it’s just too rough. But it can work, and you have beautifully described what happens when it does. I loved this post very very much.

  11. When do you sleep?

  12. File under : Best of Betsy’s Blogs- a new book by you. Thank you. As teacher, as writer. Word on.

  13. I am my best reader.

  14. Betsy,

    There is something about you, about your writing, your no bullshit approach that allows people to do the same.

    Due to you I have met some of the most wonderful artists, who give a great big damn about their work. Thank you, for the writing group that got together due to their respect of you and your honesty.

  15. Synergy. Great. Wish my provincial area had such resources, resources like you for instance. Most upbeat post from you in awhile. Thank you for saying that about taking a chance with the cover letter and the writing. Cuz I am pretty tired of the conventional choices.

  16. I am blessed, blessed beyond words to have many reader friends who have helped a very shy me to become the author I am. For that I reward them with pound cakes and peach cobblers and my best attention to their work in writer group.

    My best writer/reader friend told me you were going to be in Ann Arbor today. I’ll be the older Black woman with the afro that dosn’t quite know how to behave in the back of the room.

  17. I’m going to pile right on and say I have to thank you, Betsy, for meeting my best support writing group right here. Sometimes I wonder if you can here the ping-ping-ping from across the country (and across the pond) of connections and feedback and encouragement and even, when needed, the calling-out of our own bullshit. We are one rowdy group. A braver for being here.

    Anybody need a tissue?

  18. I forget how I landed on your blog, but the thing I most admire about you is your fearlessness. Obviously that attitude is contagious and your students are lucky people.

    I don’t suppose you’d ever find yourself in the frozen wasteland of Alberta, Canada willing to talk to an RWA group…?

    Anyway, congrats on a transcendent evening, even if you feel it necessary to label it “bullshit” or some such later.

  19. “We talked about how you have to take chances to do anything that’s going to break through, but you also don’t want to do anything crazynuts. How do you know the difference?”

    That is such a good question.

  20. It’s so cool to watch those baby birds fly, yeah? You are good at this, Betsy. I’m a big fat copycat and echo all the sentiments herein: fearless, no-bullshit, unflinching, genuine. The synergy is amazing. New friendships with far-flung commenters.

    Just last week I had martinis with someone from the other side of the country who got in touch due to our BetsyLand connection.

    Priceless, indeed.

  21. Very cool. Both your post and the evening last night, and the commenters here remarking on the real connections that have been forged. I think we DO deserve a torte (especially one of such divine provenance! Karen that sounds great!

  22. I hope you know how much good work you’re doing. The cover letter part and taking chances sounded interesting, but not doing anything crazynuts — does that leave out skywriting a query on a day you might possibly be on the beach? Just asking.
    Enjoy those late night movies as much for entertainment as research.

  23. Ah, Betsy, I see you are yourself once again. That wasn’t failure after all, just a shadow playing tricks on your imagination.

  24. All this positivity makes me sick.

    I’m adorable and no-nonsense, too. I’m shy as a blanket. I hate that fucking transfixing woman, giving the room shivers. She didn’t lift -me- up. She’s the competition–her victory is my loss. This is a zero sum game. I’m not competing against the writers who are even crappier than I am, I’m competing against all the ones who are better. The last thing I need is some ragtag hobbyist having a transformational moment. Jesus Christ. As a personal favor, please, next conference step on everyone’s dreams.

    You don’t take chances with a cover letter. That -is- crazy. It’s a business letter. Get to business. And do you really need to take chances to break through? Is there a difference between taking chances and racing to the bottom? Who’s broken through in the past five years, and what chances have they taken? I hope they cc you every email exchange so you can watch as all the magic they felt in that room slowly drains away.

    • I hear there are more naked pictures, you know where …

      • Holy shit, don’t send him my way today. I’m going on about ice cream cones and Gumnut Babies, and the newest naked chick is cowering in the roots of cypress tree. He’s liable to blow that aneurysm.

    • I was waiting for that, Auggie.

      You’re totally right about the cover letter, wrong about the rest. You know as well as I do that we’re only in competition with ourselves, to see how fast, how boldly, and how directly we can meet our fate. You’re either going to break through, or you will die a glorious failure, with people not discovering your beautiful stuff you’re well into your next lifetime. But if you don’t write what you are really here to write (and I doubt that the blood gems you lay at our feet here are your raison d’etre), and pimp your work out, then what? Back again, until you do.

      There, I’ve said it. Somebody’s got to be the crazy around here. I just wish I could follow my own advice.

      • Auggie – yes, he sounds much less grouchy like that.

      • I plead guilty to being obvious and predictable, but after 42 comments licking Betsy’s ass, I’m not sure I’m the person who’s going round the world one more time.

        There are plenty of places for writers who love writing–just Google ‘fanfic.’ There’s only one -here-, though, home of jealousy and resentment.

        Honestly, how did -you- respond to this: “From her first sentence we were all transfixed. The quality and the power of the writing and story was undeniable. I welled up with tears. The room had shivers. And in her victory, we were all lifted up a little.”

        Not with regret and envy and a new awareness of your own inadequacy? What’s your best first sentence? Does it transfix?

      • around the world.

      • >>Honestly, how did -you- respond to this: “From her first sentence we were all transfixed…”

        Of course I was envious, but not of her writing, which I hadn’t read myself, but of everyone’s reception to it. I believe I’m perfectly capable of writing something that would bring Betsy (or even you, August), to tears, but I don’t. That’s my sin against God, man, and nature. But you’re only proving my point. There’s no competition for the reader, because humans have an unlimited supply of tears.

        And I take back my concurrence with you re the cover letter. It is a business, I’ll grant that. But it’s not the clocking-in of the desk drone; it’s the risk that every entrepreneur takes when he dares to capitalize his dream. We have to write something that will make them want to read more. If that’s not taking a risk, what is?

    • C’mon August, this is all a pose, yes? No one can really feel that way and still offer the insightful comments/rewrites you did on the pitch paragraphs a week or so ago. You were hugely helpful to people who might be that dreaded competition. You’re busted.

      • Also, Shanna is right. Who’s better than August? I’d trade my voice in a heartbeat if I could write like he does.

      • It’s not a pose, it’s his song. And we love to hear him sing it.

      • some of us are getting tired of the same old song but it’s betsy’s blog and she gets off on it

      • I’m wondering if it’s just his schtick?

      • To my shame, Mary Lynne, I adore half of our regular commenters, and couldn’t resist.

        (And that would be a tragic trade, Averil. My sex scenes inevitably read: “He eyed the curve of her ass. Later, they …”)

    • just ignore august. he struggles with the reality that some writers enjoy their writing life. good for deflecting, etc. etc.

    • Does this mean you won’t be stopping by for torte?

      • He has to come for torte and tell us all how the positivity of said torte makes him sick. How fun would that be?

      • I’ll take that chance, er, challenge. Of course, he will have to also choose between a drizzle of mulberry puree sauce or a nice dollop of creme fraiche, which may tip the scales towards an overload of positivity.

    • I don’t want to die with my song still in me. You don’t have to listen if you don’t want to.

    • August, August, August. Why so curmudgeony? As they say at shrink school “say more”…

    • Aw, fiddle faddle. Good writing gets me hot–gives my brain a hard on. Nothing wrong with that, although it is unseemly to have a trouser bulge ruining my shiny bald dome. And it is rude to flick it.

    • Oh, August! Don’t you worry! We’re all dragging each other down equally, like drowning fools, with our blogs instructing each other “how to write” and the low-quality workshops where the teacher encourages students to describe every physical sensation.

      Betsy’s workshop is a rare exception.

      The most uplifting workshops I go to are the ones where the writing is appalling. I’ve never been so delighted as after one particular one, where THREE individuals read opening chapters that featured vomiting or pooping. One described the flavor of the vomit. Bliss! I was in competitively evil writer bliss!

  25. Betsy, those were some lucky lucky writers to be in that group on that day when the planets aligned. Shy as a blanket, love that.

  26. You’ve got a good synergy going here, Betsy, and I’m not surprised you had one there. It’s no accident. As a dear mentor (successful old hippie Berkeley academic) said to me when I was in my 20s, never let anyone try to tell you that forging relationships — inside or out of work — isn’t a hugely important skill. Not only a skill, she added, but a talent that some are better at than others, and if that’s where you happen to shine, run with it. It’s one of the reasons that when social media swarmed to the forefront I said Yay… finally, something I’m good at. And obviously, Betsy, you have a touch. Good on ya.

  27. I have so longed to be someone’s inspriation. But, must it stop there?

  28. I’m sorry: I lied. you depressed fucking assholes need to pull your head out of your ass. Do you really think that you sad story hasn’t been written before? And once someone, hopefully a publisher, he he he ha ha ha, do you really think it is going to change your life in any significant way? So it all comes back to life itself, after all. Anyway, sorry Betsy, if I’m fuxking your shit up but I had to throw in one more rock-star to speak for me as I can’t seem to recreate the emotion that music, and screaming, creates, in my writing. I’m going to try to go with quiet and mysterious with lengthy descriptions of nature. God, I hate myself, but yes, I like this —

  29. PS. Do the numbers.

  30. Fuck. I forgot to tell my best joke. What’s wrong with people that only see shit in the world? They have their head up their ass. In all honesty, Betsy, if you want me to stay off your blog, just say so. I can take it, but it needs to come from you. But, really, if not, I’m really burned out. How can you listen to these people whine and make nothing beautiful with it. How can tragedy become beauty— now that’s a question. The naked truth of it? Is it beautiful or tragic? Boy, oh, boy. That’s the question. And Bang! Back to music. The boring and tragic becomes a story—poetry prose. Whatever, I’m sure your fans with try to disgrace me and complain again how they can’t write. I say to them, maybe you haven’t been paying attention to everything around you and everything that is said and then stop to think, without the Tv or the radio, what it means to you. My guess. Asshole, obviously. This is it! No more drive through, if it’s the last thing I do.

    • I’m pretty sure we’re not reading the same blog.

      • We never are.

        I knew it was too good to be true . . .

      • Questions from May 31 post: “If so, can you stop Jeff? Can you bring back Lynn LeJeune? Can you help me with my fucking screenplay.”

        It seems the answer is no on all counts.

    • I say we all make a pact to ignore Jeff’s comments.

      Always and forever.

      • Hm, I like Jeff. Communities are made up of all sorts of members, not just the self-selected ones. And as I said above, this is definitely an honest-to-god community with its own energy — that’s what I like about it and what keeps me coming back to hang on the fringes, even if I’m not quite a member of the Rotary.

        Every neighborhood needs its John the Baptist wearing a sandwich board. Live and let live.

      • No, I don’t want him to go either. I’m often entertained and by his comments. Sometimes I find food for thought. But if he wants to stay, he’s gonna half to learn to at least tolerate August and the rest of us. No need for personal remarks; that’s when things start to get ugly. And none of us has to read anybody else’s comments if we’ve determined we don’t like the person. Since the name comes at the beginning of the post, there’s plenty of warning, and we can just pass over them. Who has the time to read everybody’s remarks, anyway?

  31. A few weeks off a previous topic, but Design Sponge is having a discussion about traditional vs. online magazines, and mentioning Tina Fey’s new book with glowing praise. As much as I adore Tina Fey, I can’t buy the book, or even borrow it from the library, because of that hideous cover with the Man Hands!

  32. Oh Betsy I love this post. Once when you answered a question I sent you, some of the crowd got a bit riled up. After that a few dropped by my blog and they’re still there, reading my doodles, encouraging me as I stumble through a new life in France.

    They give me writing advice (one of your own authors in a really big way), they inspire me with their talent and one even sends me presents and cards and has become a good friend. So hate and rage all you want (you know who you are), I’ll take the warmth these kind souls offer me with an open heart and thank Betsy forever for it.


    • It never occurred to me when I first visited this blog looking for information about the publishing world (via a link from Maud Newton) that I’d end up with a circle of friends and what is essentially an online writers’ group.

      Thank you, Betsy, for the community you’ve built.

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