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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I Need SOmeone To Love Me The WHole Day Through

Why do I get so grossed out when writers talk about their craft, their process, or worst of all: their art. In part, it sounds phoney to me, as if you could qualify, quantify, codify how you work. You’re a lucky bastard if you’re any good at all and that’s all you need to know. Do we really give a shit if you write long hand or on a computer, or god forbid a Olivetti 400. These aren’t cars. I also think that writing is completely mysterious; you never know when the hell you’re going to make a break-through or when the words will dry up and float away like new year’s paper. My process is I smear shit on the walls and watch it dry. My process is I jerk off then I write. Sometimes twice. I take Haldol and Immodium and compose. I starve myself for three days. I talk to my dogs. I do a full body groom. Who cares how many drafts you wrote as if writing more drafts makes you better, when, in fact, it might mean  you’ve still got your training wheels on. Who cares if you shifted from first to third. Who’s on first? Who cares if you cut half your pages. Double down! I’d rather look inside your sock drawer, your medicine cabinet, your bank account. I’d like to see the condiments you keep. Then I might have a clue about how you write.

What about you?

82 Responses

  1. “Craft” is the word that gets the most play at my house. When I’m being particularly obnoxious about, well, any of the topics I get obnoxious about, he’ll say something like “Don’t you need to go work on your craaaaft?”

    Also, where do I sign up for the part of the neurosis where I starve myself for three days? Because I, while immersed in the throes of my craaaaft, usually end up eating the stale protein bars we keep in the utility drawer for when the zombies come, or the limp equivalent from the crisper drawer, if pressed.

    I’m having neurotic craaaaaft envy.

  2. Wait, did I say neurosis? I meant process, of course.

  3. “No right turn on red.”

  4. /Users/rea/Desktop/images.jpeg

  5. My sign, an agonizing happiness. It hurts, to think people might read it, perhaps, but I know god-damned well it’s good. Damn-it, Betsy! I wanted to play DJ again on your last post and in my next check-in you had already moved it forward. Weird as it seems, my little DJ play might play better here. I’m gonna post it, original Red Hot Chili Peppers, meaning first try, which I think is the best, but in the mean time, I have an unbelievably heart-felt plot going, for me. Thing is, I had to shuck-off the rest of the world, including my family, which, due to my little ass-hole brother killing himself almost two years ago now, can’t it just be over?, it took an unmeasurable emotional revolution: I’ve created a world that has nothing to with anybody but me. I’m writing a book that I would like to read. I’ll try not to be crass, but I’m sure people pay $800 dollars to hear that sentence. Anyway, as always, I can’t help but say you’re the best, and I hope I can make you some money some day, but in the mean time, good Red Hot Chili Peppers—first try:

    • O.K. Damn-it, two: First tries: I know it might not seem the same thing, but it very much is. Books are music to people’s brains. Thank you, Betsy.

      • PS. Tell me Betsy, please, you don’t really smear shit on your walls, right? My girlfriend, just in the last couple of hours threw an empty vitamin bottle at our new cat, the neighbor abandoned him, hit him right in the head, tossed it, I should say, while he was eating some dry food, I think that is not right. She laughed her ass off. That’s not right, right? Or is that a girl thing?

      • Hurting animals is never a laughing matter – for either gender. Please, today, take the cat to a rescue group where it will find a loving home.

      • I believe harming animals (and enjoying it) as a child is a sign of being a sociopath. As an adult it’s a sign you need a new relationship. Or get that poor cat out of there, Jeff.

      • Oh. You’re still here.

  6. I have 2 overstuffed sock drawers: one white and one “other.”. In the med cabinet, a brand new Flonase, giant Advil bottle, green earplugs from Walgreens, 2 shelves of beauty-shit, lots of sunscreen that I forget to use. Condiments? I’m simple, catsup and mustard and light mayo, a half jar of jalapenos. $11 in my wallet.

    What was the question?

  7. I find it all mildly interesting. Unless someone says they write one perfect draft and had an agent before they even finished it. Then they can go fuck themselves. Talk to the hand.

    • Leaves of Grass?

      • Leaves of Grass? He was an idiot and then the gods opened up the sky and told him what to write? He didn’t have a feeling that he might have something to say that people might want to hear? Not to curl you pipe, and possibly your spine, from the sound of you, but you might want to consider the word agent, and agency. Wow, that was so sophomoric Agent? Poetry? Writing? Are you sure about this? Do you have a story to tell? I’m sorry if that was mean. I’m a little tired.

      • It WAS mean.

  8. a year after we got married, we moved into a bungalow that was across the street from a gas station, DQ and liquor store (location, location, location). every saturday after thanksgiving, we’d throw one of those parties with people doing shots in the kitchen and smoking joints in the bedroom. the morning after one such party, i walked by our only bathroom and noticed the mirror sticking out from the wall. “What the…” i thought, only to discover that our bathroom mirror was the front to a medicine cabinet we didn’t know existed. it was nearly flush with the wall and you had to push on the right side to open it. after living there for more than two years, it took a party full of drug addicts to find it for us.

    thank god somebody tried to root through our medicine cabinet. instead of continuing to stuff my nightstand drawer with bottles of darvocet and percoset and lortab and xanax and valium (and probably some zoloft around this time–three years into my marriage seems about right) i had a proper place to put my drugs. it was a christmas miracle.

    i only think of mac-n-cheese when i hear the word craft.

  9. Ooh, condiments. If I say, are you going to offer your professional diagnosis? Okay, from memory, in the door shelves of the refrigerator: caperberries, four kinds of mustard, sesame-ginger salad dressing (random, I always make vinaigrette from scratch), Bubbies pickles, pitted kalamata olives, two kinds of pepperoncini (whole and sliced), martini olives that no one uses for martinis, truffle oil that came in a gift basket and I can’t bring myself to use even though I love the idea because it smells like feet, julienned sun-dried tomatoes, unsalted butter…there’s more, but if I’m bored of it you MUST be.

  10. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I love reading about what other writers do. It puts my own neuroses into perspective. How else would I know to mistrust writers who claim to be happy and to love the whole process? Hmm? It’s part of my process, obsessing over other people’s. Lucy

  11. I’m a Libra. That probably tells you anything you need to know about me.

  12. I don’t understand my condiments. Some are hand me downs. Some are just interlopers. If it’s Thai, I didn’t put it there.

  13. Also: people who talk about craft generally do not talk about art and when they do, they don’t mean art the way one who doesn’t ever talk about craft means art. Don DeLillo has been asked about working on the manual typewriter and he says that he likes the sculptural feel of the letters forming on the paper, being almost carved I suppose. He also said, there is a truth at the end of every good sentence and that’s what you’re writing toward. You don’t know it until you get there. And if you can talk easily about your work then it likely hasn’t come from deep enough, because some of it is always a mystery. “Here is a map of the world: it is seven shades of blue.”

    I’ll shut up now.

    • Don D. penned one of the few books I actually threw across the room after reading. But what he says here sounds intelligent…

  14. I like to translate writer-speak to reality. For example:

    “These characters continue to surprise me” = I think I’m an awesome writer.

    “Once I heard her voice, I knew I had to tell her story” = I think I’m an awesome writer.

    Betsy’s right that talking about process isn’t personal unless we’re willing to be honest and actually share something. My deep shame is sometimes I like what I write. Sometimes I think, despite being told that I am nothing special, that I actually am worthy of sharing my ideas with the world. There are entire days where I don’t loathe myself or my work, but I downplay that when I meet other writers.

    • Dude, everyone likes what they write sometimes. The key word there is sometimes. For me, it’s the stuff that I think is the ne plus ultra that always ends up on the cutting room floor.

      • That’s what I’m afraid of! That I might like it too much, like those people who think they’re awesome but aren’t.

  15. I think a look in the underwear drawer would tell you far more. Built for speed or comfort? Are the waistbands stretched out with those damn elastic bits shredded but still going wash after wash despite an oath to throw them out the next time they come through the cycle? Hanes, Fruit of the Loom or Victoria’s Secret? Color, printed or white.dingy gray? Commando?
    Everything you ever wanted to know about a person is in their underwear drawer.

    The words Process, Craft, and Show Don’t Tell chill me to the bone. Manufactured and pompous.

    Disclaimer: This does not stop me from reading every single Paris Review Interview.

  16. When writers discuss craft or “how to” it’s because it’s seemingly safe blog content. We are introverts who have been told repeatedly that we must, MUST, socialize online. That our blogs MUST be relevant. That we should consider that space like it’s a job interview because a potential editor could at any time breeze past our space and go sifting through our dirty laundry. I doesn’t feel possible to open the door in your bra and panties until AFTER you’ve established something. Otherwise you’re just crazy and strange–you’ll probably be difficult to work with…PASS.

    So we struggle like uninvited guests at a cocktail party trying to find something to say, clutching a sweaty Coke (because getting drunk in front of these people would mean days and days of anxiety riddled remorse.) We are supposed to be calm and professional, self assured and confident and yet maintain a clear sense of our own limitations and somehow convey this in interesting, engaging and frequent blog posts.

    And while I agree, yes, people’s dirt is soooo much more interesting than craaaft. I totally get why aspiring writers are playing it safe. Honestly I think many, if they thought they could still get away with it, would rather not talk about anything publicly beyond what is already written in their books.

    • This was my first thought, as well. So many author blogs about the writing/publishing process it makes me want to scream. But it is safe and the only people reading them regularly are other wannabes or debut authors who comment on each other’s blog posts so they’ll return the favor. Forget about about actual readers.

      The thing that irritates me most is that they think they actually have something interesting to say about writing when they have one YA novel under their belts.

      Anyone else see galley cat or something voted Franzen as worst performance of an author in a book video? But he’s actually interesting and thoughtful when he talks about what he was trying to do, what he thinks the novel is meant to be. I know people hate him, but when someone smart talks about writing, I find it fascinating.

      • I comment on blog posts because someone engages me, interests me, and I want to let them know. I could give a fig (isn’t that a quaint expression) whether or not they return the favor as it were. I am not looking for a brand just some friends who enjoy reading books, and/or writing in any form.

        Yes, I think I have something to say, and to irritate further I don’t have any books under my belt. Commando, baby!

        Franzen. I’ve been there while he’s being interviewed and he’s a class act. Thoughtful, yes. I think people mistake his confidence and circumspect-ness aas being a prick, but he was nothing of the sort.

      • Okay, yes, I made a few blanket statements there. I’m grumpy this a.m. Obviously, I meant people less interesting than you, Lyra.

      • Both of my friends agree. I’m fascinating.
        One of them even has a cool purse website, name brands for cheap, cheap!

      • Nice dig. Just how many YA books would I have to write for you to consider me interesting? Or does writing YA automatically rule me out forever?

  17. You’d be very confused if you looked in my sock drawer, Betsy. One minute it’s full of SmartWool, the next, it’s those 9 packs of Costco Dry Fit. And my medicine cabinet is running low on my late mother-in-law’s stash of klonopin, so I’m investigating the herbals. St. John’s Wort and the like. I’m not big on paradigm.

    Writing practice, writing schmactice. The preciousness–the way we covet our own shit–is what drives me to the hard stuff. And yet, I have to admit, I’ve uttered the word “craft” a time or two myself.

  18. Ass in chair. Write. Repeat.

  19. And since I’m playing DJ against book writers, today, life gives many shocking turns, but in the meantime, Jeff playing DJ, and capturing the sense of a good book, and whether you like it or not and by not liking you will get rich, but well, melt. for a day, and if a good book doesn’t do that to you you’re probably thinking about how you can get in with the mob or a monastery. Trust me, you don’t want to go with the monastery, they fear nothing. As a love for Betsy::

  20. Call me a loser. I like talking shop.

  21. I would rather talk of wanking or gardening than writing any day.

  22. My process is I sit my ass down and write. That usually does the trick.

  23. Isn’t it ironic (cue Alanis Morissette) that, after Betsy essentially declares “Writing is mysterious and there isn’t much we can say about it,” a number of us tried to say something about it? Crafty as usual, Betsy didn’t explicitly invite us to say anything about writing per se. This time I’ll take her at her word and answer: My sign is Cancer, but I don’t see how that matters; my medicine cabinet is like my sock drawer, tidy and pretty spartan.

    Now back to my writing…

  24. Proof that we matter before we disappear.

  25. Golly! I enjoy hearing anything other writers say about how they work. Especially my students. It is mysterious. When people can describe how they think, what thought prompted what idea, and how they got to that thought; I love them! And it is interesting to try to track it down and share it with another. I teach craft, so talk about it all the time; and I love to discuss what the art part of it is. Sometimes writers sound a bit off base, or off guard, and can ring pretentious, but it only bothers me when everything about them is pretentious. Of course, I love to read books about mysticism too. If writers bug you, dip into some books about people talking to God. Try the book of Moses again. Those are some far reaching claims!

    • Hi, alice,

      The piece I’ve been working on the past couple of months is a book-length fiction, somewhat fantastical but not overly so. Before I started composing, I laid out a general plot and short character sketches. As I’ve been creating the work, some aspects of that plot and those sketches have changed. Not all of the characters I thought were going to be in the book have found a place therein; not all of the qualities of the characters who do appear have remained as I initially wrote them; even the general plot has undergone some significant changes as the work has progressed.

      As I’ve been creating the work, it has developed its own internal logic as it has grown. Part of the necessary logical constraints within which it grows are tonal; they come both from the initial assumptions of what the work would be and who I would like to read it, and from the choices I have made in the words to use and the ways in which to use them. Another part of the internal logic is a matter of my asking myself why a character has a certain trait, and then digging deeper than I may initially have done to bring out more fully the nature of that trait. Yet another part of the internal logic is asking myself what might happen next given what I have already written, the natures of the characters, and the general direction of the plot.

      I always keep in mind that I must control my material without suffocating it. What might logically happen next at any point in the story has to have qualities of both spontaneity and inevitability. To be able to achieve that mixed state is probably easier for writers with more experience of writing, just as the ability to play a musical instrument increases with practice. Another aspect of the necessary control is being sure I don’t make choices that will lead the work wandering off too far from the main plot line and necessitate a long trip back, as there are length constraints to this particular book I’m fashioning. While I’m wanting to put enough meat on the story’s bones to make a hearty meal, I have no interest in causing the dining table to collapse under the weight of a massive dead beast.

      One of the most delightful aspects of creating this work has been that of discovery. I know it’s my work, and everything that’s in it I put there, but in the writing of the story, in the answering of the questions, “What could happen next?” or “What could have happened to this character previously?”, I’ve had the experience of discovering the story as it unfolds in front of me.

  26. LOL. Get outta my head. Spot on and all that jazz. As Tuco famously says in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when bathing in a bubble-bath and this one-armed yahoo breaks in to shoot him but sands there spouting this soliloquy on how he waited eight months to track him down after Tuco shot off his other arm and learned to shoot with his left hand so he could enjoy this moment, Tuco answers by shooting him through the bubbles. He nails the doink then says: ‘when you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.’ To paraphrase the writing process: ‘when you have to write, write. Don’t talk about it.’

  27. Talking about writing feels to me like getting a gynecological exam at Grand Central by fellow passengers.

  28. I can document the contents of my medicine cabinet, list the condiments in my frig, but I can’t, with any honesty or precision describe the stories I have yet to tell. I can only take the training wheels off and write.

  29. Recently, I attended a literary event that included the dreaded tradition of “let’s ask everyone to state their name and tell the group about yourself”. Most of the published authors identified themselves only via their books; several of the unpublished authors told us more about their latest WIP than themselves and the prominent university administrator made a point of insulting one attendee as she introduced her wonderful self. Pretty much a masked ball without the costumes – quite depressing. I like costumes.

    Similarly, attempting to explain one’s creative process is fraught with guessing the perspective of the listener: does anyone really want to know you outline your plots while you’re cleaning the oven? is it worth sharing the daily ritual of selecting a random word out of the dictionary for inclusion in your writing? or do you make sure you are seen twirling on a mountain top in creative delight? Aren’t most inquiries just seeking validation that the creative process is a mysterious blend of talent, effort, the fates and a dash of courage? I’ve never asked anyone ‘how they write’ – but I’m always interested to learn why they write: that reveals to me the depth of the writer’s dedication.

  30. The medicine cabinet: vitamins, face stuff and outdated makeup. My sock drawer: everything from Champion 10 for $6 to handmade lambswool. What does that make me? Undecided?

  31. Hmmm, I may never talk about my typewriter (which, for the record, is a blue IBM SelectricII, and kicks a fair amount of ass) ever again. Certainly never in an Ann Arbor restaurant when trying to look cool in front of the visiting lecturers…

  32. Sorry I’m late, I’ve been frantically flushing the contents of my medicine cabinet and then I had to rush out and buy some new knickers in case any of you dropped by unexpectedly.

    • Roar!!

    • I actually did catch someone in my panty drawer when we were selling a house in Finland. They weren’t even embarrassed. I tried to slam their fingers, but the drawer wouldn’t shut fast enough. I have dozens of those stories and now, lots of keys. Bet you won’t read that in the Frommers guide.

  33. You edited after posting. Is that cricket?

  34. […] have a gigantic reader base since they might not care to receive this award (so I can’t mention Betsy Lerner or my cousin Emily or my former student Chinaka or that woman who got famous for her post about […]

  35. Me-thinks the agent has been around writers too long.

    I suspect this is a common problem. They loathe us and our squishy concerns about beauty, craft and all the rest because they come attached to the job.

    But these things are real and serve as worthy points of focus in a world filled with people hell-bent on doing the worst imaginable things to themselves and others.

    Yes, there is a point where nothing is new under the sun and the same art talk that once thrilled you makes you want to, er, um, write today’s post. And that’s a dangerous point to reach.

    Mock it as pretentious, but I have chosen the production of beauty as a calling. I have attained the ephemeral state before, and live to do so again.

    ART.

  36. Funny how no one ever asks how I do tax returns. Like, do I make copies of all the papers a client hands me, then put together neat workpapers before turning to the computer? Or do I just shuffle through and dive right into input?

    Yeah, writing process is about as interesting to me as how someone prepares taxes. I don’t really care. Just show me how much tax the guy owes and we’re good. Show me something I want to read and make me like it and I don’t care if you wrote it on the back of a Big Mac box.

    That said, people who don’t write seem fascinated by it all. Which is why I make stuff up to sound more pensive writer and less deadline hair/coffee oozing from pores/only ate donuts out of a sack from the grocery writer.

  37. It is not fascinating. It is problematic. The trying to show you and the getting you to like it. The writing part is like falling off a log.

  38. I just read this quote from a Slate article about Elizabeth Taylor:

    Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the Brad and Angelina of their day, minus all that the earnest actor-ish stuff. A movie actress her entire life, she was so confident about her ability to deliver her lines that she never descended into all that gobbledygook—it’s about “the craft” and “the work”—which spouts from the mouths of contemporary actors. Dick always claimed that his wife, with her just-shut-up-and-say-the-bloody-words attitude toward acting, relieved him of the burden of his Shakespearian provenance and taught him how to just do it.

    That woman hit the karmic jackpot when she was born, and spent her winnings well.

  39. Greetings from Idaho! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to browse your website on my iphone during lunch break. I love the knowledge you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.
    I’m surprised at how fast your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .
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  40. […] should be, I got up to blog about summer reading. I ended up stopping off at Betsy Lerner’s blog and cracked up. It started off like this: Why do I get so grossed out when writers talk about their […]

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