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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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It’s Hard To Get By Just Upon a Smile

Guys, it’s here. My article in Poets and Writers. I don’t think you can actually read it on-line. If you go buy it, it’s the issue with the four agents on the cover called, “The Game Changers.” Seems just a touch inaccurate since I wasn’t part of the photo shoot.  It’s a picture of four hot, young agents. I think a better cover would have been a collage of me: at five cutting with scissors, me reenacting the Carrie bathroom scene with my bunkmates at camp, then me, again, ironically as prom queen, then me accepting a poetry prize in 1978 for a poem I still don’t understand.

That’s me in Greece. That’s me at the Tate writing another bad poem. Here I am riding up the elevator on my first day of work at Simon and Schuster! I’m soooo nervous.  That’s me being driven around in the Hollywood Hills by an author high out of her fuck on cocaine playing LA Woman. What a cliche! But perfect as they go. Here’s me at the National Book Awards shaking hands with Jonathan Franzen’s mother. Me, smoking a doob with Mrs. Franzen and James Franco. How did that get in there?

Game changer? You never saw a girl more excited than me to get a job in publishing, to sit in a cubicle and clear permissions for some asshole, to copy manuscripts, and type up letters, and answer phones, and fetch a bottle of water for an author no one’s ever heard of.  You never saw a girl so happy to work until seven or eight every night, schlepping manuscripts home to read late into the night, who got rid of her tv, because like heroin, it would ruin her. I was so shy I couldn’t even sneak into the shrimp and wine parties S&S had when books hit the list. If you asked me what I thought, I blushed. Game changer? I was glad I could change my underwear. I’m lucky because everywhere I went, a mentor appeared and helped me. I found my passion early, it took longer to find my way.

Do you have a mentor?

68 Responses

  1. (Laugh) The Fates intervened and I was introduced to a retired journalist who likes my efforts and has dubbed herself Literary Dominatrix. It’s not what some may think/hope: weekly progress reports and scheduled meetings to review The Work; critiques of query letters, characters and dialogue, plus suggestions of agencies to contact and recently, an invitation to join a literary group. I’m so grateful for this friendship and interest. I strive to be worthy of this gift.

  2. My partner of 50 yrs. He’s a full professor of Eng. Lit. and doesn’t mind helping me rephrase awkward sentences. He’s a hot chili professor to his students. They love him to pieces. He mentors them as well.

  3. John Rechy is my mentor. Urged me to give sorrow words. Told me that relatable is rubbish. To write the wicked down, the despicable awful frightening wicked. To facinate. That everything is fiction finally. Everything.

  4. I think I just fell in love with you. I’ll come back and address your question after I’ve slept it off (with my wife–don’t breathe a word!)

  5. No, I’ve never had a mentor. For some reason, my asshole tendencies always get in the way of that. I’m still working on this issue.

  6. I’m with you, Virginia. No. The writers of my favorite books fill that spot. And my peeps. You know who you are.

    I recently became a mentor, though. I was glad she asked.

  7. one of my mentors died this week. he had a big laugh. how do you make a poet? (ho ho ho). what is sacred? profane? are they interchangeable?

  8. My problem is that I’m ineluctably drawn to smart, neurotic women who lead strong and then fade to black when it gets important. (Thanks, Mom.) But, yeah, I’ve had a couple of mentors. “Had” being the operative word in that sentence. Because at the end of the day, we all die alone.

  9. from mentors to cunnilingus. sacred? profane?

    • Averil bait.

      (I’m not clear on what a mentor is, really. An successful person you try to make responsible for your failure? If so, I don’t have one yet, but I’m working on it.)

      • I want your ugly, I want your disease
        I want your everything as long as it’s free …

        When I saw Betsy’s post, I thought, oh how sweet. She saw my wistful eyes outside the glass door yesterday and laid one up for me. (Yes, it’s all about me.)

        I don’t know exactly what a mentor is in the writing world. As a photography mentor, my role was mostly pointing out the obvious. (Crank up your ISO, buy a decent lens, don’t you see there’s a tree growing out the top of your subject’s head?)

        A writing mentor could perhaps tell me whether an erotic thriller could resemble a Dead Zone/Basic Instinct lovechild involving a reluctant femme fatale wielding an ice pick, or whether it would need to go the Porne Identity route. In return, the hypothetical mentor is showered with ego-inflating adulation and pictures of naked women.

        Of course, he does get saddled with the failures of the mentoree. That goes without saying.

    • i’m shooting for magnificent failure myself. it has a certain cachet, no?

  10. Many. They just don’t know it.

  11. People mentor me on how to be. Then I write about what really happens.

  12. I got $50 says it was Braverman in LA.

  13. Maybe that’s what took me so long to write a novel! I was mentor-less. Now I have an agent and I’m hoping he mentors me into a long career in which I get to write all the novels I’d like to write. And maybe even earn enough money to paint our kitchen. Or at least buy new handles for the cabinets. Okay, I’d settle for some nice linen tea towels.

  14. Read and enjoyed your article in Poets & Writers. My last issue unless I extend my subscription. A sign from above that I should re-up.

  15. I need a mentor. I am a mentor to many.
    Bets, this is a lovely autobiography. Poignant and angry. Why are you not still with James Franco?
    Our child just came across a film made by Dave Eggers of Franco tearing up a volume of Prize Stories:The O. Henry Awards. Unwatchable, but it did have a certain appeal around here.
    You are a hot young agent.

  16. Chirrup! Who needs mentors when you’ve got peeps.

    • That was supposed to be a reply to my peep-in-arms, Teri.

      • What I need is a mentor for how to comment on these blogs. Very complex, this is.

        A couple of years ago, one of those 40-under-40 writers offered to give me any help I might need. I knew she was serious when she wrote “I never try to create more work for myself, but I’m serious about that.” Then she moved out of town and got even more famous and busy — at this point I’d feel like I was bothering her.

        Being the potential mentoree makes me feel like August said above, that I want some successful person be responsible for my failures. I won’t even ask my own husband to get a can off of a high shelf – I’d rather fall off the skinny chair trying to nab it and then lie about how I broke my wrist in the fall.

      • But I meant it as a good thing. I want to fall and break someone _else’s_ wrist. There’s probably gendery point to be made.

  17. Sigrid Nunez and Elizabeth Strout, in person and on the page. Oh, and how about Virginia Woolf? Should I write out my mentor shelf? Is there a day that passes that I don’t consult with one of them? Willa Cather, Alice Munro, T.C Boyle, Abigail Thomas, Anton Chekov, James Dickey, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Dan Chaon, Bobbi Ann Mason, Tim O’Brien, . . . . How about Deborah Eisenberg and Jack Driscoll?

  18. After that I don’t think I need to read the article. I love collage.

    I’ve been craving a mentor who is just right.

  19. I’ve had some short-term mentors, but I often find myself at three in afternoon, out of coffee, wide-eyed, and no one to tell me how to manage a book-length work.

  20. No writing mentor at the moment, but I have to say I’m impressed by Betsy’s line “I found my passion early, it took longer to find my way.” I kinda feel I’m always finding my way. Which I hope is because I’m still learning, still undertaking new things, and still trying to improve at the old things.

  21. First, it’s great that your article is in Poets and Writers, but even cooler that you’re so excited about it.

    Along the way I’ve had some encouragement from people I respect and lots of advice from people who have trouble distinguishing their poop chute from the Grand Canyon, but I’ve never had a mentor.

  22. “Mentor,” no, not really, not a true mentor. But four teachers who had a sometimes telling, sometimes significant, and sometimes profound impact on me, and without whose influence and guidance I would not be the man and the artist I am. It’s time for me to name names. In chronological order:

    The late Sgt. Charles Randleman, USA (Ret.), program advisor when I was a young officer cadet. He taught me to be careful about shooting off my mouth.

    The late Professor David Hall, whose knowledge and enthusiasm inspired me to major in philosophy as an undergraduate, which course of study taught me how to read and how to think.

    Christy Johnson, an artist who now lives and teaches in London. She opened my eyes and mind to forms of artistic creation I was dreadfully unaware of for a putatively educated man who fancied himself some sort of artist. Though time and distance have since pulled us apart, we were good friends for a while and I owe her much.

    Gordon Lish, who was an overwhelming experience, a force of nature. He shattered my old self and gave me the tools to assemble a new and better version. For five years he was my first reader. Without his instruction and guidance, I would never have been able to write the stories I’ve been able to write since I studied with him. And more than teaching me how to write, he taught me how to live.

    • I re-read that, and I guess I’d have to say that Gordon was a mentor. Walks, flies, and quacks like a…, etc. I don’t know if he knew. Seems I didn’t.

  23. Not anymore, but I paid this guy once to mentor me via the internet who insisted I address him as DOCTOR during our correspondence. Started out as I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, and ended in an abortion.

  24. Betsy, this is what success looks like. You are more uncomfortable wearing it than identifying with the sweet young thing who started you on your way. Mentors or not, you do not get to where you are without bucketloads of talent and literary/emotional intelligence. You might not be God, but around these parts you come pretty close.

    No mentor for me, but the right workshop instructor at the right time (Elaine Edelman at the Writer’s Voice, West Side Y), who gave me the permission and the tools I needed to get on with it. I’d pore over her comments while I rode the 104 bus home as if they were newfound biblical scrolls. She had a genius for understanding what you were capable of and the one or two things that would transform a piece.

  25. No, no one in my circle could really help anyway. I did have someone call me and ask how it’s done because she is going to write a book too. She called me the next week to tell me she hasn’t sat down and written it yet.

  26. now that you mention it, there is something i wanted to ask you…

  27. I don’t – I only wish for one. I came to writing later in life, and when you have another career (Oh, I did have some great mentors in that I guess), and a family (and you have long ago stopped thinking that maybe your husband will be the kind to actually read your work and give you feedback), it is not as easy to stumble upon one.

    So I pluck mentorship from the trusted blogs of those in the trenches (yes, I love you Betsy!), and hope my critique group steers me right.

    I also think that I will happen upon a mentor as I get further along in a professional writing life. We can always dream…..

  28. No. But I do have an opening for one….

    (ps – this blog is a game changer.)

  29. Hot damn, today’s mail brought the latest P&W, with the four hot young things on the cover. Freshmeat, just the way we likes ’em in America. Fuck yeah! USA!

    Betsy, on a more sober note, I am looking forward to reading your article.

  30. I’ve had plenty of mentors, two of them truly wonderful. I’ve been lucky. I just didn’t listen to them when I should’ve. But I think it’s better to make your own mistakes and figure things out for yourself than to live by advice, right? (Please say yes.)

  31. I’m not sure he’d cop to it, but Reid Buckley.

    He’s the younger brother of William F. Buckley Jr., and despite my far left-wing politics and his conservative pedigree, Reid and I hit it off when I attended a public speaking seminar he puts on down in Camden, South Carolina.

    Although his ouvre is “widely unread” (to quote his nephew Christopher Buckley), Reid’s works are totally outside the box and unique for me. He and I share a deep passion for Spain, Flamenco, and all things Iberian. His support and kind words for my novel “Vedette” sustain me, even if I don’t sit around bemoaning how hard it is to be a writer.

    It’s just good to have a smart friend on your side.

    Congratulations on the article in “Poets and Writers.” I came to your blog through an interview I read in the “ASJA Monthly.”

  32. I just got my P&W yesterday and hadn’t looked in it yet, so I didn’t know you had an article. Very cool!

    I had a mentor in college. He introduced me to (reading) people like Gay Talese and showed me what journalism/nonfiction could be. He returned my stories sometimes with more of his own ink than mine. When I write things now, I still wonder what he would think, and I think he’ll always be part of my inner editor.

  33. well, They should have put you on the cover . I was mentored by a epic poet and two extreamly young novelist that were half my age.

  34. I guess I’ll be hanging out in the public library soon, to read your article. What pricked my heart and drove a car-wash brush into my mind was your use of the word cliche. I hate that word. If, for instance, we accept the phrase there is nothing new under the sun, why, do we condemn cliche? That’s crazy making. So, the word, for me, has no meaning, cliche, other than to say someone is trying to be smarter than they really are, by using the word cliche (is my cheap-ass education paying off?) ((50,000 ain’t cheap to me, but that’s another story.)) To foreshadow a cliche is to say everyone is stupid, and I, now that I’ve been edumakated, need to show you the way. The way to what? God, I hate that word. I think all writers should do sub-writing, as I’ve recently read it was called, to destroy the word cliche, and set our people free!

    Mentors, for now, Betsy Lerner, and life itself. Which, as of now, is a strange and interesting combination for me. The only problem I have with Betsy Lerner is that I am losing my jokes. I don’t want to be funny anymore. I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Good and bad, that’s another story. Fuck. I just can’t stay away. Damn-it.

    • PS. Fuck the French, they wouldn’t exist without us boring English speakers. Don’t get me started as a laymen historian. Unless, of course, someone knows something I don’t. If so, I’d like to hear it. If you are using the word cliche. God, I hate that word. I’ve seen too many writers shut up for it, and that word means absolutely nothing. It’s an attempt at a grotesque social hierarchy. Thus spreakeths, Jeff. Thanks Betsy! Sorry for any offense!

  35. An experienced and trusted adviser. No, I don’t recall any. I just like to write. If I ever sell my novel, I’ll be more surrprised than you. Maybe not. I like to read “nice” novels, so that’s what I write. My heroines don’t get bit in the neck while making love, and my heroes don’t get pounded by the underworld every 10 pages. And even worse, my poetry is humorous (you’re kidding!) and it rhymes (say it isn’t so!). By the way, I broke down and bought your Trees book. So far, I don’t see myself. I’m too laid back, i guess.

    And so it goes. . .


    • I didn’t see myself in “Trees” either, although that didn’t keep me from enjoying the book. My novel in progress is just people sitting around eating and talking. And since I don’t write about food at all well (and forget to mention what anyone is eating half the time), it’s mostly people sitting around talking. I have no illusions (delusions?) about its marketability, and I find that that is a happy place to be.

    • Yeah. I write ‘nice’. No one is interested. And my life is too weird for me to even imagine paranormal. I mean those things I saw in the sky? And those marks on my neck? Why make stuff like that up?

  36. I wonder if that’s partly what writers hope for in agents. Never occurred to me before, but maybe for us mentor-less millions, an agent is the closest thing we can hope for. Finding one person who believes in you and wants to help, I imagine that’s a huge relief, probably feels better than having a small tepid audience.

  37. I just got my copy yesterday. Great article! I thought I’d read about that whole process every which way a million times over the last few years. But you really gave me a whole new perspective. And I love that you got your blog voice in there.

  38. Yeah, the written word is my main source. But am excited about seeing Alice McD again at Sewanee this summer. At the strangest times my lightbulb goes on and I suddenly get what she said a few years ago.

  39. Loved your recent article in Poets & Writers. Thanks for your humor and all the great tips! Mandy Berlin

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