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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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They Say I Shot A Man Named Gray

I get through the revision of my screenplay this weekend. I am high for about ten minutes, take the dog for a walk. Pass a house with deluxe Halloween decorations, a spider’s web over the entire front entry way and porch, lights strung through trees, grave stones littering the lawn. Who has the energy let alone the cash for that crap? Then I think about dinner and  wonder if the brussels sprouts have gone bad.  Turning a corner, a family of four moves slowly up the block. Two small children on bright bikes  wearing helmets that dwarf their heads scrape their way along the pavement. The parents hold hands and I don’t feel my usual disdain. I realize that I have not changed the script enough. New tires but the same engine. I look down the street and see the pretty houses, lawns neat, the tyranny of shrubbery. Why do I feel like sobbing? A man rolls his recycling bin out to the sidewalk. Is anyone  waiting inside, is the kettle is on?  Why can’t I turn my eyes on my own work the way I do for the writers I work with?

Why is it so fucking hard to see your own work clearly?

48 Responses

  1. Because you’re too close to it. It’s hard to see clearly when you care too much. You need someone who’s not invested, who can see the kinks and can iron out the wrinkles. You need someone who you can trust with the heart of your work, someone who believes in you. You need a Betsy Lerner.

  2. “Why is it so fucking hard to see your own work clearly?”

    Clearly because it’s your own work.

    But what a great country, this America! With so much cash and so much energy for so much crap, we’re drowning in it. And Belgian meatballs for dessert!

  3. Two thoughts on this. I have no idea how people keep up with normal, everyday life. As a writer, I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m choosing an abnormal life, My apartment will have piles of books and papers everywhere, I’ll spend every minute I can at my computer, resenting the the hell out of the job that pays my rent, all for a hard-earned literary success that may never pay me a dime. Much will suffer. Balance will be scant. This drive to write and be published will dominate the majority of my time. That’s just the way it is. For some reason I can’t understand, I choose to accept it.

    As for seeing my own work, I can’t. I rely on critics, one paid and a couple not. I beg them to rip me. Without the help of other, trusted eyes, my work would suck. And continue to suck. All criticism is welcomed — encouraged — but at the end of the day, I decide what I take or leave.

    A neurotic writer, I’m the queen of revisions. Blogging doesn’t allow for that. Beginning my search for an agent, that can provoke anxiety.


  4. Because you know more than the reader does? (Webb)

  5. Betsy,

    It’s not your job to see your own work clearly.

    Just as it’s not your readers’ job to be told what they want to read.

    Give ’em what you got, and move on to the next piece.

    Or find another line of work, and make way for an up-and-comer who don’t make such a sport of second-guessing himself.


  6. On the slim chance you haven’t done so (and have the time), chuck it in the drawer and work on something else. Walk away.

    Nice Twombly.

  7. I think because for us, it’s not just “work.” They’re real people, real situations in our heads and it’s an intense battle doing them justice on the page. When I read other people’s stories, no matter how wonderful they are, they’re still just stories. When I read what I write, it’s a beating heart and I have the power to keep it pumping or to make a fatal move and quiet it.

    It’s a lovely burden, but a burden nonetheless.

  8. Can we see anything clearly, except in retrospect?

  9. Screw seeing your work, what I wouldn’t give to see myself clearly for five minutes. Then again, I might not like it. Still, I’d risk it …

  10. 1. Wouldn’t it be nice if mirrors worked like that? And what jerk thought up the magnifying mirror?

    2. But isn’t it fun when, weeks/months later you spot all those gems in something you wrote that you didn’t even know were there, didn’t even intend?

    • Not only do I occasionally find gems, I don’t even recognize them as mine. I’m like, “I wrote this? Really? Gee, maybe I should do this more often.”

  11. Okay, frustrations over editing one’s own work is bad enough, but what really disturbs me is that a decorated house on MY block has a naked toy baby doll wrapped up in the fake spiderwebs on their gate.

  12. Sometimes I feel like a blind woman when it comes to my own writing. But then I’ll get these bizarre bursts of clarity (usually right after I’ve sent my ms off to someone and can see, for a few minutes, what they’re seeing). It’s really hard. Agonizing, actually.

  13. Maybe we do see our own work clearly, through our personal lenses and filters.

    Unfortunately, most of us would like other people to read our stuff, and other people are equipped with their own personal lenses and filters.

    Sometimes the prescriptions match, sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, we’ve got some choices to make . . .

  14. Because just as we get more astute, our eyes worsen.

    Maybe it’s the weight placed on the actual rather than the mind’s eye?

  15. When I’ve spent too much time in the creator:editor hate-affair I tend to do lame stuff like bee-line to Target for holiday kitsch, and stuff my face with one of those dried out hotdogs they sell in the adjoining cafe.

    I know it’s a pretty candy-ass response, but the normative world is the only antidote for that cycle of doom. I seem to have a foot in both worlds, and I’ve finally decided that that’s okay.

  16. I don’t know but I think it has something to do with babies and umbilical cords.

  17. Oh a very good question this. I once was told by a family member that because I was a psychiatrist I didn’t have a right to be upset or angry, I should “know better”. Now how silly and unrealistic is that (especially in my wacky family)?

    Subjectivity and proximity are the issues. In my work I needed objectivity with the added bonus of distance. The same applies to writing and looking at your own ass in the mirror.

  18. It’s an unfortunate human condition. I call it the ‘mirror syndrome.’ What we see in the mirror (like our work) is utterly different to what others see. 😦

    One day the world’s scientists will discover a cure. Perhaps not in my lifetime.

  19. Because you’ve written on your skin, on your heart. It’s impossible to get out of there.

  20. My grandmother got new glasses recently, but won’t wear them. She says she liked it better when she did not know how many wrinkles she has or how dirty her windows are. Life was prettier through the wrong prescription.

    Maybe your prescription is off. And maybe that’s a good thing.

    • Your grandmother’s perspective brought back a warm memory: I first began wearing glasses in late December of the 4th grade. Initially, I marveled at the crisp shapes; amazed that I was not living in a landscape that mimicked an Impressionist painting. Then, once the exterior holiday lights were turned on, I was vastly disappointing to see that the fuzzy glows I had so enjoyed were now just hard little pricks of color. I learned in that moment that a sharp focus may not always be needed or desired.

  21. Because layered between the lines are all the dreams of what it should be, what it was intended to be when you first snatched it from the ether. But only you can see it.

    PS. Are brussel sprouts ever good ?

  22. I’m thinking maybe you did change it enough.

  23. I know what went into my work, what it means — will others be able to decipher it? Should they have to?

  24. I’ve read interviews with a host of successful authors who comment about their earlier work: I realize now that it wasn’t very good. Those writers don’t exhibit the doubt you and I have. Their confidence doesn’t mean our work is necessarily bad. When you find your voice and it is accepted, then you can replicate it easily! Your screenplay may be great, but you don’t have people telling you it’s great or, even, helping you recognize the things about it that are great. Once it’s accepted, you’ll recognize the qualities that make it good. Until then you will have doubts. Don’t try to guess what everyone else will think. Recognize your own voice in the work and go with it.

  25. Is that image Cy Twombly? Love that.

    Can you really not see what’s wrong with your own stuff? Or is it too exhausting to make it better? It’s so easy to see what’s wrong, to tell another writer where they’ve erred, but the work to improve it is so fucking hard.

    I look at whole books of mine that have been published–a year later and I think, oh, now I get it. I see what that could’ve been.

  26. You can’t see clearly because inside the head of every writer lives a pale little daemon, who covers your eyes with its hands when you look to the truth in your work. It means well, wanting you to write only the easy stuff, so you don’t have moments when the world seems to spin off axis and your mind starts cracking at the edges. It’s like your little self-protection daemon, and it doesn’t care much for art.

  27. I think it’s because you already know what you’re trying to say. The reader doesn’t. You’ve no means to test the strength of the signal because it originates with you.

    Recently I wrote an entire paragraph using pronouns without noticing that I’d never actually named a noun. It made perfect sense to me at the time.

  28. It is easy to be overly critical of our writing. There will always be some element that we could tweek ad infinitum. There comes a time when it’s okay to let it go. To give that baby a little pat and send it into the world. Nothing is every going to pristinely perfect in writing whether it’s a screenplay or book. There are always going to be okay sections, good sections, great sections, and brilliant sections. What comprises the whole of the body of the work, in the end, is what determines its quality. It’s like when we stare in the mirror. We tend to focus on the flaws and dismiss the good stuff.

  29. Simple, you’re a lousy writer, at least that’s what my muse keep telling me.
    As far as your street scene… until you’ve been truly crushed by tragedy, you won’t be able to appreciate the simpler things of life; the fake horror of Halloween, parents holding hands, the sweet smell of rotting Brussels sprouts. Stop trying so hard, just tell the damn story.

  30. Ach. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be. To be so incisive, insightful and gifted at bringing the best out of others’ manuscripts but to feel like you struggle with your own.

    To bring it down a notch – it’s like being a talented hairdresser to the stars but not be able to coiff and cut your own hair just as well. There are some hard to reach places when it’s just you, fixing you. Do you have a mega-talented hairdresser colleague who can give you a hand trimming the back of your head?

    (just make sure they don’t get the clippers out when you’re not looking)

  31. You’re right up against it. It’s like bringing your nose to a mirror and trying to see your face.

  32. I see my writing clearly. I don’t want it to be anything else but what it is. It’s like if someone wants to buy your house and then tells you what they want you to change for them. Go buy a different house. There are enough of them. But it’s also like when the little kid doesn’t want his vegetables and his mom says, “You should try one little bite. I’d hate to have you miss something you might really like.”

  33. For the same reason you cannot tickle yourself.

  34. There’s no such thing as objectivity, though it’s glorified.

    You may need more time away from the writing. My husband likes to say I have *all the time in the world* so I should be patient when it comes to producing something worthy — which I don’t always agree with (because when you’ve been dreaming of doing something for many years, you feel rushed). BUT I did just put down a piece for a little while and then the answer came to me when I was trying to catch some zzz’s on the catch next to my sleeping daughter.

    Just like that.

  35. Betsy, your musing almost feels like a dream to me.

    Maybe on your walk you realized that your screenplay, like the street and the people on it, was just too neat. Maybe it looked fine on the outside, but something in you intuitively knew there was something more, something still “brewing” on the inside, something you hadn’t quite been able to contact yet inside yourself.

    I like that you wanted to sob. Like you wanted to get to the core.

    I think that sometimes I sob because I’m afraid to write. Sometimes I write because I’m afraid to sob.

    How much easier it is to fine-tune someone else’s agony!

  36. At least you saw the problem. My fear is missing it.

  37. Only because I love being an asshole, and I don’t know why, you hit that vein and it just feels good somehow, but I would be more than happy to play college professor/writing instructor and point out that you mentioned young kids with over-sized helmets scraping the sidewalk. At first, I thought, that poor Betsy’s a sick bastard, and then I remembered that I had been watching too much T.V., T.V. which cannot survive without creating fear of some sort in people, so then I thought, Hmm, gee whiz Betsy, maybe you are worrying too much. It’s getting frosty out there among the trees and nut squirreling. I hope that went nice.

  38. Looking at my own work is like looking in a mirror, sometimes. If I’ve been looking at the same reflection for so many years, months, or days (depending on the project), just how do I notice the new tiny smile line or the other subtle things that are happening? But let me not get enough sleep, and those black marshmallows under my eyes jump out at me.

    It’s easy to see the stuff that needs to be taken out when it’s glaring. It’s the subtle stuff that seduces you into thinking that you have got it right. But sometimes, you *have got it right*, and you just need to make peace with it.

    I never forget Flaubert and his desire to make move the stars to pity, while all he ever saw himself doing was making bears dance.

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