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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 a Wonder That you Still Know HOw to Breathe

Today, a client described the feeling of waiting for his book to come out in the new year. “One minute I know nothing’s going to happen, it’s already over.  And the next minute I’m winning the Pulitzer.” I’m not going to say the truth is probably in the middle because more likely than not nothing will happen, another worthy book will slip beneath the waves, or as a writer once said of publishing a book, it’s like carrying a bucket of water to the sea.

We can talk about the terrible odds of getting recognition. We could also talk of the writer’s ego, the grandiosity and the insecurity, the hopelessness and magical thinking. Or we can talk about the opening night jitters, the complete and total lack of control over whether you will be reviewed at all, and if so what will be said, and then, of course, will it sell.

I ask my client what he’s working on. It’s a sleight of hand question to distract him from the oncoming traffic, but I also think that a new project is the hair of the dog and the only way to move on, move forward, to understand that this one book is just that: this one book. It does not a career make (unless you are Harper Lee). Or, like me, you can continue to shamelessly flog a ten year old book. I’ve seen embittered writers who swear off ever writing a book again, write again.

I don’t think it’s about the triumph of the human spirit. In fact, the desire to keep writing and publishing is more likely a triumph of human perversion. I want to know: does it ever get easier. Does a writer ever say, I’m good. Or, I’m happy. Or is that for other people?

67 Responses

  1. One of my first writing teachers told his story: he had had a breakdown because whatever he did, he mastered, rose to the top, game over. His therapist had a solution: become a writer. “You’ll never feel that you’ve mastered it.”

  2. A writer who can admit to being good and happy is one who is working for the work’s sake, not dramatizing a self-image of Suffering Artist. And in the next moment, Bad and Unhappy will offer themselves again as a blankey of the familiar, to rub the cheek with while thumb-sucking. And so what? It is possible to be deeply at home and beyond happy and good even when unhappy and self-doubting. There is a Quiet that doesn’t care. From there, the Next Words come roiling out of nowhere like the shadow of a wheeling flock of starlings across a frozen trashheap.

  3. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll attend an end-of-semester reading with the 8 high school students I’ve been volunteer teaching. Poets and storytellers all. It’s an alternative school (a last-chance place for troubled kids), but these young writers show up in my writing lab every Tuesday, without fail, on their own time. They’re learning to share their writing, their innermost thoughts, in a safe zone; they’re catching onto what constructive criticism means; they write more and better every single week; they read aloud better than I do.

    This has nothing to do with your question, but it’s making me one hell of a happy writer this week.

  4. I always say I’ll keep writing simply because the alternative to writing is…not writing. But then, I’ve also got a long way to go in the disappointment department. Or do I…

  5. Actually, this guy said it better. A gajillion Scotty point to the person who names him:

    “But, Jesus, it would be a wonderful way to go out…and if I do it you bastards are going to owe me a king-hell 44-gun salutr (that word is “salute,” goddamnit–and I guess I can’t work this elegant typewriter as well as I thought I could)…

    “But you know I could, if I had just a little more time.



  6. I’m happy. I don’t know how good I am, but I am happy. I think it’s because I never expected to write a book or to be published. I needed something to do when I retired from teaching and I found out that I was not as good at refinishing furniture as I thought I would be and I didn’t have the money to open a fancy baby boutique. I bought a computer, took a course to learn how to use it, and started typing. I was as surprised as anybody when my first book was published when I was sixty. My fourth book, the story of a schizophrenic high school girl, was just sold to Marshall Cavendish, which means it will be published by Amazon. I’m looking forward to the new adventure. What makes me really happy, though, is that this book will be edited by Melanie Kroupa, my favorite editor ever. With Melanie Kroupa and Margery Cuyler in my corner, how can I not be happy?

  7. First reaction: I’ve seen climbers who nearly died reaching the top of Everest–or who nearly died not not reaching the top of Everest–swear they’d never go back, and then go back a few years later. (The same applies to other mountains, lesser known but even more fearsome.)

    For some people, these issues are a matter of what you do, even of who you are: if you’re a climber, you go back to the mountains; if you’re a writer, you go back to the keyboard.

  8. I love that “bucket of water to the sea.” This is exactly why I sometimes get just a little bit depressed every time I walk into a public library. I can’t help but imagine my book one day being buried among the millions of others, gasping for air, elbowing for space on a dusty shelf. Sometimes the ugly thoughts win–why are we bothering with this again? Who cares anyway? And so we maybe stop for a week, six months, two years.

    But damn, one day I’m taking a shower or vacuuming the rug, not at all meaning to be writing.

    It happens anyway. The brain has a mind of its own.

  9. Sometimes I have a very high opinion of my writing. Other times–much fewer–I think it’s crap and wonder what the hell I’m doing. And sometimes I have a very high opinion of it and wonder what the hell I’m doing.

    But happy? Happy and I don’t know each other. I met her cousin, Giddy, who showed me some family snapshots, and her half-brother, Goofy, who told me some stories I only half-believed, but I’ve never met her and I don’t expect to. And I don’t want to. If I see her coming I’ll cross to the other side before she wrecks my writing.

  10. Happy’s been a good friend for many years, through the grueling process of writing/rewriting/re…re…re…, etc. a first novel. It’s done and will be published by Viking in 2012. Interesting that Happy left the bldg. as soon as I got word. Her little bastards Sick and Tired and Broke Down came to take her place.
    Oh well, I have about 80 pgs of book #2 in notes and outline. I think the only way to get the little bastards to leave is to find their cousin Get Well Soon and plow through my zero draft of #2.

  11. Sometimes I am comforted by numbers but nothing makes me happy for very long. How ’bout you?

  12. As a member of the tribe Not-Yet-Published, the words happy and good are still in my vocabulary, but have little application to tribal rituals. I’m happy that my holiday-themed literacy project yielded an SUV filled with books for homeless children and their parents. And the check from the almost-deadbeat client was good for the Day Job bank account. Those positive aspects balance the fact that I am not happy with my progress with a certain chapter 9 and no good news is coming in from queries.

  13. Sometimes I wonder who’s been working on my WIP while I wasn’t looking, because I’m not that good. Other times, I hope to hell someone else was working on it, because if i stink that much, I’m gonna need a bigger drawer to hide it all in–or a shredder.

    That could all average out the happiness, right?

  14. […] at Betsy’s this evening, she wrote about the “terrible odds of getting recognition” that most […]

  15. Why do I feel like sometimes you’re performing an exercise in getting us to say something we’ll regret….

    The more I spend time talking to other writers the more I wonder if I fit in. I’ve been saying all along that I love my work. Not that I’m great but that I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to artists I love and I love my work without wondering what anyone else’ll think of it. This from a querying writer. I’m trying to get published, not trying to find out whether or not I’m any good.

    • Who needs to fit in? There aren’t enough writers buying books to put grits in your bowl. Making friends with other writers is nice, though. It’s sure helping me.

  16. I may be happy when I’m writing, but writing is not the source of my happiness. Ever since I was a child, when my only mission was to grow up so I could go, I’ve been aware of what I call the “seed of happiness.” The happiness is in there, the way a 70-foot tall Georgia pine is in a pignoli nut, but conditions have to be right before it’ll come out. But, germinated or not, I smell the resin, feel the shade.

  17. Holding on to happiness is like trying to hold water in your hand. I’m happy to write. I’m happy that my manuscript is with an editor. I may not be happy when I get it back. Hopefully, I’ll be happy when I’ve made the changes–happier still when some gorgeous agent decides to rep me. Happiness is not about fitting in–forget it.
    I’ve never fitted in. I’m happy not to.

  18. This post is relevant for me. My first novel is coming out in April and I don’t have massive expectations, but I know I’ve worked hard and the book is valid. Selling zero copies would be disappointing but I’m not going to sit here waiting for the excitement to taper or change shape. I’ve been working on other things all along and I’ve just learnt that my story collection has been accepted – so your hair of the dog theory works.

  19. Right now my novel feels less like a bucket of water, more like a puff of salt air blowing over a grassy cliff. It might condense on the teaspoon of a very very small press, or it might be swept up by the bigger bucket of a publishing house. The first feels more likely. I get contentment from the kindness and intrepid spirit of the small press publisher, who gave me a hefty dose of recognition in the form of a prize. Mostly I’m trying to work out how to get long term peace out of endless waiting and seeing.

  20. Writers, bleh. We expect nothing and we expect everything. Triumph of human perversity is right. That analogy about taking a bucket of water to the sea is good, but I always think putting a book out is like aiming a meteor at the Earth — yes, the possibility exists that there will be a large impact and everyone will take notice. More likely the thing burns to ash in the atmosphere, and merely rains flakes on a few select heads.

    Ready —
    Aim —

  21. I don’t care if I’m good or not. The sweetest part of my day is when I sit down to write. That’s my happy place and it’s all that matters.

  22. All I can think about is that yesterday I said I’d sign up on Twitter, so I did, and now I’m following four writers, an actor-writer, and a talk show host-writer, and I see a tweety bird here so I’m going to follow Betsy, but guess what! Somebody I don’t know is already following me! Sitting by her phone waiting for me to say something witty. I’m not ready!

    Writing is a total freak show.

  23. Happy is how I feel pickin’ blue crab and drinking a craft beer with my sister. I have been known to utter, “I love my life” while thus engaged.

    My writing is fulfilling. I have a specific goal, and a series of goals within that larger goal. I have purpose. If that may be defined as happy, I am.

    Great question, btw.

  24. Writing, I’m fully involved. Good/not good, happy/not happy, just aren’t there.

    Between times, when I see forest and trees, I’m good. Chasing rabbits, I get lost usually in the thorns.

  25. Betsy, I’ve notice when you curse, everyone else curses, and when you don’t–like today–we are the very image of decorum. Ever think of being a fucking choir director?

    • Interesting combination of the Eff-word and choir: Reminded me of the lustful little group that was our Church’s choir many years ago. Much was hidden under those pleated robes and incubated in that cozy choir loft.

  26. When you read FFTT and recognize yourself on almost every page, it is a little eerie. Would my plumber read it and recognize himself? Would my neighbor, boss, best friend, partner, therapist, hairdresser, dentist recognize him/herself? I doubt it.

    A friend from graduate school visited me after many years and saw a Poets & Writers magazine on my coffee table. He has a PhD and works for some think tank in New Jersey (I know, an oxymoron). After thumbing trough a few pages he said, “Wow, they make a magazine for everything.” Like it was 12 months of fly fishing or cake pops. That’s when I knew. I’m in it alone. And with the rest of you goombahs.

  27. The way I see it, it’s all about getting high. Writing is another drug, an addiction. More so if the writer is a workaholic. I feel an adrenalin surge every time I finish a story. And another when I send my work out to reviewers… knowing that I might be getting a bitter pill in return. Does it stop me? No! The voice inside me lives on. And then of course there’s a question of money and paying bills, but that is for another day and another blog comment 😉

  28. I don’t know if I’ll ever realy consider myself good — I think it sometimes then I’ll read something by someone else that is truly beautiful and I’m back to square one, deflated, limp and spent. Shortly afterwards I’ll have an idea, a story in my head, and I’m all excited again. So… whatever else, I enjoy the shit out of writing.

  29. I’m quite sure everything I’ve sent out is poo, but I like that history buffs have found me in my little corner of the web and are sending emails and people I don’t know are sharing family memories of the time period I write about. It’s sweet and I am touched. I’ve tapped my old advocacy network and if publication does happen I’ll be travelling around to say hello. They all love a story about women kicking ass. A seniors’ lit group, a teachers’ group, some book groups and two libraries have said they’ll hold functions and I haven’t even asked – I don’t even have a product yet. (Sometimes I’m blown away by people’s kindness.) My cousin owns one of the hottest spots in a hot summer destination that would be perfect for readings. My point being I don’t believe in leaving recognition to chance. If I did I’d still be living in a house with cracked linoleum and no hot water. To hell with being a drop in the ocean. Sometimes you just have to jump in and make a splash. It might not work, but it just might. And if the flipping thing fails, the next two are in the hopper.

  30. I don’t know. I just don’t know anymore.

  31. I dunno. I’m so fucking depressed about other things, it’s hard to sort out what part of that is due to writing. Or alleviated by writing.

    My sister-in-law said to me, “I’m sure this writing thing is a good way to kill time, but you should really get back on facebook so you can see what’s going on with the family.” This sent me into a simmering rage, which I covered with big fake smile and a shot of tequila.

    Happiness is irrelevent to me where writing is concerned. I’m all about redemption.

    • If that SIL is not written into a future WIP to suffer some cringing humiliation, you are overlooking a great opportunity.

      • You’re so right. This is a golden opportunity.

        (And she’s one of those people who asked to see an old WIP, then said NOTHING about it afterward. Which kind of makes me want to gnaw off my writing hand.)

  32. I think tying happiness to writing is very dangerous. So often my writing is limited to to-do lists and then the joy is in crossing items off them. Writing or negation? I don’t know. Sometimes learning to breath is something I do on a daily basis. Of course the system takes care of itself, lungs and air. But as a response to anything else, “just breath”. Walking. Where the body knows that one foot follows the other on and on and things will be okay. What I think I know about writing is that I’m stuck in some sort of fundamental hole which necessitates rearranging my narrative. It’s not tied to emotion so much. When writing makes me happy? When someone at work tells me that was a nice email you wrote, since I work in the publishing industry I figure that means I’ve hit a level above the five second delete. Perhaps I’m simple that way. Oy. Most times life itself is a happy thing.

  33. I had a really rough time this year in my personal life. I was lamenting to a friend the other day that I hadn’t been writing much and it was contributing to my depression. He told me to give myself a break, that I didn’t need to worry about writing another book right now. It occurred to me that I could cut myself some slack but that it’s not really my way and that I probably wouldn’t get much writing done ever if I did that. I think that learning to see that feeling (the writerly guilt about not writing) as a good thing is sort of the key.

  34. I’m learning that I need to take some of the drama out of creating same. Sometimes it’s natural to feel like a eunuch about to whip open his trench coat, but people need stories. (There’s no reason human beings shouldn’t be running in the streets, screaming.) Stories calm us, inspire, show us what we might want to be.

    We write stories.

    Let’s get the fuck to work.
    (Hmmm, please place the emphasis on the word “work.”)

  35. We’re all mostly in agreement. Not that many people aren’t going to say they’re happy if asked. Answer to the contrary and see how it comes off, in print or in person.

    Fame angst is draining and demoralizing. Any reasonable attempt to engage the publishing game should clarify things for the wide-awake. There are long odds and and slow knife-cuts revealing that many of the reasons sensitive, creative and feeling people are driven to produce manuscripts are, ultimately, illusory.

    Along the way, a moment may arise when a writer is confronted with whether to apply him/her self in spite of a lack of immediate prospects. Through that door is a kind of happiness, a craft happiness, or satisfaction that older artists first tell us about, but we fail to comprehend in our anxiety to obtain that which we have the least control over.

  36. I have yet to sample these dubious delights as I am still unpublished but what I can say is that writing fulfills me in a way nothing else ever could. When I was teaching I was successful but had a constant intolerable nagging because at the most I was only able to write for about 30 minutes a day. This for me is the only excuse for writing, the only reason for it, and the only thing that keeps me going and will keep me going, whether I end in the slush pile or at the Booker ceremony

  37. Happiness is an art that’s difficult to master. I’m happy regardless of writing but I think it brings me pleasure, different thing altogether. Now let’s all sing Kumbaya. August you start…

  38. My agent explained that due to a full runway of projects ahead of mine, plus the holidays, it would be awhile before she’d get back to me with a response to the second revision of my first novel. “No problem!” I trilled, having worked wall to wall for the last two years to get to this point. “I’ll be reading books and watching movies until we speak.” I was excited to read and watch movies, because it’s hard for me to do those things while I’m writing — it’s like trying to sing a song when the radio’s on. So I re-read House of Mirth for the third time and saw Hugo within the next few days. Then I woke up already deep in the rabbit hole, buried in “What if’s,” with no way out, just pure dread. There is only one cure, and that is plunging into my second novel, starting with the copious and (for me) captivating research it will require. “But what if when you eventually talk to your agent about your next book, she doesn’t like the idea?” my Self-Doubt whined. I’ve shrugged that shit off. Because I love the idea, plus the other two up my sleeve. If she doesn’t like the idea, we’ll take it from there. In the meantime, who was it who said Work Will Set You Free? That was Erma Bombeck…right?

  39. An artist is a person who has come to terms with never being “happy”. The creation of the art can bring peace, but happiness is for people who have given up trying.

  40. Are happiness and writing meant to go hand in hand? I don’t know if I’m happy in my life, but in my writing? Sure. Happiness-with-your-writing has a lot to do with managing expectations. When your first book comes out, there is some massive disparity between reality (“your book comes out and is available for sale in stores”) and fantasy (“your book comes out and immediately money and praise are heaped upon you so deeply that you have to struggle for air”). When your fourteenth book comes out? You’re happy that someone is still buying and backing your books and that you still have something to say and still feel entirely compelled to say it. At least, I am. But what I write makes up maybe 50% of my mood on a full-on, good writing day. In the rest of my life, I’m melancholy and self-loathing. Balance, people. Balance in all things.

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