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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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Each Morning I Get Up I Die A Little

Sometimes I think writing and getting published are part of the same continuum, that within the very act of writing is the desire to be published, that we are always hoping to be heard. Other times I think that the two are very separate gestures. And that writing is an end unto itself and can be a deeply satisfying private act. I often talk here about the agony of writing, of being a writer. But tonight, sleepless as she is, I wonder if I’ve got it backwards. Isn’t writing the ecstasy? Publishing the agony?  The promise of a lonely night, the  comfort of a small island out of season?  Is there anything more perfect than a composition notebook and a worn in pencil? The lost thread? The beginning, again? You are here.

77 Responses

  1. The act of writing down our innermost thoughts in a privacy created for ourselves has to be the ecstasy. It is the one thing that truly belongs to me and me alone. No one can mess with it, fiddle with it, tell me I’m right, tell me I’m wrong…or tell me I’m mad. The other day, a friend found out that I write and asked to read my WIP. Suddenly, I felt territorial, and a little scared. I write for others to read, don’t I? So surely this should have pleased me. For some reason, it didn’t and yet I’m willing to put myself on the line when I send my query and chapters to a complete stranger who holds the sword of Damoclese over my head. The writing is the ecstasy…the waiting is the agony.

  2. Starting something is the ecstasy. Finishing the agony. Publishing is the gravy, and a way to waste time when you can’t do either a. or b.

  3. I love you, your writing, your passionate heart…thanks for writing. Thanks for publishing. You encourage me, Ms. Lerner. This blog entry made me smile and gave me a boost when I badly needed it. You are a joy to read. 🙂

  4. It has helped me enormously to regard my writing as something that will never, ever get published. That simple act has eliminated the horrible pressure that managed to worm its way into my life and kept me quiet for so long. God bless the internet. Because of it, I can still have my audience. Maybe one day they’ll pay for their seats but right now I’m perfectly content to put on a show for free.

    • A fine show it is, Mac.

      I am happy that you are contented with it, and hope that you remain so, regardless of the course you chart. You do well.

    • I agree, MSB—I know I write better when I stop thinking about jumping through hoops and focus on the story.

    • I don’t know exactly where this line came from — some long ago analysis of the Marx Bros.? — but I suddenly remembered it when I read your words of freedom: They raised the flag of free spirited anarchy and Harpo ate it.

  5. Ms. Lerner,

    I think you’ve put your finger on the artist’s dilemma. And I love your metaphor of the act of writing being an island out of season.

    Artistic endeavors, and particularly writing, are the ultimate acts of narcissism. Artists from their “islands out of season” try to communicate to others the beauty they see in themselves. With writing, an artist has the best chance of showing the beauty of his soul to all those ugly readers out there. And maybe make them feel pretty for a nanosecond?

    Memphis Trace

  6. I love to read so much that I can’t help but have publication at the back of my mind when I write. It’s fantastic to think I might be able to give people the same pleasure I have received from books. But it would be an anxious pleasure on my part, because of hoping my novels would be liked, loved, received favorably, noticed at all.

    So it’s lucky for me that my own writing makes me happy. I plot out loud as I’m washing dishes. I shriek when I have an especially good idea. I stop everything to write it down. Then I send an email to my Mentor Professor, “Did you hear that shriek? That was me! You’ll never guess what I’ve thought of next …”

  7. I agree entirely with Mac. It was liberating for me to have that realization, recently, and it has allowed me to remember the joy – the ecstasy, even – of writing in and of itself.

  8. When I wake up in the middle of the night with one little idea or fragment of a good line, and the words rise up to meet that tiny gesture on the page, that’s bliss.

    What’s even better – I get to write about my day job, something I love, something that offers up more ideas and lines than I know what to do with.

    When other people want to read about what I love…? I agree with MSB. I’ll do that jig on any street corner.

  9. Geeze, you guys. There’s some really thoughtful stuff here, it’s still dark outside, and I’m starting to feel like the guy who barely made the cut. More coffee and cowbell to wake me.

    Listening, watching, gathering and processing never stops. Writing sorts, creates, transforms, in a range from puzzling to full on rush, and is rarely agonizing.

    The notion of begging an agent to have a look strikes me as a little like pledging a fraternity or applying for a loan at a bank where you don’t know anyone, or applying for a job without an inside connection. It’s risky business, and the risk is that you’re not good enough to join, get the money, or get the job.

    Worse still, it’s a changing business, where the smoke and mirrors are moving and bets are hedged. I know someone with a dozen or so books out there, including a couple that have been on the NYT best seller list that has had trouble getting his last couple published.

    Where does that leave me?

    I dunno. Still, I’m likely to gird my loins and submit those letters before the end of the year.

    Wish me luck and fair winds.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz recently said:

    “I’m writing what I want to write, what my heart tells me to write. It will take as long as it takes to do it well. I decided a while ago that novels are where I’ll put my best. In this one realm, I won’t compromise. It’s different than writing a zombie film, which, regardless of how much heart I manage to stuff into it, remains a zombie film to the end. It’s a commercial venture. I know that going in.

    My novels, however…well, I hope they are commercial successes. I really do. But if they aren’t, so be it. I write books to make me happy. If I’m not enjoying it, I shouldn’t be doing it.”

    Wise man, Mr. Schwartz.

    • I’m coming to terms with the fact that my sensibility isn’t commercial. The shit I write for myself won’t sell. The shit I write that’s all heart won’t sell. I think of myself as an utterly–embarrassingly–conventional person, but my heart is a strange filter, I guess. I spend more time draining blood from my work than at any other stage of the process.

      I don’t understand this realm of non-compromise; does Schwartz not need the money? I wouldn’t compromise if I didn’t need the money.

      When I started commenting here, I thought I hated the act of writing. I’m pretty sure my first few comments talked about loathing the putting-down-of-words. Then I admitted or realized that no, I didn’t hate that, I needed it. Maybe loathing and needing are the same. Writing doesn’t make me happy and ecstasy is a foreign concept, but my fantasy is writing novels and putting them in a drawer and showing nobody and getting checks in the mail. Takes a special kind of narcissist. I don’t want anyone to read my books. I don’t want anyone to love them or hate them. I refuse to open them after they’re published, I don’t read reviews unless I’m forced to, and positive reviews are exactly as bad as negative ones. I don’t know. People talk about publishing as birth, about growing heavy with manuscript, then squeezing your infant creation into the word, but maybe it’s more like death. Reviews are obituaries and publication parties are wakes.

      • Yes.

      • You speak of compromise and money, of books stashed away in the sock drawer, but you’re writing, August; you’re making a living with your words. It’s plain to most, if not all, of us that there’s truth in those words. We might be a small representation of the general populace, but all I can say is Ya fucking hoo.

      • Like Capote said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” For me, too, the juicy part is all in the writing. But then, I’ve never been published. It occurs to me as I write it that don’t even care if I’m published any more, but I would like to get paid.

      • “I wouldn’t compromise if I didn’t need the money.” — The bloody heart of the matter.

      • I just wrote a long-ass response (almost as long as this one) to August’s comment here, but then thought, do I want to “publish” this to anyone but him? That, for me, is the essence of publishing: searching, praying, hoping, for the right, the only, person(s) to whom you have something that you, and (perhaps) only you, can say.

        Is it even possible? When my mother died, did the impetus to write about her—and the audience for whom the writing was intended—die with her? Was she my true reader? Won’t a reader’s ability to “get me” always fall short of the connection I so desire? Perhaps the only way you can achieve that connection is to write for God, hence the other Auggie’s Confessions‘ continuing popularity after almost two millennia. When you water the root of the tree, the leaves unfailingly respond. What I write might matter and have meaning for others, but I wrote it for August. Should he have a say about its publication?

        Then again, will what I have to say to him will be more meaningful if he reads it in front of an audience, so to speak, like a guy asking his girl to marry him during halftime at the big game? I hate when guys do that. Certain writings, like certain behaviors, ought to remain private, imo. Not just sanitized or gussied-up for public consumption—private. Unless you’re a flagrant whore. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth more than the last shred of one’s virtue and self-respect, right?

        And if we take writing for money into consideration . . . well, I haven’t been able to do it yet, not even for God’s sake. I may not be or have been a whore, but I never denied being a slut. For fun, for love, out of boredom— whatever: I own my writing, even if I sometimes bend over to please others.

  11. I envy those of you who have not yet been published. Who have yet to know how it feels when agents, editors, publishers, readers, reviewers, bloggers, booksellers and assorted reach into your innermost with whose best intentions at heart? Writing is everything. Publishing is so the day after.

    • Sally, I disagree.
      After smearing a page with the fluid of your work, after years of bleeding dreams, heartbreak and rejection, there is nothing, I mean NOTHING, more pleasurable then seeing your name, I mean YOUR NAME, your work, that’s right, YOUR WORK out there for all to see.

      It validates effort.

      • Maybe the first book, yeah, that was kinda cool to see my book on a bookstore shelf or in the hands of a reader on a beach. But now? Four books later? The money left on the dresser validates my work.

  12. For me writing is the itch, publication is the pleasure of the scratch. A hand brushing over the soft skin of word-creation is what this is all about. I must write…I just have to; it is breath to me.

    This is way too poetic but it is the day of hearts.

    “Read me damn it, I have something to say.”
    I need another cup of coffee before someone gets hurt.

  13. Writing is the peaceful part. The hives appear when the publishing begins.

  14. This I understand: the fun of writing. (I habitually use “fun” in a very broad sense, ranging from modest amusements to half-frightening adventures.) It can be an approach to ecstasy. Glad to see it acknowledged here.

  15. I’ve been thinking about this as I’m letting the dust settle before I go in for a rewrite. So, I’ve been sitting on the train in the morning reading for the last two days instead of writing and I feel…unmoored?

    I didn’t realize how dependent I’ve become on the writing and on getting lost in my own world. This post made me see how that has nothing to do with publishing. I mean, the chances of this book being a book are slim. But the writing of it, the tearing it down and rebuilding, that is all so that I can be happy with the story.
    Thank you for making me see the obvious, that art is still created even if you’re the only one who sees it.

    • After 3+ years of writing on the train, that’s exactly how I’m imagining you: unmoored. But in a good way, like you’ll soon be itching to for the next steps, or might be already.

      • Love this. Maybe it’s the distance between the words that I’m floating in. And maybe that’s just the distance we all need to make something we’re proud of, published or not.

      • This might be a good time to write something a little different, Lyra. Maybe a short story, or some poetry. Something to clear your head between the first draft and the rewrite.

      • I think finishing a book must be a little like sending a kid to college.

        Happy and sad and hopeful and worried and proud and so ready to move on and looking at your empty nest and wondering what’s next. . .

  16. I don’t even know how to tell you how much happier I’ve been since I read, “I believe there is still enormous value in the piece of writing that goes no farther than the one person for whom it was intended.”

    You write a birthday card to a friend. She shares it with another friend, and then tells you that her friend said, “She works where? Why isn’t she writing?” Lifted by the compliment, embraced by the validation, you aren’t paying attention to the downside: that suddenly what you do is not enough.

    I suppose I always want to be heard, but that it is because I have turned the page into a listener. I write things I don’t want anyone else to see, but then cannot throw the paper away, or delete the blog entry.

    If I have composed something intended for a real, live listener I am pins and needles anxious to know if my words have hit their mark.

    If I had a story in my heart, or a message to ring out, gathering listeners would take on greater urgency. That day may come. If it does, I hope I am up to the challenge.

    Today though, I am celebrating this place: Carving out writing time because doing so makes me happy, comforted by the belief that whatever I am doing today, it is enough.

    • “If I have composed something intended for a real, live listener I am pins and needles anxious to know if my words have hit their mark.”

      We’re not chipped beef here, Vickie, and yes, I believe they have.

      • Laughing. Saying that by “real, live listener” I meant “as opposed to the page.” Although I still half-expect to be accused of having imaginary friends when I refer to my online friends, the clear truth is that my most nurturing, expanding friendships are with people I met online.

        Thank you. 😉

  17. It’s a strange little dichotomy, isn’t it? At first it is an adventure, just you and your little words with no one to hear the tree fall. What a lovely space in time. Then it becomes…something else, something other.

    I got a fancy New York agent fairly early in the process of writing my first book, nonfiction. She said my book had some of the best writing she’s ever seen. Oh the pressure!

    As soon as I started sending her the new chapters she mandated in order for her to sell it to a publisher (“Can you fill in this hole before it goes to market?”), my writing and voice changed from close and true into something approximating vaudevillian. Duh, duh, duh, duh…have you ever heard the one about…ba dum dum!

    It was awful and I didn’t even know it was happening in the moment, until one day I woke up and realized what used to be an adventure had turned into something other. Now, we’re not going to sell the partial manuscript and no one is getting shit until it’s closer to being done. I do not send chapters to one soul so that I may preserve that earlier, truer writing style. I cannot, will not, think about publication, but it’s there, waiting, a lurking monster.

    I very much like what my man Winston Churchill said on writing:

    “Writing is an adventure. To
    begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes
    a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant.
    The last phase is that just as
    you are about to be reconciled
    with your servitude, you kill the
    monster and fling him to the public.”

    Using Winston’s scenario, my own process got skewed–from two minutes of adventure, straight to monster–and I had to pull it back from the monster’s teeth and separate writing from publication. Now I’m firmly in the tyrant phase, with the suppressed knowledge that the monster awaits, smiling a vicious smile.

  18. I want to say I would write for myself even if I knew my work would never be read, that there is an innate satisfaction in the process of writing that needs no validation. That seems beautifully pure and calm and noble to me, the essence of what writing should be. But I started writing late in life, after so many failures on so many fronts that I can no longer imagine being sure enough of my own opinion to write for an audience of one.

    It’s different with photography. I failed professionally as a photographer, and it made me realize that I love my images most when no one else sees them, and especially when I don’t need to sell them. I can sit with a single photograph for an hour or more, tracing the lines of a beloved face, admiring the grain of the film or a slant of golden light across the tips of a child’s eyelashes. My eye as a photographer is complete, an entity unto itself; I don’t need my eye validated, because I can see for myself when a picture is good.

    Writing doesn’t have the same feeling to me of being externalized. When I write something only for myself, it feels as though the words are still within me. There’s no sense of satisfaction or release in it–I need a reader to carry the words away.

    • I despise the writing of a first draft, despise even the idea of writing it, but it’s worth it for those lovesick-like jitters I get all through the next few drafts when the puzzle pieces start to fit and it becomes something I didn’t even know I had, or thought, or wanted.

      And then I want to be read, like I’ve been screaming from the bottom of a canyon and somebody might finally hear me.

      I want to put it out there and be part of the conversation.

    • Nice post, Averil. Have you seen the current issue of Time magazine? There are incredible black and white portraits of actors an actresses. Very unexpected (maybe that’s why they affected me?). Adepero Oduye’s fingers and hair, the lines on the face of Brad Pitt and Viola Davis’ smile and skin. These are almost intimate portraits of very public people (and a dog) and I felt I wanted to look away because of how much they exposed, but I couldn’t avert my gaze. And when we open ourselves up with words upon paper, who is looking? Do they see what we want them to see, or something deeper?

  19. it’s a negative feedback loop. negative feedback occurs when the output of a system acts to oppose changes to the input of the system, with the result that the changes are attenuated. if the overall feedback of the system is negative, then the system will tend to be stable.

    like baroreflex regulates your blood pressure.

  20. Am I the only one who recognizes today’s illustration as the Golden Compass? A clever clue that perhaps Ms. Lerner’s question touches upon a many-faceted answer?

    Certainly, there is personal satisfaction in any creative endeavor. And as one improves technique or blends elements in a unique way, that satisfaction increases. Far more challenging is the process of convincing someone else that your creation merits mass-production, media coverage, or even an award. How many of us think our voices sound great in the shower, but would never consider stepping onto a stage?

    Writing and getting one’s work published doesn’t seem to be much different. Too bad that compass isn’t really available – or is it?

    • An alethiometer, in other words. I wondered–it looked right, but I couldn’t remember for sure.

      As for your question “Too bad that compass isn’t really available – or is it?” one answer is that it’s available in a book that luckily got published.

      • Perhaps, yet such a compass could be peculiar only to that particular work. And on the subject of luck:

        Since I wrote my earlier comment, I received a very unexpected call from someone in the music biz. Last year I had asked him to “take a look” at a piece I had pitched as an urban opera. He had made some suggestions, we met a few times, then the interest vanished. Today, he was very curious to know how the opera was progressing – made some more very encouraging remarks and insisted it had a Something; said several times not to let this idea get shelved! So what if Cupid has lost my address? His thoughtfulness has made my day!

  21. Writing is the warm bath. Publishing is the cold shower. I say this as I stand here, naked and shivering, watching my third novel hit the stands. It’s been ten years since my last book–ten years of rejection, and misery, yes, but also ten years of absolute certainty that I controlled my destiny. If only I could get one more book, I kept telling myself, just one more book, everything will change. I’ll overcome my lousy sales record, I’ll make money, I’ll be taken seriously. I had such hopes. Now that it’s actually happening, though, and I watch as my book is flung out into the wild, I’ve faced with a chilling reality: one book is one book is one book. One book doesn’t change shit. I’m still desperate, I’m still hungering for validation, I’m still fat. But you know what? Soon I’ll be able to slip back into that warm bath where I’m writing again, where I’m totally weightless, where hope can once again live.

  22. Writing fills me with a satisfaction like I’ve never known, like a part of me that was hidden decided to come out to play and realized, huh, it’s not so bad out here. I’ve felt good when something I’ve written has been published, but somehow removed from it, like it’s no longer mine. Strange that it’s not always so hard to say good bye.

  23. Are writers born or does their environment create them? Or is there a continuum, where some writers are born that way and others are kind of a writer, but not always and then others are no where near being writers? Can you send them away to be deprogrammed, to stop being writers, to stop thinking about writing or sneaking out at night to write? In a room full of people, can writers blend in as non-writers? Do writers recognize one another when they pass by in the street? Are there special clubs, places, they come together and sigh a deep sigh of relief for finding other people like themselves. Where they can talk about being writers and not worry about what other people think about them? Do writers internalize self-loathing because they are writers? Should 2 writers be able to marry?

    I feel like I was born this way, I have to hide it from people who don’t get it, sometimes I wear it proud, sometimes I wish I could cut it out of me. And as someone who has never been published, it feels like it will be the ultimate coming out, which ask anyone, is fraught with complications.

  24. […] of mine but I don’t know what to do about it.) Anyway, in her latest post, she said this: “Isn’t writing the ecstasy?”  And I thought: yes yes yes! Writing is ecstasy. And why don’t I do it more […]

  25. In the act of writing is the desire to be heard. Who shall do the hearing and how it shall be done, those are different issues.

    When I started writing by keeping a journal in my teens, I knew I was writing for someone beyond the me I was then. I even thought I might know who it was. Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t and maybe all that happened was the change that time brings, because many years later I was one day reading over those personally ancient writings and realized that I was writing at age twelve for the man I would become.

  26. I have tons of stuff I wrote that was never meant for anyone else to read, and I reread it myself from time to time. But when I put something out in the public eye the best thing is reading a review from someone who “got” it. I don’t think it’s ecstasy though. We’re talking about stuffed teddy bears here, not Michelangelo’s ‘David’.

  27. The fact so many are good at the first and completely lost when it comes to the second is testimony to their inherent separateness. A publishing triumph is partly the writer’s, but it’s mostly that of the social swimmer, the business/artist, and careerist.

  28. Lovely post. A warm bath to get the blood flowing.

    I hope that excerpts from my journals will be published someday, when no review will have the penetration to reach me. Until then, it’s all about the pleasure of small blasts of empathy, set off in shipping crates.

    And the fucking novels, of course.

  29. Now a few words from the New Hampshire hermit who brought us the forever perfect Franny of Franny and Zooey: Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.

    • Though the hermit has passed and cannot defend himself, I call bullshit. Nobody held a gun to his head and forced him to publish. He published and he reaped its great rewards and he also reaped its unpleasant attentions. Boo-fucking-hoo. Every coin has two sides. If you can’t play the game, don’t get in the ring.

  30. Being somewhere in the middle of the write/publish continuum at the moment, I’m currently too bored with myself to worry which I hate more: writing (never a whole lot of fun) or being published (a different kind of never a whole lot of fun). Or, I should say, I’m too wound-up.

    Speaking of which: WHERE did you get that illustration? It’s a wrist watch, with three winding stems, one blued-steel hand, three sweep hands of unknown function, and 36 chapter glyphs of quasi-masonic appearance with corresponding hob nails on the bezel. I’m an horologist and I have to know: Does it tell time in Alpha Centauri?

    • Vivian, I guess you didn’t notice Karen’s comment: that’s the Golden Compass (also known as an alethiometer), from the film of that name, from one of Philip Pullman’s novels.

  31. I’m not sure anymore. I’ve been thinking about my writing so much instead of writing I feel lost and confused. I’m starting a class in a couple of weeks to help me with my memoir. I don’t know if it will be a huge waste of time, or rewarding. Maybe both. That’s what life is: a series of wasting time in between the rewarding moments.

  32. Today I read somewhere that Virginia Woolf said that publishing a book was like sending a child into traffic. What a sock to the stomach.

    Now in the throes of pre-publication I do miss my blank note pad, sun on my winter bed, empty days of exciting words and characters falling into place.

    Yes they are two different worlds and I think I am better equipped for the quiet lonely one.

  33. I’ve been thinking about this question all day long and have read everyone’s comments. What can I add? The topic is complex, but also simple.

    I believe people need some kind of recognition for their creative acts–that I don’t write in a vacuum. However, I’m happiest when I’m engrossed in the writing, not worrying about the audience or publication.

    And the attempts I’ve made to get an agent have been full-time frustration.

    I can’t speak to the let-down of publication. I only hope I live long enough to experience it!

    • I view the years I spent writing my novel as years full of excitement and promise. Now I feel sick that I’m sending query letters to total strangers. Last week, I balked when an agent I’d love to have asked to see my CV and the full manuscript. I sent the manuscript but the CV is a mess. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t study under anybody. I don’t have a degree after high school. None of this used to embarrass me in the slightest but suddenly I feel my confidence eroding and I felt like the agent could feel it, too. I sat agonizing at the computer for so long he finally wrote back and said, ‘Don’t make it fancy’ but what I sent him was pathetic. How I wish he could get on the phone to Houghton Mifflin and say, ‘She’s a neurosurgeon from Harvard!’

      • You’re not who you’re not–you are who you are. That’s your strength. If that’s not enough for other people, fuck ’em. If you want to do things that make your CV more of whatever it is a CV is supposed to be, you can always do those. But they take time and usually money. Meanwhile, you are who you are. And fuck all, MO, you got a full read from an agent you’d love to have! That’s a lot further than a lot of people on this field of dreams ever get.

  34. Well, it’s all so excruciating. I guess what I’m saying is I hate it. I prefer to write. I can see why Salinger stopped publishing after he’d tasted fame and stopped needing the money.

    • Mo,
      I want to tell you that letters after your name are not near as important as the ones ahead of it. I want to say that degrees are not as precious to your career as life. I want to express how grand a feeling it is to see by ‘you’ beneath the title of that which is published.

      But every misspelled word, every comma out of place, every red-line edit, and every fragmented sentence spits in your eye, and shouts, that you are an uneducated twit with no right, to write. I am you and yet I’ve been published many times.

      I do not have a degree and I still feel exactly the way you do. I’ve been reading and learning, and writing and learning and doing what it takes to perfect as best I can this wonderful craft, this art of writing.

      We are musicians, you and I, we play by ear; our music is just as sweet.

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