• Bridge Ladies

    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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Sooner or Later It All Gets Real

I had lunch with an editor last week and we found ourselves talking about the phenomenon when writers turn on their work, when it becomes the enemy or the receptacle for all of their anger,  when the very fact of it sickens them, embarrasses them, as if the work itself betrayed them. It’s like a drunk on a bender, out of control, on a collision course. I used to gravitate toward those writers, confusing their self-destruction for authenticity and complexity.  Some writers truly love their work, and continue to love it, like a first grader her first potato print. I feel so insanely proud of my clients’ work, but I’ve never been able to fully muster that feeling for my own writing. One of my writers once said that if she were a general, she’d polish her brass every night. I wondered what it would be like to feel that kind of pride. To stand up straight and salute the clear blue sky.

How do you feel about your work, really?

56 Responses

  1. great. That’s why I want you to be my agent for Jewboy of The South

  2. i’m doing a memoir workshop and it’s amazing, so i’m feeling re-inspired. tired, but inspired.

  3. I don’t understand why you don’t feel that pride in yourself. I only read the sample of Forest for Trees and was getting all emotional and misty eyed. When you cause that to rise in a person, you are doing something right. Of course, I am kind of a major cry baby, also. Not to diminish your words. And some of your blogs can’t help but be poetic, though you claim to be so over that.

    I adore my own work, but it is revisionist history and I love my characters because they could so not be a part of my real life. I need them to exist so I can work stuff out the way it should have been.

  4. Today? Pretty damn good. I got a couple of thousand words on the page, none of them made me vomit, not even the adverbs, and I published something that will actually result in a check.

    I make no promises for tomorrow.

  5. I’m proud of all my books. I have to share the credit, though, because I’ve had top-notch editors. That’s what makes the difference.

  6. “like a first grader her first potato print”- you deserve a medal for that Betsy, what a perfect image.

    Last night I read an old article by Zadie Smith about this type of thing, the visceral hatred you can feel for previous work (in her case, published and acclaimed work), the sense you just can’t stand it. I don’t know why that is – writers are very self-critical, as well as being perverse.


    Still, my favourite part of her article (which made me think of think of this blog, and editing in general) was this:

    “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. ”

    We just can’t let go,I guess that helps explain it too.

  7. When all the words come together in a way which best expresses what I want to say it is as if someone, smarter than me, someone with a deeper sense of understanding and heart, has placed their hands on mine and stroked the keys.
    Forgive me for waning melodramatic but for me; there is no greater feeling, no greater joy than creating a seamless stream of expression. To enlighten, move or entertain is to own someone else’s temperament, if only for a moment. What greater gift is there, except maybe a newborn or a BMW Z4 Roadster.

  8. I’m not sure any writer can ever be good enough for themselves. I’m not good enough for me. But I keep trying. If I thought I was good enough maybe I would stop. Maybe that’s what happened to Harper Lee.

  9. Even things I’ve published horrify me sometimes.

  10. I couldn’t live without it. It’s become a therapy really. I can put any emotion into it, and in the end it all becomes something I love.

  11. This isn’t profound or anything, but the way I feel about my stuff varies from day to day and sometimes from sentence to sentence.

  12. I write and revise until I like it, and until I like it, I don’t send it. Later, when I read it and see things differently, there will be parts which I don’t like as much or at all. But there will be parts that I’ll see and think “Yeah, that was really okay.”

    The payoff is when one of my editors, or a reader tells me that I captured something, that the piece was really on. I value my opinions, but not too much. In the end, I trust the readers and their opinions.

  13. At 6 p.m. last night: in awe of myself.

    At 10:25 p.m. tonight: wondering what the hell I am doing.

    You should be bursting with pride for every one of those great books you’ve repped. And for those you’ve written, too.

    What do you think brought us all here in the first place?

  14. I feel like it’s a spouse I have been married to long enough to where sometimes I really hate it, sometimes I still love it just like I did when we were first starting, sometimes I feel like it’s the biggest mistake I could possibly have made, sometimes I wonder how I can get away from it, sometimes I wonder how I could ever imagine wanting to get away from it, sometimes I think it’s the best thing that could ever have happened to anyone anywhere, and sometimes I am so worn out from it that I don’t feel anything at all.

  15. What saves me from hating what I do (sitting in a small room hunched over a desk for hours, ignoring my son and handsome man, listening to the same music over and over again) are the words. I love language. I love the way writing challenges me to find analogies, to push descriptions, to be honest with myself. Honesty is alchemy: Write one word and you can shift the tone of an entire paragraph; write one honest sentence and discover a truth.
    But a love for language does not a book make, anymore than a love for paint will generate a picture. Book-making is painstaking work—a fine art, an aesthetic endeavor as much as an emotional one. Let us worry about beauty first, the writer and physicist Anthony Zee says, and truth will take care of itself.
    Still, I dally getting to work. I circle, I scroll, I tweet, I post. I read, predominantly, online, clicking from one essay to the next, often consciously amplifying my envy. This is ritualistic behavior, and it’s not until a kind of panic—about time, promotion, or money sets in—that I touch the manuscript. But I do not go to it cold: I shut my laptop and read a printed copy or chapter with a red pen. I ease in—make casual notes and additions. When one of those notes grows beyond the capacity of the page, I open Scrivener, put on my headphones and sink into the text.
    If I haven’t looked at the book in a week, or two, or when I’ve been busy teaching and meeting and talking and mothering, that’s when the repulsion sets in. I hate the book—its heft, its weight in shaping my future. I cannot face it, even though it sits beside me at my desk like some old fat cat begging for attention. Then, and only then, do I take the manuscript out of the house. I go to the nail salon with my red pen and a stack of pages where I feel lucky to have the luxury of editing my sentences. Ellen might be on the TV and the workers bantering in Chinese and yet somehow, I focus. Perhaps because I’m not alone with the book, it yields to the pressure of my attention. And attend I must: one cannot walk out on a pedicure.
    But writerly desperation can’t always be ameliorated by dollars, so if a pampered prodding to perform isn’t in the budget, I take the manuscript out for coffee, which I can always afford. I live in a small city, and teach at a university, so I like to appear busy in public. I like to look like I know what I’m doing. So, I do something to fit my part: I read.
    During our date, the manuscript will undoubtedly mention people I know: my son, my mother, my lover. Charmed by its intimacy, I turn pages to see who might turn up next. I stop thinking and start listening, and in that listening I come to trust my work again. I trust that one day, soon, the manuscript will treat me to one final realization, one so true and so clear I’ll take it as fact—the fact that I’m done.

  16. I do feel potato-print pride when something is published, but just now that my new book is in my hands I feel sickly. I want the pride to come streaming back, but I’m terrified of opening the thing in case I find errors or weakness. I’m working on establishing boundaries lines and distance, putting my copies on a bookshelf and leaving the room.

  17. I’m a writer…but not an author. Can’t wait for my own potato print!

  18. As the child of Irish immigrants, I never met a potato I didn’t like. I’d like to be able to say the same about my work.

  19. I think that’s what I’m trying for, work to be truly proud of. Wouldn’t that be something!

  20. I’m glad you brought this up (so to speak). I’ve never been able to fall in love with my own work. I do know writers that feel otherwise. I’ve wondered if not loving my work means I haven’t done my best. But when my re-writing started to border on obsessive-compulsive, I realized I could still be writing the same book 10 years from now and that ain’t good. So I’m learning to do my best within reason and move on. It feels great. Liberating even. Maybe writers like us are akin to actors that can’t watch themselves on the screen. Thoughts?

  21. I love my work. It’s full of wordplay and allusions to other works, and makes me laugh all the time. I am my best audience and I will probably be my ONLY audience, since I haven’t the courage to share it with anyone who might tell me they don’t get it.

    But I’m kind of okay with that. It’s not like the world NEEDS another madcap campus comedy.

  22. Good on ya, Bonnie. Keep after it.


  23. Someone very wise once said the writer has an inner monologue that drums: I am great I am shit I am great I am shit.

    Oh, wait. That was you.

    And yup, dead on. I quote it all the time when I speak to writers.

  24. I really, really like my books! But my agent’s suggestions made them much better.

    I’ve written three novels so far, and the agent is about to query editors who will (hopefully) read (and buy) the second book. I wouldn’t have a good finished product, however, were it not for my agent’s input. She disliked the ending, so I went through a couple of revisions – grumbling to myself all the way, of course – but when all was said and done, I had a much improved ending and a much improved book.

    I think beta readers – ones who will be honest and NOT spare your feelings – and an agent or editor is something all writers need and benefit from. We need feedback, not just from friends but from professionals in the field, who can tell us if our stuff is good, or a piece of crap.

  25. Christin uses painting as a comparison. I think it is not so much that a painter has talent for pushing color around on a page but an eye for the true nature of his subject. He sees the hues, the sharp and delicate lines, the depth that make the scene. Then it’s only a matter of putting what he sees on the canvas. Thus far, I lack that in my work. Sometimes I feel great about my story, then I go back and read it, especially after it has steeped for a while. My words don’t yet convey what plays in my head. When they do, I’m not sure that will be cause for celebration.

  26. Betsy, you kind of pissed me off.

    Okay sweetie, I’m going to be a mother right now and tell you, girl, stand with pride and salute what the hell it is you do. How can you not feel pride in the words you have written? Do you have any idea what it is you do for us, not only here, but in your book?

    How appropriate it is that we must dig in dirt to find the best instrument with which to make our print. You, my dear, have the gift which carves the potato, you sweet genius balance the recipe of thoughts and cook a word-feast.

    If I had the education you have, if could do what you do, Id, be…um, I’d be…well…I know I’d be younger and have more time to say what I want to say and certainly better than I am saying it now.

    Polish your fucking metals and salute the sky babe, you deserve it. Now go to your room.

    Betsy Learner, 5-star Funk and Wagnall General.
    No, I was not paid to write this, yes, my nose is brown and absolutely this comes from the heart.

  27. OK, I’ll date myself: has anybody called out that your post title is from Neil Young’s “Walk On?”

  28. Depends upon which “work” I’m focusing on: garden – prideful: strangers stop & compliment me on all the growing/blooming/artfully arranged plants;
    piano playing- regretful: should have made the time to learn before arthritis and injuries affected my ability to play even moderately well; Day Job – anxious: a particular client couldn’t be appeased even if God appeared to fix the sink (a sink that doesn’t, really, need fixing) and his petty complaining has delayed the completion of this project by almost a month and ignores all the quality workmanship that transformed his “crash pad” into a real home; writing – hopeful: have received some encouraging comments to bolster my resolve and a well-placed friend is setting up a meeting with a director to discuss my play.

    And every morning as my dogs are busy with canine rituals in the yard, I look to the sky, grateful to have another day to search, discover and try again.

  29. When the writing goes well I preen inside with the satisfaction of the elegance of the prose, the tale well told. At the moment, not so much. I’m stuck and self-doubt is beginning to stir in my gut like an insidious alien. Wondering if that sucker is going to burst forth and that will be that.

    • Couldn’t help but be reminded of those hilarious scenes in Jean Shepherd’s movie A Christmas Story, when Ralphie’s active imagination envisions the teacher’s bliss upon reading “his magnificent theme” – and the disastrous reality of a C-plus grade.

      • If you read the book the movie was based on, the movie was a crashing disappointment.

      • True, but watching Miss Shields dance along the perimeter of the classroom writing A+ on the walls was funny. Now that I think about it, the movie-version Miss Shields had a scary resemblance to one of my teachers: in the early 1960s, Mrs.Taylor was still wearing those voluminous dresses and styled her hair in that wavy perm look. Uh-oh – perhaps Miss Shields married and became Mrs.Taylor!

  30. Today I got it going on. Tomorrow will likely be a different story.

  31. I love my novel the way it is. It’s just that I think agents are looking at it like it’s a piece of Durian fruit among all their apples and oranges. It’s new and different and they don’t know what to make of it or how to fit it into their fruit basket.

  32. I think it’s tied in to the idea we write because it’s the only way we can feel good about ourselves, that it’s the way we can somehow justify our existence. The impetus is all in the creating and once we’ve written well and perhaps received kudos from those who read it–well, alleluia. But then, it sort of sinks in and somewhere along the line, things get old and we think we should have done this here and said that there. I’ve heard actors say they can’t bear to watch themselves in their own films, even ones with much acclaim. It’s kind of like that.

    • I feel very much the way you do. It’s not the only way I feel good about myself but certainly one of the most important ways. Could we always do better, yes, but having someone apreciate what we write, or admire how we wrote it, is dollars and cents to the heart.

  33. Not always but too often: Embarrassed.

    • Yes. For so many reasons, on so many levels, whether the writing is good or it sucks, I am embarrassed.

      Shame is in there too, the steamer trunk of my emotional baggage.

  34. I feel brave.

  35. Neil Young is a poseur.

  36. Ready. Worried. Upchuckish. Now what? Like I’ve become this caricatured tarantula. The work has woven itself. When’s the great part? Where’s my goodie bag? Busy. Broken. Big footed. Like calling 1-800-Help-Me-I’m-A-Writer-And It’s-Too-Late. Ticklish. Wanderwishy. Lopsided. Icky. Like a lively little whippersnapper diddly done crawled up in me and gave me a dream.

    Cue rejection here.

  37. Even with all the compliments I receive about my writing (as a journalist and current graduate student) I still feel like I’m not good enough to be a writer. Sometimes I do amaze myself with words I put on the page though. It’s a bipolar relationship I have with my writing I guess…..

  38. It’s good, I suck, back and forth. I think that’s part of the appeal of publication, that external validation. I’d like to say I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t want/need that, but I’d be full of crap. I don’t know if I’d polish my brass every night, but I might pull it out of the drawer now and then, green with patina and think, yes, I earned that.

  39. When I start falling in love with my own words, I know it’s time to stop writing and go to bed.

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