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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 These Expressions I Never Give

I am aware that I use this blog primarily as a place to work out my problems and give voice to the exquisite agony of writing and publishing. And that I indulge a particular  kind of melancholy that infuses much of my day and relationship to writing and to art. But over the years I’ve had some peak days that I would be remiss in not mentioning.  When I got my first promotion, when I received the Tony Godwin prize for editors under 30. (Yes, I was once under thirty.) When my author and friend Kim Wozencraft  got a million dollar film deal for her first novel and we went to the Brasserie and ate steak and drank martinis. (Later at the office, I puked and fell asleep under my desk.)  When two books I had edited (Prozac Nation and Autobiography of a Face) were well reviewed  on the same page of the New York Times Book Review and both of their careers took off (both books still in print). Working with Temple Grandin. Selling my own book and buying a Cartier Tank watch. And yesterday at the BEA.

Neil Young and Patti Smith in conversation at the BEA in front of  1,300 booksellers and publishing people and book lovers. I got to sit right up front, hang in the green room, go in Patti’s limo and touch Neil’s poncho.  They were amazing, funny, warm, sweet, real. One story from the conversation: Neil talked about how his dad, a writer, typed on the third floor of their house every morning and that no one was allowed up there. So I went up all the time, he said, and my dad would say, Hi Windy, his nickname for being super talkative. I like to imagine that:  a boy growing up in a house punctuated by the clacking of a typewriter. And a benevolent father.

Tell us about your peak days as a writer. (Tomorrow back to gloom and doom, I promise.)

66 Responses

  1. In 2002, I was in the kitchen ironing. The phone rang. The woman on the other end of the line said, “This is Anita Miller of Academy Chicago Publishers. We’d like to publish your book.” I have no idea what else she said.

  2. A short fucking list. #1 Finishing my first novel was a rush. That was when I thought this writing game wasn’t so difficult. Of course, it was a piece of shit and was so bad it fell deep into the slush pile, where it morphed into a blind catfish. #2 The first short story I had accepted, I sent the little intro-query (as requested) followed by a story. Dumb ass that I was, I queried one story and mistakenly sent a different one. After calling me a moron, the editor accepted my story.

  3. There was the first real publication (in a literary journal), the nomination for the AWP Intro Journal Prize (which I did not win), vague interest from two agents (oh, god, I’m not a fraud after all!), and gorgeous days spent at a writing residency last fall (write, write, write, go for a bicycle ride, write, write, write, join a bunch of smart writers for a couple bottles of wine).

  4. My Everest and K2.

    Never been published and on the same day, August 8, 1988 two of my pieces hit different newspapers on the same day. My head would not fit through the door.

    And the best…involved my writing and that of my parents.
    I met my parents for the first time after they died.

    Shortly after my mother and father were gone I discovered 125 love letters they had written to each other while separated by WWII. Reading them allowed me into the private loving world of two kids younger than my own two girls are now. I started a memoir about the letters and because of the patriotic connection I was interviewed on Fox News in NYC by Martha McCallum. (The producers told me my book would be another Notebook, yea right). Anyway…They sent a limo, my husband and I sat next to Doctor Keith Ablow in the green-room and I spent a very exciting time in the make-up chair next to celebrities I never even heard of. My interview used up three minutes of my Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame. It took us over three hours to be limo-ed home and because my make-up still looked damn good my husband took me out to dinner. Very heady stuff that.
    I am the most famous person I know. That’s how boring my life is now.

    • That’s a beautiful way to have met your parents, Wry. And I’m sure there are many famous people who are not as interesting as you.

  5. For me, the heady moments came when there was struggle. After publishing fairly easily and regularly, there came the dry spell. I sort of had a nervous breakdown, but I KEPT GOING and, yes, HarperCollins bought my suspense thriller, which went on to make me real money.

    It’s always best after it’s been bad.

  6. First of all, you made my day by posting a photo of a Les Paul reminiscent of Neil Young’s beloved Old Black; as soon as I saw the shiny new Paul, even before reading the title and the post, I thought of Neil Young. You’re very fortunate, Betsy; enjoy!

    Before she died, I gave my mother a copy of a regional golf magazine that had an article I wrote in it. She was delighted to see the byline and there wasn’t much she was happy about at that stage. Later, going through some of her belongings after the funeral, I found a copy of the article; she had sent the magazine to a friend or relative, sharing her joy or else bragging.

    A couple of years ago I printed out something I just finished. My daughter abandoned playing with some stuffed animals when she heard the rumblings of the printer and came into the llittle office.
    “What’s that daddy?”
    “Something I printed out. You want to hear it?” (Always looking for a critic).
    The part I read was about a walk with my wife, daughter and our dog. When I finished she said,
    “That’s about us. Who wrote it?”
    “I did.”
    Her smile and sparkling eyes. A very nice review. And she has taken to writing her own books, too — phonetically spelled words that keep you guessing and wonderful illustrations. I think the kid may be on to something.

    A lot of mountains have more than one peak.

    • You got it, MikeD. I haven’t had a lot of worldly success with my writing, but the familial success, such as you’ve had with your mother and your daughter, is unique and priceless. Your report reminds me of when my first short story was published, my mother and her best friend both ordered copies of the magazine. They didn’t tell me they were doing that, either. The story was somewhat explicit and I was somewhat embarrassed–“Ah, jeez, my mom read that!” But I was happy to be able to present some sort of success to my mom (and my dad, too).

      And just a couple months ago, my wife read a novella I had just completed. She read it twice and said to me, “Your writing reminds me of why I fell in love with you.” I took that as a good sign. She also smiled, and her eyes sparkled.

      • Nothing else really matters, Tetman, but still we strive for more….(my wife is one of the harshest critics ever. Every once in awhile she’ll say, this isn’t bad …. and I’ll think, wow.).

      • You guys…the women in your lives are lucky to have men that respect their opinions. Family is everything.
        Without my husband and my daughters I’d be the scary lady who hangs out in the laundry-mat watching the dryers like it’s the Late Show on one and Night-Line on the other.

  7. After reading the above replies, I am even more aware that I am still at Literary Mountain base camp. Metaphorically, I’m still trying to tie the laces my hiking boots. Still, some years back (before I was brave enough to even to restart a devotion to writing), I entered a national competition. Won first prize, was flown to LA to attend the awards ceremony and got to see my name flashed up on the screen. Realizing that my sentences had a power, could convince a panel of judges to select my work over the others was The Defining Moment. My writing journey truly started with that one event and I reflect upon that nice start on the bad days.

  8. When I was in high school I had some poems published in the newspaper. They paid $17.50 per poem. Afterwards I got a fan letter from a guy who said I was “gifted in the use of words.” That kept me going for years and years and years. Then one day I was watching the news and saw that the guy, my fan, had been arrested for trying to swim across the Niagara River, just upriver from the falls, while handcuffed. He was a crazy guy! Which, in retrospect, seems so right.

  9. It’s official. Your job is the coolest job in the world.

    I haven’t been a writer for very long but I’d say the day the offer for publication came and the day a glowing review in my hometown newspaper came out are the best days so far. Really, any day that I’m writing instead of admitting people into a hospital against their will is a peak day.

  10. I think my peak day as a writer is when I realize something or have some sort of epiphany that comes out in writing that I never would have realized while not writing. My brain feels like its on fire and its like I used a part of my brain more that day that i usually do. Its probably the best part of being a writer and the moments that I look to have more and more as the writing progresses.

    I didn’t know you edited prozac nation. I will put it on my list of things to read!

  11. You lucky, blessed person you (And by the way, it’s called “passed out,” not “fell asleep.” I speak from experience.)

    “Peak days as a writer.” Okay, this is going to be fun, cuzz I been doin this a long time an there’s gonna be a few.

    When I was fifteen and had my first publication (school journalism); when I was sixteen and published an underground newsletter; when I was seventeen and had my first poetry published.

    Then came the years of too stoned to write.

    I straightened out sufficiently to return to school. When I was twenty-two I wrote my first creative prose something-or-other; at twenty-three I wrote my first short story.

    Then came the years of too drunk to get up off the floor (“fell asleep,” indeed).

    I sobered up sufficiently by age thirty-one to write a novel that got me invited to your fair burg to study at the feet (almost literally) of a teacher both demanding and brilliant.

    How the years scoot on by. At age thirty-four I had my first piece accepted by an important publication and I sat down hard on the kitchen floor and sobbed like the baby I believe I truly may be. At thirty-seven I had my first short story published. At forty-two I had a story published that won a prize worth hundreds of dollars (hundreds!). At forty-six I had a story published that earned me an unsolicited letter from an agent (again, in your fair burg).

    Last year I wrote a book (as yet unpublished) that is the best thing I’ve written and is unlike anything else I’ve done, and I turned to my wife and said, “I can play my instrument–language is my instrument, and I have mastered it at last.” (The hubris alarm sounds at this point.)

    Then came this past winter–Friday, January 13–I cam home from work and checked my domestic email, as is my wont–in my Inbox was an email from a small publisher–I pushed back from my desk, went to my wife, held out my hands and said, “I’m going to have a book published! I mean, it’s not a dream anymore. One of my books has been accepted and it’s going to be published!”

    So, all sadness and heartbreak and disappointment aside (for who escapes sadness and heartbreak and disappointment?), this writing life has had some nice peak days, including several I haven’t mentioned but enough already, and thanks for asking.

  12. first story published was a big big big deal. it was wonderful to have a piece accepted by a literary magazine. there’s big money in shorts. kidding.

  13. I tapped out a big list and then realized it was all neurotic and name droppy. Blech. Never mind.

  14. This thread makes me want to offer a different kind of Godwin prize.

    There are no peak days as a writer. I got two rejections last week, and a third round of brainless edits demanding that I spray-paint a turd. Years ago, I got a six figure offer from a famous editor. My second book of a two-book contract was rejected. I was short-listed for a second-rate prize. These things are all the same. It’s like asking what I like most about a dog crapping on my rug. “He’s got really cute ears.” I organize my life around this fact, because if I allow myself to feel the peaks, I’ll have to start feeling the valleys too.

    • I have a similar story to this. Fantastically eloquent rejection letters peppering my inbox. Exquisite close-but-no-blow missives. A few honorable mentions, some prizes. Once, I got one of those Oregon Fellowships. Same day, I got an Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Prize. I was literally unsheathing those things from their envelopes when the call came in from the police telling me that my daughter was suicidal and they were admitting her to the hospital. Four months of hell ensued, and I think it was that long before I could even LOOK at the Congratulatory letters. That same daughter, by the way, was born four days after her father was killed in a car wreck. Good news and bad news, in my experience, are a seedy pair that enjoy one another’s company.

      Peaks. Yeah. I don’t trust them.

      Sorry to piss all over your day of good tidings, Betsy.

      • I’ve never gotten an eloquent rejection letter. Mine always say, “While this is okay, it’s not okay enough.” (And goddamn, Sisi, those’re some valleys. Mine are just faint ruts that only turn into major depressions after much effort, through the force of my hysteria.)

  15. My peak day as a writer was a day I didn’t write a word. It was one of those moments where you look back and say, that’s when I decided to… (whatever). Big Sur at the end of the sixties. A dozen things that could make you fly higher than a kite and most of them not chemical: smell and sound of the Pacific, shiny happy people, a boy by your side with hair longer than yours, redtails soaring, warm sun, cool breeze, just the right amount of fog at just the right times. And not far away, almost close enough to touch poncho or fringed jacket, Crosby Stills Nash and Young playing Down by the River like nothing I’d ever heard (and I’d heard a lot by then). Magic. Nothing but net. (go Celtics)

    The best part was getting how music and story were the same. I knew I could never make sounds like that but maybe, just maybe, I could translate them to the written page. Learning viscerally how story is nothing more than a moment. Maybe I can translate moments, maybe not. But I always wanted to thank Neil Young for letting it all out that day in a way everyone there could experience. Crosby too–that beatific smile. Nash—that peacefulness, a genuine sweetness. And Stills–that guitar, the one that hooked into Young’s like god was playing them both. So yeah–touching Neil’s poncho… wow. And this from someone who would rather be tortured to death than express any semblance of star-suck. Heart of gold indeed.

  16. once when august was a guest blogger on here, he said betsy should trade out his list for the one i wrote. if we’re going on name dropping and neurotic tendencies, that’s been my best writing day so far.

    • August gave me my best writing day, too. I plan to have his name tramp-stamped on my ass. I’ll tell my husband, We met at the end of one magical summer, darling, don’t you remember?

      • after reading laura’s post a second ago (that started, “this august…”), i was thinking how the month never occurs to me first anymore.

  17. The peak moment of my writing career? The day I wrote the last sentence of the book I’d been laboring on for some fifteen years. Words that were born out of the story of my father’s life that I’d been trying to tell; out of the unbelievably arduous journey I’d been through just to get to “the end”; out of the whole unbelievable mystery of this godforsaken man whom fate had given to me as a father; and out of finally getting the why and the what for of the pain at the heart of my family. At that moment I didn’t care if I ever got published, or saw the book in print: what mattered most was that I’d done what I’d set out to do, had written what had been asked of me as a writer by some unknown but very demanding force, and by doing so had glimpsed the cosmos in the mundane. Of course it wasn’t soon before I came to ground, hard, but three years and many rejections later, that peak moment continues to sustain me, a little juicy secret in my writer’s heart.

  18. My best day. A day spent on set of my film. The day I won an Awgie Award presented by HG and Roy and I kissed them both on the mouth.

  19. When people laughed at my writing in a workshop and when Levellers Press sent me a positive response to my query. I love Levellers Press. They’re in Amherst, Mass. and I buy their books.

  20. Waking up one morning and finding a package outside my front door with a wonderfully generous letter from an editor and two books inside. I swooned. Sound familiar Betsy? –Wendy

  21. Moments of clarity in the chaos of a writing life. Getting an email from my agent after reading my mss: this is big. Getting a call from my producer that Scorsese might executive-produce my first screenplay. Neither of which panned out- but it’s sorta like the puking after steaks and martinis at la brasserie. When you’re in that zone, the past and the future do not exist…

  22. In 1992, I had a story in Esquire summer reading issue and it was illustrated, unfortunately for the reader, with a picture of me standing in my kitchen. A couple of weeks after it came out I was walking up Broadway around 97th Street and this young guy walking toward me with his girl was staring at me and as we crossed he said, hey, did you just have a story in Esquire? and I said, yes, and he said, it was fantastic. And I said, thank you. Thank you very much…. The only time I was ever recognized on the street. I dug it. It should happen to everyone once. That guy, wherever he is now, deserves a prize — caring that much about what he reads.I didn’t know then how rare that would become.

  23. I haven’t been published, so you have to put what I consider “peaks” into perspective. For me, the first “peak” came when I got to work with a freelance editor who works for Harper Collins. I received her editorial letter about my ms that started off “I loved this…” She then went on to sing praises about sense of place, voice, writing style wonderfully fluent…” of course there were things to fix but her positive feedback sustained me for the next 9 months while I worked on it. (I’d go back and re-read that letter over and over)

    The next peak was when she said the ms was ready to be sent to agents and after a couple months of queries, rejections, an agent fell in love with it and took me on. It took a week for my heart rate to go down.

    It’s sort of been the valley of darkness since – the book is still in submission, but…it’s awfully quiet “out there” and…oh wait, you said doom and gloom tomorrow. I’ll hold off.

  24. My highs are simple. They’ve come about when what I want to express comes out like a Xerox copy of my heart and mind. It’s an added hug when an audience appreciates it, too, but, really, they’re not part of it at all.

  25. My first by-line on a Sunday feature story in the daily newspaper I worked for kept me grinning for days. Lots of by-lines came after that, some on stories I was really proud of. But the next high I had was unexpected. My in-laws lived in the same town and my mother-in-law made no attempt to hide her contempt for me. She never said anything to me that wasn’t absolutely required. But after she died, my father-in-law gave me a giant envelope filled with every story I wrote for that paper in the five years I worked there. My mother-in-law had carefully cut them out every week and saved them. I still marvel at that.

    I’m still waiting for a peak on my fiction writing. First I have to finish something.

  26. I love everyone’s stories.

    First moment of recognition as a writer was when my first piece was accepted by Creative Nonfiction, first and only submission. The editor Lee Gutkind called me personally and when he identified himself “This is Lee Gutkind calling” I said “No it isn’t” realized what I said and got the giggles so bad I started snorting. The only reason I was home was the friend’s car I was borrowing had a flat tire and I was frantically calling around trying to find a jack and someone to help me. No answering machine as was just switching to voicemail and hadn’t set it up yet. There have been other pieces accepted since than but that one I’ll always remember.

  27. not to get all gushy or anything, but it is a constant peak to get to hang out on this blog with all the rest of you.

  28. I recently watched “Believe in Eve,” a feature film that never got distribution for which I wrote the script and help produce. There is a simple scene wherein the protagonist lovers walk arm-and-arm through L.A.’s barrio at sunset to a flamenco guitar. There is a voiceover of a poem I wrote for the female lead who was also a girlfriend at the time.

    It’s a lilting scene and a wonderful keepsake of my youth.

    Many poets are published, but few get to see their verse amped by light, music, film, and acting.

    Years of things turning to crap suddenly seemed worthwhile

    • i love this. the voiceover.

      it’s like being one of the back-up singers, don’t you think? that’s not a negative. i’ve always wanted to one of the back-up singers. stage left, black dress, do-wapping.

  29. I am so glad for you being in that limo and chatting with people you so admire. Don’t you feel like you are living your dream?

    I started late in life with the writing deal so. . .Peak? Toss up between good review from published writer and selling ten books yesterday all by myself.

  30. I was skimming the bibliography of a historical biography once, looking for primary sources for a patron, and found that the author had quoted and cited an article I’d written on the subject.

    A couple grad students—and one university press editor—have called the library over the years to ask about the author of various local history articles on our website. It’s such an ego boost to spell out my own name.

    As for fiction, earlier this year, I asked an author I met online and later face-to-face at a conference to read over a few scenes from my WIP (because my gun-knowledge is shaky), and she offered to blurb it when it was done. i’m still hugging that one to myself.

  31. In 2009, chief editor of an independent publishing house read 30 pages of my unpublished novel as part of our joint participation in a writer’s conference. After which we met for my critique. He opened with something along the lines of: “I love it. I have no real criticisms. The characters are fully developed, there’s an interesting and well-paced plot. The story is sellable. I’d like a copy of the full manuscript to take back as a submission to _______ Publishing.”

    11 months, several conversations and one trip across the country later, it ended without an offer. But that initial meeting was delicious.

  32. A reading at Shakespeare & Co., Paris. That was cool.

  33. Love these.

    I remember getting a call from a fantastic agent, and hearing her say yes, and then the conference call with the editor, and the two-book deal, complete with an actual contract, and all the while I’m thinking: This is an amazing amount of effort for a practical joke.

  34. God-damn what great stories here today. What a bunch of dreamers we all are. It’s like being sick and then finding out other people are sick too with what you’ve got and somehow it makes you feel better because you’re not the only one.
    Writing/illness, yeah, that’s exactly what I mean.

  35. Getting a call from Dan Menaker at The New Yorker about my short story, which was a piece of my first novel in progress. It was a slush pile find by his then-assistant David McCormick (who is now in partnership with my wonderful literary agent at McMormick & Williams). My first fiction in print, that story, appeared in The New Yorker in January of 1993 and it totally changed my life.

    • They won’t even print my cartoon captions.

    • They don’t appreciate mine, either.

      I did once come close to getting a cartoon accepted there, in 1995. The editor loved it, but Tina Brown didn’t get it, so that was that. A tank full of tropical fish all facing the same direction, swimming in a formation that spelled out E=Mc (little 2). The caption: “Think Tank.”

  36. My pieces were always chosen to be read before the class when I was in middle school and high school, and right through college. I won a couple of competitions of little import.

    Here’s a name-drop: I was the editor of my high school lit mag, and my assistant was Laurel Touby, founder of MediaBistro.com

    I had a couple of little pieces published in college newspapers, a music review that was cut by two-thirds because I ignored the word count, and a memoir piece in a Boston indie ‘zine, my copies of which I foolishly renounced (i.e., threw away) when I moved into the ashram. If anyone can help me find a copy (Cruel World, the Combat Zone issue), I would be eternally grateful. (Update: I gave it another try and might have found the copy editor for the mag. Waiting to hear back).

    Sometimes I read stuff I’ve written and think, “I wrote that?” Makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I can do this. So, yeah, the writing itself can be a peak experience.

    I occasionally get “fan mail” from readers on an email list for Hare Krishna women who like my writing, asking for more.

    Perhaps the highest peak was when an agent whom I respect told me that she would read my manuscript, should I ever complete one. She’s still waiting, but not for much longer, I hope.

    All the encouragement I get from y’all on this blog is more than a peak, it’s a lifeline. Even the discouraging comments I sometimes get are encouraging. Getting any kind of notice from someone whose work I respect tells me I’m at least worthy to sit on the bench. Someday I’ll get up to bat, and swing for the team.

    This almost felt pathetic, but I feel I should acknowledge whatever positive reinforcement I get for writing. If I’m not grateful for what little I’ve got, how will I be open to getting more?

  37. A respected English journal with at least one Nobel Prize winner on the board (Nadine Gordimer) says yes to my short story after two years, a 3000 word cut and momentous editing. I was happy. Oh lots of valleys and shitty grey plains

  38. You lucky person. Did Windy talk the way he sings? That’s what someone told me.

  39. Erm, read it wrong. Thought Windy was HIS nickname.

  40. I received an acceptance by e-mail, but thought I had read it incorrectly. I printed it out so I could read it over and over again. I screamed, jumped up and down and went running through my house yelling, “I did it, I did it, I did it!”
    My husband came in after doing yard work. I threw my arms around him and told him I was going to be published. He said, “Did you notice I trimmed the trees in the patio?”

  41. I’ll let you know.

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