• 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.
  • Archives

The Truth is I Never Left You



How many times do you submit something before you grab a shovel? How much rejection can you take? And do you give up because you’ve come to believe that the motherfuckers are right and the novel isn’t really ready for publication, or do you put it away feeling that a masterpiece has been buried like the unknown soldier? When do you decide to workshop the novel, go to writers conferences, hire a freelance editor. Or start all over. I remember when I was applying to MFA programs, I was waiting to hear from four schools: Stanford, Iowa, Brooklyn and Columbia. Stanford: no. Iowa: no. Brookyn: no. I told myself that if Columbia didn’t accept me and if, as a result, I stopped writing, then I wasn’t much of a writer to begin with. It was that formulation that kept me going: no one, no institution, no agent, no editor could tell me if I wasn’t good enough. And if I did quit, if I did pack up my marbles and go home: so be it. The only one who can ultimately reject you is yourself. I got into Columbia so I didn’t have to test it. Thought after I got the degree, I stopped writing entirely for a very long time.

What could make you quit?  What keeps you going?


33 Responses

  1. I quit three years ago. I remember sobbing forever in a hot shower. I felt bereft and so alone. Then, 3 years later, I knew I had nothing else. I was too old to train for other things, I wanted the freedom to visit grandchildren, etc., and I decided to try again. That’s all. Try again.

  2. I stopped worrying about submitting to the agent and publishing when I realized I really just wanted to write to please myself. If Salinger and Larrson could do it, why not me? Once I’m finished the next great tome, maybe I’ll send it to my agent. Or maybe I won’t. Now the writing is fun again.

    • This is good. We write because we need to write, have an intensity for the process. Fun—yes, though sometimes it is deeper, Erasmus and Capra notwithstanding. We write because we must. Outcome is a different thing. Publication is a different thing.

  3. the fuckers were right: neither was ready for publication. Along the way I did a dozen high quality conferences, editors, back to school: I persisted. And for a long time the rejection didn’t keep me from continuing, mostly because I feel infinitely better about myself and life when I write. Now, after a two year work/self imposed moratorium, I can see the flashes of brilliance in the rawness of novel #1 and the much improved craft in #2. Time to combine the two. I love the fuckers and everything they represent but I love writing so much more.

    • Writing is the thing and the thing is writing — I’m glad you’re back with pen and paper (keyboard and screen?), Mary.

  4. What keeps me going: wanting to write a sentence as good as my favorite crazy ones by flannery o’conner.

  5. Quit?
    Can we do that?
    Seriously. Doesn’t make sense.
    What keeps me going is being alive. More serious cycles of unwellness can stop me for awhile, but not long.
    In the beginning, there was the word. Then the word met another and another, and they all orgied out, fucking bigtime. And the babies — because fucking makes babies, always, of some sort — so yeah, the babies were sentences and other strange stuff that hardly mattered at all except for how, together, they all became stories. And the stories mattered because they reached into the void where there wasn’t nothing but was something and those words, they lit it the fuck all up, and then there was light and sparkfuckingfire. And as dark and as light and as inbetween as it ever did and does and will get, the words will always all come together and do their fuckwordyfuckorgy wordthing — and there will be stories, there must be, there are, and life is for living and being and dreaming, The Great Fucking End, on and on.

  6. What could make you quit? What keeps you going?

    I’m not sure. Like you, I’d been having similar conversations with myself when the last book went on submission. The “what if” this one doesn’t sell? Like you, I didn’t have to test where I suspected I was headed, but even today, I wonder…because I sensed for maybe the second time in my life should there be nothing to come of it, I was about to climb on the despair train and ride it for a while.

    It doesn’t take much to keep me going. One kind word about the work sits with me for days. Weeks actually. Okay, months. This is why writers are like wiggly puppies when someone acknowledges – even in the smallest of ways – a shred of brilliance.

  7. The first memoir I worked on was shit. It even bored me. Then I tried a novel and decided I’m not very good at fiction. Went back to a memoir, but instead of trying to condense an entire lifetime, I went with just part of it and I’m trying to tidy it up, which is no easy task for the owner of a disheveled psyche. The minor character PigPen in Peanuts, the kid who can take a shower and have a dirt devil swirling around him before he towels off? — that’s my brain. I write and write and write then sit back, re-read it and think, how could something that seemed so good in my head come out so bad on paper? Then I’ll write something I feel is good, get positive feedback at a conference or workshop and be off on my merry way again. It’s a learning process and hopefully I’m making some kind of progress at filtering out what’s bad and keeping the good.
    Quitting? No, not an option. It’s more of a redirection than giving up. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’ve been dreaming of words on paper since before I had pubic hair.
    Keeps me going? Whatever it is that’s up around the next bend.

    • Yes. Redirection instead of giving up works for me, too.

    • You have pubic hair?!?!?!?!?!?

      MikeD, dude, how old ARE you? Oh shitskels, it’s grey, isn’t it? You have pubic hair, and it’s grey. Or gray, more likely. But if you came to Oz, it’d be grey.

      What a great post this turned out to be. You can tell, not just by the post and the answers, but by all the great comments on what others said. Thanks, Betsy, and everyone else too. Best community ever, even if we’re all of us crazy, and fuckers like me keep bringing the niceness average down.

      • No it’s black. That surprised me actually; just turned 61 and the hair on my head (what little there is) and on my face is grey heading toward white. But the other day while looking in the mirror — something I’m reluctant to do these days; how did I get this old man’s body? — I noticed my pubes were still black. Imagine that!

        And Australia’s a place I’d love to see. I’ve met a lot of great, fun people from the land down under.

        • You’re very welcome to visit.
          We can hang out and tell stories and float around on the lake writing bullshit.
          Just keep your pubes where I don’t have to see them, and we’ll have a fine time.
          PS: I too need to avoid mirrors, and resemble Santa Claus more every day. I wonder if Santa still has black pubic hair too

  8. Panic attacks make me quit and recovering from them keeps me going.

  9. I’ve felt despair about my ability, sometimes for good reason. Not just awkward, misplaced, or just bad writing. The better I get, the more I see how a beautiful line or phrase is sometimes the enemy of a good story, and a wonderful chapter can derail a good book—one of the many tests of whether we are good or great writers. I have agonized that I am not up to it.
    There are works so complete, with craft so seamless and inner vision so fully realized, so subtle and powerful, that the whole says to us: there is no limit to great writing, what it can be, how it can move, intrigue, enlighten us.
    Will I ever write something like “The Dead,” or Ellroy’s “White Jazz,” or Gogol’s “The Overcoat”? Something as sharp and haunting as Patricia Highsmith’s “Doorbell for Louisa” or even a yarn as ripping as a Patrick O’Brian book? Am I able to evoke a lost world with ache and grace, as Cather does in “My Antonia”?
    No other art brings us to Human like writing.
    I have finished one long work, and because I want some kind of justice—it describes my five days of violent sexual assault as a fourteen-year-old boy in 1970, and the collusion of guards that made it possible—I will never quit looking for the widest possible distribution for it. Yet even though I have only started sending queries to agents (seven so far), it feels like hundreds, and forever, and impossible, and I feel keen despair at times. Not for the work —it has been “vetted” by some talented, successful writers—but because the current publishing market for memoir, and the material, might make such a book effectively un-publishable. Despite the ultimate redemption of its characters and lives, the beauty and uplift of some parts, it is difficult and heartbreaking, as is the reality and aftermath of all severe trauma. But I will never quit the effort. Because I want my best work to be known, yes, but there are over 10,000 children in adult lockup on any given day in America. For their sake, and for the sake of the hundreds of boys before me and after me in that “protected” cell.
    And because St. Louis must answer for more than the abomination that was Boonville. They must answer for the degenerate facilities that were its satellites.

    • I can’t tell for sure because I haven’t read your work, but from what you’ve posted, it’s a powerful and personal work, one I hope helps bring about the change you’re fighting for. Peace.

      • Thanks, Mike. I appreciate this comment community, our shared experiences as writers who have “come a distance.” I like Betsy’s personal, shrewd, cogent prompts.
        I never told anyone about my upbringing and jail, not until just two years ago. It took serious help to finally do so. I had to go mad first, and I am still some Other Thing. So I hope folks forgive me for going bare here. Not talking about it almost ended me, and where is the appropriate place to say “rape” if you are a man? Men don’t tell, but should.
        I have a measure of cover here, framing as we do through the prism of writing and writers. It’s unique, for me, and good. And I think the topic—how does one write about real horror?—is a legit and in a sense a universal issue for all writers.
        Each of us has a horror, and they are not diminished, must not be, by comparison to banner stories like mine, or those camps in Yugoslavia, or enslaved villages in The Congo. Rising from the numb, dead space I was in for forty years has made me compassionate in a way I did not expect. I even feel a contingent, vacillating compassion for the three boys who assaulted me. Though none at all for the guards and COs who permitted it.
        Some of the best writing I know brings to life the small horror, the crippling, cringe-worthy shame that haunts us, and is so hard to leave behind. A slight by a mentor, a loss before we had skills for understanding loss, a bad choice that caused harm—we carry these, sometimes, as trauma, with trauma’s disjointed sequences and somatic, nonverbal power. I have come to understand we do this as human apes, and the scale of the injury is not necessarily the measure of its persistence and pain. The best writing cradles these, looks over a character’s shoulder at what they would not see, and brings us to kissing distance, breath-on-neck distance, so we feel it, bear the unbearable, and understand what characters on the page all but see, themselves.
        I removed two-thirds of my memoir, after realizing all of this. It’s not the horror and shock that moves us. It’s the climb to our feet, after. And that struggle is the same, give or take, for all of us.

    • Greg, a good piece of work, well and truly done, can always find a place in the world.

  10. So much of life depends on a red wheelbarrow, but someone’s gotta push it. Some time ago, I hired a free lance editor who told me most writers lose their energy, don’t finish. Did she put a hex on me? I hope not. But life intervened, I stalled, and packed up some – but not all! – of my marbles. And probably lost a few along the fettered path. I check in here, though, at Betsy’s place, to connect with you all, longing for some preservation of what was, what still might be.

    • Don’t give up. Pick a genre from a hat and write one ridiculous page. Describe a rock. Write about giving up. But don’t give up.
      Don’t long. Phuck marbles. Write.

      • Thank you! I needed your kind coaxing. At first, I thought you wrote “pluck marbles.” Both work!

  11. If I say it’s over, then it’s over. Nobody will force me to be a writer once I stop writing.
    And yes, there’s tension between the confidence in isolation a writer requires in order to finish a book, and the stamp of approval required from thousands of people once the work is done. But that’s drama, the kind we put our characters through all the time on the page, for the sake of the story. So it’s only fair that I suffer too, just like I make them suffer. Then I have something to say on the page.
    I keep going because it’s in my power to keep going.

  12. “How many times do you submit something before you grab a shovel?” It depends. Most of the time, with fiction, I know I’m on to something when I first write the piece. Most of them need rewrites, from little tweaks to major renovations. I have pieces that it has taken me twenty years to find publishers for. Other pieces have been published not long after birth. Very few pieces that I have taken to the level of submitting do I later give up on entirely.

    “How much rejection can you take?” I don’t know. I haven’t got there yet.

    “And do you give up because you’ve come to believe that the motherfuckers are right and the novel isn’t really ready for publication, or do you put it away feeling that a masterpiece has been buried like the unknown soldier?” Neither. If there’s something in a piece, I return to it over time and find that something.

    “When do you decide to workshop the novel, go to writers conferences, hire a freelance editor[?]” You get a feel for it. When you know what you’re doing is not enough. When you feel trapped within your skill set and you need to break out, then you do what it takes to break out.

    “What could make you quit? What keeps you going?” Nothing I could conceive of, short of a physical catastrophe that left me shut inside myself and unable to communicate, could make me quit. What keeps me going is this is who I am. I write what I write. It has been my being-in-the-world for almost fifty years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: