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Meaner Than A Junkyard Dog

Spoke tonight at the Center for Fiction at the Mercantile Library. I cleverly structured my talk in three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Only halfway through beginning I started to feel kind of nauseas of the Sartre variety. My own voice was sickening to me and I kept banging the little light on the podium. Everyone in the room appeared tired and one guy right in the middle was stone cold asleep.

A ton of people stormed the podium when I was finished wanting autographs and hugs. Some women in a writing group came up and said they expected someone much tougher. They all read the blog and they were shocked to see how sweet and gentle I am. Fuck off. They were surprised at how soft-spoken I am. Fuck off. They didn’t expect someone so nice. Hardy-fuckin-har. People, don’t fall for this nice facade, these dulcet tones. I hate myself and the horse I came in on. Other than that, it was a great night. Love, Betsy

P.S. The Fiction Center is pretty amazing. I’m going to try to go on 2/24.

May Your Heart Always Be Joyful

I thought about blogging for a year before I tried it. Every time I brought it up, my husband reminded me that it might not be a great idea given my ICP (impulse control problems). It’s been two years,  one month and eight days and I’ve been as quiet as a kitten, as well behaved as a first grade girl in a plaid jumper. And I’m fuckin’ sick of it. I want to break it down. I want to drop it. Stomp it. Eat it. Fuck it. But I can’t. I mean: I can’t. Do you know what I’m talking about? Am I in the audience or am I on the screen? Are  these my hands, folded, waiting for my carton of chocolate milk? I’m sorry, officer, I didn’t know it was a go fuck yourself zone. Pocket book. Pocket book. Sweet pocket book. Your parents are dead. Lower your standards. Raise high the roof beam. Our soup today is lobster bisque. Send it back. I can’t. I can’t. This is what I’m trying to tell you. Can a tiger change her spots? You made your bed, now lie to  me. I want to pull rolls of paper through my body. I wrote you a letter in 1997. Did you sleep with the teacher? Did you eat grilled cheeses? Why can’t you really write?

Send Me Dead Flowers By The Mail

The bats are out tonight. I don’t know why, or I’m just not saying. I keep going back to a scene in which a young man breaks down over a crib. I keep going back to a scene where a girl  locks herself inside a gas station rest room. There’s a woman at St. Dunkin’s named Shilpa, and every morning when I go to NYC she gives me  a huge smile and remembers how I like my coffee. Would you be surprised to know I sit in the same car in the same seat? I am mourning the loss of letters. I am mourning the loss of lettuce. Stones on top of graves. The cards my father dealt. Let’s split it three-ways. Promise me you’ll never never stick a needle into your face.  Sometimes when I drive I think I am a middle aged mother running errands, or a man who makes toasters for the traveling show. I feel hopeful and hopeless. I am Louis XIV. I am his heir. I am the guillotine. The humble shovel.  I thought the Elgin marbles were marbles. I am not really writing. Don’t ask me about poems. I was sixteen. Words exploded on a page. Has Betsy always been creative? Oh, yes, my mother says. I am cutting paper. I am adorable. Intent. I keep going to a scene I can’t remember.

Leave a comment and  prove that misery does love company.

Guest Blogger #5 – August

I spent a few days thinking of ways to mortify Betsy in this space, but I don’t have a copy of her updated book, and I don’t have the patience to click on every link in her blogroll looking for things to hate. I considered writing about how your publishing ‘team’—your agent and editor and publisher—functions like a family, more specifically a family in which your publisher fucks you under the stairs while your editor pretends not to notice.

Instead, however, in an effort to be helpful, here’s some shit writers don’t need to care about:

Query Letters

If you can’t write a good query letter, you can’t write. They’re business letters—that’s a lower form of writing than Tea Party signs. Describe the book. Either your description sounds like money to that particular agent, or you get a form letter.

Still having trouble with your query letter? Try this easy tip: take up scrapbooking.

Agents

Before you have an agent, your goal is finding an agent, not making agents’ lives easier. Screw agents’ lives. The only reason they have lives is that after they clawed from the grave, they hungered for 15% instead of blood.

Worrying about guidelines is bullshit. If they like what you’ve got, they’ll ask for more. If they like that, they’ll want to represent you, and you’ll slavishly agree. That’s the nature of the relationship.

Worrying about wasting their time is bullshit. Agents are hip-deep and sinking, dealing every day with the desperate, the manic, and the spittle-flecked; and those are their –clients-. Don’t worry about alienating them. This is a group of people who one day looked at writers and thought, I want to represent them. They’re not gonna remember your half-assed crazy.

Just remember that this relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, so never reveal your true self.

The State of the Book

Is publishing in decline? Yes.

In other news, you’re fat and lazy, a talentless hack. Nothing will change any of that. Publishing is in the shitter. Our goal is to swirl around as long as possible before we’re flushed. We’re not gonna reverse the direction of spin here.

Will e-readers revolutionize publishing? Sure, because an influx of semi-literate control freaks is what every industry needs. Our problem isn’t the shortage of digital formats, it’s the shortage of customers.

The one thing that distinguishes people in publishing is that instead of faking expertise about corrugated paper products or commercial real estate, we fake  expertise about books. We’re nothing special. There’s the same proportion of assbaggery in publishing as in the Solid Waste Association of North America. The difference is one group pushes a product that’s full of crap, and you know the end of this sentence.

People are idiots. People in publishing are, largely, people. We’re working in a crazily dysfunctional industry, and when by some miracle a book actually sells, we desperately try to reverse-engineer the success. But that only works when luck isn’t a determining factor. You can’t reverse-engineer a coin toss. Why is Lethem more popular than Everett? No reason at all. Why did Harry Potter sell more than 3,000 copies? No reason at all.

None of that matters. Franzen doesn’t matter and Vargas Llosa doesn’t matter. Gish Jen and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t matter and I don’t matter and you don’t matter. Editors, agents, readers, the state of publishing, the technology of reading, the insulting advances and print runs and jacket copy, the blogging, the twitting, the social media, the self-promotion: doesn’t matter.

I’m trying to write this like a comment without worrying where it’s going, but I think where it’s going is here: the first step is admitting that we’re powerless over everything but the writing. And the second step is coming to believe that the best way to deal with all those distractions is to hate them.

What do you care about as a writer, that you shouldn’t? What do you not care about, that you should?

And You May Tell Yourself This Is Not Your Beautiful Wife

I have to get back to my novel or I'll kill myself.

Lots of guest post contenders rolling in. Thank you! Many have arrived with tons of flattery and sucking up. Bring it. There were also lots of questions, so let me clarify: I’m looking for five guest posts for the week that I’m away in October. I will choose five posts from those submitted and those five will all get a FREE copy of the newly revised and updated FFTT. So send me your post and your address by October 10.

Over the weekend, I did something I rarely do. I opted out going to my in-laws so that I could stay home and write. This is radical. I always do the right thing. In eighteen years of marriage, I think I’ve opted out of family obligations three times. I think about great writers and I wonder if they capitulate to family and social obligations. Or are they ruthless with their time? I spent the day on the final polish of the pilot and banging out a first draft of an essay for Publishing Perspectives. My in-laws would never say anything; they are polite people. But I know it’s frowned upon. My husband has taken many such days and weekends (he just sold his first novel!); but I still feel guilty, like I’m a selfish bitch. For fuck’s sake, these pages don’t write themselves!

One of my heroes always used to say: Loyalty to the family is tyranny to the self. How do you deal with taking time from family or friends to write? Do you?

Baby, You’re no Good

“We delude ourselves in the appraisal of our own works and in our perpetual misappraisal of the works of others. See you at the Nobel, writers say, as one might say: see you in Hell.”  Roberto Bolano, 2666

What do we really mean when we tell ourselves that we suck? Do we also think we are great with equal passion? Does it mean we are without talent, ego, will, drive, passion, or imagination. Is it soothing to say it: I suck. Only  you don’t really mean it. Could you go on if you really believed it? Or how about: This is shit. What does that mean?  We tell ourselves a million different things all day long in relation to our writing. For me there’s nothing worse than getting up after a few hours and thinking something is good. Wait, scratch that. For me there is nothing worse than getting up after a few hours and thinking something is shit. Back up: for me there is nothing worse than wasting a few hours examining the pores on my face. What can I say: writing is looking in a mirror, down a well, through a forest that smells. It’s bread and cheese, it’s the lower lumbar crying, the balls itchy beyond belief. How do you know if you’re good, if you’re work is good? If you’re on the cover of Time Magazine? How many, even then, cry:  am I good? Do I suck? Is this shit? And does it matter, I mean beyond the check clearing as our beloved A. would say? Lower your standards! Raise high roof beam, carpenter! See you in Hell!

Do you suck?

I Put a Spell on You*

Ilan is the one on the right. Visiting Auschwitz.

A little known fact about Betsy Lerner is that she rolls with a posse of young men who all worship her. To this day my hottest, youngest ex-boyfriend is always texting me, asking after Lerner. What would Betsy think of this? Will she come to my new girlfriend’s housewarming party? It’s eerie. She just connects with the young men in a way that I think eludes most of us. Or maybe it’s not just guys – she also worked her magic on me when I was a girl of 25, and she’s totally tight now with Yale’s best offering to America, the great publishing intern, Casey Blue. But my favorite of all her boys is Ilan Zechory, the young man pictured at left. He’s happily pre-engaged with a very capable girlfriend, but if I were even five years younger I’d try to show him my vulnerable side. That’s how funny and cool he is. Anyway, now we’re both just happy to be part of the Lerner Posse, and I thought ya’ll would like to hear from him about it.

Ilan, for the folks at home, how did you and Betsy meet? Betsy and I took a screenwriting workshop together at Yale. I was an undergraduate and she was the continuing education lady. During the first couple classes, every time someone said something stupid or bizarre, she’d desperately scan the room to see if anyone had noticed. I noticed, and we bonded. We quickly moved on to pre- and post-class chit chat, snack-sharing, etc.

Do you have other older-than-you woman friends or is Betsy the first? My grandma is the OG killer lunch date, but she’s a shrink, so she tells great stories. Betsy is, however, the first mature woman I can talk to about NSFMom content (nudity, violence, strong sexual content, my “art”). This has been psychologically fortifying. Betsy’s not going to like this answer at all…

I know, but I think it’s cool. She really is so down and gives the very best advice. For me, recently, we were talking about relationships and she said, “You know how everyone always says that you have to love yourself  before you can really love someone else or be loved in return? I’m here to tell you, you don’t.” She always says exactly the right think in the moment. Can you remember a piece of advice that BL gave you that was really good? With me it’s a lot of of “No no, no, it’s NOT shit” type stuff, trying to keep my self-loathing in check. I could look back through my emails and find something more aphoristic. One time she told me “Your twenties just suck…” and that I should hold out for a better decade. That’s a thought that’s sustained me pretty well for the past few years.

Your first job in NYC was with Google, right? Are you writing? What are you doing now? After college I went to L.A. to work as a writing intern for David Milch. After a while L.A. started to make my teeth bleed, so I googled “good job in new york” and ended up with a job at Google in New York. Betsy wrote me a killer recommendation letter littered with false statements. I quit that job at the height of the recession (baller!!), and now I split my time between practicing clinical hypnosis and running Rap Genius, a website that explains the meaning of rap lyrics.

See what I’m saying? Don’t you think Lerner should open a school for wayward youth?

Wonderful Commenters: Besides wanting to hear your favorite Lerner one-liner or advice, what I really wanna know is: have you ever been hypnotized? And what was it like? What does it do? Should we throw Ilan some business? Can I watch?

*Betsy Lerner is on vacation so this post was written by Erin Hosier

Count the Headlights on the Highway

Should you know your competitor’s work or avoid it at all costs? Should you sleep with the enemy? When I was working on The Forest for the Trees, there was one book that terrified me and I stayed far away from it. It was everywhere, it was beloved, and duh it was about writing. It had the greatest title, the kind of title that appealed on every level,  and a sublime jacket, the kind of jacket that makes you want to own it, and only suits the book more after you’ve read it. Everyone seemed to have read it and everyone loved the motherfucker. Of course, I’m talking about Bird By Bird. I knew if I read it, I would never write my book. The shadow it cast was too large. I finally read it years later and here’s a newsflash, it’s wonderful. As it turns out, I really didn’t have to worry since Lamott’s book is about writing, and mine is about self-loathing. Phew.

Do you avoid certain books that you fear may steal your thunder,  intimidate you,  influence you too much,  flatten you, or kill you? Or do you read the competition first, bring it on. Or perhaps you feel there’s room for all kinds of voices and you don’t feel competitive about your work or the work of others. Then again, that might be the lobotomy talking.

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Away for holiday weekend. In laws, then my husband’s old friends from college newspaper. I am always a bit nostalgic around these people, that is if you can be nostalgic for something you didn’t have. In my case, that would be college friends. I did have some, but I blew through them pretty quickly mostly because I didn’t have a clue who I was, and basically walked up to people like the little bird in the P.D. Eastman book and asked, “Are you my mother?

I digress. What this post is about is people walking up to me and asking, in five simple words, words that feel like a switch blade to the jugular, a rope around the neck, a hot coal to the foot, the ginormous wheel of the M5 bus threatening to pull you under as it wheezes down Fifth Avenue and leaves you crushed among the spectacular debris along a Manhattan curb where just ten feet away a man coats a hotdog with mustard and hands it to a dad from Montclair who has just seen the Temple of Dendur and has already forgotten all about it.

But I digress. Five simple words: What are you working on? Variations: So, what are you working on? Working on anything new? Anything ever happen with that screenplay? Weren’t you working on something for tv? How do you get ideas? When do you have time to write? Still keeping at it? Wasn’t your sister writing something for tv? What happened to that?

How does it make you feel, you know, being asked in polite company, what you’re working on?

If I Had A Hammer

I’ve been in therapy on and off (mostly on) for thirty-five years. None of these charlatans ever seemed to be able to remember the names of the people I spoke about. Most of the time I didn’t care. Who could expect them to remember every clown who made me feel bad?

Now, I’m finally seeing this woman who I think is extremely gifted and has helped me where none have even ventured. And, are you ready for this, she remembers the name of every one I’ve brought up, even if it was a year ago and only once. Reason tells me I should be pleased, impressed, possibly moved.

Here’s what I don’t get: it annoys me. How the hell can she remember every name? Is she taking notes? Does she actually review them. I am dumbfounded by her ability and find it as inexplicable as the magician cutting a woman in half and turning her into a dove. I tell her this, that I think she’s a show off, that I’m not impressed; on the contrary, I find it off-putting, irritating.

I will give a nickel to anyone with a reasonable explanation as to why I can’t stand her for remembering every person I bring up. Or perhaps you have a story of your own insanity. Always welcome here.