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With Lovers and Friends I Still Can Recall

Some people in publishing specialize in certain genres: science, history, sci-fi, fantasy. I’m what’s known as a generalist, which is a fancy way of saying dumbass. Or enthusiast. Or gourmand. Or freshman. Or what not. For quite a while I worked on memoirs and was known as the pain and suffering editor. If the straightjacket fits…I always tell my assistants when they are learning how to evaluate proposals and manuscripts: Prize winners and page turners. That’s what I’m looking for. Great writing will get me interested in everything from a love supreme to rats’ asses. Is it pretentious to say that all I care about is the writing. I’ll also break for an amazing person, or a crazy good idea, or pancakes. I have to admit I really feel that I am getting older, which is mostly a beautiful thing. But there’s also this sense of self preservation I’ve never had before.

What is this post about?

Throw Your Soul Threw Every Open Door

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No one wanted my screenplays. I can take off my bib and diaper and write another or I can whine about Hollywood. But I will never whine about HOllywood because I would like to wrap that tinsel cliche around me and my Tesla and burn through the Hollywood Hills with Jim Morrison flooding the night. I would like to enjoy a cobb at the Beverly Hills Hotel where they chop it so fine it’s almost pre-chewed. Did I tell you I saw Diane Keaton there and she was wearing her signature hat. I can write another and another and another. As powerless as it sometimes often always feels to be a writer, you have this thing that no one can take away.

What have you got?

I Want to Know What Love Is

 

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I’ve been getting a lot of fucked up query letters lately. People who clearly haven’t taken six seconds to look at our website and see what I’m interested in. People who come from inside an alien whale pod that hovers strangely above planet earth. One person wrote a six-page single-spaced query letter. Some proposals sell on less. The theory of relativity took fewer pages. I’ve received queries from people who seem to happily admit they have no credentials whatsoever. Pot heads, pill heads, prison guards. Journey, journey, journey. Is everything a fucking journey? Can’t anyone sit still?  One letter was in esperanto. Cuneiform. Formaldehyde. One asked me to explain how to write a query letter that he could send to other agents. Maybe it’s me.

I know it’s hard to write a good query letter, but we are talking about writers. Thoughts? Feelings?

 

 

 

How About Me Not Blaming You for Everything

 

11061_cobb_salad_600When I was a young editor and it was my  mandate to take agents out to lunch, I found the whole thing really daunting. It was worse than a blind date, though somehow like a blind date. But the worst was when a famous agent asked me to come see her near her office in the upper east side. It was a huge trek. When I finally got there, the agent was already in a booth. I sat down and she handed me a menu. I could tell I was meant to decide on something quickly, only just then I looked at her because I thought she was crying. She put her head in her hands and said, “If I have to eat another cobb salad, I’m going to kill myself.”

What do you say to that?

Then You Should Have Put a Ring On It

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One more thing from that stroll down memory lane. One young man asked me how much I read of a manuscript before I reject it.  I told the students that after all these years, I pretty much know by the first paragraph. The young man said Ooof. I thought I was demonstrating my confidence as a reader gained over many years, but of course from their vantage point I had just become the rim greaper.

Then he asked what I look for in a first paragraph to keep me reading. Baby teeth, silver charms, brass buckles, nameless women, faceless men. I want that thing called language, just one startling simile. Or VOICE. Or tap shoes, orthodontia, a character named Buck, or Puck, or Peanut, or Slim. I want I want I want to see five rats walking down the street, I want you to bring me the tattoo of Lena Dunham, Johnny Carson’s cravat, the last great kiss, or good kiss, or mediocre kiss or dry mouth or vermouth. I want a writer who is in so control so I can relax.

How much of a book do you read before you quit?

Michigan Seems Like A Dream to Me Now

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On Wednesday, I was invited to speak to a group of MFA students at Columbia. WHERE I WENT. Let’s talk about PTSD. The first day of graduate school thirty-something years ago, I climbed the steps to Dodge Hall, tripped, fell and all my shit went sprawling. I always felt it was a harbinger of things to come: many stumbles, one great terrible fall.

I’m looking at the faces of the students and it’s all there: the anxiety, competition, bravado, meekness, the sheer ambition, the massive insecurities. Their questions painted the gulf between their world and mine. I felt happy that I no longer had to spend so much energy wondering if I would amount to anything. I also felt caught up short when they asked why didn’t I pursue poetry, art. Was it failure of imagination, belief, ego? What does it even mean to ask: do you have what it takes? Maybe the question should be: what do you have to give? One young woman really pressed me: why didn’t you become an artist. Why did you make your choice. I took a breath and said I had a mental breakdown while I was in graduate school, and I learned that I needed structure, a regular paycheck, and health benefits.

What about you?

 

You Are My Inspiration

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I’m sure I’ve quoted one of my heroes here before, “Loyalty to the family is tyranny to the self.” Or quoted Philip Larkin’s This Be the Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
Look, it’s Thanksgiving through Christmas and no one goes unscathed. So don’t feel
bad. It’s hard enough being a writer, having people take you seriously, this is your brain on drugs. I know you know. And yes, stuffed mushrooms are delicious. Am I an open book? What have been trying to say for the last thirty years? John Lithgow is a terrific actor.
What’s the meanest thing anyone ever said to you about your writing?