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But When You Talk About Destruction

Did you finish your memoir, your novel, one lousy stinking poem? Did you read War and Peace? Rescue a dog? Yourself? Did you jump on the Yonana craze? Lose a notebook with all of your best work? Did you pick peaches? Fuck your wife? Fuck up your life? Did you take up cycling? Wonder why you couldn’t write. Did you talk to a woman at the farm stand? Was your family trapped by a rabid raccoon who attacked your dog and bit off half your finger? Did you think about everyone who died? Did you imagine their airless life? Did you give money to the guy at the entrance to the highway because his sign said he was hungry and for once you felt more compassion than fear? What does it take to write the sentences of your life? To live inside the mole hole? And come out with that grin on your stupid dirty face.

What did you do on your summer vacation?

Just Give Me a Reason Just A Little Bit’s Enough

Dear Insane People Who Write: Why do you like being dangled by your feet from the twentieth floor of a down-on-its-heels Marriott in a bankrupt city? Why do you like the feeling of your eyes being peeled back like the film inside a hard boiled egg? Was it worth removing your baby toe? Or turning a pimple into a mole?  Yes, I’m back for more Immodium; what’s it to you? Yes, I take sleep aids.  So what if you find me walking down a dark street in my nightgown? It was just a dream that lasted seven months and then I awoke. Why do you torture yourself unnecessarily, my father used to ask. Because necessary torture is for lightweights? You can no longer remember the name of the first boy you fucked. Or what you paid for your first house. If you had chicken or prime rib at your own wedding.  Why do you like to get punched in the face, apart, of course, from being a writer?

Got milk?

I Thought That I Heard You Sing

The other day I read a quote in the NYT that stopped me. It was from William Zinsser, who wrote the classic “On Writing Well.” He’s nearly blind at 90 and still coaches students, who read their work aloud to him. “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not,” Mr. Zinsser says. I totally get that. I mean I hear everything I read. Am I being too literal? I think it’s a profound observation about reading. And, by the way, still having the interest and stamina to help writers at 90. That’s just crazy for loco. God bless you, Mr. Zinsser.

What do you read with?

It’s a Wonder That you Still Know HOw to Breathe

Today, a client described the feeling of waiting for his book to come out in the new year. “One minute I know nothing’s going to happen, it’s already over.  And the next minute I’m winning the Pulitzer.” I’m not going to say the truth is probably in the middle because more likely than not nothing will happen, another worthy book will slip beneath the waves, or as a writer once said of publishing a book, it’s like carrying a bucket of water to the sea.

We can talk about the terrible odds of getting recognition. We could also talk of the writer’s ego, the grandiosity and the insecurity, the hopelessness and magical thinking. Or we can talk about the opening night jitters, the complete and total lack of control over whether you will be reviewed at all, and if so what will be said, and then, of course, will it sell.

I ask my client what he’s working on. It’s a sleight of hand question to distract him from the oncoming traffic, but I also think that a new project is the hair of the dog and the only way to move on, move forward, to understand that this one book is just that: this one book. It does not a career make (unless you are Harper Lee). Or, like me, you can continue to shamelessly flog a ten year old book. I’ve seen embittered writers who swear off ever writing a book again, write again.

I don’t think it’s about the triumph of the human spirit. In fact, the desire to keep writing and publishing is more likely a triumph of human perversion. I want to know: does it ever get easier. Does a writer ever say, I’m good. Or, I’m happy. Or is that for other people?

My Baby Does the Hanky Panky

A friend told me that she was going to writers “conference” this weekend. Those quotation marks looked mightily suspicious to me, so naturally I emailed her back. What’s his name? She wrote back, “I wish.” Now, I ask you, what is the point of going to a writers conference if it isn’t to swap saliva? All that built up tension, anxiety, insecurity roiling through the workshops. And don’t the girls look so pretty in their indian print shirts and espadrilles. And the boys all old spicy. Who, after all, could make a better lover than a writer? Someone who is sensitive but strong, deep but shallow, narcy and giving all at the same time.

Once, at a writers’ conference, we canvassed all the women and asked them who they would rather sleep with, Richard Ford or Tim O’Brien. I guess that dates me a bit. Ford won, by a landslide. What writer would you most like to sleep with? Living or dead?

I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me But I Refuse To Let You Go

I was invited to participate on a publishing panel last week at NYU. The last time I saw that many eyes glazed over is when I was student there thirty years ago. The panel never really came together, and I think I alienated a fellow panelist right out of the gate. He was lamenting the fact that  writers couldn’t make a living just writing anymore. If five percent of writers make a living writing I would be surprised.  I said that no one invites you to write, no one cares if you do, and that it is against the world’s indifference that you create. If you are lucky enough that the world loves what you write, then perhaps you will be among the few who make their living writing. The rest of us get up at dawn or write all night, or write on vacations, or quit for years and hate ourselves in an even more special way. Is it fair that a thriller writer can make millions and poet basically nothing. Is it fair that a “popular” historian can make millions while a scholar puts twenty years into a book for which he will be paid $5,000? Fair? If my mother raised me on one consistent mantra it was this: who said life was fair? And she said it after I wailed about the great injustices of life: my sister getting a larger portion of mac and cheese, the fact that I had to wear her hand me downs, including a set of faded olive Danskins. Enough said.

Even though  I work every day to get money for writers, I still don’t think they are owed a living. They have to produce work that has popular appeal. And some have to work at it a very long time. The writer who comes out of the womb clutching a bestseller is rare, indeed. As far as I can tell, it’s a long distance race, it takes stamina and creative drive and fierce self-belief.

What say you?


What to do, what to do, O Betsy Lerner? I’m a writer with a quandary, seeking your wisdom and experience.

On to the burning issue at hand. My creative nonfiction is finally selling and a total gas to write, while my fiction writing is painful despite a promising plot, characters, and agent interest. I’m tempted to bag the novel in favor of more enjoyable nonfiction endeavors, but worry I will regret it forever if I don’t see the fiction project through.
The details, you ask? Okay, but only because you asked; I hate to impose. 

After my agent was unable to sell my first memoir (blergh), I have done pretty well selling chapters piecemeal to newspapers and magazines on my own this year. I have had a blast seeing my words in print at least once a month in one publication or another and cashing the (small) checks that arrive in the mail. I adore writing creative nonfiction, and often can’t wait to sit down to write when inspiration strikes. It’s a rollicking good time for me, and if the past year has been any indication, I’m pretty damn good at it.
And then there’s the novel. My first fiction, a YA book based on a really compelling true story, and the first 30-40 pages rock, if I do say so myself. I’m a teacher, and this novel is exactly the sort of book I’d love to put in the hands of my strong middle school readers. My lovely agent does not rep YA, so she gave me her blessing to find another agent who does. She, too, rocks. The first chapter and summary are currently in the hands of an agent who asked to see a chapter after one of his clients (an old friend of mine) raved to him about my work. No news yet.
Deep breath.
In your experience, is it worth it for an author to chip away at something that’s painful to execute and outside their comfort zone, or should said author continue to ride a wave of success while it’s got momentum and has the potential to fuel more work? NAME WITHHELD

Dear You: When I was younger, I believed that degree of difficulty was an essential part of any artistic equation as if writing were an Olympic sport and you could gain extra points for level of difficulty on the dismount. Now that I am old and time is running out, I think you should  follow the money, and by that I mean do what you’re good at, succeed, buy a condo. Success tends to breed success. Or it brings opportunity or it buys writing time. In some ways, your story doesn’t compute because you didn’t quit after you failed to sell your memoir. You still pushed it out there and met with success. You also don’t say what makes writing the novel so painful. Perhaps it’s that deeply pleasurable kind of pain, like pushing down on a bruise to make sure it still hurts.

It’s funny. I fancied myself a poet in my youth. I got an MFA in poetry, won a few prizes, got a few poems published, went to tons of readings and bought tons of poetry books. The poetry section is still the first I check out in any store and judge it by its collection. When people ask me why I quit, the answer is: it was too hard, I wasn’t good enough. Though another answer might have been: I wasn’t temperamentally suited to that life. And another: I was a pussy. Or, I quit when it got too hard. Or, Keats. Or, my brain stopped thinking like a poet’s. Did I think I was going to write an advice book? NO. Did I think I was going to work on my fifth screenplay? NO. Did I think I was going to write a memoir. NO NO NO. Did I think I was going to write a tv sitcom? NO. What is the point? I don’t know. Except I think writers ultimately write what they can. I wanted to be Anne Sexton, I wound up Erma Bombeck. You write what you write. You are what you eat. There are no career moves at the end of the day. Just you. And the shrimp special.

Betty When You Call Me You Can Call Me Al

My older sister read my script over the weekend and noted that she didn’t like one of the character’s names. When I asked her why, she shrugged, “I don’t know.” It was meant to be a funny name, or comic name. It rhymed with looney. It clearly wasn’t working. How is it that sometimes a name seems just right, perfect, beyond question? Other times, they ring wrong. Sometimes it seems as if the right name can set the stage, open doors, lead the charge. King Lear. Jo March. Augie March. Boo Radley. Newland Archer. Dick Diver. Nathan Zuckerman. Hanibal Lecter. Herbert Pocket. Victor Frankenstein. Elizabeth Bennett. Esther Greenwood. Daisy Buchanan. The World According to Garp. Garp? What makes a name memorable? Is your name your destiny? Scout. Pip. Jude the Obscure. Where do you find your names? What’s in a name? I think, for me, Charles Dickens is the author to beat for great names.

Yesterday, I was in a museum and I saw a portrait of a society lady by John Singer Sargent and I thought the name of the woman would be a terrific character: Louise Inches. What are some of your favorite character names, or if you’re really brave, fly one of your own up the flagpole and see if it waves.

We’re All Sensitive People

Hi Betsy,

My name is XXX, and I am reading and enjoying FOREST FOR THE TREES. I was surprised to find that you referred to the link between psoriasis and writing a few times in your book, especially in relation to John Updike’s reflection on the subject. I was just wondering if you or loved ones you know suffer from it, or what compelled you to include it in your book?  I am a psoriasis sufferer and a writer, and I’ve never before seen a reference to them in one place.


Dear Itchy:

Thank you for your letter. Updike’s piece about his psoriasis was a revelation to me. I had written a poem called “My Life as A Rash,” in graduate school. While I only briefly suffered from psoriasis’ ugly cousin exzema, I had the very strong suspicion that rashes were a big problem for writers. And after I started working with writers (first as an editor and later an agent), I saw that most writers enjoyed a wide array of physical symptoms (both real and somewhat hypochondriacal).  Skin eruptions were only one manifestation of a writer’s agony, though a particularly cruel and uncomfortable one given the “thin skin” and  necessary sensitivity of the writer. I’ve seen a lot of self-mutilation over the years, fingers that looked like bloody stumps. I’ve seen faces picked over, hair pulled out, massive weight gain and loss,  teeth grinding, migraines, back problems, OCD, agoraphobia, and insomnia. Show me a writer and I’ll show your someone who suffers either secretly or like John Updike, leaving flakes of skin in his wake.

Anyone  care to share their symptoms? The weirder the better.

If the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die

My husband has been reading the Saul Bellow letters. Over the last few days, he read out parts to me. I am a huge Bellow fan and plan to read the letters myself. Part of me wants to tell him to stop, don’t ruin it for me. But I don’t. I love hearing the riffs and moments that catch John’s eye. I think the theme is the same: space. How much you allow yourself as a writer.

I saw an exhibit over the weekend by a young artist called Mark Bradford. I felt an immediate kinship with paintings. As I made my way through the exhibit, I learned that his mother had a beauty salon and he learned much there about making hair beautiful and the slow processes involved. Many of his works are collages that employ permanent paper from the salon. People try to call his work collage. He says they are paintings without using paint. He also talked about space and growing into larger canvases, about being nervous at first to take up too much space. At the end of the exhibit, his paintings took up entire walls and could barely contain their energy, the power of the idea, the painstaking execution.

How much space do you take up, your work?