• THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

    THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is about writing, publishing and what makes writers tick. This blog is dedicated to the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gather here. I post less frequently now, but hopefully with as much vitriol. Please join in! Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives.

    If I’ve learned one thing about writers, it’s this: we really are all alone. Thanks for reading. Love, Betsy

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You are the Sun I am the Moon

I want to address the people with writer’s block. Disclaimer: I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in anxiety, depression, fear, an abundance of self-consciousness, rage, dependencies including co-dependence, vitamin deficiency, etc. I also believe that if you write three sentences in a diary every day you’ll work your way out of it. You don’t have to be good or inspired or even have an idea. Just describe what’s outside the window, or your therapy session, or a dialogue between you and Neil Diamond. It takes time and thought to figure our what you want to write, even what you need to write. But you won’t get there by not writing. You can’t afford to have writer’s block. You can’t afford to wait, to have the perfect situation, to have a contract, to have a million people on Tik Tok. You don’t, Virginia, even need a room of your own. Notebook meet pencil.

Do you have writer’s block and how do you get out of it?

photo Boston Globe

Wise Men Say Only Fools Rush In

When I was a young poet (though god help me I never called myself that), I sent my work to literary magazines with the required self- addressed stamped envelope. I typed my little cover letters on onion skin paper and dropped them into mailboxes with a small prayer. I went to the Gotham Book Mart to discover new magazines and the monthly calendar of readings around New York. Sometimes, I’d spring for a new book of poems, get a falafel and find a place to park myself for a half hour or so. Were those the best days of my life? Far fucking from it, but tonight I feel nostalgic for no reason except it’s raining and the house smells of a soup my husband put up a couple hours ago. And I sent something new out.

How do you feel when you send out work?

Is This My Beginning or Is This the End

I recently got together with an old friend. He asked me if I started with the song lyric or the text. I had no idea he was reading the blog and felt weirdly exposed. The thing next that happened was the waitress brought a small plate with three pieces of whole wheat toast. We had both ordered whole wheat toast and it wasn’t immediately clear if it was mine or his or communal whole wheat bread. That goes down as one of the most awkward moments of my fucking life. I actually asked the waitress point blank whose toast it was. Like right in the eyes. I manned up. Normally, I would just sit there and assume the toast was for the other person and sit in the dark. No toast for Betty. Not this time. It turns out the toast was communal. Sidebar: I’ve never seen toast served that way since I visited Amish Country as a surly middle-schooler and was “forced” to eat family style with “strangers.”

Do I start with the lyric or the text?

I Said Be Careful His Bowtie is Really Camera

Whatnerd

I’m watching the final episodes of the Sopranos. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can sense it. The tension is building. Almost unbearable. How do you build tension in a piece? A stray cat? A mother pushing a stroller with a kid in a pink snowsuit, a double breasted robin? Do you ask questions? Do you withhold information, give too much? Is it pacing? Tone? Do you drop clues? Deepen your characters? Makes things more complex? Or clearer. Collude with the reader or keep her at arm’s length. Cliffhangers? Clues? A stray cat, a mother pushing a stroller with a kind in a pink snowsuit, a double breasted robin?

How do you build tension?

I’ve Stepped in the Middle of Seven Sad Forests

I’ve been working with Patti Smith for 25 years. I was 36 when we met. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. She was my hero and I was petrified. I would never be cool enough. Her lawyer told me to choose a restaurant and I was nearly paralyzed with the choice. What if she hated it? I chose a place called Nirvana with a nod to Curt Cobain. It was 15 floors up with sweeping views of Central Park. I recall that no one else was there, though that can’t be possible. I can’t recall what we ate. I was astonished at how friendly she was, how interested she was in my pregnancy. She wanted to know the due date – February 12. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, she told me. First Just Kids, then a poetry book Auguries of Innocence, then M Train, Year of the Monkey and now this gorgeous book, A Book of Days. Happy publication, Patti.

If Dreams Were Thunder

L.A. Times

Started with a new assistant today and so far so great. Working with someone who is eager to learn about publishing and is curious and excited to be around a lot of bookcases is so lovely. When I was in graduate school, I answered an ad for an assistant position at a literary agency off of Gramercy Park. The agency was housed in the basement of the couple’s brownstone. It was book-lined, manuscripts were piled everywhere. A bulletin board was fixed with book jackets. I couldn’t believe such a magical place existed and for the first time in my life I believe I found a place where I might actually fit it.

Where do you fit?

Here It Comes Here It Comes

End of an era. So I stopped taking my Lithium as of yesterday. Well, we go off it gradually. Please watch for signs of elevating and mania. Sleeplessness, grandiosity, savior complex, promiscuity, risky behaviors, convinced I’m a genius. You get the picture. If I sound cavalier or flip, it’s only because I’m totally freaked out. Lithium and I go way back. Longer than most marriages. Then again, I’m not freaked out. I have a great doctor. I know myself. I’m not 26 and wearing a backless dress to a book convention. I’m not fucking a bike messenger in a utility closet at Morgan Stanley. I’m not standing on Madison Avenue transfixed by the massive wheels on the bus. I’m not walking seventy blocks from Columbia to my apartment and stopping in one bodega after another bingeing my brains out. Those are not the lockers of my high school slamming shut in a deafening domino effect. I’m going to be fine because I want to be fine. I’ve gotten the hang of it.

What’s your relationship to meds?

Put Me Out Put Me Out of Misery

I’m never jealous. You’re never jealous. We’re never jealous. Then why do I feel so fucking jealous when I see that a Netflix movie I’m truly enjoying is created, adapted, written and produced by a famous magazine writer novelist. Obviously this person has worked like a dog and deserves every minute of every day and every avocado on whole wheat toast. What am I going to wear to the Emmy’s? If only I stayed awake through Battleship Potemkin? If only I’d stayed awake through my art history exam. Stayed awake through my SATs for that matter. Fuck.

Are you the jealous type?

It’s Only Castles Burning

I have the smallest doll, a peanut really, from a matryoshka doll. I have hard plastic see no evil monkey. I have a picture of my dad looking really happy, not worried about keeping us all afloat and seeing his three girls married. I have a row of lions on a window sill in descending order, all given to me by my mother because I am a Leo. I have an artist’s stand that doubles as a dictionary stand. I have a glass paperweight globe that says “Thinque of Me,” given to me by my beloved friend George who took his life three and a half years ago. I have a framed razor given to me by my bestie. An ashtray I stole from an LA restaurant called Citrus. A wooden stand for papers that an old friend made for me. Our letters and conversations of thirty years ago were the kindling of a literary life.

What writing talismans do you keep near?

I Was Looking for You Are You Gone Gone

Monday was publication day for Patti Smith’s new book, A BOOK OF DAYS. She did a reading and performance at the Great Hall in Cooper Union, the line went around the block on a crisp New York night. Felt really good to be alive. I’ve worked with Patti for 25 years and it’s a privilege to be her Sancho, sidekick, Plus One. A Book of Days is 365 illustrations (plus one for leap year) and captions that capture her idiosyncratic aesthetic, her passions and obsessions. The graves of writers and guitars of rock stars, journal pages and beloved poets. Pinocchio and Kurt Cobain. RayBans and coffee cups. Her Abyssinian runt Cairo. It’s a beauty.

What picture would you use for your day?