Posted on May 1, 2013 by betsylerner
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?
Filed under: Uncategorized, Writers, Writing | Tagged: NYT, writing, Zinsser | 53 Comments »
Posted on December 12, 2011 by betsylerner
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?
Filed under: Fame! Celebrity! Riches!, self-loathing, Uncategorized, Writers | 67 Comments »
Posted on June 15, 2011 by betsylerner
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?
Filed under: Uncategorized, Writers, Writers Conference | 84 Comments »
Posted on April 25, 2011 by betsylerner
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?
Filed under: Filthy Lucre, Writers, Writing | 67 Comments »
Posted on February 8, 2011 by betsylerner
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.
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.
Filed under: Writers, Writing, You Go Girl | 75 Comments »
Posted on December 20, 2010 by betsylerner
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.
Filed under: Writers | 81 Comments »
Posted on December 19, 2010 by betsylerner
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.
Sinerely, NAME WITHHELD
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.
Filed under: neurosis, Writers | 61 Comments »
Posted on November 28, 2010 by betsylerner
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?
Filed under: Writers | 37 Comments »
Posted on November 7, 2010 by betsylerner
Cher Madame Lerner,
Until July 3rd of this year I never wrote anything but prescriptions albeit good ones like valium and prozac. Since then I have been writing about my recent mid life crisis which involved me walking away from a big career as a psychiatrist in Canada to clean toilets in rural France (seriously). Now every single day someone tells me that my doodles would make a great book. I imagine this falls into the same category as everyone thinking they have good taste, a great sense of humor and excellent driving skills.
My question is this. I have discovered that I love writing beyond all things but I have no idea if I’m any good or ‘marketable’ in any way so how does one test those waters? I know that you likely get a million emails like this every day but if you answer mine I’ll quid pro quo ya with 1 piece of free psychiatric advice. Desperate ploy I know.
Anyway, I really enjoy your blog and thanks for your time.
Regards, (Name Withheld)
Often at writing conferences, when we are talking about the fine art of query letters, people ask me how I like to be addressed. Cher Madame Lerner is how I like to be addressed. I knew I would answer this letter long before the promise of psychiatric advise. Here’s the deal. You are smart to recognize that everyone thinks they are good at driving, etc. You are also in good company: Eat Pray Tampon. Under the Tampon Sun, A Tampon by the Sea. There’s lots of precedent for women doing mid-life, peri-menopausal walkabouts. I think I’m about to embark on one myself. I think I’ll call it Moby Tampon. IDK. All that matters is the writing. And if you evoke that universal feeling of being stifled, of loveless marriage, of desperately craving to change, and hungering for something that might be called spiritual, along with a good Fourme de Montbrison and Pinot Gris, who knows you might have a major bestseller on your hands and a movie that grosses 44 mil domestic unless Meryl Streep plays you, in which case bump that to 112 mil.
Dude, write your heart out. Delete half of it. Get it into the hands of a writing workshop, class or freelance editor. Work on it more. Repeat. Send it to moi and five other agents. See what happens. If you bottom out, try again. Revise. Start a new project. Revise, etc. Never give up. Self-publish. Just keep writing and developing and living. That’s the most important part.
If you comment today, please leave one free piece of psychiatric advise, either for me or the other mental patients who hang around this blog. And to to our French wanderer: Thanks for the question and Bon Chance!
Filed under: Writers, You Go Girl | 43 Comments »
Posted on August 23, 2010 by betsylerner
Good god, how do the bloggers do it every day? I know people who get paid to do it, so that’s one thing, but right now I have a fever and some kind of all-over body ache and I can’t even keep the goldfish down. (The ones by Pepperidge Farm, not the kind that silently judge you while you make love with your spouse.) Anyway, I wanted to at least say hi and leave you with something, anything, to keep you hanging on till Lerner gets back.
These images are from a website called Better Book Titles by a comedian named Dan Wilbur, who was bummed everytime he went to the bookstore to browse and couldn’t tell from the cover or jacket copy what the heck the book was supposed to be about. So he made new covers so America could get the gist. Some of them are funnier than others, you know, but this is the best thing I saw today through my fever haze.
Is The Girl With the Pearl Earring Tattoo worth reading? Cause when books get this popular I simply skip em.
* This post was written by Erin Hosier, who has studied under Betsy Lerner for 2666 years.
Filed under: Books, Media, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing | 17 Comments »