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 April 23, 2012 by betsylerner
Can writing be taught? Can lovemaking be taught? Forget lovemaking. Can you teach someone how to kiss? How to stand on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 44th Street and to all the world appear as if you are not contemplating the curb and its elegant heel. Can you teach someone how to properly sponge around the faucet when you finish the dinner dishes? Can you teach someone to appreciate sleep? To understand the perfect weight of a heavy head meeting a soft pillow, the body forgetting itself, a cotton nightgown swimming up? Can you teach someone to punctuate? Probably. Can you spell hopeless? Can you teach someone to write funny? To cook a perfect hard boiled egg so that the shell comes off in two perfect cracks. Can you teach someone how to cry, softly at first, and then in rivulets like rain down a Texan window. What about cliche? Can you teach it, beat, eat it, fuck it? Can you teach someone how to make something satisfying, to withhold your tongue for as long as possible?
What can be taught?
Filed under: Writing | 35 Comments »
Posted on January 25, 2012 by betsylerner
Got another query letter from prison today. It comes stamped on the back with a notice about what to do if you are receiving unwanted correspondence from an inmate. This particular prisoner quoted some of the best bits in The Forest For The Trees to impress upon me why I might like his work. Many writers have done this, but when it comes from the incarcerated it is unbelievably touching and a little scary. The letter was also hand written in the neatest imaginable block letters. Maybe I’ve seen Dead Man Walking too many times, but it amazes me to think that my book has found its way into a prison and a person there who wants or needs to write connected with it. I once read that a prisoner who was denied pencil and paper wrote sentences on the roof of his mouth with his tongue.
Did everybody write today? And if not, why not?
Filed under: Uncategorized, Writing | 73 Comments »
Posted on January 1, 2012 by betsylerner
I want to talk about being selfish, about being a selfish bastard, about boundaries and limits and the hard bark of an elm tree. I want to talk about waking up in a cold, empty house. Outside, gnarled gray branches electrified the sky. The plan is to work all day. Reading Poets & Writers to procrastinate, you see the face of a poet you once loved, followed to Baltimore; a failure in courage when you didn’t say hello. Later, a fruitless trip to Staples, forgetting the kind of toner you need, standing in the aisle like Ruth amid the alien corn. Can I help you, ma’am? Yes, dear man. Can you cover my body in toner and set it on fire? I spent the vacation writing. Writing!
I was hoping to do something new with the blog this year, to be positive and affirming and full of love, but I can’t. I can’t. I can’t and I won’t. Resolution: eat shit and die.
And your resolution? Whatcha got?
Filed under: The End of the World as We Know It, Uncategorized, Writing | 44 Comments »
Posted on September 13, 2011 by betsylerner
Let’s talk about a subject near and dear to my gall bladder. The way writers talk about their own work. Often they tell me that they think their work is good, quickly followed by a caveat, “but what do I know,” or ” but you’ll tell me.” Some will go out on a limb and tell me that they think they are better than Franzen or (insert the name of the author about whom you are most envious). Other writers tell you their work is crap, shit, etc., and you are meant to rush in like a wave and banish that thought. Though some, even highly decorated writers, do believe their work is crap, and it is a sign of mental illness. I love it when someone says they are not great, but they are good. And we are meant to understand that good, in this context, is somehow better than great, somehow more real, more honest. “I’m not saying I’m the best,” means “I’m the best.” ”I don’t care if I win a Pulitzer” means “give me a god damn Pulitzer.”
I think how you feel about your work is an extension of how you feel about yourself. Does this make sense or am I blowing more Lerner smoke? Better yet: tell us how do you feel about your work?
Filed under: Writing | 73 Comments »
Posted on August 17, 2011 by betsylerner
This is a post about something very difficult to come to grips with that no one likes to talk about — it’s about hitting the wall. And by that I mean when you are stuck, whether you’re crashing into the wall or the wall is crashing into you. I’m not talking about a bad day or even a few months of writer’s block. I’m not talking about a string of rejections or seeing your book on the remainder table where no one wants it, even for $5.99. What I’m talking about is something deeper and more terrifying. It’s when you realize you’ve been writing the same book over and over. Or when you can no longer stand writing in the register you’ve been writing in and don’t know how to get out. This isn’t a slump, a bad patch, a bush-league case of writer’s block or stage fright. This isn’t about not being able to come up with a new idea. This is bad. It’s when you understand the limits of your imagination, intellect, creativity, skill, or drive. It’s when you no longer know when you’re faking it; when you’ve succeeded at fooling yourself. I’ve seen it in writers over the years. You can’t say anything. It would be cruel, like waking a sleepwalker. You know the writer is in agony even if he can’t admit it to himself, even if he’s on the couch five days a week, it’s almost impossible to admit.
What I want to know is: have you hit the wall and what did you do?
Filed under: The End of the World as We Know It, Uncategorized, Writing | 47 Comments »
Posted on August 15, 2011 by betsylerner
I’ve always been turned off by people who say they can’t write certain things until their parents die. Does that mean they go around hoping for mom and dad to choke on a pecan at Thanksgiving? I don’t think you can hijack your writing for the sake of people’s feelings. And who are you really protecting? And I’m not just talking about confessional or autobiographical writing. All writing has something at stake, or should, in my humble. You don’t have to engage in character assassination, or pen a Mommy Dearest, but you have to take me there. I want a manuscript to take me somewhere I’ve never been, or somewhere I’ve been a million times and show me something new. I don’t like polite writing, polite conversation, or conversation about weather. I want a writer to be fearless because I’m a pussy.
Who are you protecting?
Filed under: Uncategorized, Writing | 51 Comments »
Posted on July 4, 2011 by betsylerner
Dear Betsy: I’m a big fan of the blog and both of your books, especially Food and Loathing. I have a question about revision. How many revisions are too many? When should you put a project away and start something new? Or is giving up a mistake? NAME WITHHELD
This question has challenged talmudic scholars for years. No answer on the horizon though much discussion. Sometimes I think you have to be very holistic about revision, understanding that even if you put something away, all the work that you put it into will register in future works the way mastering a piece of music enables you to move up a rung. Revision has also been compared to finger painting. It looks great as you add one color after another and then one color too many it’s all brown and there is no turning back. Some people revise the way my mother criticizes me, little by little. Others slash and burn. Some people wait until the manuscript or poem is done, then start revising. Others can’t move from one sentence to the next unless it’s perfect (seeming). When do you stop revising? When do I stop dieting? NEVER. When do call it quits? When it would more liberating to start something new. When it bores you. When it hurts. When ten years have gone by. When the earth cracks open and an ancient hand reaches out and touches your cheek.
How do you decide to put a piece down? When do you keep revising?
Filed under: Writing | 34 Comments »
Posted on June 16, 2011 by betsylerner
How many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
One to screw it in. The other to say it was his idea.
When does being inspired by something cross the line into stealing. If nothing is original, what can you claim as your own? What is yours, mine, ours? We like things because they remind us of things we like, unless they are derivative. Rip off! I know a poet who described an idea for a poem to some of his poet friends over a beer. One went home that night and wrote it up. They never spoke again. Would they have written the same poem? What is the worth of an idea? That was my red wheel barrow! My white chickens! Glaze! Glaze! Sometimes when my husband and I hear something or see something that is a really good image or snatch of dialogue, we’ll say, “I’m using that,” as if we are children calling the plate with more macaroni or the tv clicker. And then we fight over who saw or heard it first. Sometimes, I’ll say, “take it,” as if I’m the big shit. As if I don’t need that line or any line because I have more lines than I can possibly use. Steal from me. Do me a favor.
Thou shalt not steal. Agree? Disagree? Define steal.
Filed under: Writing | 86 Comments »
Posted on June 15, 2011 by betsylerner
Dearest Readers of this Blog: I want to thank the people who comment and the undertow of lurkers for putting up with my peri-meno posts of the last few weeks, whinging about my screenplay and general douchification. I’m beginning to see a way back in. And I really want to thank the person who said make it darker instead of lighter. And while that may not be the way to go, it was good to have someone remind me that the daughter of darkness is not a pussy. Anyway, I just want to say that the wheels are turning, thank you for the pep talks and the wrist slaps alike; I’m not going to use this “platform” to dirty any more diapers.
Here’s what I want to talk about tonight. Solitude. I never actually feel alone when I’m writing. It’s every other fucking minute of the day. What about you?
Filed under: Writing | 56 Comments »