The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writersby Betsy Lerner
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Who knows the mind, the motives, and the mistakes of a writer better than his or her editor? Betsy Lerner-in addition to being a prize-winning poet and an author's agent-has spent years editing for major New York houses. In this unusual and compelling book, she shares the wisdom and insights she's gained from that work. Far more than a how-to manual, this book offers inspiration, inside views, and a colorful, anecdotal look at the publishing world-all delivered in the smart, funny, unpretentious voice that has helped to make Lerner one of the most prominent names in the business.
A quirky, informal, engaging guide. (Publishers Weekly)
With this book, Betsy Lerner becomes what every writer hopes for-a friend in the business. (Chicago Tribune)
Cleverly disguised as a sensible reference work...its tone is singularly authoritative, compassionate, irreverent...and unafraid. (New York Newsday)
A fascinating look into the mind of an editor and the publishing world.... (Lucy Grealy, author of The Autobiography of a Face)
Author Bio: Betsy Lerner has worked at Houghton Mifflin, Ballantine, Simon & Schuster, and Doubleday, as well as The Paris Review and The Gernert Company, where she is currently an agent. She holds an MFA in poetry, and has won numerous literary prizes and honors.
Publisher and Editorial Director of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
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Read an Excerpt
I never dreamed of becoming an editor. Like many English majors, I spent much of my time in college reading novels and poetry, never quite fixing my attention on how I might parlay those interests into a job. In the final months of college, I went to the Career Placement Office, only to discover that I should have signed up in my junior year for the ongoing programs and job fairs. When I visited the head of the English Department to explore the possibility of graduate school, he stared at me in disbelief: Applications had been filled out in the fall.
During those frantic months of trying to secure employment, I met with the daughter of one of my mother's friends, an editor at Putnam. I put on my only dress for the interview, a cotton plaid A-line jumper with a rattan belt, and rode my bike to the publisher's offices on Madison Avenue. To calm my nerves before going in, I wolfed down a Häagen-Dazs ice cream cone. In the elevator, I realized the chocolate had stained my jumper. The editor's office was lined with shelves of books, their jackets face out. Most had huge type embossed in silver and gold. I didn't recognize a single title. Her desk was tidy, but the floor was piled high with manuscripts. I could tell that she was rushed, that her mother had put her up to this meeting, and I sat there somewhat lumpen and extremely ill prepared. After some pleasantries, she started the interview proper by asking whether I was interested in hardcover or paperback publishing. I looked nervously back and forth between her and her bookshelves, as if I were still in school and there was a chance that someone else mightanswer. Hardcover or paperbackfi Was there a differencefi I asked.
Thirty résumés and a half-dozen interviews later, I had failed the typing test at every major publishing house in New York that would see me.
I wound up taking the only job I was offered, as a receptionist in the library of a large financial institution. I probably don't have to point out that it paid twice as much as an entry-level publishing position. More important, it required no typing. In a few months' time, I was promoted to corporate file coordinator, which was every bit as Kafkaesque as it sounds. I spent most of my lunch hours endlessly browsing the dusty shelves a few blocks south at the Gotham Book Mart, a tiny shop wedged among the diamond dealers of Forty-seventh Street. I also picked up the monthly Poetry Calendar there, a broadsheet with tiny print that listed readings for the coming weeks, and scanned the bulletin board bursting with notices of all matters literary. It was there I found a small advertisement for a poetry workshop. Enrollment was limited, and six poems had to be submitted for the leader's review by the following Monday. I worked feverishly all weekend, selecting and revising the poems. When I learned, a few weeks later, that I had been accepted, I felt for the first time in a very long while that things just might work out for me.
That workshop, as it turned out, was a pivotal life experience. The teacher, Jorie Graham, then a young woman with only one book to her credit, changed the way I allowed myself to feel about writing. Until then, my writing had been a secret, almost shameful act. But during those Monday-night sessions among fellow poets I felt transformed, listening intently as Graham passionately critiqued our work and described her own fledgling efforts as a writer. I will never forget her exquisite recitation; she would hold the final syllable before a line break for a breath longer than anticipated or rush one line into the next to give it urgency and life. A year later, with a sheaf of twenty full-length poems, I applied to graduate school for an MFA in poetry.
To say that attending graduate school is the end of innocence is not an exaggeration. Once again I was wholly unprepared for what would befall me there or for the characters I would meet along the way. But for all the indignities suffered around the workshop table, one thing was very clear: I discovered that I was good at suggesting changes that could improve a fellow student's poem, whether it meant moving one stanza from the middle to the beginning, deleting a line altogether, or sometimes just changing a title. In my final year I became editor of the literary magazine, and I found that the pieces I liked best, believed had the most merit, were usually those that stirred debate or aroused strong feeling, whether or not we included them in our pages. I didn't know it then, but I was becoming an editor.
When I was granted an internship at Simon & Schuster in my final semester, my publishing career began in earnest. I remember my first day on the job. I had arrived early and was sitting in the reception area when a young woman came flying through, waving a sheet of paper and screaming, "Number six, number six!" The next thing I knew, she and an older woman were grabbing each other's elbows and jumping up and down, still screaming. I later learned that the older woman was the publisher and that one of their books had hit the bestseller list. I wondered if anything would ever make me that excited. One short year later, I caught a glimpse of myself running down that same corridor screaming with glee, an advance bestseller list in hand. A book my boss had been working on for many years, which I had helped in its final production stages, had hit the list. I had found my passion.
When I entered the business, I believed that writers were exalted beings. How else could they capture in a single phrase the emotional truth of a lifetime or render a scene that seemed more lifelike than lifefi How else could they risk their lives and livelihoods on a string of sentences, baring their souls in a world ever more hostile to artists and artfi I was in awe of all writers, even those with less than perfectly realized works. They had broken through, and somewhere books existed with their names on them. Of course, it didn't take long for those pedestals to crumble.
As an editor, I was both privy to and subjected to every aspect of my authors' lives. And the more I worked with writers, the more I found myself thinking about the characteristics that contributed to any given writer's success or failure. I saw mediocre writers who were brilliant at networking and superb writers who couldn't part with their pages. Some seemed blessed with the confidence of entitlement, others cursed with paralyzing insecurities. I saw their defenses and fears, their hopes and ambitions. Very soon I was able to recognize which writers would hunker down for the long haul, revising their texts over and over, and which felt that simply producing a manuscript should be enough to secure a publishing contract. I also began to understand the cyclical nature of the publishing business, the brutality of the media, and the vagaries of the marketplace. But more than anything else, I grew close to my authors and saw firsthand how they soldiered on in their lonely work.
Before I entered publishing, I believed, like most people, that the life of a writer was to be envied. As one of my heroes, Truman Capote, wrote, "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip." Now I understand that writers are a breed apart, their gifts and their whips inextricably linked. The writer's psychology is by its very nature one of extreme duality. The writer labors in isolation, yet all that intensive, lonely work is in the service of communicating, is an attempt to reach another person. It isn't surprising, then, that many writers are ambivalent, if not altogether neurotic, about bringing their work forward. For in so doing, a writer must face down that which he most fears: rejection. There is no stage of the writing process that doesn't challenge every aspect of a writer's personality. How well writers deal with those challenges can be critical to their survival.
Editors, like shrinks, have a privileged and exclusive view into a writer's psyche, from the ecstasy of acquisition to the agony of the remainder table. Some editors limit their concern to the challenges on the page, but in my experience the challenges on the page and the challenges in the person go hand in hand. While editors are most certainly concerned with matters of style, structure, voice, and flow, they are often faced with extratextual problems-keeping the writer motivated, seeing the bigger picture, finding the patterns and rhythms, subtexts and operating metaphors that may elude an author drowning in research or blocked midstream. In the most productive author-editor relationship, the editor, like a good dance partner who neither leads nor follows but anticipates and trusts, can help the writer find her way back into the work, can cajole another revision, contemplate the deeper themes, or supply the seamless transition, the telling detail.
This is not a book about how to write. There are dozens of excellent books about writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, from the most technical to the most esoteric. Rather, I hope to help you if you can't start or finish a project, or can't figure out what you should be writing. I offer advice to writers whose neuroses seem to get in their way, those who sabotage their efforts, those who have met with some success but are stalled between projects. I promise not to repeat the most common piece of writing advice: Write what you know. As far as I'm concerned, writers have very little choice in what they write (though I do have some advice for those who can't figure out their form). Nor will I Strunk you over the head with rules about style. Instead, I present ideas about how a writer's styles on and off the page work in tandem. Is your neurotic behavior part of your creative process or just...neurotic behavior? Do you expose too much in your writing? Or are you protecting yourself or someone else with silence? Are you an effective self-promoter or a self-saboteur? Have you bought into certain myths about the writing life that aren't helping your career?
The second half of the book describes the publishing process from an editor's point of view. I have tried to share my insights into the world of publishing from my days as a naive editorial assistant through my later years as an editor to show what really goes on there. I have some words of advice about the most commonly asked questions: Do I need an agent? Should I multiply submit my book? How long must I wait for an agent or editor to respond? What can I expect of my agent or editor? What happens once the book is accepted for publication? How do writers come up with titles? What if I hate the jacket? Should I hire my own publicist? But I also try to give a feeling of what it's like to sit behind an editor's desk and read hundreds of manuscripts, of how an editor feels when she is either supported or thwarted in her efforts to acquire a project, or when a favorite author's book is universally panned or, worse, ignored. I've tried to provide a picture of the particular pressures editors and authors feel in today's publishing climate, and of what allows them to carry on in the face of so much industry instability.
In the time since I began gathering notes for this book, even more changes have shocked the publishing industry. Some of the biggest conglomerates in the land have merged; on-line book-selling has emerged as a major distribution channel; devices for downloading books on handheld screens are being touted; writers are wooed by on-line magazines with stock options instead of paychecks. And while I've never been accused of being trendy, I also changed careers in a move that has now been identified as a trend: editors becoming agents. While for me there perhaps could be no greater career than that of book editor, I crossed the line for a combination of reasons, personal and professional, including becoming a mother and wanting more freedom to work closely with a wide variety of authors. Though we are sometimes in adversarial positions, editors and agents essentially want the same thing: to see their authors well published and productive. Both experience that particular rush that comes from discovering a manuscript and helping it find its way in the world.
It is my deepest hope that this book will offer helpful advice to beginning writers, but even more that it will inspire the late bloomers, those who have worked in fits and starts over the years but have never just quit or given up the dream completely. This is also a book for people who sometimes believe the worst about themselves when it comes to their writing, who imagine themselves impostors, poseurs, dilettantes, and manqués. It is for people who torture themselves over their writing.
Whenever I attend writers' conferences, I am struck with the overwhelming sense of alienation that many aspiring writers seem to feel with regard to publishing. Many even believe there is a conspiracy of silence inside publishing houses about the way decisions are made, from acquisitions to the allocation of funds. I think it is nearly impossible for an unpublished writer not to suffer from battle fatigue; the disenfranchised are rarely comfortable. But even the most successful writers suffer from bouts of failure of confidence. In an interview in the Hungry Mind Review, Don DeLillo best described the predicament: "The writer has lost a great deal of influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of culture. But isn't this where he belongs? How could it be any other way? And in my personal view this is a perfect place to observe what's happening at the dead center of things....The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he'll become."
This book is about what I've seen and what I know. I wrote it to help writers achieve or get closer to their goals. At the very least, I hope that in contemplating your life as a writer you may get some perspective on your work, and in gaining that perspective, see the forest for the trees.
Part I. Writing
1. The Ambivalent Writer
Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you either start them all and don't see them to fruition or think about starting but never actually get going? Are you a short-story writer one day and a novelist the next? A memoirist on Monday and a screenwriter by the weekend? Do you begin sentences in your head while walking to work or picking up the dry cleaning, sentences so crisp and suggestive that they make perfect story or novel openers, only you never manage to write them down? Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? Have you ever accidentally left your notes, diary, or disk behind on a train or plane and bemoaned the loss of what certainly had been your best work? Have you ever been diagnosed with any combination of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or the skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis? Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What's it to them?
Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went? How it is that some no-talent you went to high school with is being published everywhere you look? Or some suck-up from graduate school is racking up prizes and being interviewed in the "At Lunch With" column of The New York Times, a series you used to enjoy. Now you can't read it at all without thinking back to your classmate and the fawning way he used to schmooze the professors. God, he was so transparent.
If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities-along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness-that are part of the writer's basic makeup. However, you also have so many conflicting thoughts and feelings about writing and about yourself as a writer you are unable to choose one idea and see it through. You cannot focus. Just as you settle on one idea, another voice pops into your head. Or just as you sit down to write, you suddenly and inexplicably fall asleep. You are what I call the ambivalent writer. You have something to say, something you may feel desperate to express, but you have no idea how to go about it. As a result, you are highly impressionable; everything strikes you but nothing sticks. You are volatile and vulnerable, but the energy it takes to quiet the voices leaves you depressed and listless. Every time you hear an author read, catch a snippet of Booknotes on TV, or browse at your local bookstore, you think: I could do that. You are both omnipotent and impotent.
The dictionary's definition of ambivalence is the coexistence of opposing attitudes or feelings such as love and hatred toward a person, object, or idea. For most writers, writing is a love-hate affair. But for the ambivalent writer who cannot attempt, sustain, or complete a piece of writing, the ambivalence usually shifts back and forth from the writing to the self. The inner monologue drums: I am great. I am shit. I am great. I am shit. But the writer with publication credits, good reviews, and literary prizes is not immune to this mantra either; in fact, the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.
I often encounter writers at conferences who tell me that they have a number of ideas they'd like to get working on but can't figure out which is best. They want some advice about which idea they should pursue, and often have some vague notion about what's selling these days. Asking for advice about what you should write is a little like asking for help getting dressed. I can tell you what I think looks good, but you have to wear it. And as every fashion victim knows, very few people look good in everything. Chances are that you have been writing or trying to write in one particular form all your life. There are very few writers who, by switching genres, say from novels to plays, suddenly achieve great results and conclude that they have been working in the wrong mode all along. But in my experience, a writer gravitates toward a certain form or genre because, like a well-made jacket, it suits him.
It is true that some people can write well in more than one genre. Although his plays may be ignored, T. S. Eliot's brilliant literary criticism changed the way we read modern poetry and had the added bonus of reinforcing the importance of his own work in the canon. Today we have our own poet-critics, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, our poet-novelists, such as Denis Johnson and Margaret Atwood, our novelist-critics, such as John Updike and Cynthia Ozick, and novelist-essayists, such as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. But we are more likely to be suspicious of someone who attempts to write in more than one genre-who cross-dresses, generically speaking. When I was getting an MFA at Columbia University, it was considered anathema, if not altogether taboo, for someone from the poetry side of the program to write a short story or for someone from the fiction side to write a poem. We suspect those who attempt creative work in more than one genre or field of being dilettantes or dabblers. Gone is the idea of the Renaissance man. In a Paris Review interview, Gore Vidal, a modern man of letters if ever there was one, addressed the problem of literary ambidexterity: "Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind. And their own kind can often be reasonably generous-if you stay in your category. I don't. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of writing life."
Finding your form is like finding a mate. You really have to search, and you can't compromise-unless you can compromise, in which case your misery will be of a different variety. But just as there are probably only one or two people to whom you could commit yourself, there are probably only a few things you can write about, and only one genre, or maybe two, in which you might excel. It's no coincidence that most authors' bodies of work hover over two or three basic themes or take a single basic shape. Think of the novels of Trollope, Austen, Dickens, or Hardy; think of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. They each revisited the same themes, settings, and conflicts over the course of their writing lives. The James Joyces of the world, those who can move from short story to novel to epic, are rare, but then again, few writers master each form the first time out of the gate.
Even though most writers have a limited literary arsenal, readers find infinite pleasure in watching those gestures change and deepen over time. But if you aren't yet sure what your themes are or what category you should be writing in, you need to take a full accounting of all the reading and all the writing you have ever done or wanted to do. If you are one of the many people who dream of writing but have never successfully finished or, perhaps, even started a piece, I suggest you compile a list of everything you've read over the past six months or year and try to determine if there is a pattern or common denominator. If you read only literary novels, that should tell you something. If you've always kept a diary noting the natural world in all its variety, you might want to try writing nature essays.
It never fails to surprise me, in conversations with writers who seek my advice as to what they should write, how many fail to see before their very eyes the hay that might be gold. Instead of honoring the subjects and forms that invade their dreams and diaries, they concoct some ideas about what's selling or what agents and editors are looking for as they try to fit their odd-shaped pegs into someone else's hole. There is nothing more refreshing for an editor than to meet a writer or read a query letter that takes him completely by surprise, that brings him into a world he didn't know existed or awakens him to a notion that had been there all along but that he had never much noticed.
Some of the most striking and successful books in recent history were clearly born of a writer's obsession and complete disregard for what, supposedly, sells. Few editors would have gone for a queer book about a little-known murder in Savannah that took its sweet time describing every other quirk of the city and its inhabitants before addressing the crime. Whatever John Berendt was thinking when he set out to write Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it couldn't have been the bestseller list, because almost anyone in the publishing industry would have told him that nobody would care about the story of a gay antiques dealer who languished in jail after shooting a cheap hustler. The book does, however, draw on what most certainly are Berendt's strengths as a reporter, as a travel writer, and as a southerner with a gothic sensibility and taste for the macabre. Clearly, he was born to write this book, and he worked through whatever ambivalence and uncertainty he might have felt within himself or encountered from others.
Most writers have very little choice in what they write about. Think of any writer's body of work, and you will see the thematic pattern incorporating voice, structure, and intent. What is in evidence over and over is a certain set of obsessions, a certain vocabulary, a way of approaching the page. The person who can't focus is not without his own obsessions, vocabulary, and approach. However, either he can't find his form or he can't apply the necessary discipline that ultimately separates the published from the unpublished.
I am similarly struck by the writer who asks whether he should use his material in a novel or a memoir. Sometimes a writer will make the rounds of New York editors with a hot proposal based on a nonfiction article or an on-line column. Half the editors will tell him to recast the work as fiction. The other half will recommend that he expand it as nonfiction or memoir. When I encounter writers caught in this confusing bind of advice, I always ask how they see it. And sometimes the hopeful writer, eager to please, blithely answers that he will write it however I want it. It's at precisely this moment that I feel like hitting the eject button. To me, that's like saying I'll be straight or gay; you tell me, I have no preference. I can understand an editor having a reasonable opinion as to how or why the piece might work better in the marketplace in one form or the other, but asking someone who has essentially written nonfiction all his life to recast his material as a novel strikes me as folly.
Perhaps I am too old-fashioned in my thinking, but it seems to me that two entirely different sets of muscles are used for fiction and nonfiction writing. Being a journalist for ten years does not prepare you to write a novel any more than writing short stories guarantees your success as a narrative nonfiction writer. One can imagine an editor suggesting that John Berendt take his story and turn it into a novel, but chances are the thing would have crashed and burned.
I believe that the writer who can't figure out what form to write in or what to write is stalling for a reason. Perhaps he is dancing around a subject because he is not ready to handle it, psychologically or emotionally. Perhaps he is unable to pursue a project because doing so would upset his world too much, or the people in it. Maybe not writing, maybe being driven crazy by the desire to write and the inability to follow through, is serving some greater goal, keeping some greater fear at bay. Fear of failure is the reason most often cited to explain why so many aspiring writers never realize their dreams. But I think it's that same fear of failure that absolutely invigorates those who do push through-that is, the fear of not being heard.
Certainly, the desire for success and the fear of failure run along a continuum. And the extent to which either motivates or paralyzes a given artist is dependent on a great many factors, including ability, ego, desire, and drive. But it's important to remember that success and failure are only part of the equation. The making of art and the selling of it are two entirely distinct enterprises. Any number of great writers have not received the appreciation all artists crave, just as in every generation any number of so-called hacks garner tremendous commercial if not critical success. In his lifetime Charles Dickens, who published his novels serially, was considered a hack. Emily Dickinson saw only seven of her hundreds of poems published. Jane Austen published under a pseudonym for her entire life. Artists such as Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, who tragically took their lives in midcareer, never knew the prizes, cultdom, and canonization their work would later receive. The ambivalent writer is often so preoccupied with greatness, both desiring it and believing that every sentence he commits to paper has to last for eternity, that he can't get started.
Today too little is made of all the writing that doesn't seek publication, all the letter writing, e-mail sending, recipe copying, and diary keeping-all the writing that minds our lives. Now there is a great emphasis on turning one's diary into a published memoir or novel, and any number of books will advise you how to do so. But I believe there is still enormous value in the piece of writing that goes no farther than the one person for whom it was intended, that no combination of written words is more eloquent than those exchanged between lovers or friends, or along the pale blue lines of private diaries, where people take communion with themselves.
It's the writer who seeks publication but who cannot finish even one project who must ask himself whether his stalling is also a form of self-protection. I can assure you that you will never finish any piece of writing if you don't understand what motivates you to write in the first place and if you don't honor that impulse, whether it's exile or assimilation, redemption or destruction, revenge or love. "Getting even is one great reason for writing," said William Gass in a Paris Review interview. "I write because I hate. A lot. Hard. And if someone asks me the inevitable next dumb question, 'Why do you write the way you do?' I must answer that I wish to make my hatred acceptable because my hatred is much of me, if not the best part. Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world-every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste." If Gass is extreme, I assure you he is not alone. Many of the best books are born of anger or pain, of the struggle for self-definition, freedom, and revolution. The best books, like newborns, come into the world screaming their arrival and gasping for breath-will they survive in the harsh light, in the communal air? If you are writing to prove yourself to the world, to quiet the naysayers at last, to make your cold and distant father take notice, I say go for it. If you are writing because no one has faith in you, or because no one sees you for who you are, or because you feel like an impostor, use those feelings. How else could Dostoyevsky have conjured the unnamed protagonist of his novel Notes from Underground, whose opening lines have stayed with me from the moment I first encountered them: I am a sick man....I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man....I'm sensitive and quick to take offense, like a hunchback or dwarf.
Chances are you want to write because you are a haunted individual, or a bothered individual, because the world does not sit right with you, or you in it. Chances are you have a deep connection to books because at some point you discovered that they were the one truly safe place to discover and explore feelings that are banished from the dinner table, the cocktail party, the golf foursome, the bridge game. Because the writers who mattered to you have dared to say I am a sick man. And because within the world of books there is no censure. In discovering books, you became free to explore the full range of human motives, desires, secrets, and lies. All my life, people have scolded me for having an excess of feeling, saying that I was too sensitive-as if one could be in danger from feeling too much instead of too little. But my outsize emotions were well represented in books, even in those that exercised enormous restraint in the telling: in the hearts of my favorite nineteenth-century novelists' highly repressed heroes and heroines there simmered all the feelings no one ever admits to. In the slyly dark and chilling lines of one my favorite British poets, Philip Larkin, I found images that cracked the world open. I am not suggesting a writer let it bleed so much as I am suggesting that he understand his motivation.
The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers who are unafraid to present stories that speak emotional truth, or that make such an intimate connection that briefly we become children again, listening with rapt attention, the satin binding of our blankets pulled up to our chins. At a time when people are encouraged to follow their bliss, to pursue whatever makes them feel good, I suggest you stalk your demons. Embrace them. If you are a writer, especially one who has been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab your demons by the neck and face them down. And whatever you do, don't censor yourself. There's always time and editors for that.
Inasmuch as writing is a creative process, a certain amount of experimentation is essential. And as in the discovery process in a trial, you must devote some time to following leads and interrogating suspects before a clear picture is revealed, before your case is as strong as possible. When I studied with Jorie Graham, I learned how to find these connections. At that time I was composing six- to eight-line poems, and I handed in a dozen or so for my private conference. When I arrived, she asked me to sit down and listen to her read a poem. She proceeded to recite a longish poem of around forty lines that sounded extremely familiar, though I couldn't place it. I actually thought it might be T. S. Eliot. As it turned out, and as you have probably guessed, the lines were mine. Jorie had put the fragments together in a way that provided an actual narrative. She supplied a few transitional words, such as "before" and "now" and "later," at the beginning of stanzas. It was a miracle to me, this transformation of my acorns into an oak. I raced home after the conference and combed through my hundreds of fragment poems and put them into thematic if predictable piles: father, mother, body, and so on. I transformed the scraps into full-length works and finally had a few poems that were satisfying, that provided closure-and that got me accepted to graduate school and published in a few literary journals.
If you are struggling with what you should be writing, look at your scraps. Encoded there are the themes and subjects that you should be grappling with as a writer. If you still can't figure it out, whatever you do, I beg you not to look at the bestseller lists. Do not set out to write the next Angela's Ashes, Liars' Club, or Perfect Storm; a third of the projects publishers see these days make such claims. People who try to figure out what's hot and re-create it are as close to delusional as you can get. In the first place, once a trend is actually identified it is usually too late; your work will be regarded as opportunistic, as jumping on the bandwagon. It is true that when a trend or phenomenon is identified, a handful of books or more in the same genre enter the fray, and sometimes a writer will cash in on a real or imaginary perception about a certain category of book. But I assure you that you will be better served both professionally and personally if you find your inspiration and models within yourself, not on the bestseller list. Many of the unlikely books that made it there, that took the world by surprise, did so because they were original, inspired, and new.
The best teacher I had in graduate school used to annoy people terribly when she wondered aloud why we were all so competitive with one another. After all, she said, it wasn't as if we were all trying to write the same poem. She got that wrong. We all were trying to write the same poem. We were trying to write the one that would get into The New Yorker, and with rare exception every writer out there is in the same boat. There comes a time when you have to let go of the New Yorker fantasy in service of just getting on with it. If you are guilty of sending your first short story or poem off to the magazine, as well as your second and third, in the vain hope of hitting the jackpot, you are not alone. The question is, where do you go from there? How do you stop trying to sound like Raymond Carver and find your own material and voice?
The ambivalent writer can't hear himself think, can't commit to a single vision, can't stop wondering if six other directions aren't the right ones to take. The ambivalent writer confuses procrastination with research. He can't hear through the static to find the one true voice. I know a lot of writers who beat themselves up on a regular basis, either for not writing or for not writing well enough. And when they are writing well they make themselves crazy over other things, not least of which is how they're going to pay the rent, why they don't have health insurance, whether or not anyone out there will care. In Virginia Woolf's treatise on women and writing, A Room of One's Own, the author describes the great difficulty of producing a work of genius: "Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world's notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want."
Writing demands that you quiet all the voices that would have you subscribe to Woolf's notion of the world and its "notorious indifference." Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are idiotic or that your command of the language is insufficient. But if you feel you need to seek advice as to what you should be writing, you are probably not ready to write. And this is my advice to you: stop altogether and see how long you can go without writing. As with sex, some people have extremely low writing drives, while others become irritable and agitated if they can't express themselves every day. "Very young writers who don't know themselves obviously often don't know what they have to say," said Bernard Malamud. "Sometimes by staying with it they write themselves into a fairly rich vein. Some, by the time they find what they're capable of writing about, no longer want to write. Some go through psychoanalysis or a job in a paint factory and begin to write again. One hopes they then have something worth saying. Nothing is guaranteed. Some writers have problems with subject matter not in their first book, which may mine old childhood experience, or an obsession, or fantasy, or the story they've carried in their minds and imagination to this point, but after that-after this first yield-often they run into trouble with their next few books. Especially if the first book is unfortunately a bestseller."
Writing is a calling, and if the call subsides, so be it. It may return in greater force the next time around. Some people say that you have to write all the time to get anywhere and that discipline will ultimately separate the men from the boys. But I assure you, you will never make yourself write. When writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit but I kept going. And most can't tell you why, as Lorrie Moore recently reiterated in a Publishers Weekly interview. "I still think you should become a writer only if you have no choice. Writing has to be an obsession-it's only for those who say 'I'm not going to do anything else.'" Or as she began her brilliant story "How to Become a Writer," which by now should be required reading for anyone entering an MFA program, "First, try to be something, anything, else."
If the voices keep calling, if the itch remains, no matter how punishing the work or inhospitable the world, then you must take a long hard look at all the writing you've been attempting to do all your life and commit to it. Don't let publishers tell you that short stories don't sell if you're a short-story writer, don't give up on your memoir just because there seems to be a momentary glut. Where would today's successful African-American writers be if they believed the thinking that dominated publishing, at least until recently, that black writing doesn't sell? Thirty-three publishers rejected Chicken Soup for the Soul because parables weren't in vogue. "Seven million copies later," reported Time magazine, "the authors are living happily ever after."
I promise you, I am not offering the single most often repeated piece of writing advice, Write what you know. Rather, I am suggesting that you find your form. In his book On Writing and Publishing, Mark Twain describes attempting to start the story of Joan of Arc six times over twelve years. "There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn't because the book is not there and worth being written-it is only because the right form for the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story, and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself. You may try a dozen wrong forms but in each case you will not get very far before you discover that you have not found the right one-and that the story will always stop and decline to go any further."
Writing what you know is a given. Writing what you know is unavoidable. All people write what they know, for God's sake. It's the air you breathe. The challenge is finding the structure that shows your stuff off to its best effect. If the world of writing were an opera, would you be a soprano, a tenor, a baritone, or a bass? Is your best work lyric, dramatic, or interpretive? Can you be happy as part of the chorus, or, like an editor, doing the behind-the-scenes work? If the high wire is for you, if the spotlight is for you, if you believe that everyone should pay attention to you and to your work, then you must stay focused. Ambivalence will never get you anywhere, unless, like Spalding Gray, you mine every personal doubt for material and find a form, in his case the monologue, through which the very subject of ambivalence is rehearsed.
Try to remember that the time before you publish is the only time you will ever work in complete freedom. After you're published you will be forced to contend with the shockingly real voices of critics, agents, editors, and fans. You never get to be a virgin after the first time, and more to the point, you never again have the luxury of writing in total obscurity. But like the married person who bemoans the loss of freedom from her single days, the published author who longingly recalls her past obscurity is a little hard to sympathize with. Though you may suffer from loneliness after you're married, it's bad form to complain about it to your single friends.
Writers take note: your struggle to produce a piece of writing of interest and value means nothing to the reader. The reader doesn't care what you went through to produce your work. He only cares if the piece succeeds, if it looks as if it arrived whole. If you aim to succeed with a book that's destined to last, one thing is certain: your work must bear your own stamp. You must be willing to hone your sentences until they are yours alone. You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. In other words, you must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal.
What People are saying about this
Betsy Lerner has three great qualities for an editor: intelligence, sensitivity and passion. She writes with wit and astounding perceptivity. Writers, take heed!
“[Lerner] doesn’t preach on how to write a book but rather tries to help writers and would-be authors cope with such problems as ‘being alone with it.’ It’s a survival course. She wants to help the writer who cannot get started embark, the writer stalled between projects ignite. She wants you to be an effective ‘self-promoter’ and not a ‘self-saboteur.’ The book is also an affirmation that late bloomers can become successful writers.” –The New York Times
“[Lerner] has a wicked sense of humor. But don’t think that means her book isn’t brilliant. It is. Cleverly disguised as a sensible reference work, [this] is in fact a riveting safari through the wilds of the writer’s brain, as well as an honest and unpatronizing guide to publishing from every angle. Its tone is singularly authoritative, compassionate, irreverent, and unafraid. Unquestionably a gift to writers of every persuasion.” –Newsday
“Betsy Lerner’s style is economical and witty. The Forest for the Trees should become a permanent part of any writer’s or editor’s personal library.” –The Seattle Times
“Solid, insider advice on every step of the publishing process… With this book, Betsy Lerner becomes what every writer hopes for—a friend in the business.” –Chicago Tribune
“Lerner describes the self-promoter, the natural, the wicked child, and the downright mentally ill. She explains the ambivalence that almost every writer feels about writing for oneself verses writing for the public… Her beautifully written book of observations and advice seems to be coming from a friend.” –Columbia Journalism Review
Meet the Author
Betsy Lerner has worked as an editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ballantine, Simon & Schuster, and most recently as executive editor at Doubleday. She lives in Pelham, New York and is currently an agent at the Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.
- Pelham, New York
- Date of Birth:
- August 9, 1960
- B.A., New York University, 1982; M.F.A., Columbia University, 1987
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