Rarely has a book spoken to me as much as Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees. The 278-paged guide, "an editor's advice to writers," is unlike any other non-fiction/how-to/reference book I've seen. More than just a how-to-become-a-published-author tool for any writer who's ever slacked off, showed off, or struggled with their craft, it truly is a gripping insider's view on the whole publishing industry.
I happened to pick up this copy at an Everything-Must-Go sale at the Sherman Oaks Borders, one of the many that have been dropping like flies all over Los Angeles (don't even get me started on this depressing trend/development). There were several copies on display, and something about the paperback drew me to the shelf. Perhaps it was a subconscious need to find meaning in my current situation, an unspoken desire to understand why, at the ripe old age of 31, I continue to pursue a profession most people can't grasp as a complete, professional job. The glowing endorsement by Entertainment Weekly on the front cover didn't hurt either.
Shortly after my purchase, I dropped Jonathan Franzen's Freedom to start reading it. Yes, Ms. Lerner, I felt compelled to stop halfway through The Greatest Novel of 2010 to enjoy your "revised and updated" words of wisdom for schmoes like me. And "enjoy" is an understatement. Every page thus far (I'm at p.104) has managed to express and perfectly articulate the isolation, insecurity, pride, confusion, and desires writers experience. It's as if the woman has been spying on me ever since I was a 9-year-old loner who started sticking his nose in books and collected five-subject spiral notebooks full of short stories written in a penmanship only a parochial school education could instill. She goes beyond the "write what you know" bullshit; she actually picks apart that cliched piece of advice and somehow transforms it into an epiphany that is both eye-opening and matter-of-fact. And in between sharing personal experiences, she also reveals a few tasty morsels regarding some of the most famous names in literature (you mean Walt Whitman was actually an egotistical prick?) and offers commentary on the reward-obsessed world we live in, one that constantly stresses praise and likability.
There are countless passages I can scarily relate to. Some of which include the following:
Many people think that writers, successful or not, actually do spend their entire lives in pajamas. There is a disbelief in our culture that writing, or the creation of any art, is actually work. That thing about the pajamas is NOT true. I tend to impose a strict boxers-and-T-shirt uniform only on Mondays...and maybe Thursdays. And as for that disbelief, I'm starting to sense those sentiments from friends of mine. When being invited to meet up for drinks at a hotel, a friend texted: "C'mon, you can stay up late. It's not like you have work tomorrow morning! I should be the one worried!" Thanks, friend.
I have found that the impulse to write, to record one's private feelings, often appears at a very early age; with few exceptions most authors started writing in childhood. If as a child you gravitated towards books and kept diaries or made up stories, it speaks to an inherent aptitude for language...The child writer may be intensely verbal or intensely withdrawn. one thing is certain: his urge to write things down is predicated by the need to validate his experience. The child who makes sense of his world, escapes or remakes it through reading and writing, may never find another home as welcoming. See my five-subject spiral notebook reference above. I clearly was (and maybe still am) the textbook definition of a bookworm...or as I like to call it nowadays, a bibliophile.
You will invite as much comment and attention over the long term as the material warrants and the world deigns to bestow. A world...that is desperately vying for our entertainment dollars, which explains why some writers, especially young writers, in their desire to be heard try to make a big noise. And thus we have the reason why I continue to send out email blasts and Facebook updates linking entries to this small blog of mine.
In addition to physical symptons, people who write tend to develop a set of ritualized behaviors with regard to their work. These habits dictate when, where, and under what circumstance they feel able to produce. There are early birds and night owls. Some need a bright cafe to compose. Others must steal away to a secluded spot... My mornings presently consist of waking up, attempting to hit the gym (sometimes successfully), eating breakfast while catching The View, and then heading out to my Office of the Day. I can never work from home. Starbucks (or any other coffeeshop with free wi-fi and easy parking) is my preferred workspace. There's also the atrium-like bridge at the Westside Pavilion mall that features a comfy lounge area usually peppered with laptops and senior citizens in search of a breather from their retail-driven cardio.
Becoming a writer never won anybody any popularity contests. And most writers couldn't win one if they tried. Most have a lumpy writer's body and an uninspired wardrobe and talk too much...often steering conversation to their most recent article or book. Last time I checked, my attempts to burn any calories are just that, my attention to what I've been pulling out of the closet has sadly dwindled, and I am guilty of promoting my movie review in a local paper while catching up with a friend I hadn't seen in weeks (granted, he did ask what I as up to).
If you're a writer (or an artist of any kind actually), I highly recommend picking up a copy and getting sucked into Betsy Lerner's absorbing chapters on what makes us tick - what drives us - and why we ultimately long to be seen and heard.