A Book About Writing That Will Change Your Life

Erin Hosier endorses Betsy Lerner and the She Writes Live event October 6th.

It's no secret that Betsy Lerner is to me what Emerson was to Thoreau, de Kooning was to Rauschenberg, and what Rabbi Shmuley was to Michael Jackson. (Okay, maybe what Madonna is to Lady Gaga might be a more apt example.) I have often told the story of how I magically picked up a galley of THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: An Editors Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner 10 years ago and how exactly that book changed my life, but it bears repeating.

It was my first year in NYC. I shared a studio in Brooklyn with my bff who was a graphic designer at a political magazine. Editorially inclined but not really knowing what I was in for, I got an internship at the same magazine. The days were long, deadlines loomed, editors argued, writers and journalists came and went. It was kind of thrilling but also felt impersonal. Like many young women who came of age in the era of Sassy - in a fanzine culture - my friends and I dreamed of running our own magazine. I'd say that dream was squashed within 6 months of interning at one. The long hours, the competition in house, the low pay - surely there had to be another way to make a living in publishing. I was having that conversation with myself when I found Betsy's book on the free table. I read it overnight and decided then and there that going into book publishing would be more my speed. This woman seemed like the perfect combination of artist and professional, teacher and student, collaborator and cheerleader. She was a writer herself, and had a therapist's empathy for the unique neuroses of the lonely author. She got it, and I wanted to get it, too. I finished the internship at the magazine and started working for writers myself, helping with research, permissions, taxes - whatever they needed. Within a year I heard through the grapevine that the real Betsy Lerner had quit her job as an editor at Doubleday in favor of trying her hand at agenting. I had only the vaguest idea of what an agent did, but I knew if Betsy Lerner was doing it then it must be worthwhile. By the fall of 2000, I'd become her assistant. Ten years later I consider her the most influential and inspiring person in my life, hands down. I've learned more from her about writing, editing, agenting, men, and friendship than any other person ever. She's a goddamned national treasure.

On October 5th, a revised and updated edition of THE FOREST FOR THE TREES will go on sale. The new version allows for all the changes that have taken place in a writer's and publisher's life in the last decade - namely the Internet, the economy, and the international publishing business. But what's special about this book is not its six chapters of technical advice - which you can always find here, there, and on Betsy's own blog - but the six very relatable, very funny psychological profiles of the writer's interior life that Betsy nails so brilliantly.

The Ambivalent Writer
- Most dabblers fall into this category. This is your husband who suddenly announces that he's writing a screenplay though he in fact works in finance. Or your sister who seems to have a new book idea every other weekend, though she never has time to put pen to paper. Maybe you've kept a journal for years in the hopes of turning it into a memoir, but never took that next step. Ambivalence is natural; it probably means you're not a narcissist. What's the right forum for your voice? This chapter gives the ambivalent the permission to try.

The Natural - Are you a savant? Were you just born that way, Jessica Rabbit? Was your first sentence a perfect couplet? Look, it happens, but being a gifted writer can often be a blessing and a curse. This chapter deals with the all important question of how best to nurture one's gift. Is an MFA absolutely necessary? What if you're not a natural but you'd like to appear to be one as soon as possible? Is there a way to fake it. This is just Chapter Two!

The Wicked Child - Oh how we love our cultural provocateurs. There are those writers among us who seem poised to carry the weight of the community, whether the community attacks or can't get enough. These are the writers whose personal histories most inform their storytelling, whether the medium is fiction or not, the writers whose manuscripts tend to be troublemakers, the opposite of safe. This chapter is about owning your inner bitch because bitches tend to write the books people remember.

The Self-Promoter - What is it about some writers who unabashedly bask in the acclaim in which they seem to demand? Are they more or less annoying than the ones who think their every sentence is dipped in gold, yet don't have the sales to back up the ego? Can any writer avoid being a self-promoter these days? If you never expected to have to create your own myth of Norman Mailer-esque proportions, you'll find an anecdote for you in this chapter.

The Neurotic - Show me a person putting the finishing touches on the third draft of their manuscript, and I'll show you a person with eczema.

Touching Fire - Addicted to pills? Alcoholic? Bi-polar? Depressed? Suicidal? Personality disordered? Hospitalized for any of these? Bet you're the kind of writer who can't not write. You're in good company, friend, and reading just these first six chapters is better than an AA meeting.

If you're in the NYC area on Wednesday, October 6, SW is throwing a special live event with Betsy Lerner from 6:30 to 9:00 at the Girls Write Now headquarters on 37th St. in Manhattan. Seating is limited, but if you've ever wanted to have a workshop experience with the Carl Jung of literary agents - and trust me, you do - it will be the best $35 you've ever spent on your career. And if you're broke or live somewhere else, there are other ways to get a fix.

There are a lot of good books out there about how to get an agent or write a book proposal, but this is a book that nurtures the artist too, by a writer for a writer - maybe for a writer who doesn't even know she's a writer yet. It is simply the best book of its kind, and the perfect companion for all of us who wish we had a mentor in life, not just in the business.

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Tags: #process/craft, Betsy Lerner, reading

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Comment by Patricia A. McGoldrick on September 30, 2010 at 6:30pm
Great post! Certainly piqued my interest in the second edition!

Patricia
http://pmpoetwriter.blogspot.com/
Comment by Julie Jeffs on September 30, 2010 at 11:43am
Have the book, haven't read it, didn't feel I was at that point yet, felt a little like putting the cart before the horse. Maybe I'll read the new edition instead. Want to be at event Oct. 6, more than happy to spend the $35 but its the plane fare from Nashville that kills me. Boo. Hope you will report after the event. Betsy sounds like a gem and we can always use national treasures.

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