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The world-famous author and even more famous recluse, Vivian Swift, boarded the 4:46 to MANHATTAN on October 6, 2010, to attend a WRITERS EVENT. She was wearing real clothes (the kind where you have to hold in your stomach and stand up straight in) and real shoes (you know, with leather soles and a little stack heel) and feeling very spiffy and cultural.

Good thing she had her camera with her — the late afternoon autumnal (see? “Autumnal”: that’s a WRITER’S word) sky was gorgeous, especially considering that it was hovering above QUEENS.

This is Long Island City. Long Island City is the new Brooklyn, which up until about two years ago was the new Lower East Side, which up until ten years ago was the new East Village, which c. 1985 (otherwise known as Vivian Swift’s Hay Day) was ultra-cool. Vivian Swift misses 1985 every day of her life.

The four-block walk from Penn Station to the WRITERS EVENT took Vivian Swift through the area known as The Garment District in mid-town MANHATTAN.

The Garment District is where wholesalers come to buy garments. Or maybe it’s where wholesalers sell them — Vivian Swift is a little fuzzy on the particulars, never having worked in the Rag Trade. But Vivian Swift would totally wear one of these frocks (see above) if she were ever on American Idol.

Vivian Swift is fascinated by the idea that there are brides out there who might want to dress their flower girls to look like pumpkins. And getting back to the American Idol thing, Vivian Swift has always thought that she would never have bothered becoming a writer if she could sing. Fact is, people would rather hear a song than read a book– a CD that sells 60,000 copies is a dud in the record biz, but a book that sells 60,000 copies is a HUGE hit. When Bonnie Raitt, a singer that Vivian Swift can’t stand (no offense) sold only 40,000 copies of her album, her record company dropped her. Vivian Swift does not sell Bonnie Raitt numbers…but Vivian Swift should avoid going any further down this line of thought or else she will quit writing stuff and find a way to drink for a living.

By the time Vivian Swift got to the WRITERS EVENT and had a glass of wine (thank god) the evening became less of an out-of-body experience and Vivian Swift stopped thinking of herself in the third person. Although she could not completely silence the voice in her head that kept hollering “This is Me! Vivian Swift! Out of the house and in Manhattan with grown-ups!!”

Ten years ago I came across a display in the 57th Street Borders Books for New Books. I liked the cover, so I bought it: The Forest For the TreesAn Editor’s Advice to Writers. Written by Betsy Lerner, an award-winning insider in the publishing biz as both a writer and a big shot editor, this book gave me my first understanding of how book writing was done, and it gave me the very first inklings of how I might make a place for myself in the book writing world. Betsy explains the business and  art of writing in a way that makes day-to-day, sentence-by-sentence sense. And I thought that if I ever write a book, I want it published by Betsy Lerner.

Seven years later, I had the first three chapters of my book done and Betsy Lerner was now a partner in the Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner Literary Agency in New York City with a long list of very hip, urban, genius writers. But I stuck to my plan: Betsy Lerner was my first choice of editor, so she was also my first choice of agent.  I sent her my  manuscript, and she accepted me as her client. (That never happens, by the way; that a first-time author gets her first choice as agent.  I can barely show my face when writers get together and tell their sob stories about how many times the cruel world of publishing has broken their hearts.)

Betsy’s book, The Forest For The Trees, has just been up-dated for the 21st Century and its official pub date was October 6, 2010. The writer’s group She Writes  (www.shewrites.com) hosted the launch at a fund-raiser held in their 37th Street offices. Betsy (on the left) was interviewed about her life and times as a editor/agent/writer (her memoir is Food and Loathing) and I must say that the group was very lady-like considering that motorcycle boots and tattoos, ethnic jewelry and overalls is the basic look of She Writers. Don’t let the dress fool you: Betsy is all Doc Martens Dead Head. 20 minutes in, she let rip with the first “asshole” reference and I knew we were in for a free and frank exchange of ideas.

The thing about writing groups is that they are made up in large part by people who are in the early stages of finding their way as writers, finding where they want to draw the line between their life and their writing. They are still searching for their voice, their genre, even the purpose and goal of their writing. They gather together with fellow travelers to think out loud, and to survey the feedback they get from whatever ideas and paragraphs they float out into the group.

I, on the other hand, am a very secretive writer. It is against every method I have concocted in the past ten years, and against every mote of my personality, to expose my writing in progress. So I was amazed to listen to the group dynamic when Betsy gave everyone the chance to discuss the status of their writing. I even took my turn and mentioned, for all to consider, the working title I have for the book I want to write when The Damn France Book is finished. Thank you, ladies and one guy, for being so damn nice, even when nobody liked my precious title.

If you want to learn about yourself as a writer, and you want to learn about how to take your place in the writing world, get this book.

You’re welcome.

8 comments to Getting Out There

  • Janet

    Vivian, thanks for taking me along to a party in Manhattan as a welcome break from my new life as an USCPT (unrecognized spouse of a cancer patient). I would LOVE to sit in a room and listen to people talk about writing and ambition and baseball playoffs and anything that doesn’t involve CT scans, cells, and surgery schedules. I know different assholes than Betsy though — I spend hours everyday with them in doctors’ office, labs, radiological centers or drugs stores that never have the medical supplies I really need. If it were legal for us to marry in this ridiculously conservative state (even Iowa is more progressive than Texas for God’s sake!), just for the hell of it, we’d get some dyke bridesmaids to wear those American Idol frocks, even the pumpkin colored ones. It’s fall after all. Maybe 1985 was a good year for everyone: I liked it a lot myself.

  • Nadine

    Janet, your plight breaks my heart. I’ve lived in New Jersey all my married life and in 20 years I’ve never, ever had my state question my status as “spouse” even though my wedding license is from New York. How can it be legal in Texas to call anyone an “unrecognized” spouse? What, Texas decided it doesn’t do reciprocity anymore?

  • Nadine

    On a far less serious note:

    This post brought me back to when I, too, used to wear real clothes and real shoes and I’d go out to things happening in Manhattan. I actually lived in the East Village in the mid-80s, back in the days of The Saint.

    Loved the photo of the triad in front of the Manhattan vista. Kinda been there, sure do miss it.

  • Deborah

    I so often seem to focus on the tangential aspects of your posts: like being struck by how your photos of Queens resemble photos I’ve taken of downtown New Albany (IN).

    And the fact that you actually own shoes with heels & leather soles. Last time I wore a pair of that kind of shoe was when I got married, and we just celebrated our 25th anniversary this week! (We got married in 1985 in IOWA , which even then seemed more progressive than any other state I’d lived in.)

    Those shoes languished in my closet for a few years until one of my students told me he was going back to Mexico during spring break and said the village he was from was very poor and he always took back shoes to give away and did I have any shoes to donate? It still makes me smile to think of some woman (or teenager) in Mexico choosing those shoes. But now I’m realizing that I am ill-prepared to do writerly stuff in NYC, should that ever be required (as if!)

  • Helen McHargue

    So cleverly written! I too feel like I’m wearing a disguise when I dress up these days. On your recommendation, I’m buying the book, even though I have no writing aspirations but am highly interested in the process.
    Hey Janet…hang in there.

  • I too started reading Betsy Lerner’s book because I loved the cover. I kept reading it because it was so well-written. Now I’ll have to look for the updated version. Thanks for this post…

  • Rachel

    So much richness in this post and the comments from your coterie of excellent and discerning readers. I am so sorry for Janet, no, not *sorry for,* angry for you having to go through this incredibly difficult time and then have the state attempt to nullify your status as caregiver, also strongly affected person, dearest one to your spouse.

    I also love the posts about the last time any of us wore *real* shoes and what a joy to think of those donated shoes and their new life in Mexico.

    I do not aspire to the professional writing life, but loved Betsy’s book for the inside look at how books happen. I am a reader. Just like the current movement to learn where our food comes from, it is amazing to picture the many steps, choices, turning points and fluke accidents that lead to the birth of a book.

  • Vivian,

    Loved the post, love Betsy’s book and thanks for the peek into the evening with the photos.

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