Excerpt from “The Forest For the Trees” by Betsy Lerner

Most writers, like most children, need to tell. The only problem is that much of what they need to tell will provoke the ire of parent-critics, who are determined to tell writer-children what they can and cannot say. Unless you have sufficient ego and feel entitled to tell your story, you will be stymied in your effort to create. You think you can’t write, but perhaps you can’t tell. Writing is nothing if not breaking the silence. The problem is, no one likes a snitch.

On top of this, contemporary critics would have us believe that we are in an age of unparalleled navel-gazing. On the contrary, there is far greater cultural censure in taking one’s pain seriously. As Alice Miller notes in her book Banished Knowledge, “Not to take one’s own suffering seriously, to make light of it or even laugh at it, is considered good manners in our culture. This attitude is even called a virtue, and many people are proud of their lack of sensitivity toward their own fate and above all their own childhood.”

For all the familial anxiety attendant on the publication of a first book, Lerner says she is always struck when she finds that the dedication page is devoted to the author’s parents. Indeed, some of the most damning books about childhood or family life are thus dedicated. Pat Conroy’s unforgettable first novel, The Great Santini, about the abuse a young boy suffers at the hands of his brutal military father, “is dedicated with love and thanks to Frances ‘Peggy’ Conroy, the grandest of mothers and teachers, and to Colonel Donald Conroy, U.S.M.C, Ret., the grandest of fathers and Marine aviators.” Dorothy Allison dedicated her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, a horrific story about the abuse of a young girl and her mother’s failure to protect her, to her deceased mother.

Of course, parental approval isn’t the most important thing in the world. One hopes that by the time a person reaches maturity, peer approval, mate approval, and, more important, self-approval, pick up where your parents leave off. But you don’t have to be a Freudian to recognize the impact of parental influence. Our childhood home is our world when we’re young, and within its walls we find safety and comfort or coldness and danger, or, more likely, something in between. We are praised and scolded according to a great many criteria, and we piece together our own little fictions of how and why we are the way we are.

If stories took you far away when you were a child, if characters from books kept you company as you peered out a rainy window and tried to discern that great mystery of how other people live, then you believe that books are the most important things in life. If you were drawn to books, and in turn to writing, chances are you found the world wanting. You knew that a record had to be kept, or the world or you would disappear. People are motivated to write for a variety of reasons, but it’s the child writer who has figured out, early on, that writing is about saving your soul.

Where, after all, does the drama of the gifted child begin but at her own dinner table? The material we continue to grapple with all our lives has more to do with that kid than any grown writer wants to admit. That’s where you were told in any number of spoken and unspoken ways that you were good enough, or not good enough, or too good to be true. That’s where you got the message that you would either go very far or amount to nothing. That’s where you first encountered acceptance or rejection. The messages you received may have enabled you to raise your hand in class, read your story aloud; something told you that people cared about what you had to say. Or perhaps you went underground because you sensed your ideas were shameful or dangerous. Or that you were suspect.

Just as one child takes the message of his glorious future and goes very far, another is paralyzed by the expectation. Likewise, the child who is consistently disparaged may make something of himself, just to show the bastard who called him worthless. Or he may set out on a course of self-destruction, believing himself as unworthy as the adult who crippled his small soul. But more than any emotional Molotov cocktail of abuse and deprivation, or any showers of love and support, Lerner thinks what determines whether the person goes on to become a serious writer is his or her tolerance or love of solitude.

Writing is, most times, a rather lonely profession.


Lerner, B. (2010). The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.




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