Praise for Making a Literary Life
Sage and friendly advice for aspiring scribes
By SAMANTHA PUCKETT
St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2002
IMAGINE THIS: You have been introduced to an established, respectable writer, and she likes you – a lot. So much, in fact, that she spends hours and hours giving you advice about writing and living a writer’s life. She opens up to you about her painful family history, about which of her peers she respects and which she can’t stand. She’s funny and sassy; she cracks you up when she makes fun of Philip Roth. She gives you commonsense advice like: You must write “a thousand words a day. Five days a week. For the rest of your life.” She also tells you to do clever things like write charming notes to people you don’t know, and why that’s a good idea. And she has faith in you.
What’s more, you get to absorb all this sage advice while having a really good time – in your pajamas, whenever you want; five minutes at a time or five hours at a time. And for this, all you have to do is take one itsy bitsy trip to the bookstore and drop $23.95.
Sound good? Then go out and buy Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers by Carolyn See (Random House, 260 pp).
The San Francisco Chronicle Loves Making a Literary Life!
Road map to the literary world
Reviewed by Joanna Smith Rakoff
Aspiring writers could easily stock their bookshelves with nothing but writing manuals. Each season, scores of them appear, the majority penned by writers with few (or no) other books to their name. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it, that we’re willing to take advice on writing from the likes of, say, Natalie Goldberg, who made her debut in 1986 with “Writing Down the Bones,” a New Age-inflected collection of writing exercises that remains a perennial favorite with creative-writing profs.
It wasn’t until 1995, nearly a decade later, that her first and only (published) novel hit bookstores, to a thundering silence from critics. That same year, Anne Lamott set a new standard for books on writing, eschewing both the touchy-feely approach of Goldberg and the strict how-to format of books with titles like “Self-Editing for Writers.” In “Bird by Bird,” the Northern California novelist and memoirist used her trademark humor and bracing honesty to describe the often-brutal process of writing and the always-brutal publishing industry, weaving personal stories and anecdotes with hard-core advice about plot, character and dialogue.
Now, Southern California novelist and memoirist Carolyn See (“The Handyman”;
“Dreaming”) has followed suit, offering up her own cranky take on both the process and the business of slinging words about. Like Lamott, See is a plainspoken, folksy sort of writer, and in many ways, “Making a Literary Life” fills in the spaces left blank by Lamott, who remained curiously silent on certain crucial subjects — like revision (a task See finds so daunting she often drinks a glass of red wine while tackling it).
But See’s intent is expressly political. The literary world, she suggests, is still mostly the province of those “born and raised in an upper-middle- class (or higher) family in New York or New England” whose “grandfather . . . attended college with Norman Mailer” or “grandmother . . . [went] to that Episcopal church where Madeleine L’Engle goes,” of Ivy League alums and master’s of fine arts program grads genetically programmed to understand how the vast New York culture machine functions.
Or, at least, it can seem that way when you’re outside of it, scribbling away in obscurity, as See once was. The book, she says, is for “students just coming to this discipline, older people who wanted to write in their youth and never got around to it, folks who live in parts of the country where the idea of writing is about as strange as crossbreeding a tomato and a trout.” Or, put bluntly, in See’s refreshingly salty prose: “This book is for the timid, forlorn, and clueless.” Thus, she’s somewhat more interested in cluing in her readers to the thorny reality of the publishing industry, offering nuts-and- bolts instructions for negotiating the weird world of book and magazine editors, literary agents, publicists and the like than in providing tips on plot and point of view. (Though solid, the section on writing technique is a bit thin.)
These days See, author of nine books, Washington Post book critic, UCLA prof, recipient of a Guggenheim and so on, is something of a literary grande dame, and she believes “with a patriotic sincerity that would make a Legionnaire blush, that American literature is owned by everybody in America and that world lit is owned by everybody in the world and that we all get to have a say in it, not just a comparatively few men and women in the Northeast.”
“Making a Literary Life” is as much the story of See’s own attempts to carve out a
life for herself as a writer — writing 1,000 words each day, no matter how bad; sending off scores of notes to writers she admired; selecting her homes based on their views; alienating two husbands, both “failed writers,” by the sheer force of her ambition — as it is a self-help book for writers. Her foibles, which include posing as her own (nonexistent) publicist and sending longtime Atlantic Monthly editor C. Michael Curtis an envelope stuffed with family photos, serve as a kind of seriocomic road map for the hordes who will identify with See’s story, which is, essentially, the story of a scrappy girl from Texas who made herself into a writer through hard work, supernatural amounts of chutzpah and, well, more hard work.
In the end, this emphasis on work sets See’s charming, conversational volume apart from the hundreds of other writing manuals crowding the shelves of your local bookshop. Being a writer, she insists, is in many ways a matter of working yourself into a role, of writing those 1,000 words each morning, of educating yourself about the business behind the books you read.
Early on, See tells the tale of Kay Boyle, a prominent writer of the 1950s, who married a poor Frenchman at a tender age. “The first place they lived didn’t even have windows.” Boyle painted windows onto the walls, then scrawled notes to the well-known writers then living in Paris, who soon became her friends and invited her to join them in the City of Light. “She literally wrote herself out of that windowless cave,” says See exuberantly.
See pulled off a similar feat, and she’s hoping, with a warmth rarely seen in literary circles, that her readers will do the same.
The Washington Post gives Making a Literary Life a rave!
The Write Stuff
Reviewed by Susan Isaacs
Sunday, August 25, 2002
“The author’s chapter on ‘Charming Notes’ is one with which this reviewer must take issue. As a Californian, Carolyn See acknowledges the isolation of writers living outside New York. To counter this loneliness and to get acquainted with literary types, she proposes that you ‘write one charming note to a novelist, an editor, a journalist, a poet, a sculptor, even an agent whose professional work or reputation you admire, five days a week, for the rest of your life.’ Even if a potential novelist can suppress ego long enough to pen such a letter, to be either a devoted fan, sycophant or cunning networker, that sort of writing dissipates psychic energy better devoted to fiction. Also, it is difficult to imagine coming up with 260 icons a year, much less thousands in a lifetime, and being charming precludes salutations such as ‘Dear Infelicitous Poet.'”
Still, the would-be writer must find not only his or her narrator’s voice but also the good sense to know what tips will work in the universe of the novel. So while one might want to give a couple of See’s helpful hints the heave-ho, Making a Literary Life is a book to be treasured. It is only one writer’s guide to the writing life, but Carolyn See is one hell of a writer. And, it would also seem, a generous human being. ” – read the FULL REVIEW
From the Miami Herald
Get ready (grab pen), get set (pour wine), . . . now write!
BY MARGARIA FICHTNER
“Making a Literary Life may not provide all the amenities, camaraderie, name-dropping and ego-withering critiques of a summer at, say, Bread Loaf, but it may get you off your duff and send you scurrying to your desk or laptop even if you have no clue as to the finer points of ‘voice,’ ‘character’ and ‘point of view,’ even if you have never written anything more literary than a check, even if you happen to live someplace where `the idea of writing is about as strange as crossbreeding a tomato and a trout.”’
See, who teaches English at UCLA, practices it as a novelist and memoirist and ponders it as The Washington Post’s smart, unflaggingly entertaining weekday book critic, has a good idea here: Let’s make writing easy! Let’s make it fun! Key to her title and philosophy is the word Making. The literary life is not something you can buy, steal or inherit. It is something you must construct as carefully as you would a boxwood maze, a ship in a bottle or a souffle, something that requires time, discipline, patience, faith, a little goofy white magic and the right tools.
See’s book is divided into three parts — Before, The Writing, During and After. It is crammed with advice that often seems downright motherly (See’s two daughters are writers, too), as well as with affirmations (”I am a powerful, loving and creative being . . . ”), tips on how to behave (“. . . [N]obody wants a writer-jerk in the family”), uplifting exercises (“If you’re working on a book, what’s the title? Write it out nicely, on a good sheet of paper. Be sure to put your name on as the author”) and helpful lists of dos and don’ts. Here is a do: ”Every writer needs an entourage . . . so that when your book comes out and you start having signings, you won’t be quaking with terror and sorrow in front of a bunch of empty folding chairs . . . .” And here is a don’t: “Don’t write what you know; write what you care about.” Read the FULL REVIEW!
From “Writers’ Carousel,” The Writer’s Center, Maryland (September, 2002)
by Judith McCombs
What’s not to acclaim about Carolyn See’s engaging, tenacious, heartening advice to writers and would-be writers? I must be missing something–Lord knows I’m not the gushing type–but after three weeks of reading and talking about this book, I still can’t come up with a convincing complaint. See’s pithy advice nudges the novice and the stranded writer into reality–first, don’t tell non-writers how you want to write. Second, call up your own material–the people and events that shape your life and imprint your dreams–and if they don’t look like what you think of as really worthy literary material, so what? Third, write: a thousand words a day, five days a week, for the rest of your life. No writing ahead, no catching up–each day starts at zero. Two hours of heavy editing count for a thousand words. Read the FULL REVIEW.
From the San Jose Mercury News:
by Charles Matthews
I don’t think any book can teach you how to be a writer, but novelist and critic Carolyn See’s “Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers” (Random House, 265 pp., $23.95) could help you figure out if it’s what you want to do. Her book is a little bit confessional, a little bit how-to, and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. (She listens to Van Morrison while she writes.)
Writing is something you must love for its own sake, not for fame or money, because you’re a dope if that’s what you’re out for. (Even some famous writers obviously do it out of love, because they keep doing it: Stephen King and John Grisham have more money than they can ever spend, but they keep turning out books.) So some of See’s advice seems designed to test your love of writing. Her No. 1 rule: “A thousand words a day — or two hours of revision — five days a week for the rest of your life.” If you can keep up that pace even when the rejection slips are coming in, then you’re in love.
See’s rule No. 2 is: “A `charming note’ (that does not ask for a favor) to a writer, editor, or agent you admire — five days a week for the rest of your life (or, flowers, lunch, drinks, a helium balloon, etc.).” I won’t be doing that, but I see her point: There’s no such thing as a writing community. It’s a lonely business with lousy feedback. You rarely hear from readers except when they want to correct, chastise or complain. The times when they write to agree, to support, to encourage are so rare that they make your day. When authors e-mail me about how much they appreciate my review of their books, I get such a buzz from the gesture that I feel like I can never again review them fairly. (Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t let that get about.)
From Kirkus reviews:
“This book is for the timid, forlorn, and clueless,” declares the author, who is none of the above. Her chatty, breezy text aims to build the confidence and coping skills of people who, like the 32-year-old Californian divorced mother of two See once was, dream of making a career as a writer but don’t know how to go about it. Part One, “Before,” offers a framework for getting down to work. The fundamentals? “A thousand words a day, five days a week, and one charming note written to someone in the literary world who makes your hands sweat – five days a week, for the rest of your life.” The charming note, along with the cheerful replies to rejection letters that See also mandates, make aspiring writers human to the jaded New York insides who determine their literary fate: “like everyone else in the world, [publishing professionals] like to hang out with their friends instead of strangers.” Sound but unsurprising advice on identifying your material, startling but not entirely flaky and straightforward guidance on how to send out a manuscript round out this section. Part Two, “The Writing,” covers character, plot, point of view, scene setting and construction, and revisions – it’s helpful if not innovative material presented with the sharp humor and judicious use of personal anecdotes that enliven the whole. Part Three, “During and After,” is a must for first-time authors who don’t realize how much their successful publication depends on their efforts, from throwing their own parties to arranging local bookstore signings, and how short the time frame is. (“Four months after your book is published, it’s dead.”) See’s comments on magazine writing – forget guery letters; send notes describing the piece, then send the piece – are equally shrewd. “Living a literary life is a marriage,” she writes: romance is part of it, but so is hard work.