Making a Literary Life: Advice
for Writers and Other Dreamers by Carolyn See
©2002, Random House
Dutton's Brentwood -
for a personal, inscribed copy!
Random House's Making a Literary Life page
The Rest is Done with Mirrors
Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers
Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in
the Miami Herald
Get ready (grab pen), get set (pour wine), . . . now write!
BY MARGARIA FICHTNER
All right, then. Here you are, scrunched under an
umbrella by the pool, a new box of felt-tip pens and a fresh stack
of legal pads arrayed hopefully before you, a plate of raw broccoli
(for energy) and a glass of crisp white wine (courage) within
reach and, in the background, Emmylou Harris softly husking ''I
don't wanna talk about it naaaaooowww.'' This is it, the day you
finally begin the novel that has swirled through your head for
years, that comic treatment of Rasputin's Siberian childhood that
will stun the National Book Award judges and hoist you to the
pinnacle of the publishing world. But whoa! or, more precisely,
woe! Although you have been toiling in a lathered frenzy for an
hour, heart clanging with eagerness, you have managed to squeeze
out, let's see, only one, two, three, four . . . 12 words: ''The
birch leaves stirred softly as Grigory opened one brown eye and
. . . .'' And what? Well, that ''The'' is not bad, but the rest
-- the leaves, little Grigory and his #$@% eye -- is (oh, just
say it) stupefying drivel, and (ruinous thought) maybe the rest
of the story will be, too.
LIKE A HEARTACHE
''It's my experience that you first feel the impulse to write
in your chest,'' Carolyn See jauntily declares in her reassuring,
breezy, even zany guide to the literary universe. ''It's like
a heartache. It's like falling in love, only more so. It feels
like something criminal. It feels like the possibility of unspeakably
wild sex.'' Right now, you would swear, it feels like hell.
Well, cheer up. 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.''
That See cares deeply about all facets, all the minutiae of the
writing life -- hers, her daughters' and yours, too -- cannot
be argued. She is a literary junkie who adores standing in line
at book signings and drinking bad wine out of plastic glasses
at readings, the sort who experiences a heartfelt thrill when
the cashier at Weight Watchers recognizes her name, the sort who
regards the angst-wrought drama of publishers' rejection letters
as a dating game. The most blatantly high-minded writers, who
will not read her book in the first place, surely would pooh-pooh
its relatively shallow tutorials on literary technique, but even
they would be charmed by See's gift for the bright literary anecdote;
by her sensible and encompassing approach (she is not above telling
you when to bathe and what to do with a can of Campbell's tomato
soup) and, most of all, by the dazzling ''ferocious graciousness''
of her good manners.
See, whose parents split up when she was 11 and who herself has
been married and divorced twice, always has been the sort of writer
who can make the mild profanities of social discourse sound like
blessings and who will be the one crazily dancing around the living
room when the world burns to ashes. During the writing of this
book, she endured the scary onset of macular degeneration -- she
copes by hiring a handsome limo driver to haul her around at night
-- and the deaths of her mother (''She was beautiful and funny,
and she never loved me'') and longtime companion, the Ezra Pound
scholar John Espey.
Yet there is nothing remotely maudlin or self-pitying in these
spunky pages. Your literary life is, first of all, life, which
means you are stuck with it. But, moreover, it is your material,
and if your nutso mama dies without speaking to you or you catch
your husband having sex with a zit-brained, second-rate Lolita,
you do not drive your fist through the plaster or shrivel up and
die; you store the hurt away, let it fester merrily, and one day
you get even with everybody by using it. Who says what started
out as a miserable bird-poop stain on your heart cannot morph
into -- Ha! -- a short story?
One more word: Discipline. See insists that aspiring writers produce
1,000 words a day, five days a week, for the rest of their lives
and that every day they write a note to someone they admire in
the literary world, someone ``who makes your hands sweat.''
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