Making a Literary Life: Advice
for Writers and Other Dreamers by Carolyn See
©2002, Random House
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Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers
Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in
The Washington Post gives Making a Literary Life a rave!
The Write Stuff
Reviewed by Susan Isaacs
Sunday, August 25, 2002
MAKING A LITERARY LIFE
Advice for Writers And Other Dreamers
By Carolyn See
Random House. 260 pp. $23.95
Like making chicken soup and making love, writing is an idiosyncratic
act. No two people do it the same way. Nonetheless, the number
of how-to guides written by established writers for aspiring writers
seems large enough to merit one of those extravagant declarations:
If laid end to end, all the You-Too-Can-Be-a-Novelist handbooks
would stretch from Lincoln, Neb. to Chillicothe, Ohio. Make an
outline, counsels one book. Don't fetter your imagination, another
counters. Each day, one thousand words. No, three pages. No, three
hours. Sign up for the best writing course in town. Don't waste
your money: Neither Charlotte Bronte nor Dashiell Hammett needed
All these conflicting guidelines are bewildering, which is why
the clarity and honesty of Carolyn See's new work, Making a Literary
Life, should be a boon to those who sense that, deep inside, there
is a novel waiting to be written. The author is not unaware that
the ability to write what others want to read may be a talent
that cannot be taught. The earth isn't teeming with billions of
potential novelists, lacking only a how-to handbook, time and
a word-processing program. Then where does the aptitude come from?
Maybe God. Maybe genes. Or a hellish childhood, a benevolent librarian.
How can you find out if you have the gift? Only one way: You write.
Then why bother with such books, even one as lucid as See's? Because
it may be heartening. It is easier to leap into the abyss when
a soothing voice reassures you: Hey, it's all right. I did it,
and look . . . I not only survived, I got published. And because
any sensible how-to-write primer breaks down a complex task like
writing a novel into a sequence of baby steps, like the Montessori
method of tying a shoelace, so that the job doesn't seem overwhelming.
But why should the would-be writer consider this particular guidebook?
Because even though this reviewer, a longtime novelist, disagrees
with some of its suggestions, it is the most straightforward,
well-crafted, amusing and practical manual she has ever read.
Carolyn See's advice is down-to earth: "Here's a terrific
exercise that has to do with both geography and point of view:
draw a map of where you live, your turf. You know where your house
is, where the gas station is, where the mall is, and -- if you're
virtuous -- where the church is. If you're the adventurous type,
you know where the vacant lot is where you once set that fire.
But soon -- past the freeway, or by the railroad tracks -- your
knowledge stops. Drawing where you are in the world is marvelously
helpful in showing you where you are in the world."
Unlike some veterans of fiction who dismiss supposedly unsophisticated
questions with a snide retort, the author has compassion and memory
enough to realize we were all naive once. She does a fine job
of answering what may be the most common questions, like: Where
do you get your ideas? While citing practical examples from the
work and lives of other writers, from E.M. Forster to Hemingway,
See uses her own experience as an example "not because my
life is anything special, but because it's typical." In her
chapter on creating character, for instance, she sets down her
own lists, of people she loved ("My mother. She was beautiful
and funny, and she never loved me. In fact, she couldn't stand
me. Goddamnit!") and those she did not ("My stepfather.
Poor drunk fool. He'd look at my mother and say, 'If I were a
gopher, I'd go for you.' He liked canned string beans and Durkee
Her wisdom for would-be writers unsure about creating character(s)
is to use the people on their own lists as archetypes. "God's
present to me is my own life," she explains. "It's not
D.H. Lawrence's or Tolstoy's or Virginia Woolf's -- much as I
might like it to be. And, whoever is reading this, your life is
your present, your dowry, your donneé."
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.
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