Carolyn See's new book addresses regimen, structure and yes, networking
By LYNELL GEORGE , Times Staff Writer
The flowers are here--long-stemmed exotics drifting out of grand vases.
So are the crudités, the pâtés and cheeses. There
are bottles of wine--two reds and two whites. And a waiter in vest, dark
pants and starched shirt, looping around the perimeter of Dutton's Brentwood
Books' deep courtyard.
The friends are here. Old colleagues and new. Family--immediate and extended.
So are the students with fresh notebooks. Here too is a steady rain that
falls uncharacteristically from a heavy, early-September sky.
The surprise evening shower is the only thing that isn't on writer Carolyn
See's checklist of what should be a part of a working writer's arsenal.
"Let's get rolling!" See cranks her right arm in the air and
winds through Dutton's covered breezeway. She threads through the thickening
crowd, her black tunic and jacquard slacks flowing after her.
Her face set, focused, she'll will the drops away. She strides to a table
nestled beneath an overhang, already draped with bouquets, handwritten
notes and brochures announcing upcoming readings, names starred and dates
As the book signing begins, See inscribes each title page with her black
felt-tipped pen, closing each greeting, " ... xxxx, Carolyn."
"I just love your little notes!" enthuses one lean, sun-baked
man, who looks as if he could have climbed from one of the pages of her
novels. Another in seersucker and stingy brim Panama jumps the line bellowing:
"Can I have a kiss, Carolyn?! Come on, Carolyn!" All this could
be a scene straight out of Chapter 5 of See's new book "Making a
Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers."
"Every writer needs an entourage ... so that when your book comes
out and you start having signings, you won't be quaking with terror."
She squints as camera flashes fire, dabs her eyes when a face calls up
a memory. But she's quick to keep the line moving, with a light hand on
shoulder and an "Enjoy yourself, dear." There is order to all
of this spontaneity. There is business to this art. She has built this
willfully, piece by piece. And indeed, somehow, when no one was looking,
the rain paused, as if between thoughts.
In "Making a Literary Life" (Random House), See, a hardy L.A.
daughter, takes a detour from her long string of L.A. novels--most recently
"The Handyman" (Random House, 1999), and "Making History"
(Houghton Mifflin, 1991)--and departs as well from the realm of the straight-shooting
memoir, "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America" (Random
House, 1995) to tackle the prosaic realities of the hard and hardly glamorous
work of writing.
"I thought it would be easy" to convey what she knows about
writing, says See, on another afternoon, padding around her sunny Pacific
Palisades home. "It was terrible. I thought at first that the book
should write itself, but, really, in fact, [writing is] like driving a
stick or talking about how adrenaline functions or looking after your
child." Easy once you know how to do it, harder to explain.
Often when eager readers pick up a writers' handbook, they come looking
for the basics, plot basics, say, or dialogue tips. They may want exercises
to unblock the block, or more to the point, a list of agents or magazines
that might eagerly await a fat 9-by-12-inch envelope.
See's volume contains some of that. There are humorously instructive chapters
on writing regimens, point of view, scene building and the importance
of a clear-eyed rewrite. "Often it's very hard to sit in one place
and read your own cruelly imperfect work. Tomato soup and red wine can
dull the impulse to jump up. Pretty soon you don't care how awful the
But what separates this guide from others of its ilk is the plain-spoken
and at times unconventional advice she imparts about nudging the universe.
She would have a writer refine the art of throwing her own party, cultivating
contacts, making himself visible. ("Write charming notes" to
people you admire!) She presses the importance of taking a more active
role in the work's destiny rather than hoping the book "succeeds
on its merits."
She counsels confronting the business of writing, or as she softens it
"the writing life"--understanding the balance, and finding ways
to have a family life that "glitters as it is stable."
The book, says See, who is also a UCLA English professor, a contributor
to The Times and a book critic for the Washington Post, spun out of an
all-too-familiar exchange: "The thousandth time someone called me
up and said, my book is dying and I don't know what to do. You walk them
through it. They are very obdurate, you know. And they are sulky and crabby,
and it's your fault. But if you don't know, you just don't know. But it's
not like it's arcane. "
This advice, says See, is intended as cheering section for people who
wanted to write but somehow got sidetracked by life, or "folks who
live in parts of the country where the idea of writing is as strange as
crossbreeding a tomato and a trout," she writes. "It's about
making your literary life wherever you live, whoever your family and friends
Much of it is about setting the intention (that would be Chapter 5, "Pretend
to Be a Writer") says See, winding through a neat, bright home alive
with impressionistic glowing paintings of L.A.'s past and present--the
old Dolores Drive-In and MacArthur Park Lake. Books to judge or review
and books to simply linger through are separated in stacks. Those of her
late partner, the scholar and writer John Espey, who knew the beauty of
books, line the floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Stacked on a dining room sideboard are mailing lists, envelopes and invitations
to upcoming book parties (that would be Chapter 6, "Hang Out With
People Who Support Your Work"). Every flat surface seems filled with
the encouraging faces of her children and grandchildren. She settles onto
her balcony, which overlooks a sweep of hills that, as the light changes,
could be in Greece or Spain or a backdrop for some fictional place she's
yet to fix on the page.
Being a writer, in See's definition, is as much about integrating writing
into your lifestyle--say, 1,000 words a day, five days a week--as it is
about writing a charming note to a literary figure you admire. And doing
such things for the rest of your life. It is about cultivating an image,
seeing yourself as a writer, but not requiring those around you to suffer
through your aspirations and proclamations, chapter and verse.
Though she says that "I started out as a writer with a chip on my
shoulder ... a woman in a very bad mood," her advice comes in a voice
as lambent as morning sun. It can also be as blunt and revealing.
"It's my experience," writes See, "that you first feel
the impulse to write in your chest .... It's like falling in love. Only
more so. It feels like something criminal....So think when you feel the
overpowering need to go out and find some unspeakable wild sex, do you
rush to tell your mom about it? Keep your longing to yourself."
To help keep everything--from self-doubt to ego--in check, the book provides
recipes for "magic" and prescriptions for surviving rejection
that sound like Lucy Ricardo schemes--until you get to the punch lines.
Several pieces sent to Atlantic Monthly editor C. Michael Curtis prompted
an irritated reply: "Dear Miss See, I think that by now you've sent
us everything but your family photograph album. I should think it would
be evident that we're not interested in the kind of things you write."
Winded by the blow, she righted herself, then mailed a series of photographs
of her grubby Topanga brood. A meeting and assignment soon followed. She
now refers to Curtis as "Mike."
Some might find parts of her advice hokum. See understands why. "I
wouldn't say you could make or have a literary life just by stringing
together affirmations," she says. "That chapter on magic can
be taken in a frivolous way. But in the real world the chances of making
it as a writer ... are as good as making it as a tap dancer, a magician
or a movie star. To be a writer, you just don't go through realistic channels.
Reality is when you pay the rent. Get caught in traffic or your car breaks
down. Really it's an AM/FM sort of thing. You've got reality and then
there's the miraculous and the transcendent. And once you start, time
Being a writer is being grounded in both worlds. It is as much about self-invention
as conjuring back-story, interiors and the well-drawn characters that
inhabit your work.
Those charming notes? Well, they become your calling cards when you make
your first trip to New York. That bracing rejection slip you received?
Pop a thank-you note in the mail, she advises. Tell that editor you'll
write again. And do. "They say: No. I'm not dead yet, thank you very
much." Will they think you daft? "So what. So what. So what."
All this, she knows, is blasphemous to some ears: "Carolyn cares
more about the writing life than writing," See says, serving up the
scuttlebutt she's overheard.
Students often groan at the notion of the "charming notes,"
she says. I know I did when she mentioned them in a class I took from
her years ago at Loyola Marymount University. As an undergrad given to
epic daydreaming, the idea of thinking about writing notes to strangers--networking!--didn't
fit into my back-lit, soft-focused definition of "writer." But
students were--still are--assigned to trundle out to her readings (it
was mandatory). Her teaching style requires students to become organized
self-starters. And somehow, all the pieces--inner work and outer--fit
What See wants to impart is just that. That the writing life can be as
much about serendipity as it is about strategy: all of it poetic.
Even so, she too finds herself at times beset by "What's the use?"
It's difficult protecting your heart as a writer. It's even harder to
survive the mountain of rejection on top of the workings of fate and luck.
The competing voices indeed get awfully loud--financial crises, critics,
pulped books, mortality.
She tries to take her advice, "but of course it's hard."
Indeed, shortly after "Making a Literary Life" arrived on the
shelves, a reviewer gave it a particularly scathing critique. It rocked
her, she admits. But after the smarting settled some, she put on her game
face. "I sent him a dozen roses." She won't even speculate at
the reaction. "So what. So what. So what."
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