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The Handyman
Making History
Golden Days
Rhine Maidens
Mothers, Daughters

The Rest is Done with Mirrors

Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers

Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America
Blue Money



From the Miami Herald

Get ready (grab pen), get set (pour wine), . . . now write!

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.


''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.''

Herewith, ours.

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.

See, whose primal model is her charming, late-blooming old Texas dad--a character who survived her mother's jeering to become a published writer of Western pulp stories and soft-porn novels--applies this four-pages-a-day quota to just about all the kinds of creative prose there are, stories, novels, creative non-fiction, and also to genre stuff and commercial magazine pieces. Although See believes she has no idea what poets should do, I would bet that many poets could translate See's quota into an analogous, ritual time for the deep, obsessive focus involved in making poetry.

There's a lot of heart-warming, soul-stirring, in-your-face advice about how to change your writing self from invisible to visible, and how to do the same for your work. First, write brief, charming letters of appreciation to literary folk whose work you genuinely admire. (This is where I cringed, recalling the letters I have never written to writers and mentors, some now dead, whose work has meant so much to me.) If the Great Writer answers, wonderful. If not, so what?

Other advice: find literary people who will encourage your work--look around you in your writing classes--and hey, are you willing to encourage their work? Realize that having a story, article, or book published is like having a baby: you have to be the one to take care of it, let people know, give them copies, give a publication party--instead of sulking or wilting as you wait for the world to discover you. Why? because you love it most, and if you don't love it enough to nourish it, it won't thrive. (Here I recall not only Whitman publishing his own work, but also Dickinson writing to Higginson, apparently to explore her best chance at publication.) All this you get in the first third of Making a Literary Life.

Equally contagious are See's strategies for coping with rejection--see it as a boomerang, not a spear, reply instantly and positively, promise them another piece in three or four weeks. You also get strategies for how to fashion query letters to editors, how to deal with character--the element that drives See's own work--and with plot, point of view, geography, scenes; how to rewrite, by yourself and in tandem with your editors; how to save for, enhance, and survive your first trip to New York; how to incorporate yourself as a business so that you can take all your literary expenses off your taxes.

Making a Literary Life is one of a remarkable and essential triad that I would urge most writers to seek out. If you need to sharpen your skills in fiction writing, Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft: Essays and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Mariner or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) will give you more specific advice than See's on point of view and the other elements, less on making a literary life. If you're mainly into poetry, or the short-short fiction that has to have a poetic intensity to move the reader deeply, much of See's advice holds true, despite her claiming poetic ignorance. If you want to trace how reading feeds a writer, Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Cambridge UP, 2002) is covertly a portrait of writer and Muse, overtly a tribute to the sources that have shaped her work, from comic books through myth.

It can't be coincidence that all three of these books are by people who are conspicuously Outsiders, who have made their way as writers belonging to a non-elite gender, and a non-elite region or country--far west of the Hudson, far north of New York. Their books share an uppity independence, a tenacious, honest energy, an openness to renegade genres and strategies and truths that open and deepen the world we know.

Judith McCombs is the author of Sisters and Other Selves, Against Nature: Wilderness Poems, two books on Margaret Atwood, 20/20 Visionary Eclipse, and Territories: Here and Elsewhere. She teaches at the Writer's Center in Bethesda.

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Write On
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.