With a little creativity, Carolyn Sees small office
in the English department at UCLA can accommodate about ten writing and
literature students. During her weekly office hours when school is in
session, they crowd in, taking chairs from a stack she keeps in the corner,
beside bookcases that house a small sample of her and John Espeys
rare book collections.
Graduates drop by to visit and get a free shot of inspiration.
Current students show up with leftover bits of class discussion or to
argue about some assignment See has forced upon them. (Are you serious
about the charming notes? Whatdya mean I have to go to a book
signing?) Chatty ones come to chat because, unlike most professors,
See will regard the funny anecdote of your kleptomaniac uncle as perfectly
relevant to her class, and shell be happy to counter with a tale
of her own. The quiet ones, whom I was among during the time I studied
with See, come to listen and soak up the possibilities, and to ask a few
questions jotted down in advance.
It was in Sees creative writing class and office hours
that I discovered why I want to write, but I also learned
the practical steps that would get me in print for the first time, things
like how to send something out. (Your name and address
should go in the upper-left-hand corner..., Be sure to put
numbers and your name on all the pages, since editors are disorganized.)
Fortunately for those aspiring writers who havent had
access to her delightful presence, See has compiled the secrets of her
success as novelist, memoirist and book critic in her newest work, Making
a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers (Random House).
With its wise but approachable mix of practical, technical,
and magical guidance, the book takes readers from the moment they breathlessly
set words to paper (or screen) to three months after the publication of
their first books.
Included are the creeds that any See-student can recite:
Write a thousand words a day (or revise for two hours), five days a week,
for the rest of your life. As often, write one charming note (or make
one terrifying phone call) to a literary figure whom you admire, not asking
for a favor. And make rejection a process, a dating game.
When See was beginning her own literary life in the early
sixties, the writing guide, as a genre, didnt exist. She gleaned
what lessons she could from the writers she loved and whose works she
had read over and over, among them Virginia Woolf and Kay Boyle (who recommended
those thousand words a day) and E.M. Forster.
Back when I was beginning, she recalls, women
writers had only been published by the bundle for about 35 years, which
is no time at all. So I dont think [aspiring] women writers
had much of a clue how to write. We had Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf. But she was, first of all, stark staring mad and also
depressive and also English and a snob and didnt have children and
didnt have to work. So her advice doesnt really ... it counts,
but its not terribly relevant to the world that you and I find ourselves
in. Boyle, whose experience was perhaps more applicable to Sees
(both women had first children and first divorces by age 30), was the
first woman writer See had ever read who could look at men as romantic
objects in fiction. She wrote about these guys as though they were
part of a landscape and she was the one who was watching, says See.
It was revolutionary.
Very depressed in her youth, she also recalls reading a lot
of Nathanael West, over and over. Later on, she says, some of that
depressive literature didnt sound so good to me anymore. I would
look at it and think, Well, get over it. Life is all right, its
not so bad. She laughs warmly.
This is the See her students know. A woman who speaks frankly
about how dark things can look, and yet approaches her life and craft
with such toughness, compassion, and sense of humor that she exudes a
kind of light. In the last couple of years, however, she was thrown into
a despairing position, writing, she says, with what Unamuno wouldve
called a tragic sense of life. While she was working
on the book, her life partner of 27 years, distinguished scholar and writer
John Espey, suffered an illness and then died.
Theres some line in the book that says, every
day I would go out there and work and it was a form of praying
and I think thats true, says See. Also I had to realize
for the first time in my life that writing is not more important than
anything else, which is a real shock if youve been a writer your
whole life ... Its just another thing we do, killing time until
we die. She smiles, adding, Thats not necessarily a
bad thing, its just an interesting thing to have found out.
A difficult journey yielded a monster manuscript,
says See, full of repetition and digression and ranting and raving.
But through the editing process, the book became what its author had envisioned
when she began, a guide that literally tells you how to move it
from your head out to the paper and then into print (I hate
to use the word empowering, but its so empowering.), a guide
that speaks not necessarily to the already successful and sophisticated
but to the timid, forlorn, and clueless.
I want it for everyone who wants to do it, she
says, not just the people in New York, and I have nothing against
the people in New York, but its just, they dont own it. We
all own it.
This inclusiveness is another of Sees trademarks. During
those crowded sessions in her office, she would always make sure everyone
was introduced to everyone else, by first and last name. The idea was
that we public university students in sunny, sinful California,
none of us in the in crowd were our own community of
writers, and the sooner we started taking each other seriously, the better.
As lovely as this was, there were times when I wished the
office wasnt so crowded, and sometimes, by weird luck or because
there was a holiday weekend coming up, it wasnt. There were a couple
of afternoons when I got to sit alone with this brilliant and kind writer
and ask her all the humbling questions that others might not deign to
answer. How do I combat my horrible laziness? How do I write a magazine
piece? What do I do for money? (All things she would cover in class anyway.)
Answers to these questions, and loftier ones too, are included
in Making a Literary Life, and with its publication, See invites writers
of all stripes into her office for a private chat. There she will tell
us, as many times as we need to hear it If you love this world and
this craft, they will lift you to a place you cant begin to imagine.
Words to read over and over.
Copyright: Santa Monica Mirror
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Carolyn See Interviews-