A Thousand Words and Charming Notes
An Interview with Carolyn See by B. Lynn Goodwin
WriterAdvice, March 2003
Facing rejection? Doubting your talent? Adjust your
attitude with Carolyn See's MAKING A LITERARY LIFE. Her book offers a
new perspective for writers and other dreamers. She cuts to the chase
about pragmatic things like the importance of writing 1000 words a day,
five days a week, and the equal importance of writing charming notes to
authors and editors.
Why write the charming notes? See says making a literary life is like building any relationship. Rather than letting a rejection letter end a relationship before it starts, she encourages people to write back, thank an editor for the rejection, and tell him she will be submitting something
else in 3 weeks.
In addition to giving practical advice, she shares a philosophy about making life work. Charming notes and making rejection a process are only part of the process. She shows people how to turn negativity into triumph with a blend of honesty, gutsiness, and humility and she does it in an engaging, readable style. Catch a glimpse of who she is and how willingly she shares in the interview below.
LG: Tell me about yourself. How long have you been writing? How has your writing changed since you were first published?Tell me about yourself. How long have you been writing? How has your writing changed since you were first published?
CS: I wrote my first story when I was 17. Wrote my first (unpublished) novel when I was 29. When I was 31, I had my second baby, had gotten my Ph.D., and was staying home for the first time since I was 17, not working. I thought: If I don't do it now, I never will, so I started writing 1,000 words a day, doing awful short stories. I sold my first non-fiction magazine piece, and became suspiciously successful when I was about 33. I don't think my work has changed all that much in my life. I come from a long line of depressives and suicides, etc., and I've always wanted to spring away from that, to transcend my genes.
LG: Has fiction or non-fiction brought you more satisfaction? Which book is your favorite and why?
CS: I much prefer writing fiction, although I've probably done as much non-fiction in my life. For a long time my favorite novel was Golden Days, and I do think it's great. But Making History is, I think, a better work. Making a Literary Life was no fun to write, but I do think it has been -- and will be -- of help to the people who need it. (My least favorite novel is Mothers, Daughters, thankfully out of print. What a whiner I was in that book!)
LG: How did you discover the importance of writing a thousand words a day and writing "charming notes"? How has doing it paid off for you?
CS: I wrote 1,000 words a day from the beginning, mostly because Virginia Woolf said that's what she did. I didn't "get" the idea about notes until much later. I was so terribly isolated out in California -- and New York seemed so strange to me. I was completely out of the loop, didn't even know there WAS a loop.. But after I did an assignment for Esquire, I wrote a note to my editor at the magazine, and a friend of mine said he saw it up on the editor's bulletin board. And my experience with the Atlantic Monthly -- I write about it in the book -- showed me that ...writers do have a say in their own futures.
LG: That's very encouraging news. Do you really send "charming notes" to editors or authors five days a week? How long did it take you to get up to five notes a week?
CS: I realized early on as a magazine writer that notes were a pleasing alternative to phone calls where sometimes you can't keep your voice from trembling. And that editors appreciated thank yous from writers, since there's often so much friction between them. And that queries were apt to be turned down, because a query makes it easy for an editor to say no, but if you form a proposal in the declarative mode, they're often too torpid to say no. I bought the finest stationery I couldn't afford, and it's been a constant and very good investment for me. Now, I do about three notes a day, often answering notes that are sent to me.
LG: Your explanation of why queries are easy to turn down puts this in perspective for me. You have a direct, honest style with just the right amount of attitude, outrageousness, and humility. Any tips for finding a clear, effective style which is true to your voice?
CS: I tell my students all the time, you find your voice by FINDING YOUR VOICE. You listen to yourself and your friends, talking. You remember your parents' admonitions, and how they phrased them. You notice yourself when you're driving the car. You listen to the people you're in love with or hate. You write a lot, and then read your own writing. The more you write, the more you sound like yourself.
LG: How did you find your first agent and publisher? Are you still with the same agent? If not, why did you find a new agent?
CS: My first agent was Monica McCall, who was found for me by Harry Sions, an editor at the time for Little,Brown. LB gave me a contract to write a novel, on the strength of my magazine work. I was young! I didn't know what I was doing, and I had a paranoid chip on my shoulder. I changed publishers several times but Monica stayed with me, or vice versa, until she retired at 83. Then I went with Elaine Markson, who is a wonderfully kind and good woman, and then to Anne Sibbald , another saint, at Janklow Nesbit. I'm not the biggest money maker in the world, and they were all uniformly kind to me. In the early part of my career, I published all over the place, but my last three books have been with Random House.
LG: If you were not a writer and teacher, what would you be doing with your life?
CS: If I weren't a writer teacher, I'd probably be some kind of tent evangelist. I have an incurable idea that I can set people straight.
LG: Great answer! How has teaching at UCLA affected your writing?
CS: Teaching has been the most wonderful thing, for my life and for my writing. University undergraduates are smart, fresh, funny, privy to a world I know little about, and they're still in love with life, even when they're depressed. At the most basic level, they keep me from despair.
LG: Where can people find MAKING A LITERARY LIFE? What are you working on now?
CS: MAKING A LITERARY LIFE is still on sale in hard cover, to my amazement, at many book stores. You can always find it on Amazon. And the paperback is coming out soon from Ballantine. I'm working on a novel now, that I'm very fond of, and that I hope is fairly subversive.
LG: I can 't wait to read it. I am becoming quite a fan.
When you feel uncertain, when your writing and your ego need a jump-start,
pick up MAKING A LITERARY LIFE. The practical tips as well as the
philosophy make this book an excellent resource.