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Making a Literary Life [Paperback]

Carolyn See
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist and memoirist See (The Handyman; Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America) offers a how-to guide for the wannabe writer who can take the time to "write 1,000 words" per day. Viewing writing as a lifestyle as well as a vocation plays to See's strengths as a storyteller: her advice is salted with anecdotes she's picked up in years as the head of a literary household (her daughters are also writers) and as a teacher of university creative-writing classes. Starting at the beginning, she advises neophytes not to tell anyone about their aspirations, as "that bores people to death." Later she suggests sending a handwritten note of praise ("charming notes," she calls them) to someone admired in the literary world each day, five days a week for the rest of your life. Her advice is practical and folksy, and much of it wouldn't be out of place in an upscale women's magazine. The approach is comprehensive: aspirants are encouraged to "pretend" to be a writer, "make rejection a process," set up a travel account for that first trip to New York and deduct part of the cost of their clothing from their taxes as a "costume" expense. Practical chapters on "Character," "Plot," "Geography, Time, and Space" and "Building a Scene" are a little thin, but generally sound. Though not for the experienced writer, this is an easy-to-read beginner's guide, long on chat but somewhat short on technique.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This wonderful book manages to integrate perfectly advice to writers and would-be writers with delightful snippets from See's literary and teaching career she has authored nine books, teaches English at UCLA, and reviews regularly for the Washington Post. Mostly, this is a collection of anecdotes and name dropping (from her family and inner circle to well-known authors), and at times you'll feel as if you were listening in on one of her classes. See offers advice on how to write those "thousand words a day," behave like a writer, and get published after dealing first with myriad rejection letters. There are also sections on character, plot, and point of view, but don't think See approaches any of these topics in a formulaic way. She uses her wealth of experience to offer valuable, and sometimes hilarious insights into the writing process and the importance of revision. Whether you're a writer, a would-be writer, or just a reader who enjoys good writing, this book is a pleasure to read. Highly recommended. Herbert E. Shapiro, Empire State Coll., Rochester, NY
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

"Be discrete. Be secretive." This is See's advice to would-be writers: don't talk about your dream of writing. No one wants to hear about it. But do write 1,000 words a day five days a week. And write a fan letter to a writer, editor, or agent each day, too, in the hope of good literary karma. The judicious and the quirky skip hand-in-hand across each page of this annoyingly flip yet unquestionably knowing take on the writing life by novelist and memoirist See, author most recently of The Handyman (1999). Gossip, snippets of autobiography, goofy examples of such mechanical concerns as points of view and plot, weird confessions, and reasonable and unrealistic expectations all jumble together in See's hectic yet shrewd, revealing yet maddening how-to book for aspiring writers. Literature's mystique is unshakable, and See's irreverent approach is bound to intrigue wanna-be writers. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“This guide to literary success is wonderfully original and smart and funny and down-to-earth—just what desperate beginning writers desperately need.”
—Alison Lurie

“This is a terrific and extremely useful book for anyone who wants to write. Carolyn See is brilliant and funny, crabby and tender and wise.”
—Anne Lamott

“Wise, witty, practical, mordant, funny, this is the only guide to becoming a writer that may actually work. It’s a primer on Carolyn See: great artist, large soul.”
—James Ellroy

“Carolyn See doesn’t just tell you to sharpen your pencils, she shows you how to sharpen your wits.”
—Rita Mae Brown

“After reading Making a Literary Life, I have decided to abandon my present career and become an aspirant writer, this time guided by Carolyn See’s wonderfully instructive (and readable) book.”
—William F. Buckley, Jr.

“Carolyn See has been giving me lessons on writing and living since my first book came out, and when Carolyn See talks, I obey. I bow down in gratitude. We should rejoice at this serious, joyful, irreverent, and very practical book.”
—Elizabeth Benedict

“If everyone who wants to be a writer would read this book there would be many more good writers, many more happy writers, and editors would be so overwhelmed by sweetness they would accept many more good books. So what are you waiting for? Read it!”
—Ursula K. Le Guin


From the Hardcover edition.

From the Inside Flap

As Carolyn See says, writing guides are like preachers on Sunday?there may be a lot of them, but you can?t have too many, and there?s always an audience of the faithful. And while Making a Literary Life is ostensibly a book that teaches you how to write, it really teaches you how to make your interior life into your exterior life, how to find and join that community of like-minded souls you?re sure is out there somewhere.

Carolyn See distills a lifetime of experience as novelist, memoirist, critic, and creative-writing professor into this marvelously engaging how-to book. Partly the nuts and bolts of writing (plot, point of view, character, voice) and partly an inspirational guide to living the life you dream of, Making a Literary Life takes you from the decision to ?become? a writer to three months after the publication of your first book. A combination of writing and life strategies (do not tell everyone around you how you yearn to be a writer; send a ?charming note? to someone you admire in the industry five days a week, every week, for the rest of your life; find the perfect characters right in front of you), Making a Literary Life is for people not usually considered part of the literary loop: the non?East Coasters, the secret scribblers.

With sagacity, a magical sense of humor, and an abiding belief in the possibilities offered to ?ordinary? people living ?ordinary? lives, Carolyn See has summed up her life?s work in a book so beguiling, irreverent, and giddily inspiring that you won?t even realize it?s changing your life until it already has.


From the Hardcover edition.

From the Back Cover

“This guide to literary success is wonderfully original and smart and funny and down-to-earth—just what desperate beginning writers desperately need.”
—Alison Lurie

“This is a terrific and extremely useful book for anyone who wants to write. Carolyn See is brilliant and funny, crabby and tender and wise.”
—Anne Lamott

“Wise, witty, practical, mordant, funny, this is the only guide to becoming a writer that may actually work. It’s a primer on Carolyn See: great artist, large soul.”
—James Ellroy

“Carolyn See doesn’t just tell you to sharpen your pencils, she shows you how to sharpen your wits.”
—Rita Mae Brown

“After reading Making a Literary Life, I have decided to abandon my present career and become an aspirant writer, this time guided by Carolyn See’s wonderfully instructive (and readable) book.”
—William F. Buckley, Jr.

“Carolyn See has been giving me lessons on writing and living since my first book came out, and when Carolyn See talks, I obey. I bow down in gratitude. We should rejoice at this serious, joyful, irreverent, and very practical book.”
—Elizabeth Benedict

“If everyone who wants to be a writer would read this book there would be many more good writers, many more happy writers, and editors would be so overwhelmed by sweetness they would accept many more good books. So what are you waiting for? Read it!”
—Ursula K. Le Guin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Carolyn See is the author of nine books. She is the Friday-morning book reviewer for The Washington Post and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/West International, and the advisory board of the Modern Library. She has won both a Guggenheim and a Getty fellowship, and currently teaches English at UCLA. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

PART I

Before

Chapter 1

Keep It to Yourself


You know the last thing in the world people want to hear from you, the very last thing they're interested in? The fact that you always have wanted to write, that you cherish dreams of being a writer, that you wrote something and got rejected once, that you believe you have it in you-if only the people around you would give you a chance-to write a very credible, if not great, American novel. They also don't want to hear that if you did start to write, there would be some things you just couldn't write about.

Your parents don't want to hear it: They want you to grow up to be a decent person, find a way to make a good living, and not disgrace the family. Your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse will put up with this writer-talk for weeks, months, or even years, but none of them will love you for it. Your writing, to them, is like a case of genital herpes. It's possible for them to love you, but they'll have to overlook the writing. (Have you ever seen anyone sadder or more downtrodden, more prematurely gray, than a poet's wife?) Your kids, believe me, are not going to like the idea of your writing. Think how bad it is for them when you wear gabardine slacks to a PTA meeting. Then think of the crashing humiliation they're going to suffer if you begin publishing short stories or, God forbid, a novel.

So don't tell them. Don't tell them anything about it. Especially when you're thinking about beginning. Keep it to yourself. Be discreet. Be secretive. There's time enough-all the time in the world-to let them in on the secret, to let them know who and what you really are.

Look at it from their point of view. Civilization is based on everyone "pulling together"; you may, for instance, live on a street with houses and lawns. We're expected to mow lawns, not roll around on them naked. If we own a car, we're expected to drive it, not fill it up with soft-boiled eggs. There are rules we live by, which have to do with meals three times a day and clean underwear and showing up to work on time. Absolutely everything we do is based on some structure or other: We sit on sofas and walk on treadmills and put hats on our head and shoes on our feet.

But the minute somebody begins to write-or to make any kind of real "art"-all that structure comes into question. It's no coincidence that repressive governments go after their artists and writers first. Daily life is serious business. It's hard enough to put a civilization together. And one artist is-theoretically, at least-capable of bringing down the whole damn thing.

It's my experience that you first feel the impulse to write in your chest. 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.

So, think: When you feel the overpowering need to go out and find some unspeakably wild sex, do you rush to tell your mom about it?

In these first weeks-or months, or maybe even years-when you yearn to be a writer, especially if you live someplace that isn't L.A. or New York or San Francisco, keep your longing to yourself. If you're a guy, think of your writing as a beautiful girl and yourself as a stalker, lawless and freaky. If you're a woman, think of your writing as your lover; you certainly don't go prattling on to your husband about your lover.

The wonderful thing about your inner life is that it's your inner life. Think about your writing when you're making toast or suffering through a meeting at work or spacing out watching baseball on TV. Something's in your head, or your chest, that wants to get out. But keep it in there for a while.

Hemingway said-we all know this-that to talk about your work is to give it away, to weaken it, to take away its magic and its strength.

Jane Austen, they say, wrote on a sofa in the drawing room but kept a bit of sewing nearby to cover her writing in case someone came in.

Gertrude Stein got miffed when someone-was it her brother?-wasn't sufficiently appreciative of her work. "Very well, then," she said, "I will write for myself, and for strangers."

So when you're riding in the car with your husband or pushing the kids on their swings or sitting up in bed reading next to your wife and you blurt out: "I . . ." make sure you don't follow it with ". . . think, if I were writing a thriller, I'd set it in Martinique, because then I could use that dark skin as a symbol of philosophical negritude and the high temperatures as a symbol of hell," because you're asking for the reply-whether it's stated aloud or not-"What on God's green earth do you know about negritude, you tiresome, misguided nutcase? We already live in Barstow, where the temperature climbs well over 110 in July and August. Isn't that hell enough for you?"

Writing begins in thought. If you blurt out, "I . . ." then complete the sentence with: ". . . always think Dijon mustard goes best on ham sandwiches, don't you?" Or "I . . . vastly prefer a PC to a Mac. I'm glad that's what we bought." Or "I . . . think I'll go on down to the car lot tomorrow and check out those new VW Bugs. Want to come along?"

Remember that when you start writing on a regular basis you can do it unobtrusively, on the sly. People don't have to know about it until you're confident and ready. You can be writing a thousand words a day-and one charming note or its equivalent-without anyone noticing. But you can think about writing all day and all night, the way the virtuous-seeming woman yearns for her lover or the stalker, who works behind the cash register at the convenience store, dreams about his prey.

Write your stuff, hide it, let it stack up. Reread it. Don't worry about it. Don't look for perfection. To switch metaphors, your first writing is as delicate as a seedling. Don't show it to some yahoo who wouldn't know an orchid from kudzu.

Your thousand words only takes minutes, moments. This first chapter, short but important, suggesting your first step, came in at 1,275 words and took an hour and fifteen minutes to write in the first draft. I've had years to think about silence, though, lots of time to figure out what I'm passing on to you now: Protect yourself. Be careful whom you tell. Because the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer.

Chapter 2

What's Your Material?

While you're being quiet, keeping your literary aspirations to yourself, pay attention to the world around you. Listen. What's your "voice," what's your material, what's your genre, what are you trying to say?

It takes a while. You can go a surprisingly long time without figuring out the kind of person you are and in what direction your life is taking you. I was thirty-two, had two kids and my Ph.D., was coming up on my second divorce, and had already written my first unpublished novel before I got the beginning of a clue. That darling second husband of mine and I had been conducting a stormy relationship for quite a while, so stormy that I found myself in therapy.

I was a frazzled hippie, and the therapist was an elegant woman with very beautiful hands, bejeweled. She whiled away her hours at work doing needlepoint. One afternoon, as I was recounting some misdeed of my short-fused husband, my voice began to rise and rise and, in the middle of a long narrative, I shouted a few times, with feeling, "I can't stand it! I can't stand it!"

Without looking up from her needlework, the therapist remarked, "Oh, you seem to be standing it all right."

It was one of those moments. I saw the little office in Beverly Hills, the two of us, one composed and amused, the other bedraggled but gaudy and caught dead to rights, busted: Queen of the long sentence. Much given to exaggeration and embellishment. Addicted to italics. Empress of the long-held grudge. In possession of an "Irish memory." That is to say, I could remember in photographic detail every awful thing that had ever happened to me but had a little trouble bringing back the good stuff.

But I was already beginning to publish some magazine pieces, and within the parameters of my "suffering" and my faithless husband and all that, I was beginning to have a pretty good time.

I began to listen to myself talking on the phone, because writers talk endlessly about finding their "voice," and what better way to find your voice than by listening to your own voice? My conversations then generally revolved around two topics: my crazy second husband-that rogue!-and my crazy nutcase mother. My vocal tone was usually a high-pitched rant-'n-rave, punctuated by rounds of hysterical laughter, because by then I knew I seemed to be standing it all right.

"So, you know what he did then? There he was, in the home of his girlfriend, and his shirt was hung right there over the doorknob-I always wondered what happened to that shirt-and there she is sitting on her little couch sobbing, and he's in a chair, falling over laughing, and I'm sobbing along with her and I'm saying, 'All right, Tom, you have to choose between us right now,' but he's laughing so hard he can't even get the words out . . ."

"So what did you do then?"

"I guess I just went home. Because I had to take care of the baby." (Voice rising again.) "Because she had that terrible fever! A hundred and five degrees! And he's out fucking his brains out with the dreaded Jennifer!"

I'm not saying I would have picked this voice, or this material. But there it was, insistent as steam from a teakettle. In my dreams, I would have had the measured, morally right voice of E. M. Forster, who wrote the best twentieth-century novels in English as far as I'm concerned, but I didn't have that voice. There was no point in trying to be "cultured." I had the education, but I didn't have ...
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