Making a Literary Life

Making a Literary Life


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.

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Excerpted from Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. Copyright © 2002 by Carolyn See. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.