a conversation with Carolyn See      


Bold Type: First of all, let me say that the last thing I thought I was going to do when I picked up a book titled Making a Literary Life was laugh out loud on a train ride! But, in fact, that's exactly what I found myself doing. But I think the sub-title — "Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers" — really speaks to the heart of this book. What's meant by "other dreamers"?

Carolyn See: Okay, I think that one way to divide the population of the world is not, for instance, between Christians and Muslims, but between the people who get to do what they want and the people who don't get to do what they want. And, by nature, the ones who don't get to do what they want are cantankerous, ill-tempered, mean-spirited, prone to start wars. The others, the happy few, are out somewhere playing — they really live in a different universe. And those are the dreamers who can enact their success, so they're — even during the worst catastrophes — are apt to be the ones who say, "I'm so lucky." So, I think those are the people who want to be in the latter category and they are the ones I'm talking to.

And, it doesn't have to do with writing — it could be in fine arts, getting a job in the movies, being a college professor, inventing a new kind of blimp. Just anything so that when you wake up in the morning you're happy about what it is that you're going to be doing.

BT: What kind of research did you do while writing the book? Did you read other writing guides? If so, what did you learn from those books that informed your approach to Making a Literary Life?

CS: Well, long before I started this book, I'd read three wonderful authors: Anne Lamott, who's wonderfully charming and very reassuring; Richard Rhodes, who wrote a brilliant chapter about getting grants that changed my life for the better; and Julia Cameron, who talks a lot about attaining an artist's life, but leaves out the technical details of how to work it out in what we are pleased to call "real life."

My real research for this book came from learning how to do this over a period of 35 years and fielding a lot of phone calls from desperate writers, who didn't know how to do any of this stuff. It simply hadn't occurred to them. That's what I'm proudest of in the book — the marriage of inner life to outer life. So that it is literally, not a "how-to-do-it" book but a "HOW-TO-DO-IT!" book.

BT: The book is a great combination of writing handbook and what you call advice on how to "live the life of your dreams." Are those things one and the same? How does understanding the mechanics of writing enhance or detract from realizing what the literary life of your dreams is?

CS: Well, they aren't one and the same. For instance, I have a whole chapter on not blabbing on about your writing because nobody wants to hear it. And, if you do blab on, people will avoid you, and make fun of you behind your back and obviously, that's going to interfere with you living the life of your dreams. At an entirely different level, if you can't master the technique of point-of-view, your hands will be tied in another whole way. And, again, you won't be able to live the life of your dreams.

One thing I very consciously left out of the book was any critical jargon — that doesn't apply to craft - but the idea that you'll never have to think about a controlling image or "sticking in the symbols" or whether or not somebody will be able to "deconstruct" your text. That should not be the province of the writer. That's the province of the critic. And the writer should stick to dexterity in his craft, and discretion in her life.

BT: I would imagine that the right tone of voice would be key to a book like this. Trying to put myself in your shoes, I would feel — as the author — that I wouldn't want to be preachy, but I would want to give advice; I wouldn't want to be condescending, but I would have already found what worked for me — and I would want to share that. It seems like a fine line. How did you find the appropriate tone? How did you know when you got it right?

CS: You're absolutely right. The tone was the hardest thing for me to deal with in this book. And part of it was because my life partner was dying, so I found myself in a crabby, resentful, despairing mode. As a result, the first draft was much longer and as I went through many times, I would just try to take the "scolding" out of it.

There are two sentences in there that are left over from that, because I thought they deserved to be there as a little flag, showing what a crabby person I was. One of the sentences is when I exhort the reader to go into bookstores and make friends and say "Chat, goddamnit!" And I thought I was taking it out, but then I thought, "Nope, that's exactly how I felt." There's another sentence "Don't go all dumb on me now." And I think those sentences are still in there to counteract the resistance that people are going to feel just at those particular junctures. As in, "I can't do it." When of course, they can do it.

BT: The book is also a really fascinating blend of memoir and creative writing teaching. And you talk a lot about your family throughout the book. A lot of writing guides concentrate on the mechanics of writing — plot, character, etc. Why did you choose to include such intimate episodes of how you discovered and developed your own literary life?

CS: Because we all live in the world. To me, it's essentially useless to write about plot, for instance, to a person who is living what they think of as an "ordinary" life and they're desperate for plot, but it's right under their nose. I know that writers always talk about their own lives to each other and what their material is. And when they're angry, they'll say, that person is going to end up in the next book and we're completely aware that they will.

At one point, Scott Fitzgerald was writing to his agent about Zelda and he was irritated with her and he started raving, "I made that woman into a legend, and this is the thanks I get!" So, writers know that life and art are inextricably combined, so I'm not talking about my life so much as how all our lives impinges on everyone's art.

BT: To me, the soul of this book lies in your straightforwardness. You had me laughing out loud at several parts: about how to write a "charming" note - and especially the section on how to land a magazine freelance piece. I would never think of writing the types of notes you describe in Making a Literary Life. Your ability to find just the right way of saying things struck me as totally new — and invaluable (even for outside of the writing world!). How did you develop the ability to write these types of notes — and do it so naturally?!

CS: The key is transcending your fear of rejection. Because everybody is always terrified to write those notes. And yet, it's one of those things that you have to do. Because, if they don't know you, how will they ever know you if you don't make the first move? So, you have to do it.

And it's agony. My students have to write two charming notes to get out of class. They wait for the earthquake to come and do it on the last day. But then, they come in the office with answers and they're beside themselves with delight! These charming notes are never to ask a favor, but only to express affection. And what are they going to do? All they can do is say, "Never write me again, you pig!" But, as I say — again, in the book — so what? So what? So what? So what?

BT: Why did you decide write this book now (especially given the success of your last novel, The Handyman)? How was the experience of writing Making a Literary Life similar to or different from writing a novel?

CS: Again, my life partner was sick. I doubted my ability to "think deeply" about a novel. I've been teaching this stuff so long, and with such success, that I actually thought writing this book would be comparatively easy. It turns out, that outside of my doctoral dissertation, this is the hardest thing I ever wrote. It was agony — and I don't believe in agony. But I think that I've edited most of the agony out. The novel I'm working on now is an incredible pleasure and wonderful fun to be working on.

BT: A lot of us would still hesitate to put pen to paper after reading this book — although you're about the best writer's cheerleader I've ever read on the page. Any last advice on how to cross that last gap between knowing you want it, believing you can do it and actually getting started?

CS: Again, that's a wonderful question. And it's exactly analogous to the line between looking at the person that you love and throwing your arms around her. Or, it's the line between standing against a wall when everyone is dancing and just saying "the hell with it" and going out to dance. It's the metaphysical line between thought and action. And all of us cross that line every day all the time about everything — I will go on a diet, I will call up that darling girl, I will get a divorce, I will go to school, I'll quit this terrible job. Because writing means so much to some of us, it's a very hard line to cross, but you do it in an instant and then you're in a better world.

BT: You've been a mother, a wife, a teacher, a novelist, and a critic — and a lot more in between all that. Now, you're a writer's guide author! After all this — what's next?

CS: This reminds me of a conversation I had with a girlfriend on the freeway about another younger woman whose actions we didn't approve of. And my passenger said very indigently, "When I was her age..." and then she fell over laughing, "I was already a hopeless drunk and well into my second divorce." So there are a lot of activities out there that I want to explore. But I think I want to pursue a life of unbridled pleasures, while keeping up with teaching, travel and writing novels.

BT: Just because I can't resist — can you tell us a little something about the novel you're working on now?

CS: Well, I guess you could say — misogynation, elderly sex, and the stealing of internal organs.

—Interview by Allison Heilborn

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    Photo credit: Marilyn Sanders