Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Interview with Carolyn See

The Literary Life and How To Live It

by Sean Murphy

An Interview with Carolyn See

Carolyn See is the author of several novels, including The Handyman, Dreaming," Making History, Golden Days, Rhine Maidens, Blue Money, The Rest is Done with Mirrors, and Mothers Daughters. She is a book reviewer for The Washington Post and is on the board of PEN Center USA West. She has a Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA, where she is an adjunct professor of English. Her awards include the prestigious Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award (1993) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. She currently lives in California. Lucky person!
There are certain writers you know without ever meeting them. It's not necessarily because they articulate their vision and expose themselves in their works (though that certainly helps), but more often because the artists who really grapple with-and are invariably in touch with-life are the sorts of artists that audiences fall in love with. It is easy to love Carolyn See, whether you are a fan of her fiction, or her weekly book reviews in The Washington Post, or her non-fiction, or if you are lucky enough to be one of her students. She is, in short, the type of writer that you'd die to have a drink with, so that you might pick her brain, hear her opinions, and possibly glean a tiny bit of insight from her teeming mind regarding how to write, and more importantly, how to live. Fortunately for all the folks who would kill to meet her, especially those who have read her work, and most especially everyone else who should read it, she has done every aspiring artist a favor by making her wisdom easily available in what will certainly be considered one of the most indispensable books about writing, "Making A Literary Life."
Murphy: Unlike most books that talk about the author's "process"--which invariably, and necessarily, often apply only to said author's acumen and are therefore neither applicable nor particularly encouraging--you talk about the small stuff, the less romantic (i.e., less clich├ęd) nuts and bolts of the million little things that make up a writer's world, and the effort required to produce real work. How much of this successful presentation of "Making A Literary Life" the result of dissatisfaction with other books you've read (or heard about) by writers or is it safe to say you *had* to write one of your own?
See: I absolutely love Annie Lamott's "Bird by Bird," of course. But outside of that marvelous chapter when she says your life won't "change" when you publish, I missed stuff about how she managed to actually make a living -- I'm not even sure those are the right words --as a writer. I think many writers -- although they talk about it to each other all the time in kind of an aimless way -- don't really KNOW why or how they made it as a writer; they harbor the dreadful thought that it may be some peculiar fluke. (Or they take the tiresome attitude that they made it because they're GENIUSES, and so the common person need not even apply.) The teachers who repeat how hard it is are telling the truth. They experience it as hard because it's hard for them to do it.
I have the disconcerting experience of having come to all this from the outside, of having had to learn a lot of this stuff from scratch, and then, luckily, having had a fair amount of pleasant moments and some success. MLL is like a beginning cookbook. It only attempts to talk about the basics.
Oddly enough, except for "Bird by Bird" I don't like books on writing very much. For instance, E.M. Forster is probably my favorite writer, but I find "Aspects of the Novel" fairly insufferable. Writers can get awfully pompous when they talk about their craft.
Murphy: Put another way, you talk about the "dirty work" involved in creating a beautiful product. Any workshop professor or self-help screed can talk about how much toil and trouble writing transcendent work requires, but you do your students/readers a real service by not only acknowledging the *work* involved, but by taking the time to offer suggestions and more than a handful of tricks from your own hat.
See: I don't think of it as "dirty work." I do think that writing -- and maybe all activities we're crazy about and committed to -- offers up an opportunity to experience the entire human condition. There's the inspiration when you're doing something you're absolutely crazy about and the words seem like honey to you, and the despair when they don't. There's the rage when you get rejected. The revenge, which very often, you get to indulge in. There's the calming activity of reading an eleventh draft, and there, you find a word that's out of place. There's the nerve it takes to go up to someone at a party and say, "I'm a fan!" There's the fun of doing your taxes, seeing the money you made or didn't. The envy when you think someone else is getting more attention that he or she deserves. The charity when you buy a book from a writer in trouble. Mainly, OF COURSE, the beauty of the vision when it comes to you. But it's about a lot more, and less, than the vision.
Murphy: You do a marvelous job of demystifying the "aura" of the artist. It could be said with only a fraction of facetiousness that you are not only a writer's writer, but also a writer-who-reads-writers-who-write-about-writing's-writer! In terms of the advice you offer, I think you hit upon the all-important balance that any sort of artistic endeavor demands, and at once you are able to make the act of writing accessible and real, but also reveal the underlying, redemptory enigma: by doing the work, and having FUN doing it, you are almost inexorably making your life more "artistic". In this sense, only good things can come of this.
See: Today, and this is probably about a week before war breaks out, I spent the afternoon at my women's group (I mention it at the end of MLL). We've been meeting for eight years. We're writers and artists and psychologists and television people. There's a woman who makes art objects, "aterns," from the ashes of folks who have been cremated. Very smart, kind and stylish women! We eat great food and drink a lot of wine and laugh ourselves sick and sometimes cry, and talk about our lives.
So today we talked about Rome, autism, a GORGEOUS man named Dean, a girl who got her first violin, a persistent cough, obsessive compulsive behavior, more about that gorgeous Dean, how science is making blind men see, and how the UCLA Medical is trying to screw us. Then, back to Dean. Hugs and kisses all around. Laughing and more laughing. In the kitchen, toward the end, we mentioned how we hadn't talked once about the war, the horror, the sorrow the sadness. It was all raspberries and wit and silliness and lust and love, and ART, because that's what we MAKE, and Mr. Rumsfeld just had to find somebody else to scare. At least for this one afternoon.
Murphy: One of the pieces of advice you give is to write one thousand words a day, five days a week for the rest of your life. It's hard to imagine too many folks (particularly folks who have made some sort of attempt at serious fiction) offering any resistance to this. On the other hand, you advocate the regular practice of composing "charming notes" to writers, editors and/or agents. What would you say to people who, even after reading your book, resist this?
See: "A thousand words a day, and one charming note, five days a week, for the rest of your life." The "18 minute chili" version of the writer's life I mention in MLL. First, the notion is figurative. It's what we OUGHT to do, not necessarily what we always do... It varies, with the exigencies of life. And there are other pieces of "advice" in MLL that don't get nearly the attention that the '''charming notes" do, for instances, building a mailing list, starting a savings account for when your first book comes out, planning that first trip to New York hour by hour, etc. It's as though people read about the "charming notes" and just STOP. Then they argue about whether or not they can do it. I could mention that another way to address the problem of not knowing anyone in the writing/publishing world is to move to New York, intern at a publishing house, live in squalor, and get to know everyone without ever having to lick a stamp.
Murphy: If you could succinctly summarize the trajectory (thus far!) of your writing life, how different is it from what you imagined, as an earnest but unpublished author? How is it better? Worse? What things (possibly not mentioned in the book) would you have changed?
See: What I imagined about a literary career were conditioned by my own innocence and the cultural imperatives of the moment in time when I was twenty or so. All I could really look to as a woman -- and I didn't even really think of it that way -- was Virginia Wolfe and Kay Boyle. Or E.M Forster or Nathanael West. Or, I had the example of my hard drinking, charming, womanizing dad, who was a "failed" writer until he turned 69. So I had hazy fantasies of tea parties and T.S Elliot, and afternoons in Paris cafes -- the usual stuff.
Then I became obsessed with creating the perfect literary life here in LA, and writing the life that I saw around me, and writing about it again. And again. The interesting thing is that the world allowed me to do it. That is, I've been able to publish all my adult life, and the rewards have been unexpected. At an evening when I was talking about MLL, a woman came up to me and said, "Golden Days helped me to live through the end of the world." I said thanks, and she said, "No, I mean, I had a paperback with me when I was in Burundi when the Hutu and the Tutsi were slaughtering each other, and Golden Days gave me hope." So that was better than ten thousand E.M. Forsters coming to tea ...
Murphy: What is a stronger enemy of writing: fear or rejection? Or are both of these things ultimately some of the primary motivations?
See: The strongest enemy of writing, in my opinion, is neither fear nor rejection but the voice inside us who cries WHO CARES? And I think the most important thing is that when we write we have to be the one who cares. Rejection is awful but not fatal. Or, it's fatal but not awful.
Murphy: MFA or No-MFA? Any comments or opinions for the folks who are adamant (pro OR con) about the value of MFA programs?
See: It depends what you want from life, where you live, whether you can afford it, what kind of person you are. From my own personal bias, I'd say the dynamic is all wrong: People should be paying YOU to write, not vice versa. And I hate to think of having to sit in a classroom to "learn" how to write. Other people swear by the process, though.
I do think that if you're not at Columbia, NYU, Iowa or maybe Irvine, you're wasting time and money. (Unless you just don't want to be lonely and don't have a better place to spend your time. There's nothing wrong with that...That's why I got my Ph.D.) Murphy: As a teacher, what are some of the biggest mistakes students make? What are some strategies you've seen (from students and/or your own experience) that have been successful? *Feel free to elaborate on examples you list in your book!*
See: As far as I can see, the biggest mistake students make is to ignore the facts of their own lives. They love to write about places they've never been, people they've never met, things they've never even gone through -- through the eyes of an 83 year old mentally ill Turkish person, for instance. That's not a mistake exactly, but it's misguided. Immensely misguided.
Murphy: Again, as a teacher, if you had to say: has the writing of your students gotten better over time? Worse? The same? What positive trends have you noticed? What awful ones? Is it true to presume that regardless of genre or generation, good writing (and good writers) tend to find their way?
See: I know doomsayers are forever saying that students now are uncouth and unlettered and stupid and dumb and WHATEVER, but I don't buy it. People are just about as smart or dopey now as they ever were. My late great life partner, John Espey, used to love to tell a story that dated from the thirties when he was a very young English professor: One of his colleagues came in to the office in a tizzy, saying about some student that he "didn't know a gerund from a gerundive!" John kept mum, and didn't mention that he didn't either...
Murphy: If you had to say which writer influenced you most, and which book, what would they be? Any other notable influences, artistic or otherwise?
See: I began reading E.M.Forster in my early twenties, and because I came from a very raggedy-ass childhood, I was impressed with his calm, sometimes impassioned insistence that there WAS a standard of good behavior in the world, that there were definitely decent people and jerks, and that one has the choice to at least strive to be a decent person. I didn't know about his social class when I first read his books, or his gender preference. But I saw his hatred of muddle and bullies and even his hatred of housekeeping. I saw his love of books and flowers and friends, and that you could build lives around these things. So he was my hero then, and is, to a great extent, even now.
For the past four or five years I've listened to nothing except the complete works of Elmore Leonard in my car. He's saved my life; literally, when I was suicidal, emotionally, when I was bone-dead, spiritually, when I was brokenhearted. The man is a genius. His worlds are perfect, and perfectly controlled. There's no smarter storyteller writing right now. His dialogue is like diamonds. (I'm just listening to "Swag" right now as two armed robbers bicker like an old married couple. It's a healing experience.)
Murphy: Are there any other books on writing that you'd recommend? Any writers you learned to emulate or imitate?
See: Of course, Anne Lamott's wonderful book is terrific. And I'm very fond of Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way." And Terry Brooks' new "Sometimes the Magic Works" is swell. But I think I've structured my own writing life around how Virginia Wolfe did hers. Write in the morning (1,000 words), do something concrete in the literary life in the afternoon...
Make sure your own life is worth recording in some way...
Murphy: How has the task of reviewing other books influenced or affected the way you write? The way you read? The way you respond to criticism?
See: Of course, as a reviewer, when I'm writing a novel, I hear the bad review of it trilling merrily along in my head as I write. (But that could just as easily be my mother's voice.) As a novelist, I think I'm 100 per cent kinder to people I'm reviewing than many others, since I have a real idea of how much work and yearning goes into the writing of any book, even a bad one. But the REAL thing I've learned as a reviewer is that in the MOST PROFOUND SENSE reviews don't matter. People misread them, forget the name of the book and the author, couldn't care less, remember a good review and think it was a bad review and vice versa. It's another example of the solipsism of the literary life. We're under the delusion that somebody gives a shit. Somebody, profoundly, doesn't.
Murphy: Toward the end of the book you comment that delusion "*has* to be in the mix for us to get anything done at all", and on the same page reiterate that "(writing) is a marriage". In other words, as always, a balance between inspiration and dedication has to be sought. But without that initial ambition, or arrogance, most of us might never venture onto the daunting white page, no?
See: Everyone is delusional, all the time. For one thing, each of us thinks we're the center of the universe, whether we're writers or not. Golfers think the world is golf. Rumsfeld thinks the world is bombs. The pope thinks the world is the Catholic Church, presumably. I can't help but think the world is literary fiction, but WHY NOT? I have a dear friend, an activist cab driver, who thinks the whole current war is actually a conspiracy of the big cab companies to take over the little cab companies.

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