For a moment, I want to put aside all news related to grand-scale pain and death, and reflect on one single candle blown out yesterday, not by terrorism or war or weapon, but by cancer.
I want to pay tribute to author, teacher, inspirer, Carolyn See.
Thirty years ago I read her novel Golden Days. I was so young, I didn’t know anything about her, didn’t know that she was the queen of Literature of California, or even that she lived near my town. I knew only that her descriptions — like how it felt to drive on lazy, meandering Sunset Boulevard — would embed in my brain until they became my own world view.
Twenty years later, I was a mother of two young boys, timidly daring to spend free time writing, though not brave enough to call myself a writer. I came across another book of hers, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers.
Carolyn See helped me believe in my idea to write, edit and publish my first book. Her words helped me squash the inner voice that said I was an impostor, wannabe, dilettante. She spoke directly to me, and every other would-be writer hanging onto her advice, saying: Go For It. Cultivate Your Own Literary Life. She invited us in, but advised us that we’d have to push the door open and walk through by our own efforts. It wouldn’t be opened for us.
She commanded two essential ingredients: Write 1,000 words, and one charming note, five days a week. (Her daughter, novelist Lisa See, in the anthology What My Mother Gave Me, described this lesson as her mother’s gift to her.)
The thousand words a day I understood. But that “charming note” seemed so awkward. Who would I write? What would I say? “Hi, I really liked your book. Have a nice day.” How would that help me make a literary life?
I decided to trust her, and tried it. Once. Ten years ago, I wrote a note to Carolyn See herself. (I imagine she got a lot of those from people like me who couldn’t think of who else to write a note to.) I wouldn’t have remembered writing this note, but it turns out I never sent it. It appeared on my desk last week, unaddressed, except for her name.
I opened it this morning after reading of her passing.
I took her message to heart, and through years of writing, rewriting, abandoning, returning, and committing to the end goal, I became an author. In the words on the book jacket, “Carolyn See is not only a wonderful writer — she’s a wonderful writer who wants you to be a wonderful writer as well.” The audacity of generosity.
Dear Lisa, and dear Clara, your mother surely gave you many gifts, but I wanted to publicly thank her for the gift she gave me – allowing me to believe that the writing life was open to me, and so many others, simply if we wanted it.
We cannot always know where our inspiration or role models will come from, or to know what piece of advice will stick with us and make the difference years later. In a world whose grand trends can some days fill me with despair, I find solace today in zooming in, on focusing on one creative, original, and generous life lived.