Carolyn See: The Audacity of Creativity, Generosity, and Persistence

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

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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.

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I opened it this morning after reading of her passing.

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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.

Words to live by at the L.A. Festival of Books

I attended the L.A. Festival of Books this past weekend. The last time I went I was a toddler-towing parent, bringing my 18-month-old wonder-boy to the Children’s Stage and subjecting him to the crowded festival environment he has never enjoyed. A decade has passed, and he’s now a baseball playing, independent, 11-year-old with no need for his mom to stay in arm’s reach. Meanwhile, his little brother and dad were gone for the weekend on an island adventure, encountering endangered foxes and kayaking through emerald waters. This is how I found myself all alone at the Festival of Books — my definition of bliss — and able to avoid the kiddie entertainments and escape into the literary panels that were previously off-limits to me and my ilk.

Delectable conversations ensued. I share with you some of the gems from the authors and publishers I heard. Use them how you like — as writing prompts, dinner table conversation starters, post them on your bathroom mirror, or toss them away like an off-base cookie fortune.

“There is no one way to do anything anymore.” (Publishing panel that included Rob Spillman of Tin House, Ken Baumann of Sator Press and Sumanth Prabhaker of Madras Press). They were talking about getting a book published. But certainly this doesn’t apply only to book publishing. Sure, it is more comfortable to know the one established path to achieving a goal (e.g. go to law school, become a a lawyer). But this not knowing, this feeling your way business, well, it does open up unlimited possibilities.

“There are two kinds of people. Those who stay and those who leave.”  Author Susan Straight (Take One Candle, Light a Room, most recently). When she asked us to raise our hands if we lived within one hour of where we grew up, I wanted to stand up and shout, “I live ten feet from my old bedroom!” Guess I know which kind of person I am. Which are you?

“Every work of fiction is emotional autobiography.” Author Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow). Amen, sister. For those kind and brave souls who have helpfully read drafts of my novel Shelter Us, however, this is not license to psychoanalyze me. You can keep your thoughts to yourselves and your mouths shut. Or I’ll write about you in my next one.

“Motivation matters.” Tayari Jones, again. In other words, a person/character may do something awful or inconceivable, but if it’s because of love we can forgive her. If it’s for money, forget it. For example, I may unplug the television for an entire weekend because I am a mean mother trying to ruin my sons’ lives, or because I love them dearly and desire that they get off their tushies and out into the fresh air and sunshine. How about you: who is currently ruining your life (or annoying the bejeebers out of you), and what motivates them?

Everyone feeling literary? Good! Discuss.