A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview With Carolyn See
“If you spend a lot of time despising your real life, you’ll have much less time to follow your dream life.”
I interviewed the late author Carolyn See, along with her daughter Lisa (in a separate interview) and nearly 75 other creatives, for a motivational non-fiction book, How to Survive a Day Job. My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.
The original introduction to Carolyn’s 2005 interview follows:
Carolyn See is the author of several novels, including “The Handyman” and “Golden Days.” 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.
Carolyn’s awards include the prestigious Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award (1993) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. Her nonfiction work includes the best-selling “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America” and “Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers.”
Please Google “Carolyn See” to see what she had been working on and publishing in the intervening years prior to her passing.
I guess writing was not my first ambition, because first I received my Ph.D. in English at UCLA. I thought that I was going to be solely a professor of English. The writing happened because my dad had been a writer, and I always really revered that profession. He was kind of a self-described “failed writer” for a long time.
When I had my second child I had to stay home and take care of the kids — what a concept — and that was the first time I’d ever even considered such a thing. And then I thought, Well, as long as I’m home and I’m not teaching, I might as well give it a shot, because otherwise I’ll sort of stand a good chance in following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a self-described “failed writer.”
My father became successful at sixty-nine. He took up hardcore pornography and published seventy-three volumes before he died. I was reviewing material as an expert witness in pornography trials. He was a many-married person, and his fourth wife was having a baby, my half-brother. I was thirty-five years- old, and I went down to help out with the baby.
I had a stack of pornography on the kitchen table, and I was taking notes. He came into the kitchen, and asked, “You know what are you doing, Penny?”
And I told him. And I told him with a bunch of moral subtext, as in, I’m earning a living. Wouldn’t you like to try that sometime? And he picked up the book on top and he immediately said, “I can do better than this.” And he started writing pornography.
Both my first and my second husbands gave up on writing. They were very sweet, very nice people. Their whole thing was like, I have a dream, and I’m not going to have it. I’m not going to get it. And there are a bunch of people who have that mindset. Richard, my first husband, was like, I’m smart enough to know how dumb I am, yet he wrote a wonderful play that was really a lot of fun and could have done anything. He decided to become an anthropologist instead and has had a very nice life. And Tom, he so much wanted to be a writer, but he just didn’t think he was good enough. Luckily, he had another thing that he loved, which was running. So he devoted his life to running.
My “eighteen-minute chili” concept has to do with the discipline in writing: a thousand words a day, five days a week. The whole concept is: there’s the eighteen-hour chili, where you can do everything and probably you will be a success no matter what, because it just is like putting hot air into a hot air balloon — it just must rise — but the eighteen-minute chili is just the kind of minimalist stuff that keeps you going, and that’s just two parts.
One is: a thousand words a day, five days a week, for the rest of your life. And, of course, that can be jiggled around to like 850 words, four days a week. It doesn’t matter. It’s the rest of your life part that’s the operative phrase. And then, the other: or two hours of revision or of what I call a work unit, which is you go out and have lunch with an editor or something, so you don’t have to write on that day.
The other half of the eighteen-minute chili is what I call a charming note, but that could be anything. It could be a helium balloon. It could be a giant Hershey’s kiss. It could be a telegram. Something. Five days a week to have in the book, a person in publishing who makes your hand sweat, but now I also have amended that to this kind of thing: a person who may need your help also in writing, who may need your encouragement.
So the first half of that has to do with your inner life and doing your work — taking care of your inner life — and the second half has to do with matching that inner life with an outer life.
Actually, the chili concept didn’t come until I was writing the book of “Making a Literary Life.” It’s a sweet little book, I must say. And I was trying to think of, you know, what is the metaphor for the minimum you can do and the maximum you can do? But Virginia Wolff suggests a thousand words a day, and a bunch of other people suggest a thousand words a day, so that was pretty easy to come up with.
And then the other part just had to do with the fact that I was a woman, and I was on the West Coast. The only other woman who was writing in my same time frame was Joan Didion, but she had this very conventional and serious upbringing and had all kinds of contacts in New York, and I had no contacts at all. So I just began writing these goofy letters and trying to make friends with people who didn’t know me and didn’t know I existed.
It’s a mixed bag. Some days I’m failing, and some days I’m succeeding. Four of my books are still in print, and that’s four more than were in print for F. Scott Fitzgerald when he died. On the other hand, I’m still very much a regional writer, and probably I could have changed that by going to live in New York, but I’m not going to, because I’m too stubborn.
I mean, how can you have a regret? The bad news is that you’d have to live in New York. You would just have to do that every day of your life, and I think that might really bring on the regrets.
I spent two years writing bad short stories when I was at home taking care of the kids. And they just got rejected up one side and down the other. Then, the first non-fiction piece I did on spec for what was then the L.A. Times’ Sunday magazine, called West, got bought and scared me and everybody else to death, actually.
I called my husband to tell him that they had bought this thing, and there was something in my voice: “Oh,” I said. “Oh, Tom …”
And he went, “Yes, what?”
Because, of course, he had some secretary on his lap, and I said, “You know, they bought my work.”
And he said, “Oh, thank God,” because he was terrified he’d been busted.
But then, from then on, actually, I had about as much success as I could stand. Probably a little more than I could stand, because I was really able to make a living as a writer and started writing for some very fancy magazines, probably too soon, like The Atlantic and Esquire and places like that. And I just didn’t know what I was doing; I was a paranoid housewife, you know, full of dark thoughts. And so it was hard for me at first. And even then, again, while I was succeeding I was failing, and while I was failing I was succeeding.
The thing about success is it’s far scarier than failure. Any shrink will tell you that, and it’s been — I’ve found that it’s true — because the closer you get to some, your idealized version of what it is you want to be, there’s just a little danger that you’ll fragment into bits. You know, you’ll just blow up, something weird will happen to you.
There’s a lot of envy, for instance, that comes to you, a lot of sort of weird hostility. People are not hostile to you as long as you’re failing. They’re perfectly happy to be kind to you when you’re failing. When you succeed, it makes a lot of them crazy.
Let me put it a different way. When I see other people succeeding beyond my wildest dreams, I get annoyed. Lisa, my daughter, had had a lot of that in her life as well. So you have to deal with kind of a certain level of free-flowing hostility, which means that, again, in the book I say hang out with people who support your work, but then that also means you have to hang out with people whose work you support.
And I think even with money … I mean, every once in a while with this writing stuff I come into … I mean, I’m more comfortable broke than I am rich. Well, anybody is, you know. It’s just easier to be broke, because you’ve got nothing to lose. And if a bunch of money comes down on you, people behave strangely.
I think it kind of takes care of itself. I think I have a level of success that I’m comfortable with. I make a living writing, and I get to do what I love to do.
I’ve gotten two lifetime achievement awards, but I’ve never been short-listed for fiction. When I got those two lifetime achievement awards, I felt very strange, like there was somebody else standing behind me that was me. I felt fragmented and weird.
I was a waitress at Van de Kamps for a long time; I just loved it, actually — had a wonderful time — and then I was a waitress; I worked my way through college as a waitress, and that’s all the way to a Ph.D.
There was a moment in time when I stopped working and became a teaching assistant, but until that moment in time I just did real work, which was fun. I loved it. I also managed, with Lisa’s dad, an apartment house in the slums — L.A., where the Convention Center is — which was ghastly at the time, but …
Day jobs. I suppose you attack it from both ends of the spectrum. First of all, see if you can find a job that you don’t despise, for instance, a job that you can work at home part of the time or that gives you a little bit of free time so that you can go out for auditions or whatever. Something where there are people around that you sort of like so that at least you don’t despite your real life.
If you spend a lot of time despising your real life, you’ll have much less time to follow your dream life. You’ll be sitting around saying, “I hate my boss,” rather than, “I need to write my charming note.” Suppose you work at night so that you’ve got the days free to go ahead and do what you want to do. I’m thinking mainly writing, but it could be writing, acting, fine art …
There are some canvases in the other room, for instance. Suppose you just say, “I’m going to paint for two or three hours a day.” Anybody has two hours a day. Two hours a day, five days a week, for the rest of your life is just going to do it. It is.
Like if you want to be an actor, suppose you take an acting class one night. Suppose you send out a bunch of head shots one morning. Suppose you go to the theater — little theaters — shake everybody’s hand and tell them how wonderful they are. And you do that five days a week for the rest of your life. It’s going to pay off. Unless you have five heads or something, but even then, you could find a place for somebody to accommodate you as a person with five heads.
Again, it introduces you to the larger world so that you’re not just all locked up in your head with your wacky dream. You have your wacky dream, but you also go out and shake hands with other writers and sometimes help other writers. PEN in Los Angeles has been extremely useful, and it’s a secondary goal for them — in building a literary community in Los Angeles. This is why you don’t have to go to New York; that’s my feeling. You can build the community … you can build your dream wherever you are. You could go out and buy yourself a camera and make your own movie.
I have been working on several projects, but now I just mainly want to travel and hang out with my grandson. He’s cute.
Carolyn passed away on July 13, 2016. She was 82. This interview is one of my favorites from “How to Survive a Day Job,” as Carolyn was open and eager to share her experiences for the purpose of helping others.
Thank you for reading.
For Lisa See’s interview, see here:
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