Book Review: Making a Literary Life

Every time I vow not read another writing advice book, I find one that really seems to tackle issues I’m having trouble with.

Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life (Random House, 2002) is the most recent advice book that I’ve checked out. Along with chapters on craft, See adds a new dimension: How to make a life as a writer, which delves into relationships, publication, networking and promotion.

To the chapters on craft — plot, characters, revision and scene — See includes an interesting section on geography, time and space, which expands upon more than just setting.

In this section, she emphasizes specifics over generalizations.  She says, for instance, if a writer generalizes too much when trying to be “‘universal” the writer runs “the risk of boring . . .  readers to death. Because the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in ‘the city’ may be easy enough to write about, but who can stand to read about them?”

The specifics matter. A character’s geography matters, how that character gets around matters, how time influences characters matters. Such things matter so much See suggests using such tools as drawing maps of the town a character lives in, of the place where a character lives. It’s a reminder we should know our characters inside-out as we work out their lives and stories on the page.

Also, as with other writing books, See stresses the importance of commitment to the craft. She has her version of Richard Rhodes’ Knickerbocker Rule — you write by applying your ass to your chair. See’s version of the rule is “a thousand words a day — or two hours of revision — five days a week for the rest of your life.”

There’s no other way around it, kids: to write, you have to commit to writing, you have to take time out and write and write and write, and then write some more.

My favorite sections in this book are about the writer’s life itself, the people around you, and the best people to be around (those who genuinely support your work); your life and outlook (how do you see yourself as a writer? how do you want others to see you?); how do you build a network of writers, editors, etc. (See suggests one charming note a day to a writer, editor, agent, etc.); and how do you manage publishing and promoting your work?

See’s advice on relationships with those around you particularly caught my attenti0n as I read. My relationships have been needling my mind lately, especially how those relationships affect my writing.

The book devotes a whole chapter on hanging out with people who support your work. See writes about people who can be toxic to your writing, and the poison can drip from unexpected places. Sometimes it dribbles from other writers, or literary wannabes, she says, who can hex you all of your writing life if you let them.

I’ve had friends like that. In graduate school I had a writer friend, who on the surface appeared to be interested in my writing as much as I was hers: we critiqued manuscripts, we talked books. A good time was had by all.

Until she took literary critiques and turned them into personal attacks. Nastiness ensued. Barbs were traded. The friendship dissolved, but I carry the scars of her personal attacks with me to this day. (The villains in our life, however, can be useful: this particular villain, or many of her traits tend to pop up as antagonist’s traits in my fiction.)

Of course, writers also find great support. My best has been a former work colleague who served as something of a guru as I learned the ropes of being a newspaper feature writer and editor. I’m ever grateful for such friendships.

But the relationships writers establish matter, as See emphasizes throughout the book. And it’s those sections in the book, as much as the craft sections, that solidify my recommending it.


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