In 2010 I was invited to write an essay, “How Many Writing Books Does it Take?” for a new print magazine, Line Zero. I used my bookshelves for my “research” and wrote about a variety of helpful books on craft, editing, finding agents—you know the “must haves” we succumb to, especially as beginning writers.
I set two books aside and called them “best friend” books. One was Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, of course, and the other was Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers (2002) by Carolyn See. Here’s what I wrote about See’s treasure of a book:
“She advocates for me as a writer and reminds me that being a writer is the best profession ever (and I’ve had several) and I’m lucky to be in it. She understands how lonely, boring, scary, and exciting it is to be such a person. Her chapters on “Pretend to Be a Writer” and “Charming Notes” are laugh out loud and insightful.”
I took See up on her challenge and sent her a “charming note.” We had both been at UCLA in different capacities. She taught there; my ex-professor-husband had an affair with one of her students. Her sense of humor in fine fettle helped me find the funny again in that ill-fated time in my life. We emailed now and again for several years.
I continue to send charming notes and treasure it when an author, far above my paygrade, replies in an email or (in the old days) with a note or a postcard. I have a delightful little collection by now. Every now and again when I’m down in the writerly dumps or so demoralized that my writer’s learning curve is still going up and hasn’t met its zenith, I get out my collection and spend some time with “my” authors.
Just this month I read an essay by Lucy Ellmann in The Baffler magazine called “Birdies in America.” The Baffler often exhausts my brain with its highfalutin essays by writer who toss in, like a salad, obscure, long-ass words. I loved her brilliant essay and emailed her. Turns out she works as an editor and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland and will read some part of my novel for free to see if we might work together. Small, wonderful world—all from a charming note.
At the end of my essay on writing books I confessed that since I was too late for Oprah’s book club, my dream had changed. A review of my novel (still sitting here in its umpteenth draft) by Carolyn See in the L.A. Times would be the answered prayer. She “has been championing great books and wittily skewering bad ones for decades,” Ron Charles said about her. Even if she didn’t love it, I’d be honored that she took a look.
I took too long. Last week I read that Carolyn See had passed away on July 13, 2016. I leave you with a sample of her advice that meant so much to me as a new writer and mourn her loss:
“It’s my experience that you first feel the impulse to write in your chest. It’s like falling in love, only more so. It feels like something criminal. It feels like unspeakably wild sex. So, think: When you feel the overpowering need to go out and find some unspeakably wild sex, do you rush to tell your mom about it?”
Barbara Clarke’s memoir, Getting to Home: Sojourn in a Perfect House, was published in 2009. “How Many Writing Books Does It Take?” appeared in the 2010 debut issue of Line Zero, a literary-arts magazine. Her essay, “Good Vibrations,” was published in the online magazine Full Grown People in 2015. She is currently at work on a novel that mixes memoir with fiction and is calling it a “novoir.” Barbara lives by Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” when it comes to writing and often her life.