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Charming Notes: A Tribute to Carolyn See

In her book “Making a Literary Life,” Carolyn See famously recommends sending a “charming note” to a person -- often an author -- you admire five days a week; Monday through Friday, as long as you live. She clearly took her own advice. A highlight of my own literary life was receiving one of See’s charming notes after she read my book “Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write.” Her warm words brought me to tears; they felt like a benediction from a queen. See, a novelist, memoirist, book critic, teacher and literary legend, was truly a queen of the writing community -- the Southern California writing community, in particular. Her July 13 death from cancer at the age of 82 has hit Los Angeles (and beyond) like an earthquake.

“I was born in Los Angeles and I love it,” See said in a 2007 interview with her publisher, Random House. “One of the things I really love is that it hasn't been thoroughly mapped in fiction yet. It's terra incognita in a lot of ways. It's true, of course, that anything can happen anywhere, but out here things are profoundly amorphous. There's a strict class system, for instance, and yet the class system is really porous. No one has a clue about ‘reality.’”

Reality is deliciously skewed -- and sharply, vividly, observed -- in See’s large body of work. An atomic bomb goes off in “Golden Days,” perhaps her best known novel. Thanks to See’s humor and zest, a New York Times reviewer called the book “the most life-affirming novel I've ever read.” In “Handyman,” an aimless, pot-smoking artist ends up healing everyone he meets with his divinely inspired creations. In her memoir, “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America,” See manages to make a story about alcoholism, emotional abuse, and suicide as funny as it is moving. A character in See’s novel “Making History” says “The whole point was that you were supposed to see life, and love it too.” See saw life in all its absurdity, all its grit and pain, and she still loved it -- fiercely; profusely. 

Carolyn See from Website
Carolyn See. | Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons License.

Publishers Weekly described the writing in “Golden Days” “as if John Cheever had changed gender and moved to California. There is Cheever's intense sense of place (Los Angeles instead of exurban Connecticut), of the passage of time and of the enormities that gape just below the surface of life.” Los Angeles readers relished seeing the world they knew reflected on her pages. Angela Barton writes, “I remember reading her novels and knowing the places in L.A. she was talking about -- specific streets in neighborhoods no one else ever wrote about, all those L.A.s most of us actually live in, away from Hollywood and the Sunset Strip.”

In a 2002 Newsday interview, See said “Literary life in New York… is a little more focused. Literary life out here in Los Angeles seems to have less malice in it. Everyone gets a ticket; everyone can give it a shot.” She freely handed out many such tickets herself. When her death hit the news, aftershocks of grief and appreciation from writers whose lives she had touched swept across social media.

Her former students remember her as a generous and unforgettable teacher. Lisa Marguerite Mora recalls a lit class at UCLA: “She began the first day of the quarter by walking up down the aisles of mystified students in her modest black skirt and matching attire but she also wore contrasting red cowboy boots. ‘WAKE UP!’ she said.” National Book Award finalist Karen Bender writes, “She beautifully modeled the life of a writer, teacher, mother… She said, ‘When you write something, it should feel like this (knocks on wood), ‘Not this.’ (knocks on plastic.)” 

Tod Goldberg remembers See as “a remarkable writer who cared deeply about other writers and the value of literature in our world.” In a post on Facebook, he writes: “For a few years, when I was still teaching at the Writers' Program at UCLA, she'd have a classroom in the afternoon and then I'd inherit it at night, so periodically we'd pass in the in-between and chat. I was so young and seeing her in the flesh was like bumping into history, so I always tried to be as cool as possible. When my second book came out, we saw each other at an event and she came up to me, took my arm, squeezed it, and said, ‘You're a real writer now.’ I've never forgotten how that felt.” 

Carolyn See Still From Film
Still of Carolyn See from a 1989 episode of KCET series "Take 5."

Barbara Abercrombie recalls See’s legendary events at much-missed Dutton’s Books: “They were celebrations -- with marvelous food and a whole community of writers, all of whom had Carolyn stories to tell about her kindness and generosity, and how funny and smart she was.” 

Caroline Leavitt writes, “I first encountered her when I was trying to get reviews for a book of mine and my then publisher was not really doing any promotion for me. So I took a chance and wrote her a heartfelt letter. And she wrote back immediately and even praised me for writing to her because she said that's what you had to do in publishing, take risks. And she gave my book a rave in the Washington Post, and the next one after that... When she was in NYC and she was having a book party, she insisted I had to come, because she thought I was too shy (I was back then -- I was also 8 months pregnant.) I came and met her and she hugged me and introduced me. She was truly amazing and I feel blessed that I got the pure pleasure of knowing her.” 

David Ulin notes, “When I first moved to Los Angeles, she taught me how to be a writer in this elusive city, and I have returned to her insights and counsel again and again. But more than that, she was a role model, teaching by example how to integrate literary and critical writing, teaching, mentoring: the very essence of community. I miss her and I love her, and I will be ever grateful to her for all she gave to me, and to all of us in the Southern California literary world.”

See’s family is a whole literary community of its own. In the 2007 Random House interview, See, whose daughter Lisa See is also a best-selling novelist, was asked what it was like to have another writer in the family. She answered, “I'm so proud of Lisa! She's an absolutely terrific novelist! She's an amazing woman, wonderful daughter, mother, wife. But she's not the only writer in the family. My father, George Laws, published 73 volumes of hard core pornography in his later life. They were incredibly funny and witty and smart, and if this were another kind of society, there would be statues of him in public parks. My life partner for 27 years, John Espey, published over fifty reminiscences in The New Yorker of his missionary childhood in China, as well as several novels. We worked together every day. And my sweet and brave younger daughter, Clara Sturak, is a journalist who tirelessly advocates for children with autism. Even my step-mom, Wynn Corum Laws, wrote one of the most popular life stories in the AA Book, ‘Freedom From Bondage.’ (And no, I'm not breaking her anonymity, because she's long dead). So really, the question is: What would it be like NOT to have another writer in the family? The answer is: It would be lonely and sorrowful and sad.”

Carolyn See and Family
Still of Lisa See (left), John Espey (center), and Carolyn See (right) from a 1989 episode of KCET series "Take 5."

I had the chance to speak with Lisa See by phone about her mother’s contributions. “It would crack her up that people would call her the Grande Dame of Southern California letters,” she told me, “but from that one person, she really did help to build what today is now a strong community of writers, and a literary community of writers. If you think of the 1960s, this was considered a literary and artistic wasteland and you can’t say that about Los Angeles anymore. People don’t always remember how something started, but she was there in the beginning, and that will always be her legacy.” 

She also spoke about her mother’s legacy on a more personal level. “She had a very hard childhood -- tough, tough, childhood -- and yet she became an incredible mother herself,” she said. “My sister is an editor and I’m a writer and I think that’s because we were so personally inspired by her. What she did for us, she did for so many people. What’s struck me is how many writers, some extraordinarily successful, some still waiting to be published, have been inspired by her and encouraged by her.” 

I think of the thousands upon thousands of charming notes See must have written over the years, notes that filled hearts like mine to near bursting with gratitude. I imagine all of those notes rising like butterflies now, like a flurry of petals, in homage to their author, a visible representation of her generosity, her impact -- a glorious and fitting send off to a woman who is already deeply missed, a woman who changed the Southern California landscape by bringing it into focus, by bringing together writers who will keep telling wacky, wonderful, profound stories to keep her legacy alive. 

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