“Dignify the outsider” & other lessons from Carolyn See

When we talk about mentors, we often confine ourselves within the walls of our chosen profession. Carolyn See, professor and writer, was also a ‘world class’ mentor to those who were ‘outsiders’ to the world of New York publishing, the purveyors of taste in American storytelling.

I met Carolyn after a panel at the 2003 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, when she was signing copies of ‘Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers’. We had a brief conversation and I followed up with an email a few days later to thank her for taking the time to chat. Her response was immediate, gracious and filled with humor.

At the time I was not a writer, but a ‘dreamer’, considering a literary life, while pursuing a passion working with college students. Carolyn encouraged me to explore the writing life, and taught me what it truly means to be a mentor.

Carolyn died last week in Santa Monica, California. Many of her students and friends have shared their memories in published obituaries and tweets. In all there is the common thread of the ‘insider’ welcoming the ‘outsider’.

“…I believe, with a patriotic sincerity that would make a Legionnaire blush, that American literature is owned by everybody in America and that world lit is owned by everyone in the world and that we all get to have a say in it, not just a comparatively few men and women in the Northeast, no matter how decent and talented they may be.”

LA Times columnist, former book critic and writer, David Ulin described his relationship with Carolyn in 2014.

“Carolyn taught me how to be a writer in California. For her, that meant a three-dimensional literary life: writing, teaching and reviewing, all of them inextricable from the whole. As a critic, I have tried to follow her model that reviews should be part of an ongoing conversation with one’s readers, and should explicate something essential — not only whether or not we like a book, but also how it connects to, or reflects, our aesthetics, our world view. Carolyn has always regarded reading as an act of engagement . . . and reviewing, too.”

What is a mentor? What can we learn from the life of a writer if we have followed a completely different career path?

A mentor teaches you to be the three-dimensional human in your workplace vision of success.

In ‘Making a Literary Life, Carolyn offers two menu items: ‘Carolyn’s 18 Minute Chili’ and ‘Carolyn’s 18 Hour Chili’.  For the writer, the two step (18 minute) is “a thousand words a day or two hours of revision” and “a charming note to a writer, editor or agent you admire – five days a week for the rest of your life”.

This is what a mentor does, unselfishly shares their recipe for success with measurable, accountable advice. And the part about ‘charming notes’? It’s universal in its application. This is not about ‘sucking up’, but genuinely expressing gratitude or professional admiration, tied to a specific circumstance.

The ’18 hour chili alternative’ includes suggestions to “take an outside excursion once a week”, “pretend- in your mind – to be…”, and “make a list of what a … like you might want”.

We need to get outside our ‘comfort zone’ to stay creative. It’s essential to visualize what you would be like in your dream job, and equally important, to hold an image of what success looks like to you.

“You can go a surprisingly long time without figuring out the kind of person you are and in what direction your life is taking you.”

It’s why I will always be grateful for my encounter with Carolyn See, and why we all, outsiders included, need a mentor who keeps us honest and on track toward success.

 

 

 

 

 

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