“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.






The LA Times Festival of Books 2003 & David Halberstam

There’s a book festival this weekend in LA and one of my favorite writers will be missing. Eight years ago next week, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author David Halberstam died in a car crash in Menlo Park, California on his way to conduct an interview for his next book.

I thought it would be a good day to share my ‘memories at a distance’ of a journalist whose work continues to educate and inspire.

I first heard Mr. Halberstam speak at the University of Southern California commencement. His remarks were measured as he sought to reassure the Class of 2002; the first graduating class after 9/11. Words that are as relevant today as they were on that  May morning in South Central LA.

“We should, after all, all be aware of the blessings of our lives. The truth today, which I suspect you already know, is that you are among the fortunate of your generation. You have been given a priceless education in an age where work is increasingly defined not by muscularity but by intelligence, and therefore you are already advantaged. More, you have not only been given an exceptional education, but perhaps more importantly, you have been part of a rare community where the intellectual process is valued not just for what it can do for you economically but as an end in itself. Learning is not just a tool to bring you a better income; learning is an ongoing, never-ending process designed to bring you a fuller and richer life.

In addition, you are fortunate enough to live in an affluent, blessed society, not merely the strongest, but the freest society in the world. Our courts continue to uphold the inherent rights of ordinary citizens to seek the highest levels of personal freedom imaginable. In this country as in no other that I know of, ordinary people have the right to reinvent themselves to become the person of their dreams and not to live as prisoners of a more stratified, more hierarchical past. In America we have the right to choose who and what we want to be: to choose if we so want, any profession, any venue, any name.”

The next time I heard David Halberstam speak was on the UCLA campus in 2003.

I have this small yellow spiral notebook with blotched ink notes from the LA Times Festival of Books in 2003. I attended as many panels as I could fit, purchased cassette recordings of those I missed (it was the dark ages), and stood in line to garner author signatures in newly release titles. I took copious notes at every panel including one moderated by Marie Arana, (then book editor of The Washington Post), with authors Carolyn See, Terry Brooks and George Pelecanos. At the end of the day, in my notebook, there is only the title and the names of the panelists for ‘The Politics of Sport’. I couldn’t multitask. I could only listen as three literary lions shared their thoughts with a packed auditorium audience.

Author Gay Talese moderated the panel with Mr. Halberstam and George Plimpton. There were 322 other authors at the festival that weekend, but this discussion brought together three authors whose careers included journalism, war, media, sports, politics, civil rights and the founding of a major literary review. If you are looking for a book to read this weekend here are three of my picks, one from each author:

David Halberstam   ‘The Best and the Brightest’

George Plimpton   ‘Paper Lion’

Gay Talese   ‘The Kingdom and the Power’

The 20th annual LA Times Festival of Books takes place this weekend in Los Angeles on the campus of The University of Southern California. It’s the largest event centered on books in the country, showcasing fiction, non-fiction, travel, cooking, politics and biography.

It’s an opportunity to create an intellectual memory, stock your library for the coming months, and continue the never-ending process of learning to bring you a fuller and richer life.