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Tuesday
Aug192014

Caryl Avery

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by default. De fault was my mother’s. Well, partly.

I always loved writing, even as a kid. I started writing parodies and light verse (which I’m pretty sure back then I called “funny poems”) when I was around 10, and stopped when I was 11 or 12. Because whenever I wrote something that my mother found amusing, she would say, “Ca, go get your poem and read it to Mrs. Pianin,” the neighbor four houses down. I’d be mortified, but the more I protested, the more she insisted. Out of self-protection, I hung up my yellow No. 2 pencil.

Although writing always came naturally to me, I never contemplated it as a career until I had to: After throwing in the towel on art history (too low paying) and on practicing psychotherapy (too depressing), I realized I needed a job that would be “just right.” When I asked myself what I could do, the only thing I could think of was write.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)

Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, e. e. cummings, Don Marquis, W. S. Gilbert, Tom Lehrer, Franklin P. Adams, E. B. White, Edward Lear, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Noel Coward, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Anonymous.

While flirting with the idea of becoming a writer, I had the good fortune to discover On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which in 1976 had just been published. I was so stunned that a book on writing could be so engaging that I instantly knew that was the career for me. With each expanded edition, I seized the occasion to reread it beginning to end, and each time it was like running into an old love. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat. You might want to follow it with The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of Zinsser’s weekly essays published on the website of The American Scholar. (“Zinsser on Friday” won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Digital Commentary. He was 87.)

In addition to William Zinsser (with whom I had the pleasure of spending an hour last fall), four other teachers—who couldn’t have been more different—helped make me the writer I am: Miss Dillback, my seventh grade English teacher at Valley Stream South High School, who was scary strict but who hammered grammar into my head so I’d never forget it. Sandra Berwind, Professor Emeritus of English at Bryn Mawr College, who as my Freshman Comp instructor introduced the concept of critical thinking. (She was the toughest and most generous teacher I ever had.) My former boss and medical editor at the Globe (yup, the supermarket tabloid—we all start somewhere), who did the same for not thinking when you have to research and write two medical stories a day. (He: “Caryl, what are you doing?” Me: “I’m thinking.” He: “In this business, you don’t think; you write.”) And the late, great Phyllis Starr Wilson, founder of Self Magazine, who taught me as an editor and writer how to let go of articles: (“Remember, 90 percent of people read this stuff sitting on the toilet.”)

When and where do you write?

I write mostly in my head, often on the bus. Then when I get to my office, I transcribe these noodlings—quick, before they disappear. If ideas or turns of phrase pop into my mind as I’m trying to fall asleep, I force myself to get out of bed to write them down (usually as notes on my iPhone). Otherwise, forget sleeping.

What are you working on now?

I’m adding some finishing touches to Eggs Benedict Arnold, a book of culinary light verse, and putting together a team of investors and producers for CUTS: An Uplifting Musical, an irreverent parody revue that skewers plastic surgery and our national obsession with looking young and beautiful. A developmental production recently played to sold-out houses at The York Theatre in New York. For a sneak peek at four songs from the show’s initial presentation, visit www.carylavery.com, click on CUTS, then Preview. Or Google “Joan Rivers from CUTS” to see international singing sensation Christina Bianco’s version of the song.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I’ve experienced it, sure, but it hasn’t made me suffer. Writer’s block is a writer’s best friend; it tells you you don’t know where you’re going. (“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) Once you figure that out, you’re home free. Writer’s block simply saves you the trouble of writing until you do.

What’s your advice to new writers?

1. Write with your ear.

2. Run your work by a few people you trust who are smarter than you.

3. Pay attention to criticisms, but not to proposed solutions.

4. Remember that the urge to edit other people’s copy is greater than the urge to procreate. Your work is your baby. Don’t sell it down the river.

5. Make sure that everything you write has one elegant sentence.

6. Evolve. Try new forms.

7. Don’t write near a refrigerator.

Caryl Avery (www.carylavery.com) has been an award-winning journalist, magazine editor, advertising copywriter, poet, and creative writer for over 30 years. In addition to an eight-year stint as senior editor/psychology director at Self Magazine, she has written extensively for more than 20 consumer magazines, including Self, Glamour, Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, New York Magazine, American Health, Psychology Today, and Reader’s Digest, as well as for such websites as Women’s Voices for Change.  In recent years she has put her experience as psychologist, writer, and editor to work as a creative marketer/advertising copywriter in the cosmetic industry. After a decade as Executive Editor at Clinique, where she wrote national advertising for more than 75 countries, she set up shop in New York where she provides marketing direction, branding, advertising and website copy to a variety of consumer product companies and ad agencies.

In addition, she has returned to two old loves—light verse and lyric writing. Her poems have been featured in Light Quarterly, Alimentum, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, The Classical Outlook, womensvoicesforchange.org, and anthologized in More Women’s Wicked Wit. Plus, she is nearing completion of Eggs Benedict Arnold, a book of culinary light verse. Her parody revue CUTS: An Uplifting Musical about plastic surgery and everything else we do to look young and beautiful has had a successful developmental run in New York and is gearing up for a commercial production. 

Reader Comments (3)

Love this interview!! So much good advice for writers, whether established or not. Thanks, Caryl!!

August 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoan Liebmann-Smith

I knew I was doing a few thing wrongly. Thank you, Caryl for putting me on right pathway.

August 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterThe RAABIT

As Caryl’s editor at two publications, I know how good she is in all her varied styles, from essays to hilarious satirical verse (positively Ogden Nashian) to the wickedly pointed songs in CUTS. (DO, everyone, click on those four excerpts from the show on her website, for the guilty pleasure they will give you.) Caryl, I love the tale of how you got to be a writer (hurrah for the great English teachers of the world). Writers, follow Caryl’s advice. She’s got the secret.

Deb Harkins

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Harkins

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