Twelve Great Literary Ladies, Twelve Valuable Lessons for the Writing Life
Learning how to stay disciplined, grappling with doubt, failure, and rejection, finding one’s voice, struggling to stay solvent—we’ve all dealt with these issues. It’s comforting to know that Charlotte Brontë, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott, and others did, as well. But in the end, it’s not so much about experiencing these obstacles that matters, but overcoming them.
While researching The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, I delved into the letters, journals, and memoirs of classic women authors. I found that certain challenges were just as universal among those who eventually became literary icons as they are among today’s writing women, whether seasoned or aspiring. Here are twelve nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from each of the Literary Ladies I’ve grown to know and admire:
Don’t be overly modest. In popular imagination, Jane Austen is a demure, frilly cap-wearing artiste, hiding her writing efforts under a blotter. In truth, her family recognized her talent and were invested in seeing her work in print, as was she.
Austen was as keen on enjoying monetary rewards and finding an audience as the next writer—male or female. “I cannot help hoping many will feel themselves obliged to buy it,” she said of Sense and Sensibility. Of her most iconic female character, Elizabeth Bennett, she wrote, “how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her … I do not know.” Perhaps we ascribe false modesty to our literary role models to feel better about our own.
Honor the money you earn by writing. Louisa May Alcott was determined to make a living as a writer at a time when it was challenging enough for women to earn a living wage. She accounted for every penny earned and spent, and always tried to save for a rainy day.
Once she became wealthy, after decades of toil, she wrote that she found her “best success in the comfort my family enjoy; also a naughty satisfaction in proving that it was better not to ‘stick to teaching’ as advised, but to write.” I suspect most of as are keenly aware of money coming in; but money going out, not so much.
Don’t sit idly by while your manuscript is being submitted. Keep working, like Charlotte Brontë did, as her unsuccessful first novel, The Professor, made its rounds. What she busied herself with was Jane Eyre, which found favor quickly and was an immediate sensation upon publication.
Fortunately, she didn’t allow the “chill of despair” that set into her heart when her first effort “found acceptance nowhere, nor any acknowledgment of merit” quash her dreams of becoming an author. The Professor was published only after her death.
The only way to find your true voice is to write, write, and write some more. Willa Cather accepted that beginning writers, herself included, go through a stage of florid, overwrought excess. And the only thing to do is “to work off the ‘fine writing’ stage … I knew even then it was a crime to write like I did … The only remedy is to write whole books of extravagant language to get it out.” What you’re left with, once you’re no longer “smothered in your own florescence” is your own sharp, true voice and vision.
Guard your time jealously. Especially when we’re working on something that isn’t yet earning money, it’s easy to let ourselves off the hook and say yes to every request and any invitation that comes our way.
But if you don’t value your writing time, others won’t either. Edna Ferber was a model of self-discipline. Heed her advice: “The first lesson to be learned by a writer is to be able to say, ‘Thanks so much. I’d love to, but I can’t. I’m working.”
You can’t grow as a writer without taking risks. Madeleine L’Engle observed: “We are encouraged only to do that which we can be successful in.” How true for so many women, who don’t want to risk failure, to be anything other than good girls and A students.
But L’Engle reminds us that “Risk is essential. It’s scary … Writers will never do anything beyond the first thing unless they risk growing.”
Keep rejection to yourself and don’t let it stop you. L.M. Montgomery experienced her fair share of rejection before the success of Anne of Green Gables: “At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem … came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said, ‘I will succeed.’”
Montgomery didn’t feel that she needed to share her “rebuffs and discouragements” with the world, but determined to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Don’t be afraid that you’ll run out of things to say. Anaïs Nin recognized that within the fervent writer, there is an endless supply of material, if one allow oneself to go there: “The deeper I plunge, the more I discover. There is…no limit to the acrobatic feats of my imagination.”
Brenda Ueland, author of the 1934 classic If You Want to be a Writer concurred: “If you are to be a writer who writes, you will never be finished…always there will be something more to write.”
Be passionate about writing—and living. Why do women live and write in such measured ways? George Sand wrote more than seventy novels, plus scores of plays, essays, and articles, all the while enjoying scads of lovers, traveling, and cross-dressing. She was a conflicted mother, but a doting grandmother.
She never did anything by halves, in life or art: “I have a purpose in view, a task before me, and, if I may use the word, a passion.” Let’s all use that word more often.
Daily life is difficult, filled with disruptions, and occasional tragedy. Write anyway. Harriet Beecher Stowe lost four of her seven children at various stages of her life; despite crushing grief, writing apparently kept her sane, and definitely kept her family solvent. Though she bemoaned constant daily disruptions, she vowed to write a book that would change the world.
This she did by devoting “about three hours per day in writing … I have determined not to be a mere domestic slave …” The book that shook the status quo, of course, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Don’t let lack of confidence stop you from writing. Edith Wharton struggled with lack of self-confidence, believing she would never be taken seriously in literary circles. She started by writing nonfiction, then tiptoed into short stories, always amazed by the doors opening to her.
“My long experimenting had resulted in two or three books which brought me more encouragement than I had ever dreamed of obtaining,” she wrote. In her early days as a writer, little could she have imagined that Henry James would become one of her BFFs, valuing her friendship and correspondence as much as she did his.
Embrace the inner critic. Virginia Woolf’s inner critic was active and noisy. She allowed her doubts to bubble to the surface in her journal, but they drove her to do better, rather than crush her spirit. In one paragraph she mocked her own writing, “The thing now reads thin and pointless; the words scarcely dint the paper.”
A few sentences later, she says, “I am about to write something good; something rich and deep and fluent …” Similarly, when experiencing self-doubt, many of the other Literary Ladies let the inner critic urge them to do better.
Inspired by the Literary Ladies, I’ve come to think of my inner critic as a wise editor or an honest friend who won’t let me do less than the very best I can at the moment.
© 2011 by Nava Atlas, author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life .
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