12 Classic Women Authors, 12 Lessons for the Writing Life

George Sand

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 classic women authors like  Charlotte Brontë, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott, and others did, as well — and their advice on writing also applies to many life situations as well.

In the end, it’s not so much about facing obstacles that matters — everyone experiences bumps in the road — but overcoming them with grace and courage.

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 twelve classic women authors I’ve grown to know and admire.

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Don’t be overly modest

Jane Austen

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.

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Honor the money you earn

Louisa May Alcott
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.

 

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Don’t sit idly by waiting for things to happen

Charlotte Brontë

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.

 

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Unearth your true voice — then use it

Willa Cather

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.

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Guard your time jealously

Edna Ferber

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.” 

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Take risks, or you won’t grow

madeleine L'engle

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.”

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Keep rejection to yourself
and don’t let it stop you

L.M. Montgomery Age 43

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.

 

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Don’t be afraid to go deep within

Anais Nin

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.”

 

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Be passionate about life and creating

George Sand

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 traveling, smoking from her hookah, and cross-dressing. She was a conflicted mother, but a doting grandmother.

And let’s be honest; she wasn’t exactly a looker, but she had a bazillion lovers.  Sand 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.

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Life is messy and occasional tragic —
creating is healing

Harriet Beecher Stowe
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.

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Don’t let lack of confidence derail you

Edith Wharton receiving honorary doctorate from Yale, 1921

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. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate!

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Embrace your inner critic

Virginia Woolf

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. Think of your inner critic as a wise editor or an honest friend who won’t let you do less than the very best you can at the moment.

 

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