Can good work be done in short sessions?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I always thought that one needed great swathes of time to get any writing done. Now I hear that some esteemed authors worked in short bursts and still produced an enormous amount of brilliant work. I want to hear from one of you. How did you do it, and what did you do with the rest of your time?

I work from two and a half to three hours a day. I don't hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn't gain by it. The only reason I write is because it interests me more than any other activity I've ever found. I like riding, going to operas and concerts, travel in the west; but on the whole writing interests me more than anything else. If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day. I get more entertainment from it than any I could buy, except the privilege of hearing a few great musicians and singers. To listen to them interests me as much as a good morning's work.

For me, the morning is the best time to write. During the other hours of the day I attend to my housekeeping, take walks in Central Park, go to concerts, and see something of my friends. I try to keep myself fit, fresh: one has to be in as good form to write as to sing. When not working, I shut work from my mind.

— Willa Cather, from a 1921 interview

How can I deal with rejection?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I know that rejection is part of a writer's life, but every time something I've submitted gets turned down, I just feel crushed. How did you learn to cope with it, and not take it personally?

After leaving Prince of Wales College I taught school for a year in Bideford, Prince Edward Island. I wrote a good deal and learned a good deal, but my stuff came back except from two periodicals the editors of which evidently thought that literature was its own reward, and quite independent of monetary considerations. I often wonder that I did not give up in utter discouragement. At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem over which I had laboured and agonized came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself, as I crept away to hide the poor, crimpled manuscript in the depths of my trunk. But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said, “I will succeed.” I believed in myself and I struggled on alone, in secrecy and silence. I never told my ambitions and efforts and failures to any one. Down, deep down, under all discouragements and rebuff I knew I would “arrive” some day.

—L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), The Alpine Path, 1917

Why am I imitating authors I admire?

Perhaps because I haven’t learned to trust my own voice, I sometimes find after I’ve written something, that it’s almost an homage to a writer I admire, and not very well done at that. Judging from my writers’ group, I know I’m not alone in this unconscious copying, but will I ever stop?

When you begin to write, you are usually in the throes of admiration for some writer, and whether you will or no, you cannot help copying their style. Often it is not a style that suits you, and so you write badly. But as time goes on you are less influenced by admiration. You still admire certain writers, you may even wish you could write like them, but you know quite well that you can’t. Presumably you have learned literary humility. If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark or Graham Green, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t and it would never occur to me to attempt to copy them.

—Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, 1977

Writer's envy—do others suffer from this too?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I suffer terribly from writer’s envy, constantly comparing myself with contemporaries, measuring my meager accomplishments against their more substantial successes. Do well-known authors like you still experience professional jealousy, and if so, to whom do you obsessively compare yourself?

It has taken me a long time to scribble some forty volumes. So many hours stolen from traveling, idleness, reading, even from healthy feminine stylishness! How the devil did George Sand manage? That sturdy woman of letters found it possible to finish one novel and start another in the same hour. And she did not thereby lose either a lover or a puff of the narghile [hookah], not to mention a Story of My Life in twenty volumes, and I am overcome by astonishment. Forcefully, she managed her work, her recoverable sorrows, and her limited pleasures.

— Colette, The Evening Star, 1946

Should I take time off work to write full time?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Miraculously, I’ve saved a bit of money, and I’m considering taking a few months or a year off of work to write full time. I want to see if I can make a go of it, once and for all. Is this a good idea, or would I be putting too much pressure on myself?

It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged too easily. Of course I don’t know. But don’t anyhow say to yourself that you will give yourself so long to find out what you can do—because these things don’t work on time limits. Too much time is as bad as too little.

—Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), from a letter

Should you write for yourself, or for others?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Which is better—to write purely to please yourself, or to write with an audience in mind?

No, you don’t write for yourself or for others. You write out of a deep inner necessity. If you are a writer, you have to write, just as you have to breathe, or if you’re a singer you have to sing. But you’re not aware of doing it for someone. This need to write was for me as strong as the need to live. I needed to live, but I also needed to record what I lived. It was a second life, it was my way of living in a more heightened way.

—Anais Nin, from a 1973 interview in A Woman Speaks

How can a writer improve her craft?

Dear Literary Ladies,
What advice would you give a writer wanting to improve her craft? I read so many books on writing, and every one of them offers different techniques. Also, how long can I expect to work at this until I see results?

Each person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in [her] own way, and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit from criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped . . .

Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and you can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown. . . I have so many letters like your own that I can say no more, but wish you success, and give you for a motto Michael Angelo’s wise words: “Genius is infinite patience.”

—Louisa May Alcott (from a letter, 1878)

Does having connections help in getting published?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I’ve often heard it said that “it’s who you know that matters.” Well, I don’t know anyone in the publishing world. Does that mean my work doesn’t stand a chance of being looked at seriously?

There is no easy road. “Pull” will not help. Knowing an editor, or a publisher, or a successful writer, or having a friend who knows one, will not make up for a poor manuscript. Do not write to editors, or established writers asking them to criticize your work, or for help or advice in getting your book or story published. They are unable to help you, even if they were willing to spend half their working hours trying to assist the beginner. Your work must speak for itself.

The young or beginning writer must realize that every manuscript mailed into a publishing office of any sort is carefully read by trained and competent readers. This does not mean that such readers necessarily read every word or every page of a submitted manuscript. A few paragraphs often tell the sad tale that the piece of writing is worthless. Amateur writers have been known to place a small object between pages, and finding it undisturbed, to announce triumphantly that the manuscript had not been read. But one does not need to eat a whole apple to know that it is no good.

—Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ("If You Want to Be a Writer," 1948)

How do I find time to write?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I would dearly love to call myself a professional writer, but I’m so easily distracted. After the kids go to school, it’s off to work, the gym, and endless errands. On weekends, I entertain family or visit with friends. In the midst of all this, I can’t seem to find time to write. How can I fit everything in?

To be a professional writer one must be prepared to give up almost everything except living. Amateur writers are not included in this rule (I loathe loud-talking amateurs of any walk of life. An amateur is an apprentice and should conduct himself as such, keeping his mouth shut and learning his craft). 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.”

—Edna Ferber (A Kind of Magic, 1963)

Wouldn't you love to get advice from  classic women authors on writing and the writer's life? Here I fancifully pose the questions, and the Literary Ladies answer in their own words.

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