What should my attitude be toward reviews?

Dear Literary Ladies,
My first novel is finally coming out, and I’m thrilled! But I’m also concerned about how to handle reviews from critics as well as readers. It’s hard to ignore reviews these days, with everything on the web and in one’s face 24/7. Any words of wisdom before my book hits the shelves?

If one has sought the publicity of print, and sold one’s wares in the open market, one has sold to the purchasers the right to think what they choose about one’s books; and the novelist’s best safeguard is to put out of his mind the quality of praise or blame bestowed on [her] by reviewers and readers, and to write only for that dispassionate and ironic critic who dwells within the breast.

—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934

How can one persevere when writing pays so poorly?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I work so hard at my writing, putting in an inordinate amount time and effort. For all that, the rewards are so meager. Adding up the hours I put into my work (which I’m not even sure is more than mediocre), I would be making much less than minimum wage! My family thinks I should pack it in. What can you advise to help me persevere in a pursuit that’s so poorly compensated?

How can we know if we work hard now and develop ourselves we will be more than mediocre? Isn’t this the world’s revenge on us for sticking our neck out? We can never know until we’ve worked, written . . . Weren’t the mothers and businessmen right after all? Shouldn’t we have avoided these disquieting questions and taken steady jobs and secured a good future for the kiddies?

Not unless we want to be bitter all our lives. Not unless we want to feel wistfully: What a writer I might have been, if only. If only I’d had the guts to try and work and shoulder the insecurity all that trial and work implied.

Writing is a religious act: it is an ordering, a reforming, a relearning and reloving of people and the world as they are and as they might be. A shaping which does not pass away like a day of typing or a day of teaching. The writing lasts: it goes about on its own in the world. People read it: react to it as to a person, a philosophy, a religion, a flower: they like it, or do not. It helps them, or it does not. It feels to intensify living: you give more, probe, ask, look, learn, and shape this: you get more: monsters, answers, color and form, knowledge. You do it for itself first. If it brings in money, how nice. You do not do it first for money. Money isn’t why you sit down at the typewriter. Not that you don’t want it. It is only too lovely when a profession pays for your bread and butter. With writing, it is maybe, maybe-not. How to live with such insecurity. With what is worst, the occasional lack or loss of faith in the writing itself? How to live with these things?

The worst thing, worse than all of them, would be to live with not writing.

—Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ©1982

Isn't there an easy road to writing success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Like most writers, I want to be published, and truth be told, I’d love to be successful. But I’ve heard so many stories of long years of toil, false starts, and tons of rejection. Isn’t there an easier way? I’d prefer to become an overnight success, earn fame and fortune, and avoid all the struggle.

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long and patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties and trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort and the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, and quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself and begin to do it at sixteen . . . “Little Women” was written when I was ill, and to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, and neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, and since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.

But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family. The rest soon grows wearisome & seems very poor beside the comfort of being an early Providence to those we love.

—Louisa May Alcott, from a letter, 1878

Am I talented enough to be a successful writer?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Sometimes I wonder if I really have what it takes to be a successful writer. The desire is definitely there, but I’m not sure I have the talent. For those of us who don’t feel particularly “gifted,” what hope is there?

I didn’t have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn’t have any exceptional qualities. It was the persistence and the great love of my craft which finally became a discipline, which finally made me a craftsman and a writer.

The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practising, I wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading and receiving of experience. . .

So I would like to remove from everyone the feeling that writing is something that is only done by a few gifted people . . . You shouldn’t think that someone who achieves fulfillment in writing and a certain art in writing is necessarily a person with unusual gifts. I always said it was an unusual stubborness. Nothing prevented me from doing it every night, after every day’s happenings.

Anaïs Nin, “The Personal Life Deeply Lived” (from a series of lectures, 1973)

What role does imagination play in writing?

Dear Literary Ladies,
It’s the cliché of creative writing class: “Write what you know.” Lately, I’ve heard a better directive: “Write what you want to know.” What do you think? How much should one’s own experience dictate what goes down on paper, and what role do you think imagination should play?

Is not the real experience of each individual very limited? And, if a writer dwells upon that solely or principally, is [she] not in danger of repeating [her]self, and also becoming an egotist? Then, too, imagination is a strong, restless faculty, which claims to be heard and exercised: are we to be quite deaf to her cry, and insensate to her struggles? When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?

—Charlotte Brontë, in a letter to G.H. Lewes, 1848

How do you develop ideas for plots?

A note from Nava:
In the comments under "Can good work be done in short sessions?" Travelscribble left a question that she hoped a Literary Lady might answer. Perhaps not an exact fit, but Madeleine L'Engle's description of how she developed stories came close, especially since Travelscribble mentioned that she's fond of children's literature and fantasy. I welcome other readers leaving their questions, and I'll do my best to find a fitting answer.

Dear Literary Ladies,
Where do you go looking for plots? Did your stories once begin with just a title in your head? Did you have a mundane thought that you somehow developed into a plot? I enjoy writing and am satisfied with my craft but sometimes feel that I must be really dull or lack imagination. I might add that I am especially fond of children's literature and fantasy. (submitted by Travelscribble)

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, and onion in another . . . When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.

— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980

Is it necessary to be a starving artist?

Dear Literary Ladies,
It's so hard to make a living at writing these days. There used to be so many more paying outlets for short stories, essays, and sketches; now everyone expects writers to contribute free content. How did you manage to earn a living while building your reputation? Do you think it's necessary to be a "starving artist" until one's ship comes in?

I always took little dull jobs that didn’t take my mind and wouldn’t take all of my time, and that, on the other hand, paid me just enough to subsist. I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.

And I think that’s all wrong. Even Saint Teresa said, “I can pray better when I’m comfortable,” and she refused to wear her haircloth shirt or starve herself. I don’t think living in cellars and starving is any better for an artist than it is for anybody else; the only thing is that sometimes the artist has to take it, because it is the only possible way of salvation, if you’ll forgive that old-fashioned word. So I took it rather instinctively. I was inexperienced in the world, and likewise I hadn’t been trained to do anything you know, so I took all kinds of laborious jobs. But, you know, I think I could probably have written better if I’d been a little more comfortable.

—Katherine Anne Porter, The Paris Review Interviews, 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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