Why am I afraid to take risks with my writing?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I want to go in a new direction with my writing. But I'm afraid I'll fail and feel foolish. Can you give me any encouragement that will help me take some risks with my work and get out of my comfort zone?

Risk is essential. It’s scary. Every time I sit down and start the first page of a novel I am risking failure. We are encouraged in this world not to fail. College students are often encouraged to take the courses they are going to get A’s in so that they can get that nice grant to graduate school. And they are discouraged from taking the courses they may not get a good grade in but which fascinates them nevertheless. I think that is a bad thing that the world has done to us.

We are encouraged only to do that which we can be successful in. But things are accomplished only by our risk of failure. Writers will never do anything beyond the first thing unless they risk growing.

—Madeleine L’Engle, from Madeleine L’Engle Herself, 2001

How do I find time to write?

A Note from Nava: I'm reprising my very first entry for this blog, as not too many people got to see it, and because I myself need to follow Edna Ferber's advice after all the entertainments and activities of summer. I've started to say, sorry— I really need to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule. Thanks, Edna!

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

How can a writer balance solitude and camaraderie?

Dear Literary Ladies,
How can a writer balance the need for quiet and solitude, with the desire for camaraderie? When I’m alone, working, I feel the need for feedback; and when I’m among colleagues, talking about my work, I feel I’m seeking too much outside validation.

If you don’t keep and guard and mature your force and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago. You must find a quiet place near the best companions (not those who admire and wonder at everything one does, but those who know the good things with delight!).

You need reassurance—every artist does—but you need still more to feel “responsible for the state of your conscience” (your literary conscience, we can just now limit that quotation to), and you need to dream your dreams and go on to new and more shining ideals, to be aware of “the gleam” and to follow it; your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country--in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up.

Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality—you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it—we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.

—Sarah Orne Jewett, in a letter to Willa Cather, ca. 1909

How can I write amidst the chaos of parenting?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I’m having trouble juggling parenting and writing. I can’t live without writing, but every day brings a thousand interruptions, and I’m just not getting anything done. How can I make this a more positive experience, and feel less frustrated? Did any of you manage to raise a few kids and create a body of work simultaneously, and if so, how did you do it?

Perhaps the most useful thing about being a writer of fiction is that nothing is ever wasted; all experience is good for something; you tend to see everything as a potential structure of words. One of my daughters made this abruptly clear to me when she came not long ago into the kitchen where I was trying to get the door of our terrible old refrigerator open; it always stuck when the weather was wet, and one of the delights of a cold rainy day was opening the refrigerator door. My daughter watched me wrestle with it for a minute and then she said that I was foolish to bang on the refrigerator door like that; why not us magic to open it? I thought about this. I poured myself another cup of coffee and lighted a cigarette and sat down for a while and thought about it; and decided that she was right. I left the refrigerator where it was and went in to my typewriter and wrote a story about not being able to open the refrigerator door and getting the children to open it with magic. When a magazine bought the story I bought a new refrigerator . . .

It is much easier, I find, to write a story than to cope competently with the millions of daily trials and irritations that turn up in an ordinary house, and it helps a good deal—particularly with children around—if you can see them through a flattering veil of fiction. It has always been a comfort to me to make stories out of things that happen, things like moving , and kittens, and Christmas concerts at the grade school, and broken bicycles; it is easier, as Sally said, to magic the refrigerator than it is to wrench at the door.

—Shirley Jackson, Come Along with Me, ©1948

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.

Contact: navaatlas (at) gmail.com

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