How should one celebrate a literary success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I just got a taste of sweet success—all my work and efforts seem to be coming to some fruition. I don’t want to boast or brag, but I admit I want to shout my news from the rooftops! I won’t, of course; but how should a writer savor success once it arrives?

I believe that success and the enjoyment of it are a very personal and a very private thing, like saying one’s prayers or making love. The outward trappings are embarrassing, and spoil achievement. There come moments in the life of every artist, whether [s]he be a writer, actor, painter, composer, when [s]he stands back, detached, and looks at what [s]he has done a split second, perhaps, after [s]he has done it. That is the supreme moment. It cannot be repeated. The last sentence of a chapter, the final brush stroke, a bar in music, a look in the eye and the inflection of an actor’s voice, these are the things that well up from within and turn the craftsman into an artist, so that, alone in [her] study, in his studio, on the stage . . . [s]he has this blessed spark of intuition. “This is good. This is what I meant.”

The feeling has gone into the next breath, and the craftsman takes over again. Back to routine, and the job for which [s]he is trained. The pages that must link the story together, dull but necessary, the background behind the sitter’s head; the scenes in the actor’s part which come of necessity as an anticlimax; all these are measures of discipline the artist puts upon [her]self and understands, and [s]he works at them day after day, week after week. The moment of triumph is a thing apart. It is the secret nourishment. The raison d’etre.

—Daphne Du Maurier, “My Name in Lights” (essay), 1958

How can I write, when I have no privacy?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I want to write, but my circumstances are less than ideal. My kids run around the house, and someone is always interrupting me. I have no private space, let alone what Virginia Woolf called "a room of one's own." Were any of you in the same position, and if so, how did you do it?

During long years of struggling with poverty and sickness, and a hot, debilitating climate, my children grew up around me. The nursery and the kitchen were my principal fields of labor. Some of my friends, pitying my trials, copied and sent a number of little sketches from my pen to certain liberally paying “Annuals” with my name. With the first money that I earned in this way I bought a feather-bed! for as I had married into poverty and without a dowry, and as my husband had only a large library of books and a great deal of learning, the bed and pillows were thought the most profitable investment. After this I though that I had discovered the philosopher’s stone.

So when a new carpet or mattress was going to be needed, or when, at the close of the year, it began to be evident that my family accounts “wouldn’t add up,” then I used to say to my faithful friend and factotum Anna, who shared all my joys and sorrows, “Now, if you will keep the babies and attend to the things in the house for one day, I’ll write a piece, and then we shall be out of the scrape.” So I became an author, —very modest at first, I do assure you, and remonstrating very seriously with the friends who had thought it best to put my name to the pieces by way of getting up a reputation . . .

—Harriet Beecher Stowe, from a letter, 1853

A note from Nava: Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children, and was the ultimate working mother—she was compelled to use her pen to augment her husband's meager salary, writing sketches, poems, essays—anything that would yield quick payment. All the while, for many years, she burned to tell the story that scholars agree aided the cause of abolition tremendously—Uncle Tom's Cabin, and finally did so at age 39.

How does getting published change your outlook?

Dear Literary Ladies,
How does becoming a published author change your outlook? Do you become more self-conscious or self-aware? Are you constantly on the alert for ideas and dialogue that you might work into your next piece of writing?

I begin already to weigh my words and sentences more than I did, and am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Store closet it would be charming.

—Jane Austen, from a letter to her sister, Cassandra, 1809

Should making money be the incentive to write?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I write and write, sometimes getting compensated for my efforts, but often not. I just feel this incredible urge to keep putting words to paper, whether I get paid or not. Am I being foolish or naive? Should I try to do the kind of writing that might bring in a few bucks?

As for me, when money comes, I say, “So much the better,” without excitement, and if it does not come, I say, “So much the worse,” without any chagrin. Money not being the aim, ought not to be the preoccupation. It is, moreover, not the real proof of success, since so many vapid or poor things make money.

— George Sand, from a letter to Gustave Flaubert,
ca. 1868

Can success be as daunting as failure?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Sometimes I wonder what I’m more afraid of—failure, or success? In its own way, the prospect of success seems daunting. And I know I’m not alone. Did any of you find the idea of actually succeeding as scary and incomprehensible as I do?

I never expected any sort of success with [To Kill a] Mockingbird. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.

—Harper Lee, from a 1964 interview

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)

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