How do you develop the discipline to write?

Dear Literary Ladies,
Some days, I just can’t find the resolve to work. I could blame all sorts of distractions and interruptions, but maybe it’s the discipline I lack. If words don’t flow right away, I’ll get up and find some fine excuse not to stick with it. How did you develop the discipline to sit down and just write?

Ultimately, you have to sit down and start to write. And even if all you do is type out “I can’t write this morning; I can’t write this morning; oh, bother, I can’t write this morning,” that will sometimes prime the pump and get it started. It is a matter of discipline. It is particularly a matter of discipline for a woman who has children or another job.

I think my years in the English boarding school where I had to create my own privacy were also a way of learning to create my own discipline. Now there are mornings when I joyfully sit down at the typewriter. But there are mornings when it is anything but a joy. There are evenings when I go to the piano and the music comes pouring from my fingers. There are evenings when I’m all thumbs and I have to make myself sit there and go over scales and finger exercises before I can play anything. The same thing is true with writing.

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

How can I tell if what I'm writing is any good?

Dear Literary Ladies,
How can you guage, in the midst of writing, if your work is any good? It’s so hard to be objective, and see the forest from the trees. Should I compare my writing with that of other writers I admire?

Since we must and do write each in our own way, we may during actual writing get more lasting instruction not from another’s work, whatever its blessings, however better it is than ours, but from our own poor scratched-over pages. For these we can hold up to life. That is, we are born with a mind and heart to hold each page up to and to ask: Is it valid?

—Eudora Welty, from the essay “Words into Fiction,” 1965

What goes through you're mind when you feel blocked?

Dear Literary Ladies,
You seem like such a prolific bunch, but like the rest of us who live by our pen, you likely feel blocked from time to time. How does this funky, uncomfortable, and sometimes scary feeling play out in your mind?

The dark times that came to me as a writer, those sterile periods when it seemed that not only the inkwell but the wells within had dried, were suffered alone. There doubtless have been and are creative writers who have not encountered this dark experience. The sense of aridity, the mind a desert, that usually follows the completion of a book. That sudden panic when every theme or plot your brain has cradled no longer so much as stirs.

No matter how recurring these panics, or how false their alarms, you forget they have ever happened before. They strike new terror with each visitation. This is it! There will be no next book.

But to travel about without the impulse to write is akin to carrying about a secret illness. The divertissements of new scenes and peoples anesthetize for a while, but there is always that low-ebb hour when despair will not be detoured. Where am I running? Why?

You question writers, read autobiographies, scan the spacing between the books of the masters. There is the book-a-year, the one-every-two-years, the one-every-five group, the incredibly prolific Elizabethan writers, the one-book authors, the two-a-year serial operators. All put together, they tell you very little. . .

But this form of author malady has its cure. The relief that comes is as specific as easing the nerve of a throbbing tooth. That hour when the pen begins to vibrate, the ink to rise in the well . . .

—Fannie Hurst (1889-1968), Anatomy of Me, 1980

A note from Nava: Fanny Hurst's name and legacy may have faded, but she was one of the most prolific and financially successful writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps her best known novel (which became a famed film) is Imitaition of Life. F. Scott Fitzgerald was somewhat correct when described her as one of several authors "not producing among 'em one story or novel that will last 10 years." Hurst herself bemoaned her popular success, fearing that her work would be taken less seriously. Still, she enjoyed her fame, fortune, and adventures during the course of her life. Though her star faded, she left some touching thoughts on the writing life in her autobiography and other first-person writings.

How does it feel to achieve a breakaway success?

Dear Literary Ladies,
I dream of the day when all my efforts might come to a completely successful culmination. Like many writers, I've had some modest coups, but who doesn't long for that big breakthrough, a work that shines in the national spotlight, or climbs the bestseller lists? How does it feel when you first realize that your work has achieved this kind of dreamed-about success?

My strongest feeling seems to be incredulity. I can’t believe that such a simple little tale, writing in and of a simple P.E.I. [Prince Edward Island] farming settlement, with a juvenile audience in view, can really have scored out in the busy world. I have had so many nice letters about it and no end of reviews. Most of them were very flattering. Three or four had a rather contemptuous tone and three were really nasty.

One of the reviews says “the book radiates happiness and optimism.” When I think of the conditions of worry and gloom and care under which it was written I wonder at this. Thank God, I can keep the shadows of my life out of my work. I would not wish to darken any other life—I want instead to be a messenger of optimism and sunshine.

. . . It is a joy to feel that my long years of struggle and unaided effort have been crowned with success. But that success has also evoked much petty malice, spite, and jealousy. It does not hurt me, because none of my real friends have been guilty of it. But at times it has given me a sort of nausea with human nature.

— L.M. Montgomery, from The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. 1, 1908

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)

Make sure to click the little "o" at the very bottom left of the blog to see older posts!