I feel very fortunate that WOW - Women on Writing (http://wow-womenonwriting.com/) asked me to review Nava Atlas’ book, The Literary Ladies: Guide to the Writing Life, Sellers Publishing Inc. (2011). It is a beautifully presented book, replete with archival images, quotes, and well-researched information.
Nava's premise is that the lessons of classic women writers resonate with women writing today. With that in mind I read noting how these lessons apply to my life as a writer.
I found that Nava's insightful comments touched on the very same things I encountered in creating a writing life for myself, finding a publisher, moving on to the next book, and my work to overcome my fears that my book will find a poor audience and bad reviews.
I also love quotes, so I couldn’t get enough of the wonderful and insightful observations and wisdom from the twelve literary ladies Nava chose to highlight: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L.M. Montgomery, Anais Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. I grew up with these authors and have always loved their writing and wisdom, so I am excited to know that they shared so many of my hopes and misgivings as a writer.
To present the wisdom from the past as it applies to our time, Nava organized her book into eight chapters.
In Becoming a Writer she states that the urge to write can be so strong nothing anyone can do or say can deter that passion. Edith Wharton’s family and friends looked down on her desire to write, and in the end, she was one of the most successful writers of the group of twelve. Even though I took many creative detours – painting, quilting, needlepoint, sewing – I finally went back to my first love, writing, late in life, and now I’m making up for lost time.
“This is certain: I never have written a line except to please myself….” – Edna Ferber
Her second chapter, Finding a Voice tells us that the early writers had a plentiful market – however sometimes they had to hide behind pseudonyms. They could write and publish as they learned. Today we rely on workshops and classes in an academic setting to hone our skills and we have less publishing success. I’ve had sporadic success: co-author of a book about blue collar women, many poems published, essays published in my hometown newspaper and online magazines, a blog; hopefully my newly published book will change all that.
“O why do I ever let anyone read what I write! Every time I have to go through a breakfast with a letter of criticism I swear I will write for my own praise or blame in future. It is a misery.” – Virginia Woolf
Then as well as now we must find the time and a place to write, Nava stresses in the Tools of the Trade chapter. Then they wrote pen on paper, now we have our ubiquitous technology. But the story is the same – write regularly in the same place at the same time to create a habit and a body of work. Ferber used the term “discipline.” Now that I am a full-time writer I treat my writing as a full-time job – after my morning workout, breakfast, and shower, I go to my office and write until I’m finished with my day’s assignments.
“Ultimately, you have to sit down and start to write.” – Madeleine L’Engle
Self-doubt and the risk of failure were rampant with the literary ladies, Nava says in Conquering Inner Demons. And it is still rampant today. But, no matter what, because of our passion we go on. That little critic on my shoulder is my own worst enemy, though lately I find it doesn’t do much to deter me.
“As for my frenzy for work I will compare it to an attack of Herpes. I scratch myself while I cry. It is both a pleasure and a torture at the same time….” – George Sand
In The Writer Mother, we find that many in this group of twelve had other responsibilities besides just sitting down to write everyday. They had children, floor scrubbing, washing and ironing, cooking, farming and teaching in the way. I worked full-time for many years as a writer-editor in the aerospace industry and could only write in the little spare time I had outside of my stressful day job. Now I have my own office cluttered with meaningful things that serve as my muse.
“If I am to write, I must have a room to myself, which shall be my room….” – Harriet Beecher Stowe
Rejection and Acceptance are parts of the business of writing. I sent out over sixty-eight query letters before I found my publisher. Some queries received a short impersonal response, some had no response at all, but I kept at it until I was successful. Because the literary ladies had more avenues in which to present their work, they were more successful than most writers today, but they too suffered rejection after rejection. Jane Austen’s father, acting as her agent, sent a query to a prospective publisher. The letter was promptly returned to him with no comment on it whatsoever.
“Mr. N. wants a second volume for spring. Pleasant notices and letters arrive, and much interest in my little women, who seem to find friends by their truth to life, as I hoped.” – Louisa May Alcott
Nava points out in Money Matters that some writers care about making enough money to support themselves by their craft and others only care about writing. I’ve written for years without making a dime, and still I go on. Hopefully, I’ll be more successful with this new book.
“How quickly the minutes fly when you are writing to please your heart. I pity those who write for money or for fame. Money is debasing, and fame transitory and exacting. But for your own heart…Oh, what a difference!” – Anais Nin
The last chapter, Further Along the Way, says that once published these literary ladies cared very much what the critics had to say about their work. They also had to deal with publicity as we do today. Now that I’m at that place, I’m alternately very excited and very terrified. So far I’ve had three great reviews and I’m working very hard at getting the word out about my book. Like the literary ladies, whatever the outcome, there is always something else to write about. I plan to keep writing as they did, no matter what.
“One of the reviews says, ‘The book radiates happiness and optimism.’ …It is a joy to feel that my long years of struggle and unaided effort have been crowned with success.” – L.M. Montgomery
The Literary Ladies is a book to savor and show off on your coffee table. The pages look like art. I recommend you pick it up every once in a while, browse through the photos, and read a bit, and most probably you’ll find something there that applies directly to you.
About the Author
Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of many well-known vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, including Vegan Express, Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook, and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet. Her first book was Vegetariana, now considered a classic in its field. In addition, she has published two books of humor, Expect the Unexpected When You’re Expecting! (A parody), and Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife. Always what she terms a “literature geek,” The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life might seem like a step in yet another direction, but it actually reflects her lifelong love of books in any form, and her desire to one day succeed in writing a novel.
Nava is also a visual artist, specializing in limited edition artist’s books and text-driven objects and installations. Her work has been shown nationally in museums, galleries, and alternative art spaces. Her limited edition books are housed in numerous collections of artist’s books, including the special collections libraries of The Museum of Modern Art (NY), National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC), National Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Brooklyn Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and dozens of academic collections. Learn more about Nava’s work at VegKitchen.com and navaatlasart.com.